Julie Burchill should be free to offend

Her piece had been written. It's been approved. It's been published. It has rolled off the printing presses several hundred thousand times over. Why 'withdraw' it?

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The Independent Online

You’d think the trannies could take it really, their shoulders are broad enough.

There. I’ve written it. It’s a joke, of course. It’s one of those ones that are designed to get a reaction. There’s a few of them about. Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill, have all largely made a living out of them. Distasteful it may be, but what with living in a free society, sadly, I’m allowed.

Whatever one says, in a post-Twitter world, someone will always be on hand to complain. Plato and Thomas Hobbes worked out some centuries ago that a joke, by nature, must have a butt. As an overly sensitive hyperopic fourteen year old, condemned to life staring out from behind “jam jars” specs, I came very close to writing to the BBC, after Gary spent an entire episode of Men Behaving Badly calling a newly bespectacled Tony ‘four eyes’ – the thermonuclear insult that my bastard brother knew could be guaranteed to bring on the waterworks.

Mercifully, I never sent it, and since then I’ve grown up a bit. It is both staggering and depressing that so many other people haven’t.

Twitter can be guaranteed to whip up a shitstorm, no matter what the issue.  It was around a year ago that a few bored idiots went incandescent with rage at the inclusion of a panda in the BBC’s list of women who made the news . The pandas at Edinburgh zoo were a big story, but that didn’t matter. “A panda is not a woman!” they shrieked. Nor was the giant carp who had been featured the year before in the man’s list, a man, but never mind, never mind.

The only shocking element of the whole daft imbroglio is the Observer editor John Mulholland’s subsequent apology and “withdrawal” of the article, in light of the “hurt and offence” caused. Quite what “withdrawing” it means is mystifying. It’s been written. It’s been approved. It’s been published.  It has rolled off the printing presses several hundred thousand times over.

That the Observer should then capitulate in the face of instantly manufactured online outrage possibly marks a depressing sea change. A mainstream media outlet, with clear decision making processes, and decades of accumulated editorial judgement, has turned and run when faced with an angry twitter mob is a direct body blow to free speech, something one would imagine the Observer holds dear.

It is far too wearisome to trot out the old Voltaire line, especially as Stephen Fry put it rather more succinctly in conversation at the Hay Festival a few years ago. “It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that’. Well so fucking what?” Quite.