Tag Archives: The Independent

Dangerous Opinions Part 2

Well, having thought I’d done away with the topic of newsgroups needing to distance themselves from the disturbing opinions of their columnists, I was then astonished to find that Julie Burchill had reared her ugly head, and allowed me to re-enter the discussion.

I won’t quote her, link to her or say anything of her article except that it was riddled with privilege and hate speech. If she had been talking about women, she would have brought out the b- and q- words, and if she had been talking about black people, she would have laced her lobster-and-champagne fuelled tirade with the n-word, and probably a picture of a golliwog.

Except, because she was talking about transsexuals, a group not yet defended by the¬†Observer/Guardian’s usually liberal house style, nobody is allowed to be offended by it. In fact, it is one of those ‘freedom of speech’ issues.

Freedom of speech is a troublesome beast. It is not absolute, for a start. It is limited by libel laws, so that you can’t just go around making things up about people. It is limited by obscenity laws, so that we don’t have to endure endless smut. It is also limited by the sort of laws which keep Abu Hamza et al quiet.

Admittedly, Julie Burchill hasn’t gone so far as to suggest cis people (as she so hates to be called), bomb trans people. Still, her defenders, and the supposed defenders of free speech, have overlooked something quite significant.

This arbitrary right to freedom of speech, which I hold dear, is not the bottom line. It is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not as a single entity, but as one of a pair. If anyone decides they are to exercise their right to freedom of expression, they must also be prepared to do so with responsibility.

Julie Burchill did not act with responsibility. She, clearly bored of being out of the headlines, scrawled a barely coherent column before possibly deliberately strewing it with top-level hate terms. Voila, the piece was withdrawn, the Guardian’s offices were descended upon by angry transgender people and their allies, and some more columnists decided to cash in by defending Burchill’s freedom of speech.

Simon Kelner’s defence of Burchill was indefensible in itself. He claimed in i that the genuine and unsurprising offence taken by the transgender community ‘has serious implications for free speech in 21st-century Britain’ and goes on to lament ‘What kind of country is this?’

I think that Kelner’s piece says more for the state of 21st-century journalism than it does for the state of 21st-century Britain. Free speech is a lovely little freebie when you make your money writing whatever you want week after week. If nobody is allowed to be upset when you call them (and I said I wouldn’t quote Burchill, but the hideousness of her backwards language is staggering) a ‘shim’ or ‘bedwetters in bad wigs’, then quite frankly I don’t want to live here any more.

Freedom of speech is all very well and good, but Julie Burchill’s quite considerable wealth means that this little trifle isn’t going to trouble her a jot. The real freedom at stake here is the freedom for transwomen, and transmen (yes, Julie, those exist) to walk in the street without being abused.

Until that day, freedom of speech comes with responsibilities.

News waits for no man

I had been hoping to settle in gradually. More fully explain my reasoning in defecting from Blogger to WordPress. But no, the third in line to the throne had to bare his bum in a Las Vegas hotel room.

To some people, this is exciting because they can see pictures of the royal behind. This blog isn’t for you, but if you email me I can send you some colouring sheets.

The dignified press, on the other hand (or those who like to think themselves so) have gone for other angles. The BBC tried ‘Is it now normal to get drunk and take your clothes off?’. The one I like, and shall be pursuing in my usual fashion, is ‘Has Leveson got everyone scared?’

If the pictures in the Sun this morning are anything to go by, no. They were accompanied by the devilishly taunting line, ‘Pic of naked Harry you’ve already seen on the internet’. Now, for a newspaper famous for having an audience reading age of five, that’s clever.

I’m not going to lie, I like the Sun. The cryptic crossword makes me feel like a real grown-up and it’s the most popular daily in the country for a reason. It dares to get the stories other papers wouldn’t dream of. Yes, the reading age is a bit low, but it’s inclusive. News belongs to everyone- not just Russell Group and Oxbridge graduates.

So, why, if news is all this was about, would a newspaper publish photographs that anyone could see online if they wanted? And admit that it wasn’t a new picture?

The managing editor of the Sun, David Dinsmore, made it clear: ‘This is about the freedom of the press.’

People are in uproar. It is illegal to publish photographs that invade an individual’s privacy unless there is a pressing public need. Which there clearly isn’t, because anyone who ‘needed’ to see pictures of the prince’s naked bum could just go online. However, it must be said that all the experts the BBC wheeled out to speak against the Sun could have been voiced by Sir Talbot Buxomly, fictional Tory MP in Blackadder the Third.

That’s how it was in my head, anyway.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, expressed perhaps naive concern that ‘this is more about trying to boost circulation of their newspapers’. The most Buxomleyesque by far was Brian Cathcart of antijournalism campaign group Hacked Off, who declared, ‘this is about the Sun’s right to trample over the industry’s own feeble rules when it likes, and also to invade people’s privacy whenever it chooses.’

I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision by the BBC to pick on the most splutteringly outraged quotes to present the anti-Sun angle, but it was a nice touch. As impartial as they’re supposed to be, the fact is that everyone who writes for them is a journalist of some kind, and will feel some sort of fraternal bond.

I could spend all day cherry-picking the neatest points, but I think by far the most succinct, intelligent and clear statement came from media commentator Steve Hewlett. ‘There comes a point of kind of common sense, when it’s so widely available that it’s simply, it’s almost meaningless and potentially quite an improper infringement on liberty to try and restrict it.’

Okay, so I lied about the succinct part, but it is a very difficult point to try and argue against.

Pictures of Prince Harry’s backside are neither here nor there. This is about something bigger.¬†News-gathering requires standards. Although not a standard-bearer for quality news writing, the Sun does lay claim to some of the most hardened investigative journalists in the country.

By publishing the pictures, the Sun made a statement: Leveson will not stop them, and to try is unfair. Yes, impose restrictions on print journalism for the sake of quality, however, when unregulated and factually dubious organisations are free to publish whatever they like online, how can print journalism survive?

I’m not sure whether we need newspapers any more. I’m not saying we don’t, but I’d have to have a very strong opinion one way or the other to justify myself. However, the papers are sitting ducks. They’re too expensive, inconvenient and over-regulated to survive. No wonder they’ve gone haywire.

The Sun made a stand where other papers sat back. Which is why I won’t be buying the Independent or the Mirror (not that I ever have) ever again.

Indie editor Chris Blackhurst: “He was only doing, let’s face it, what a lot of Sun readers do every weekend on stag parties and they don’t expect to be on the front page of that morning’s paper.”

Nice. Very in-touch. The Mirror also made a statement full of weasel words which was quite boring actually, so I’m not going to try and quote it, but let’s just say it put me in mind of Walter the Softie.

I can think of no better way of rounding off than to leave you with Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s reaction on the discovery of the pictures: ‘deafening indifference’.