Politics & Society

Julie Burchill, Lynne Featherstone, and Leveson

There has been a hell of a lot written in the past week or so since the New Statesman published feminist writer Suzanne Moore’s article Seeing red: the power of female anger, and I really do not want to go over the details again. There’s more to be written on transgender issues by people with far better knowledge than I. Suffice to say, people got angry over a phrase in Moore’s piece, she was rather forcefully criticised, responded in kind, and gave up her Twitter account as the weight of group anger became too much. Then Julie Burchill further fanned the flames with a massively controversial article in the Observer.

What I want to briefly focus on here is the frankly disastrous response to the furore over Julie Burchill’s Observer article by International Development minister Lynne Featherstone. Weighing in to the twitter discussion on Sunday evening, Featherstone tweeted that Burchill should be sacked by the Observer, and subsequently implied agreement with another tweet suggesting that Observer editor John Mulholland should also be sacked.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that Julie Burchill is not actually on staff at the Observer, and can’t be sacked, and examine just what’s happened here: a government minister in a modern democratic state has demanded that a journalist be punished for writing a contentious article. And then nodded along with the notion that a national newspaper editor be sacked for publishing a contentious article. An article that has not, as yet, been deemed illegal, or even in breach of the Press Complaints Commission code.

Featherstone has made a mockery of Britain and the EU’s declared commitment to promote free speech. Cast your mind back to the 2011 riots, when it was suggested that social networks be shut down to prevent people co-ordinating movements. The state media of regimes such as Iran and China gleefully reported this suggestion, using it both to mock the UK’s hypocrisy and to justify the censorship of their own people.

Now imagine the next time a newspaper such as China’s Southern Weekly steps out of line, and a senior Communist Party member calls for the head of a reporter or editor. Should a Foreign Office official even attempt to condemn such censorship, be in no doubt that the authorities in China will point to Featherstone’s intemperate tweet and say the UK is in no position to lecture.

There’s the international aspect. Now look at the domestic. Independent editor Chris Blackhurst has said he fears that politicians will use post-Leveson statute to “wreak their revenge” on the press. Speaking on Sky News, Blackhurst commented:

“Once a draft Bill goes into the Commons and the Lords and once they get their teeth into it they can add all sorts of amendments.
“That’s where the revenge will happen. That’s one reason why some of us are very keen that there should not be statute.
“It’s not just expenses, let’s not forget there are a lot of MPs, all sorts of shenanigans down the years, many of which we all know about and have been highlighted, and they can’t wait. They are sort of ‘bring it on’.”

Pro-statute campaigners such as Hugh Grant tell us that we should not be alarmed by the prospect of a new press law. But when, even before such a law is debated, a government minister thinks it’s OK to interfere with the press in this manner, why should we trust politicians with free speech?

 

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34 Comments

  1. Posted 14Jan13 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    ‘Suffice to say, people got angry over a phrase in Moore’s piece, she was rather forcefully criticised, responded in kind, and gave up her Twitter account as the weight of group anger became too much. Then Julie Burchill further fanned the flames with a massively controversial article in the Observer.’

    No. That’s not what happened. People got angry because Moore followed the ‘phrase’ in her NS piece with a string of nasty, aggressive comments aimed at all trans women, not just the people who expressed anger at her.

    She left twitter because she got ‘called’ on her ignorant horrible attitude. And I don’t miss her.

  2. Posted 14Jan13 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
    Tony

    She didn’t demand, she said it should happen a *very* different thing. However she should have also indicated it was a personal opinion.

  3. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
    Tony

    Also it is Lynne with an e as per the picture of her tweets.

  4. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
    Bob Evans

    If you have any evidence that the comments of LF affect the editorial policy or has the power to affect who is employed at a paper then please show it.

    Until then .. her so-called “demands” are meaningless , as is this article.

  5. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
    Bob Evans

    Unless you would wish to restrict her freedom of speech of course.

  6. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
    Nick Ward

    The only thing in which i can ever think of a politician being consistent, is in the blissful unawareness of their own infallible self contradiction.

  7. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
    Stuart

    We cannot trust either politicians or the media with free speech. They have vested interests and many will put their careers / business first.
    Free speech, if it exists, belongs to us and we should be able to regulate all those who threaten it (politicians, religions, media, police etc).

  8. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    All this manufactured outrage is getting rather tedious.
    I very much support Padraig in calling LF out on trying to suppress Free Speech. I am all for a bit of robustness in public discourse, otherwise all the second guessing of what is actually being said between the lines becomes really confusing and unhealthy.

    Also, I am glad that I am not the only one to notice blatant hypocrisy on the part of the government – condemning practices in Chilna, Iran etc, when they do exactly the same thing here.
    Remember the TwitterJoke trial, the FB poster who called for a riot and no.one turned up etc.
    Either speech is free or it is not – just like either you are pregnant or not. There is no middle ground.
    Misguided legislation which brings subjective feelings of ‘offence’ into proceedings is not helping – as this is increasingly being used as a crtuch/club to settle arguments.
    You can’t say they howl while calling the cops and wasting their time!

    As to JB, she is paid to be controversial – and she does it very well!

  9. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    ‘You cant say that!’ they howl – sorry about the typos.

  10. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I am also suspicious of the state latching onto something, but this was hate speech, and we have laws against that.

    I’d say it was however a matter for the police to decide whether charges should be given. The Observer/Guardian are free to act as they wish. Or should I say, as their shareholders/advertisers wish. The Observer contains of course Barbara Ellen who wrote that boys under 16 like being used for sex by older women, and the Guardian published an anti-semitic picture by Steve Bell, so I’m not expecting too much.

  11. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    You cannot say THAT!’ they howl – sorry about typos.

  12. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
    Tom Phillips

    A few offhand comments on twitter = state oppression? Really?

  13. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
    Steffan John

    There’s a massive difference between a government minister using her ministerial power to pressure for her sacking, and her commenting as an individual that she should be sacked. Otherwise, we are left with the very odd position that freedom of speech in a liberal democracy rests on elected representatives not having freedom of speech.

    Unless and until you provide some credible grounds for claiming that she’s using (or threatening to use) the power of her ministerial office to ensure Burchill’s ‘sacking’, then analogies with China are pretty idiotic.

  14. Posted 14Jan13 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
    Richard Clarke

    I agree with Padraig and in response to Bob Evans, I believe the point of the article was not ‘LF should be prevented from saying these things’ but that ‘LF ought to realise she ought not to say these sort of things publicly, given her position’. The two are different things.

    If some one tells me I should not have called my mother-in-law an ‘ignorant cow’ to her face, the target of their censure is not aimed at whether I should be allowed to say it, but rather that I was morally wrong to do it.

    When taking on a role in society, all sorts of people recognise or should recognise there are some topics that it would be impolitic on which to comment. There is a growing lack of awareness among politicians that when in government, there are some things on which they should not give their personal opinions in public. Unfortunately, it is always easier to blurt an opinion than practise this discretion.

  15. Posted 14Jan13 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
    Kevin T

    I wish to live in a society where people who scream “I am offended! Call the police!” are hit very hard around the head with something very large and made of metal.

  16. Posted 14Jan13 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
    Mark Rooke

    No. Featherstone’s perfectly entitled to her views.

    Were she to use her position to pressure the Observer then that would be another matter – most likely she’d be laughed out the room.

    As to Moore, she followed up an offhand line with vile abuse aimed at the entire ‘trans community’ (if there is such a thing).

    Burchill’s piece was one of the most hateful polemics I’ve seen published in the UK press.

    Why you feel the need to make an irrelevant and petty point about Leveson on the basis of that tweet is beyond me.

    You and your friends, like Nick Cohen, can’t simply shout ‘free speech’ and expect people to shut up about bigoted views.

  17. Posted 14Jan13 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
    Tom Phillips

    Rather than hiding behind a paper tiger, why don’t you actually come out and say what you think about Burchill’s piece? Just saying ‘entitled to free speech’ isn’t really saying anything very much.

  18. Posted 14Jan13 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    @Richard Clarke – well put!

  19. Posted 14Jan13 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    No one has a right to be published in a national newspaper. At the very least Burchill severely broke the NUJ code of conduct. The way “progressive” journalists have closed ranks around a couple of bigots is shameful.

  20. Posted 14Jan13 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
    Tony

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2013/jan/14/press-freedom-india

  21. Posted 14Jan13 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
    Jon Stone

    Isn’t it a bit ironic that this is supposedly a ‘free speech’ blog but you don’t seem to want to engage with the issue of what free speech is, or the inherent contradictions in what you’re suggesting?

    You’re basically arguing that Featherstone hasn’t the right to free speech. She cannot express her opinion publicly because her opinion constitutes a political act which interferers with other people’s right to free speech.

    Why don’t you take the natural next logical step and accept that all speech potentially interferes with other rights to free speech, and that actually we should (and we do), as a whole society, continually censor and assess what is said by ourselves and other people with the aim, somewhere in our minds, of allowing as broad a range of views as possible to be represented.

    What’s so vile about the Burchill piece – and what anyone really interested in freedom of expression should realise – is that it’s fundamentally more of an act of oppression and attempted censorship against other people’s freedom of expression than it is an expression of her own self and her thoughts. Its myriad insults and threats can be summised as: “Shut up. We don’t want to hear from you. Your voices should not be recognised.”

    Oh, and to call you on one matter:

    “Pro-statute campaigners such as Hugh Grant…”

    It needs to be endlessly repeated that a Leveson statute would only be a statute to empower an *independent regulator* to both uphold the freedom of the press against attacks from powerful people and to punish it for abuse of its freedoms where necessary. It would be, on balance, a pro-freedom-of-the-press statute.

  22. Posted 14Jan13 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
    Jon Stone

    To Liz Lawrence:

    “Either speech is free or it is not – just like either you are pregnant or not. There is no middle ground.”

    This is an absolutely untenable and nonsensical idea of what free speech entails. I have no idea how you could even begin to justify such a statement, especially beneath an article which plainly calls for a suppression of Lynne Featherstone’s ‘free speech’ on the basis that she in turn called for a suppression of Julie Burchill’s ‘free speech’, who was in turn attempting very actively to suppress other people’s rights to ‘free speech’ by bullying them into silence.

    It is anything but a binary issue.

  23. Posted 15Jan13 at 1:54 am | Permalink
    FIRDAUS KANGA

    FEATHERSTONE IS MORE PROOF-AFTER VINCE CABLE AND OTHER PARTY MEMBERS – THAT THERE IS NOTHING LIBERAL OR DEMOCRATIC ABOUT THE LIBDEMS.
    THE REAL OFFENCE IS THE CONCEPT OF HATE CRIME WHICH IS JUST ANOTHER TERM FOR THE CENSORSHIP OF FREE SPEECH.WE WILL ALWAYS HATE SOME OPINIONS. I AM OPENLY GAY AND I FLY THE FLAG OF ISRAEL ON MY WHEELCHAIR. I GET VERBAL ABUSE FROM LEFTISTS AND FROM ISLAMISTS IN ISLINGTON WHERE I LIVE. I HAVE BEEN CALLED A MURDERER BY POLITICALLY CORRECT WHITE FOLK AND A DOG-FUCKER BY MUSLIM MEN. THEY HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO ABUSE ME VERBALLY. IF THIS EVER CROSSES THE LINE INTO INCITEMENT TO VIOLENCE OR ASSAULT WHICH IS THE THREAT OF IMMINENT VIOLENCE – THESE ARE PUNISHABLE CRIMES. AS A PUBLISHED WRITER AND JOURNALIST, MY ONLY OBJECTION TO COMMENTS BY LF OR BY BBC EMPLOYEES POSTING COMMENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA SITES IS THAT WE, THE PEOPLE, PAY FOR WHAT THEY DO. EITHER THROUGH TAXES OR THE LICENCE-FEE.THEY CANNOT USE THEIR PUBLICLY FUNDED PROFILES TO POST PRIVATE OPINIONS.

  24. Posted 15Jan13 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    @Jon Stone
    I read Padraig’s comments as ‘ a government minister should be circumspect in making sure that personal opinion and official statement are not confused’. Not that LF should be censored.

    LF is obviously entitled to her opinion. Just as Holocaust deniers are.

    If somebody is stupid enough to believe the NAZI’s never killed 6 million Jews then this is their prerogative, and banning people from saying it is not going to help either.

    The limitations of free speech in my view are shouting ‘Fire’ in a theatre. I would also concede that there might be a case for a bit more nuance in cases of incitement to violence.

    I do also believe that government and public services should use non-discriminatory language and lead by example, but this illiberal desire to police language, and therefore in effect thought – as it is through language that we express our thoughts – is downright creepy!

    Language policing is in my view a direct result of identity politics, leading to diversity strategies, and cultural relativism which in the end result are divisive and ghettoizing.

    Time to fight for some real equality in the tradition of the enlightenment and to grow a pair.

  25. Posted 15Jan13 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “why should we trust politicians with free speech?”
    Why though should we trust The Scott Trust, or Murdoch with free speech? The press is not free speech. It is the freedom of a handful of people to control just about all we know about the society we live in.

  26. Posted 15Jan13 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    oops – don’t know what happened to my spelling in my post above – it should obviously read Nazis – plural,plain and simple, NO apostrophes. Damn you typos!

  27. Posted 15Jan13 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    and here’s evidence..:
    All newspapers censor their columnists
    http://annablundy.com/2013/01/15/all-newspapers-censor-their-columnists/

  28. Posted 16Jan13 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
    Ron Moule

    In hearing Lynne Featherstone’s call to have Julie Burchill sacked, alarm bells began to ring.

    Irrespective of objections to the Guardian article, the writer is still entitled to a livelihood.

    Calls from a prominent MP and Minister for Burchill’s dismissal (for freelancers, cancellation of contracts) may well carry more weight: they seem more designed to promote LF’s reputation than to deal with the issues.

    Victims of hate crime know only too well that language often precedes or accompanies threats and attacks: but does this mean that similar language – in, say, a newspaper or tv programme – should be subject to censorship?

    In the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, in the early 1980’s, there was always a tension between correcting media distortion and promoting new, and challenging, lgbt film and television. At that time ‘feminists’ were divided on transsexuality: some thought it perpetuated gender compliance, others thought it was a human rights issue.

    We therefore should see the current controversy as an opportunity to explore these issues, maybe get more coverage of gender identity, and find more creative solutions. Mainstream drama tends towards the sensational: gay images in “Queer as Folk”, lesbian in “Tipping the Velvet”, transvestism in “Accused”, but certainly the calibre of the writing and performances improves and deepens insight.
    Press coverage unfortunately tends towards the heteronormative, cue picture of actor with family. It’s as if the challenges in the storyline and portrayals can be switched off as easily as the screen.

    The call for censorship, or for dismissal, equally tries to switch off complexity in favour of a nice world where tensions cease to exist and challenges are fleeting. In calling for ‘offensive’ material to be removed, I recall no transgender calls to ‘sack’ the writer. Hardly anyone asked questions about the role of the editor: it was as if the article appeared unbidden from a dark and dangerous place. The process therefore associated transgender critics with a censorship many did not seek.

    The removal of the ‘Comment Is Free’ thread did not just remove the original text: it also erased the hundreds of opinions, comments, facts, citations, and links which commentators provided. So in silencing Burchill, an evolving discussion was also annulled. We will have to see where, and whether, it will re-emerge.

  29. Posted 17Jan13 at 9:31 am | Permalink
    Chappers

    Featherstone is a hypocrite and a danger to free speech.journalists do write
    articles which offend some people.So what? She is using the tried and tested accusation of a “hate crime” to silence free speech.

  30. Posted 17Jan13 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
    Claudia

    Jon Stone, you’re absolutely right. This is a ridiculous article, I’m sorry. You might be able to use the free speech argument if this were a case of facts/evidence/alternative political views being suppressed. It is not. I am sick and tired of hate speech being defended under the free speech argument, as if the right to say whatever bile you may think of ultimately outweighs the right of minorities to be protected against hatred, which takes all forms – violence, discrimination, and yes, speech. Burchill engaged in hate speech, in a mainstream newspaper, towards one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Look at the statistics on violence against trans people and tell me again that Burchill’s right to spout hatred outweighs their suffering.

  31. Posted 17Jan13 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
    Martin

    Just because she’s a government minister she’s not allowed an opinion?
    Weird.

  32. Posted 18Jan13 at 11:47 am | Permalink
    David

    Men can be very aggressive, misogynist, and hateful to women online.

    We saw this, with the attacks on Suzanne Moore on Twitter and in the comment boxes.

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4 Trackbacks

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