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The Welcome Death of Freedom of Speech

October 24, 2009

An article on the death of a gay boyband member, followed by the appearance of a fascist leader on a government-hosted political talk show, have led to some heated discussions in the UK over the limits (and merits?) of freedom of speech. Once we move beyond the riots, the pulled advertising, and the outraged responses and fiery accusations, what these incidents have shown is that there is a limit to freedom of speech, and when pushed to the boundaries, free speech may not actually be that ‘free’.

The response to these incidents of freedom of speech begs the question: by providing a platform to bigots, are we seeing the death of freedom of speech? And why has this death come at the hands of what is arguably the more progressive strand of British society?

Jan Moir and Stephen Gately composite

Jan Moir, left, wrote about Stephen Gately’s death in her Daily Mail column

The aforementioned article, which appeared in the right-wing paper ‘The Daily Mail’, was written by Jan Moir, whose writings resemble the rambles of a great-aunt you run into at family gatherings, who sits in a corner munching on cherry donuts while rambling ‘sincerely’ about the ‘well-founded’ dangers of immigration, or perhaps genuinely ‘wondering’ whether a black person can actually be equipped to be president (“They are traditionally a lazy people, you know. Nice, but lazy,” she would say).

The article talks about the sudden death of Stephen Gately, former member of Boyzone, while on holiday with his husband. In a nutshell, Moir questions the ‘natural causes’ behind the death of Gately, who, erm, died of natural causes, and finds a way to link it to his ‘lifestyle’. In a magnificently illogical way, she then links his death to the hidden dangers of gay marriage. Right.

Needless to say, the article caused a furor among the British public. Thousands signed petitions against Jan Moir and 25,000 official complaints were filed, leading to major advertisers pulling their ads from the official Daily Mail website. Other papers ripped her apart, while the Irish Daily Mail disowned Moir, and a fierce debate ensued over whether or not Moir has a right to make such publibly homophobic remarks.

https://i2.wp.com/www.independent.co.uk/multimedia/archive/00245/Untitled-1_245452s.jpg

Nick Griffin of the BNP

Just a few days after this, Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP), was set to appear on the panel of the BBC’s talkshow ‘Question Time’, which features a set of politicians answering questions from a live audience about current political events. The BBC, financed and run by the British government (obv), basically offered a platform to a well known fascist, Holocaust denier, and Ku Klux Klan sympathiser, under the guise of freedom of speech (you can watch the episode here).

On the panel, Griffin was endlessly attacked by both the audience and the panelists, though one isn’t sure whether this was because they were genuinely concerned about his views, or whether this was done to excuse having him on the show in the first place. At the end of the day, Griffin got exactly what he wanted: instead of focusing the debate on the many issues ongoing in the British public sphere (the postal strikes, the economy), which would effectively ‘out’ him as a one trick pony, the audience and the panelists attacked him on his one position: out with dark people, which pandered to his existing audience and might have even got him a few more supporters who were genuinely worried about immigration in a struggling economy. In fact, his support went up following the appearance, which ironically was the argument many had made for him to be on the show in the first place (that his arguments would be exposed for the bigoted, racist, homophobic views they are based on).

Outside BBC headquarters in London, rioters protested the appearance of Griffin on a government-funded network, attacking the BBC for providing Nazis a platform and a voice. Similar to the Jan Moir incident, the riots made an interesting argument: freedom of speech is all well and good, but there are some who simply don’t deserve this right. Gone are the days of postmodern thinking, where every view is welcome and held to its own standard. Now, there are certain views which simply shouldn’t be allowed a soapbox.

As I watched the Youtube clip below of the rioters forcefully entering BBC ground, being dragged kicking and screaming outside, I couldn’t help but agree with their concerns. Has the liberal dogma of human rights and freedom of speech gone too far? At what point do we put our foot down and say “actually, that’s not right, stfu”? If anything has come out of 2009 following the great recession and the political turmoil of Iraq et al, it’s that there continues to be a small majority preaching the virtues of freedom and democracy on the one hand, while dragging out a protestor kicking and screaming outside of a building on the other.

It is absolutely true that the rioters outside of the BBC on Thursday were calling for a limit to freedom of speech, just as the thousands who had spoken out again Jan Moir’s article. While it was easy to label Saddam Hussein, and the majority of the Muslim world, ‘freedom-haters’, here the lines get much more blurry. What these protestors are calling for is a much more progressive form of freedom and democracy– one that doesn’t involve continuing to provide a platform for views that promote hatred and ‘otherness’. After eight years of Bush, have we finally seen the end of unchecked ‘freedom’? After this week in British politics, I surely hope so.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Seph permalink
    October 26, 2009 12:13 am

    I wouldnt have said the Bush era permitted unchecked freedom… It was under Bush’s reign that we saw the reclassification of protesting as domestic disturbance, thus constituting as terrorism.

    If a view is absurd enough it will diminish itself in the light of the supposed moral/sensible/decent/practical views, the QT case was an ironic turn of events if indeed BNP support has went up. However the QT strayed from its usual discourse and ended up shooting itself in the foot by lowering itself (board members and audience alike) to the levels of the primative, ignorant BNP.

    Providing its not hate speech, I dont think you can ever limit free speech.

  2. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    October 26, 2009 11:29 am

    In short, in many ways, I can’t agree with you less.

    “At the end of the day, Griffin got exactly what he wanted: instead of focusing the debate on the many issues ongoing in the British public sphere (the postal strikes, the economy), which would effectively ‘out’ him as a one trick pony, the audience and the panellists attacked him on his one position:”

    I don’t think this is true at all. Griffin badly wanted to be able to comment on exactly the two topics you mention as a means to establish himself as a real political actor. He does not want to be seen as just a protest vote, but as a legitimate politician through which working class marginalised white Britain could voice their grievances whilst being able to challenge the mainstream parties which have forgotten them.

    It was a specific tactic by politicians and BBC to prevent him doing exactly this. If his aforementioned core constituency was able to hear, on public TV – that he had positions on the economy and crime and social issues that they also agreed with – it would have given him a massive dose of legitimacy. In fear of this, he was pillared and attacked and made fun of as nothing but a racist idiot who has no relevance beyond his racist ramblings. This may have been a mistake.

    It was entirely right to bring the idiot onto television. For me it seems quite simple: If a political party is legally sanctioned to take part in elections, and if gets votes in doing so, banning it from TV is completely illiberal. If the party is so illiberal that it does not deserve to partake in public debate then it should be banned through and through and not be allowed to partake in elections. Having it both ways is not an option.

    But most importantly: If those of us in British society that have tolerant, liberal and progressive views would rather not challenge Nick Griffin head on, we should ask why? Are our arguments not strong enough? Are we so unsure about our own views that we cannot articulate them and express them with the same impassioned and emotive strength that Griffins has? And if we fear losing in open debates to this man, and let’s be frank, he is not the sharpest nor most articulate tool in the shed, how will we face the bigots and racists who cloud their message more cleverly and subtly (like the Tories’ infamous campaign line: “are you thinking what we’re thinking?”)? Come on. If we can’t make this man retreat back into the intellectual ditch that he came from then we’re in real trouble.

    Griffin howls on about an elite who are out of touch with the whole of Britain. This is nonsense, but parts of Britain do feel left out, and by economic and social indicators they are. Yet we fear to put Griffin on TV because we fear an inner racist lurking in the minds of families across the nation, waiting to be awakened by this vile man’s angry attacks. Immigrants and non-whites are blamed for the social ills of a small marginalised section white working class Britain. This is absurd, obviously. But the nature of their grievances themselves are not. And yet we do nothing to engage with these communities. The BNP collects their litter, mends their fences and cleans up their communities. We mock them as chavs (a whole other rant, but I’ll resist) when they’re apolitically apathetic and unthreatening but accuse them of being bigots and racists when they vote for the only party that listens to them.

    The BBC – legitimately – argues that is has to let on any party that has elected representatives. The BNP, led by a complete moron, managed to receive over a million votes in the last election and two EU MEPs. We need to listen to those million votes. Instead of blaming an idiot called Griffin for the BNP, we need to take a good look at ourselves and understand why this happened, how we failed, and what to do about it.

    And making sure he is not on our cosy television screens – the equivalent of plugging our ears with our fingers, closing our eyes and singing la la la – is not an answer.

  3. sysh permalink*
    October 26, 2009 11:46 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with all of the above comments actually, and I think if I could I would amend some of what I am saying. But hear me out for a little bit longer:

    The great thing about Obama and his rise in American politics was precisely because he did not engage in issues that he deemed were already ‘won’. This included the huge morality debates that happened during the Bush era—over gay marriage, over abortion, over creationism. He effectively ended the debates by declaring a winner: a tentative yes to gay marriage, abortion and evolution. His platform was that there are more important discussions to be had, and that these were merely distractions that ultimately did no good for those involved in them.

    I completely see what you are arguing and I completely agree. Maybe perhaps the fault lies in the other political parties, who instead of saying “this is a stupid debate, let’s move on”, have been unable to provide leadership or practical solutions to the many problems in contemporary British economy/politics. By doing so they continually allowed Griffin to manipulate the debate by resorting to the lowest common denominator.

    Everyone knows that the expulsion of immigrants or whatever Griffin stands for (again, Question Time never really addressed this or boiled it down to its fundamental points) would not solve these problems, and yet you’re right, there is a large segment of society ignored by the two main political parties, neither of which are offering any strong solutions.

    So maybe the problem is two-fold: on the one hand, the platform that allows these views to be discussed will eventually mainstream them. I wonder if this was just a one-time thing or are we slowly seeing a slide into fascist politics being taken seriously both in print media (Jan Moir) and on television (Question Time). On the other, the failure of the other political parties to Obaminate Griffin by shifting its focus to be more inclusive and to move away from these petty debates.

    Ultimately though, I worry about the fickleness of democracy to eventually allow the slow creep fo fascism. We’ve seen it over and over again, and I’m a bit dubious that this approach (let them have their say) will solve it.

  4. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    October 26, 2009 12:43 pm

    I agree with you that it would be easy for us to sleep walk into a nasty government: If BNP gets more votes at the next general election as the economy fails to turn, and the tories get into power but still fail to turn around the economy for the very bottom few, who then are shown in polls to be increasingly supporting the BNP, the tories (or some sections of it) might potentially, along with The Sun and the Daily Mail, pander to the far rigth views as a means to take back some electoral support. The BNP is never going to be a ruling party in the UK, but under certain circumstances, the Tories might increasingly borrow from the BNP. This is were danger lurks and liberal vigalance is required, which may very well some hard fights ahead which should be met with stern, angry and loud actions that draw lines in the sand which we will defend no matter what, no matter how dirty and no matter how hard.

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