Airing controversial views is the great skill of Julie Burchill's career - and something the Observer should never shy away from

Does the Twitter mob now set the rules on fair comment?
  • @Simon_Kelner

How pleased she must be. More than three decades after she first gained a reputation with an intoxicating mixture of fearless opinion, contrarian thinking and a writing style that had more punch than a heavyweight boxer, Julie Burchill has demonstrated that she's still got it. Even though the veteran columnist spends much of her time in her Brighton redoubt “lying on the sofa yelling at the television” (her words), she is once again in the middle of a controversy. Not only that, she herself is the subject of newspaper columns (now including this one). How hilarious, she'll say, as she pours herself another vodka and tonic. This latest brouhaha could be dismissed as a dispute between attention-seeking provocateurs, yet it has serious implications for free speech in 21st Century Britain.

But first, a little background. My career in national newspapers has spanned almost exactly the same period as Burchill, so her columns have been a soundtrack to my journalistic life. While I disagreed with some of her opinions - particularly her vehement Zionism and deep admiration for Margaret Thatcher - I venerated her as a true original who, through the power of her prose, regularly made you ashamed for following conventional wisdom. And if you didn't get her point, she'd put it in CAPITAL LETTERS just to make sure.

She's written at various times for almost every national newspaper, and her departure from each of them was generally marked by a blizzard of accusations and recriminations. Her removal from the Daily Express was particularly savage. In an editorial, the paper said: “From now on, we will listen to the wishes of our readers, and the first wish is to get rid of Julie Burchill”. As her editor at The Independent, I found her utterly professional - her column was on time, on length and, invariably, on the money - and her unwillingness to follow the party line refreshing.

After 30 years, you know what you're getting with Julie Burchill, which makes the stance adopted by her current employer, The Observer, puzzling. The story is this. Suzanne Moore, also a fine columnist of long-standing, wrote a magazine article in which she railed against the pressure for women to look like, as she put it, “Brazilian transsexuals”. Cue uproar on Twitter, where Ms Moore was subjected to a barrage of insults from transsexuals, who claimed offence. Burchill stepped in to defend her friend and, as is her way, went that little bit further, describing transsexuals as “a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs”. The Observer was bombarded with complaints, and - outrageously - the MP Lynne Featherstone demanded Burchill's sacking. The Observer, the paper that bravely opposed the invasion of Suez in 1956, immediately removed the article from its website.

What kind of country is this? Are we so cowed by vested interests that free speech, which includes the freedom to offend, is now constrained? Does the Twitter mob now set the rules on fair comment? In a statement, the editor of The Observer said his paper “prides itself on... airing challenging views”. True. He ends by saying: “On this occasion we got it wrong”. Surely some mistake. That should be: “On this occasion we got it right”.