Politics & Society

The Burchill saga encapsulates the free speech issues of our age

As the trans/Moore/Burchill spat draws to a close, and an article that gave much offence to trans folk is taken down from the Observer’s site — it is time, perhaps to reflect how this episode encapsulates, in one seamless narrative, the two or three most serious issues facing free speech in the UK today.

Over all lies the question of censorship.

I do not believe Julie Burchill’s article should have been published: doubt it would find space in a respectable publication were it written about any other minority; and have little time for the many in the press who defend it on grounds of free speech.

Once up, though it should not have come down as it did.

The damage was done, in terms of hate speech published and serious traumatic stuff distributed where it could do most harm, in the original publication. 48 hours on, copied, commented, archived its dread power was mostly spent. (And meanwhile, the fatuousness of the Observer decision to remove the piece was instantly exposed by the Telegraph’s mischievous counter-decision — to put it back up! Will they, one wonders, be paying a repeat fee to the Guardian for the privilege? Have they even, one wonders, sought permission not just from the author — but the article’s original publisher, the Observer?)

It leaves an awkward hole on the Observer website, filled by an apology that most in the trans community feel is mere token: too little too late, and the suspicion that it only finally went when Observer lawyers pointed out the paper could run the risk of prosecution. From whom is not entirely clear.

One person who took the matter to the police did not get very far. They told him, he claims, that they could not act because no identifiable group of individuals had been targeted. Huh?

They suggested, instead, he try the Press Complaints Commission. But the PCC won’t intervene because no named individual is targeted (which is why some groups would like to see a right of class complaints under whatever new regulations are put in place post-Leveson).

Still, the legal dimension does drain, somewhat, the worth of the apology — as does recent press conduct in respect of their sacred cow of freedom!

The Observer, happy to host the initial carefully confected abuse, stuck doggedly to its rules of moderation. Why, though, bother to moderate at all, I inquired, not altogether facetiously — as another commenter, reproducing an extract from Burchill’s piece with “women” substituted for “trans women” found their post blocked.

There is much lack of consistency here. The same press that squeals “censorship” at the least attempt to regulate, is other times busy taking out libel writs when people say nasty things about them (Daily Mail take heed!). Meanwhile, if you live by a creed of happily dishing up offence to all and sundry, Moore and Burchill, don’t be surprised when someone trumpets that offense back at you.

If questions of censorship topped the bill in this case, lesser issues also played a part: the question of online etiquette, for instance.

As Brooke Magnanti writes eloquently in the Telegraph, today’s world is more interconnected than ever before. Any and every faux pas regarding a minority community is magnified: so politeness is more than its own reward. It is the price one pays for not being continually distracted from what one wants to say by the need to apologise for every least deviation from the currently acceptable mode of expression.

Barrier to free speech? Yes: sort of. But also common courtesy: for why would you go out of your way — as Suzanne Moore clearly did at the start of this episode — to insult the subject of one’s writing?

Then there’s the “cabal” thing: the suggestion by Julie Bindel that online nastiness might be being orchestrated — in this case by a bunch of trans activists. Well, hardly. It makes as much sense to detect caballerous behaviour in informal links on the journalistic side of the kerfuffle: from the saccharine tributes paid by Burchill to her friend, Moore — or the pre-tweeting of a line from what Burchill eventually filed by colleague and co-author, Nick Cohen, approximately 24 hours before it went live. Nothing wrong with this, especially as it appears to reflect behaviour exhibited by most journalists, myself included.

However, the online “monstering” of Moore that Burchill objected to was probably the least organised behaviour around. Elsewhere, I’ve likened it to the murmuration of a flock of starlings, wheeling this way and that in instant response to external stimuli: “mobbing” any predator, actual or potential, that puts their nose above the parapet.

But that’s not right, either. We live, all of us, nowadays, with the reality of social networks. If Moore writes something offensive about trans folks, then, she must get that her views will percolate at light speed across the web. The angry and the obsessed and the merely voyeuristic will turn up, in a trice, to deliver a good drubbing and the net effect (no pun intended) is likely to be horrid.

I’ve been on the receiving end of net monsterings twice. They are awful and not for the faint-hearted: a sort of bullying lite, with most individuals making reasonable if sharp comment, but the whole being much worse than the sum of the parts, and the total effect being one of intimidation. I sympathise with those on the receiving end. I sympathised with Moore.

But I am not sure where to go from there. Bullying is bad. But how, short of implementing online some exceedingly illiberal “common purpose” laws do you stop it? I’m stumped.

Moore temporarily rejoined Twitter to address the issue, and while she may not exactly have agreed to kiss and make up with the trans community, she has agreed to talk about kissing and making up.

Meanwhile, the speech issues of our age, the responsibility of press and public alike for online offence rumble on unresolved — albeit with a growing sense, in the trans community and elsewhere, that they are already returning to their bad old ways.

Jane Fae is a feminist and writer on issues of political and sexual liberty


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • Email
  • RSS


  1. Posted 15Jan13 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    “[Moore] has agreed to talk about kissing and making up.”


    Going by her Twitter and other online comments this past week, Moore appears to possess a tortured and conflicted personality.

  2. Posted 15Jan13 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
    organic cheeseboard

    I sympathised with Moore.

    I have no sympathy for her at all. She might not have originally intended offence, but when offence was pointed out to her, VERY politely, she launched into several bigoted rants.

  3. Posted 16Jan13 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t “bigot” ever so popular recently. And it appears to mean nothing less than “someone who passionately expounds views with which I strongly disagree”.

  4. Posted 18Jan13 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t see how anyone can claim that the Observer decision to remove the Burchill piece is fatuous. They appear to have realised and agree with you that it should not have been published. In taking the piece down in this manner they have effectively removed their editorial stamp of approval which had been granted too easily. They are surely not under any illusion that this would somehow remove all traces from existence. They can’t undo the damage that was done, but they can at least attempt to salvage their reputation.

  5. Posted 18Jan13 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Very true Trofim.

  6. Posted 12May13 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    But with Nexus Radio the only settings you have to worry about are
    where you want to save your files and what file
    type you want to save it as. Regular workshops ensure that the staff at PVM Radio subdivision is not
    only up to date with the latest technological innovations,
    but also ensures that the customers from diverse backgrounds are offered the best possible services to suit their tastes.
    There are many websites that bring to people radio channels for their
    personal entertainment.

  7. Posted 13May13 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    “Worked All Zones Award” is the same concept
    with time zones. And once you have your own project that you want to promote, you must have considered the radio as one of the
    best alternatives to introduce your music to the crowds.
    There are many websites that bring to people radio channels for their
    personal entertainment.

  8. Posted 14May13 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I have interviewed a few parents to attempt to understand what their true objection
    is with their child playing video games. Leveling up to defeat all the enemies can be time arresting so apprehend to absorb a acceptable bulk of hours
    anniversary day accepting the a lot of out of this game.

    The nature of Reddit’s platform makes it possible — through great and creative effort, it appears — to give users a gift of the unexpected, rather than deriving humor from humiliation.

  9. Posted 15May13 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    So now you can listen to any music from any where non-stop and cost free.

    These gadgets also have USB ports where you can also connect any device
    you have. The banner ad may be placed on the same page listeners go
    to when they want to listen to the station on-line.

  10. Posted 25May13 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    And Ouya, which is about the size of a Rubik’s cube. Don’t leave the landscape designing and terrain optimization to the last moment.
    Well, you can have that same chess engine on your Android mobile phone, courtesy of Droid – Fish.

  11. Posted 26May13 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    This is more important than ever in a world where there are dozens of different audio formats.
    This means that everyone in the whole wide world can access this new kind of radio
    and you are assured that the programs as well as the
    list of radio stations you are listening to are all automatically updated.
    Many people will be happy with replaceable batteries for home use and occasional outings.

  12. Posted 28May13 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    You have to give a tube radio at least 20 to 30 minutes just to warm up and then
    you decide what frequency you want to be on and load
    the plate and tune them up. Regular workshops ensure that the
    staff at PVM Radio subdivision is not only up to date with the latest technological
    innovations, but also ensures that the customers from diverse backgrounds
    are offered the best possible services to suit their tastes.
    So, a custom direct application and route tracking can
    make it easier to you cut fuel cost, save visit time and wholesome delivery.

  13. Posted 13Jun13 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    The internet is fueling the success of music because it can be listened to at any
    time of the day and anywhere in the world. Hardware mechanisms
    used in the manufacturing of a Wi – Fi internet radio system is less complicated and
    the point of ergonomics is kept in mind by the manufactures.
    But mostly BBC Radios 4 and 5 because, being speech orientated, they’re more like what I do, so I can learn lots from them.

  14. Posted 15Jun13 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I understand that those are the products designed by manufacturers to make them money and
    if they are endorsed by winning popular professionals, sales will be high.
    However, every character in the game (even supporting players) should be presented in this same
    detail. t love the unself-conscious little boy or girl, the undaunted miniature explorer who moves
    with unbridled enthusiasm to experience life.

  15. Posted 02Jul13 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to mention that I
    have really enjoyed browsing your weblog posts.
    In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I’m hoping you write once more soon!

  16. Posted 05Jul13 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    This article is really a nice one it helps new the web visitors, who are wishing in favor of blogging.

  17. Posted 05Jul13 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the pictures on this
    blog loading? I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

  18. Posted 10Jul13 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or weblog posts on this sort of area . Exploring in Yahoo I ultimately stumbled upon this web site. Reading this info So i am glad to show that I’ve a very excellent
    uncanny feeling I found out exactly what I needed.
    I most certainly will make sure to don?t forget this
    website and provides it a glance regularly.

  19. Posted 16Jul13 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Our certified installers are neat, professional and take pride in a job well
    done, though it may be time to consider patio doors edinburgh.
    But not all Energy Star rated doors and windows. Again, it is also solved.

  20. Posted 25Jul13 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    a Bruce Lee workout includes stretching, bending, running, dipping, kicking,
    jumping, traditional muscle building exercises,
    weight lifting, rope skipping, medicine ball handling, etc.
    Anyone who dares to make a closer inspection will find the underlying difference.
    Many people don’t have the time to weight themselves every day, but checking the scale on a regular basis can definitely help when you’re working to lose weight and
    keep it off.

  21. Posted 02Oct13 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Appreciation to my father who stated to me
    concerning this blog, this website is truly awesome.

  22. Posted 13Dec13 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly.

    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different browsers and both show
    the same outcome.

  23. Posted 09Feb14 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Appreciating the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information
    you present. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information.
    Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding
    your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  24. Posted 19Apr14 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I do consider all of the ideas you have introduced on your post.
    They’re really convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are too brief for beginners.
    Could you please lengthen them a bit from subsequent time?
    Thank you for the post.

  25. Posted 23Apr14 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    STEP three – This display will display your present Twitter account data.
    I was happily turning every aspect of my life around and experiencing success
    and joy in everything I did-except THIS. This led to a small portion that I think was meant
    to be a cave.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] debates’ and presenting ‘challenging views’. (Jane Fae has written here on why this response was inappropriate: while it shouldn’t have been published in the first [...]

  2. [...] on Censorship has an exceptionally good article on free speech and the Burchill case — it’s much shorter than this one, and it calls out the disingenuousness of the [...]