Give us the free speech we agree with

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Have you noticed how everything has been reminiscent of everything else this last week, one issue bleeding into another, one person reminding us of the last. Just as the imminence of the Hutton report has got us thinking again about why Dr David Kelly took his life, Dr Harold Shipman - his lookalike - decides to put an end to his. While no sooner does BBC2's moronic best-sitcom fest give us a bracing blast of Till Death Us Do Part, than Robert Kilroy-Silk pops up with his moronic imitation of Alf Garnett, which in turn has everybody remembering the last time a telly person moronically shot his mouth off about the peoples of the Middle East - Paulin the poet, the difference being, as everybody has also noted, that his target was Israel, and the BBC didn't seem to mind that.

Ah yes, but he was only talking about extremists. Ah yes, but Kilroy-Silk was only talking about regimes; and besides, Paulin was actually advocating violence, kill, kill! Ah yes, but incitement to racial hatred is itself a violence; and Kilroy-Silk did say "Arabs" whereas Paulin didn't quite say "Jews". Ah yes, but "Arab" isn't the same as "Muslim", whereas there was blatant anti-Semitism in Paulin's charge of "Nazism", since the accusation is explicable, whatever one thinks of Israel, only as part of a strategy of turning the moral tables on people who were once Nazism's victims. Ah yes, but what must be said, must be said. Ah yes, but isn't that Kilroy's justification too?

Enough already. I'll settle this. Paulin's crime was the greater. Because (a) he is a poet and therefore should know better than a chat show host; (b) Paulin's language betrays hatred in the heart, whereas Kilroy's betrays doughnuts in the brain; (c) Paulin trod the primrose path of political likemindedness, whereas Kilroy fancied he was speaking out against that very thing. Not much of a speech, I grant you, but the difference is worth noting.

When it comes to what the BBC should do, however, there are no distinctions to be drawn. They should do nothing. It is part of their public service remit to represent all voices; and if intelligence were suddenly to be a criterion, where would they get their programmes from? That BBC culture is more comfortable with Paulin-speak than Silk-speak we know in our bones. But we do not, on that account, charge them with anti-Semitism. If anything, it would make more sense to see them as Islamophobic for assuming that Jews can take criticism but that Arabs can't. Not that we charge them with that either. Just blowing in the wind. Which is not a crime, is it?

And anyway, aren't you sick of them - Arabs and Jews? The Jews think they are the only unprotected species on the planet, and the Arabs think the same. Why don't we simply agree that they both are, close the BBC down altogether since their personnel can't mind their manners in the matter, and use the licence fee to fund a Middle East peace initiative?

As for the principle of free speech, it's hard to invoke it with any enthusiasm when the speech that's being made free with is inane. Of course, the kind of free speech we would all prefer is that with which we concur: "freeish" speech, speech whose freedom is conditional on our approval of it. But failing that, can't we at least have free speech only on the understanding that it is shapely, evenly considered and well expressed?

Which would leave Alf Garnett where? How mealy mouthed we always were about him, his creator included, forever complaining that people mistook the programme's intention, confusing criticism of Alf Garnett's views with endorsement of them. A complaint which strikes at the very heart of drama itself, for a character who is dramatically alive eludes both criticism and endorsement, and lives precisely because he speaks out of our ambivalences and confusions. Show me the person who says there is no Alf Garnett in him, and I will show you a liar.

Refuse society the Alf Garnett in itself and he will leak out through the joins and stitches, like the however many thousands of people reputed to be ringing the BBC and the Daily Express in support of Kilroy-Silk. Not heroes of the spirit, I grant you. But who are we to deny them their right to express frustration, if frustration is what they feel?

Rights, rights. As with the right to free speech, so with human rights. What a tangle we are in. Here is Dr Shipman considerately ridding us of himself and all we can say is that he didn't have the right to do it, as though by denying others the right to live he has forefeited the right to die. Cowardice, they've been labelling his suicide, whereas in the case of Dr Kelly, we called it tragedy. Vastly different men, of course, inhabiting vastly different moral universes. But I am forcibly struck by how alike they look in the photographs by which we most know them. How sad they both are. How furrowed their brows, how lacklustre their eyes, how hollow their letter-box mouths. And how similar in their apparent probity, scrupulously bearded and bespectacled, like scientists who Morris Dance and drink real ale, sympathetic, scholarly, conscientious, a touch finicky even, each seeming to wish he were somewhere else. Gentlemen, both, on whom at one time or another those who came in contact with them built an absolute trust.

Vastly different men inhabiting vastly different universes, yet their resemblances remind us of the irreducible humanity they will have shared. But we must have heroes and villains. Shipman must be a villain - and from that I don't demur - though he remains a mystery to us. And Kelly must be a hero because he said what we wanted to hear when we wanted to hear it, though his employees considered him, with reason, to be as leaky as the BBC considers Kilroy Silk.

Mouthing off, or speaking with the tongues of angels? You tell me.