A quick note on free speech

As far as I can make out, “the right to free speech” means something like “the state will not take action against you for voicing your opinions, no matter how vile, and people who commit illegal acts against you for voicing your opinions will not avoid prosecution just because your opinions are deemed vile”.

If “the right to free speech” meant “the right to be on TV”, or “the right to write a column in the Daily Mail”, then I’m not sure many people would be in favour of it.

For example, I’m distressed that I don’t get to write a column in the Daily Mail, as I’d love to watch the number of breakfast-time heart attacks across Middle England soar whilst I advocated free immigration, heroin on the NHS and legalised bestiality [*]. A six-figure salary would be nice, too.

But I’m not sure that I’d agree with someone who suggested that my right to free speech was being infringed by Paul Dacre’s bizarre refusal to grant me that position. Indeed, given the number of passable writers who’d love a columnist position on the Daily Mail (hell, even if you only include the ones who’re actually right-wing rather than trolling), I’d question that person’s sanity.

And this is why Matthew Parris’s latest column is complete nonsense: he thinks that if the BBC had refused to invite Nick Griffin on Question Time, and if the Daily Mail had refused to publish Jan Moir’s mean-spirited rant about Stephen Gately, it would have been an assault on free speech.

But obviously, it wouldn’t.

Nick Griffin has the right to tell anyone that he’s mates with an “almost-non-violent chapter of a (not the, of course) KKK”; Jan Moir has the right to tell anyone that “those gays are always with the drugs and the suspicious deaths”. But neither of them has the right to expect anyone to listen to them, and they certainly don’t have the right to expect anyone to publish or broadcast their opinions.

(there’s an argument that, because some semi-evolved chimps support the BNP and also pay the TV licence fee, the BBC ought to reflect their views. That isn’t a completely stupid position, but it’s not about freedom of speech.)

The usually-sensible-on-these-kind-of-issues libertarian Mr Eugenides gets this wrong too:

Even if so – even if I agreed [that it’s wrong to give scumbags a platform] – who is to decide who are the scumbags, and who are not? The Electoral Commission? The controller of BBC1? David Dimbleby? The editors of Liberal Conspiracy?

But in this case, the editors of Question Time did make a decision: that Nick Griffin was a man who should be on Question Time. The same week, they decided that me, Mr Parris and Mr Eugenides were all not people who should be on Question Time. Editorial decisions here are essential, not optional…

[*] subject to animal cruelty laws, obviously.

9 thoughts on “A quick note on free speech”

  1. John,

    I'm not claiming that Griffin has any sort of "right" to appear on an invitational political discussion show, any more than the leader of any other fringe group.

    What I'm saying is that while the BBC have the right to invite, or not, anyone they see fit, they should not (in my view) blackball a legal party because their views are "unacceptable". These sorts of editorial decisions have many facets but a subjective adjudication of the merits of the parties' policies should not be among them.

    I'm also saying that, where in doubt, I am much, much happier with a wide interpretation of who can be invited on than a narrow, restrictive one, for all the obvious freedom of speech issues.

    Most of the objections that I've heard to Griffin's appearance seem to be based on a concern about either (a) legitimising, or (b) giving a boost in electoral or membership terms, to the BNP. Even if there is a risk of both of these effects happening, neither of these are properly the BBC's concern. And, that decision having been taken, it is not in my view appropriate for politicians to start applying pressure to reverse it.

  2. John, I agree with your definition of free speech, which I find an awful lot of people get wrong. But I also agree with Mr Eugenides above.

    BTW, as far as I can tell, the people who supported Griffin before, still support him; and those who didn't, don't now. What has changed is that the BNP have one victim card less. We proved that we're[1] not afraid of opinions we don't like. WIN. And Griffin has shown that that he's shifty and will deny anything, even stuff he's been filmed saying.

    [1] We doesn't include Peter Hain, obviously.

    PS You're not going to start _posting_ again are you?

  3. "…in this case, the editors of Question Time did make a decision: that Nick Griffin was a man who should be on Question Time. The same week, they decided that me, Mr Parris and Mr Eugenides were all not people who should be on Question Time."

    You expect your readers not to notice that neither you, Mr E nor Matthew Parris are elected representatives, unlike Griffin, do you?

    "What has changed is that the BNP have one victim card less."

    Sadly, they've gained another in its place, as a result of the mishandling of the questioning.

  4. @JuliaM: I missed the law, or the definition of free speech, under which "some idiots made a cross by your name" means "you have the right to be on telly". Perhaps you could direct me to it?

  5. You missed the point I was making too, it seems, since it had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a cross on a ballot paper gave you the right to be on telly…

  6. If victim cards existed, let alone worked, Gordon Brown would be the most popular politician ever, given the full deck he's earned from our ever-noble right-wing commentariat.

  7. Bit of a Millian liberalism FAIL here, John? There are some days when I think I'm the only person who read the passage about the tyranny of the general opinion and the perception that something "just isn't done" being a far more effective tool of censorship than state violence.

  8. Hmm. I agree with JSM and you about the tyranny of the general opinion, but I don't think you can sensibly get from there to a Right To Be Taken Seriously, which is pretty much what Parris implies the BNP ought to get.

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