We can laugh at Steve Emerson and Fox News, but find me an 'expert' who really knows anything

Free speech also means the freedom to talk complete rubbish

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The Independent Online

Since last week’s Charlie Hebdo attack, much has been spoken freely about the vitality of freedom of speech. We have cogitated vocally, shoved our two pence worth in, and littered the internet with our very free words on the right to offend, protest and speak “our truths”. Then, on Sunday, “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson appeared on Fox News to inform America of a sinister Muslim-only stronghold called Birmingham, and we all promptly told him to shut up.

Well, not immediately, as we were far too busy enjoying his “expert” vision of our beloved West Midlands city, somewhat reminscent of downtown Kabul mixed with the post-apocalyptic nightmare Bartertown in Mad Max. Emerson -  reaping the benefits of free speech - also informed America that London is home to Islamic police who “wound” passers-by not wearing correct attire.

Where Emerson had learned these facts,we do not know. Maybe he’d seen it daubed, ALL IN BLOCK CAPITALS, on a Yahoo! GeoCities forum thread entitled “I AM NOT A RACIALIST BUT”. Perhaps Emerson’s truth – which he has now apologised for – was a mixture of other things he’d heard on Fox News. One of the trickiest things about freedom of speech is dealing with – to our minds - oafs and simpletons who are simply wrong.

All those free-speaking citizens who write to inform me of a global Jewish conspiracy, or that our country went downhill when we let the likes of Trevor McDonald read the news, or that I’m far too munter-esque to worry about rape, or that a Rapture is coming to take the good and leave me down here with “The Beast”: they are all entitled to their freedom of speech, as are the various experts who appeared on TV last week to say plainly that Ched Evans had “served his time” without checking if he had indeed “served his time” or was, in actual fact, two and half years away from serving time. All of these people are free to speak: and they’re also entitled to a £50 fee for a two-minute appearance on British rolling news as an expert on these matters.

Besides, what is “wrong” anyway? Isn’t it, they might argue, simply “right that I don’t agree with”? Isn’t one man’s “Heed the baw” – as they so beautifully put it in Scotland – is another man’s brave epistle of “truth spoken to power”. Nous sommes tous Charlie! Yes, even you, Fox News fool, who thinks Sharia Law is enforced by Islamic police in London. Pull up a seat, let me powder your nose, you’re on live in 30 seconds.

Of course, this is all your fault. And mine too. Our very modern fervour for rolling news and constant commentary means that go-to “experts” of Emerson’s calibre – the noisy but not at all correct - are abundant.  It’s worth remembering this when any sort of news breaks: a bomb in a school, Hugh Grant’s latest haircut, a Papal outburst.

Within moments, some poor researcher is on the hunt for experts. How I pity those poor buggers, locked on the phone all day long, looking for anyone with the merest authority on a matter to make the schlep to their studio and fill screen time broadcasting to a tiny rolling news audience of demented ex-pats, anxious retired news-junkies and other newsrooms waiting to steal stories. I’ve been an expert several times on rolling news, and I’m pretty sure – viewing-figure wise - more people have seen me on CCTV in Asda.

Our constant need for experts has meant that experts are usually the last thing you’ll see tackling clever matters on television. Actual praiseworthy boffins, high-level political figures and intellectual powerhouses will only enter the rolling news sausage factory if they have a book to promote or a policy to enthuse about. The other 99 per cent of the time the viewer is at the full majectic mercy of the righteous wrong. The only remarkable thing about Emerson and his Birmingham piffle is that it caught the attention of Twitter and gained momentum.

When, back in 2004, Business Studies graduate Guy Goma visited the BBC for a job in Data Support and was accidentally whisked on to News 24, he managed to burble away, live on TV, discussing a highly complex legal case involving Apple, for 88 seconds without anyone in the gallery noticing.

Today, we have our very own Queen of the Righteous Wrong: Katie Hopkins. Following an arduous three years of availablility as an ever-ready “expert” on childcare, weight loss, class, trade unions, the spread of Ebola, Palestine and whatever else a researcher has persuaded her to discuss, Hopkins is at the top of the tree of faux-expert bloviation. Love or hate Hopkins: her position is comfortable and enviable, filled with columns, TV appearances, speaking engagements and constant attention.

Steve Emerson was clearly not thinking straight when he issued his immediate apology to the people of Birmingham, grovelling about its beauty and sending a cheque to a children’s hospital. It would have been far more of a power move as an “expert” on terrorism to simply underline his statements.

Emerson should have said he had the freedom of speech to tell viewers what he believed. He should have carried on with the very modern career plan of being someone willing to be loudly and irritatingly wrong on a number of other things. The problem with Je Suis Charlie is very often those who are also Je Suis Un Imbecile are making the loudest racket.

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