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Monday, May 12, 2014 

The impossibility of freedom of speech.

Perhaps it's just the years spent examining my own navel, but for the most part I go out of my way not to be an appalling hypocrite, choose the easy target (yeah, right) or make the obvious riposte/joke about things.  When faced however with the fact that someone was starved enough for excitement in the first place to be listening to David Lowe's Singers and Swingers show on BBC Radio Devon, then was apparently so exercised by how the version of The Sun Has Got His Hat On he played included the original, n-word using second verse that they felt the need to complain, I find it difficult not to wonder about how desperately empty their life must be.  Those minutes spent contacting the BBC could have been used in any other way imaginable; life might not always be all we would like it to be, yet surely, surely, even the most miserable, wretched and pitiless individual could have come up with something more entertaining and intellectually nourishing to do than whinge about the content of an 82-year-old song?

No?  We are back in context land, you see folks.  I can perfectly understand the BBC cutting the Major scene from The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers, especially pre-watershed, not least when John Cleese has himself said it's not something he would write now.  When it comes to material pre-1960 though say, to cut racist dialogue or stereotyping out of either music or films is to deny history.  You're not protecting people, you're censoring something approaching the norm and which should be recognised as such precisely because we've moved on from then.  David Lowe didn't even realise the song featured the n-word, and either wouldn't have played it at all, or as would have been best, prefaced it by saying it contained some language we would view as offensive now but wasn't then.

The only reason the Mail on Sunday decided this was a front page story is obviously due to the discrepancy of treatment between Clarkson and Lowe.  Clarkson, like Lowe, offered an apology and got a final warning; Lowe offered an apology or resignation, and the BBC accepted the latter.  Who knows whether there were extenuating factors or a manager was already looking to get rid of the DJ,  off he went.  The BBC has since done a reverse ferret and offered him the show back; Lowe has declined on grounds of stress.  It looks bad, and it is bad.  Often the BBC ignores complaints on the reasonable grounds that most are from the usual suspects, either with an axe to grind, nothing better to do, or the consistently and never knowingly under-outraged.  Why they took the single complaint this seriously is anyone's guess, unless post-Sachsgate and the Savile/McAlpine disaster they've become far more proactive than previously.

Then again, they could just be entering into what seems to be the new spirit of the age.  Nearly 40 years ago newspaper editors worked themselves into a frenzy over the use of a word they no doubt heard and used multiple times every day.  In our brave new social media world, we have people who can only be described as half-wits making complaints to the police about tweets they don't like.  Rather than the police telling said half-wit to stop wasting their time with spurious politically motivated whining, they instead visit the individual targeted and ask him, despite no laws having been broken, to take the tweet down.  Everyone then duly wonders whether things can be really that slow in Cambridgeshire for two officers to find the time to make such a visit, and if perhaps we've reached a new low in the great giving and taking offence stakes.

On the surface at least, the problem is the law.  We have free speech, except we don't.  Article 10 of the ECHR allows free expression but makes reasonable exceptions, including for the prevention of disorder or crime.  Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 duly makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive (or menacing), which even by the standards of legislation that leaves it up to judges and juries to decide what can deprave or corrupt is by definition subjective.  As a result we've seen the likes of Matthew Woods jailed for three months for making unfunny, off-colour jokes, grossly offensive to some certainly, but par for the course for others.  Last week saw another victim, with Robert Riley jailed for eight weeks after tweeting in the aftermath of the murder of teacher Ann Maguire that he would have killed all of her colleagues at the school as well.  Riley was, predictably, another of those lonely people who enlivened his existence (spent as a full-time carer) by trolling, tweeting purposefully "outrageous" things in the hope of getting a response.  He had in fact as the judge noted sent other messages, including some that were racist in nature, but it was the couple about the dead teacher that resulted in Inspector Knacker getting involved.

Precisely what benefit anyone gains from sending pathetic misfits such as Woods or Riley to jail isn't clear.  It might make someone feel slightly better for a few hours, and could feasibly shock those convicted out of immaturity; it could also cause further bitterness, dare I say perhaps somewhat justifiably.  It certainly isn't a good use of resources, and yet despite the attention giving to trolling last August, the debate Keir Starmer urged nearly two years ago concerning the boundaries of free speech online hasn't really happened.  Abuse on the scale of that received by Caroline Criado-Perez is one thing; surely the despaired upon works of Woods and Riley ought to be something else.  We can't however seem to get perspective, as lazy journalists and also bloggers seek out the next comment or slight to get angry about.  We should hardly be surprised when the police and BBC management can't either.

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