John Kampfner: We're too easily offended

The Starkey brouhaha follows a well-trodden path. Curmudgeonly man says something crass. Somebody gets cross

Share
Related Topics

Free speech is a grisly vocation. A number of my assumptions about British society have been tested to the full since I became an advocate for this rarefied freedom nearly three years ago. An early lesson was that one should not confuse liberalism with open-mindedness. Another is that we're happy to listen to anyone, as long as they don't upset us.

The manufactured brouhaha over David Starkey's comments last week follows a well-trodden and wearisome path. Curmudgeonly man (or woman) says something crass. Remember Jan Moir? Somebody gets cross. They reach for their computers and go on to Twitter. Within minutes others follow suit, expressing their fury and "solidarity", often without bothering to find out what the fuss is about.

Starkey's "the whites have turned black" ranting was not out of character. The man has form. I remember, a few years ago, him looking askance at me when I expressed delight at the Olympics coming to the East End of London. His (approximate) reply – but why would anyone want to go to places such as those?

The BBC loves contrarians. They have a category of their own in the contacts books of producers of discussion programmes, possibly entitled "a bit of right-wing rough". Yet the corporation is scared rigid of the public reaction. It employs an army of bureaucrats whose job it is to worry about viewers and listeners getting upset. I'm sure this department has doubled in number since the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross imbroglio.

And once these officials get involved with a "complaint", boy do they get involved. They began to wonder out loud: should Newsnight have invited such a dangerous man into the studio; should Emily Maitlis have pounced on him? I would not be surprised if editors did not receive in coming weeks a set of edicts on how to respond to emergencies such as this. Option one: take the programme off air. Option two: ensure that programmes have a few seconds delay so that controversialists can be silenced out, à la Gerry Adams in the 1980s. Option three: apologise immediately to viewers for any offence caused. I only half jest.

The BBC is merely following a national trend. Many public bodies make sure they never say anything controversial. I remember chairing a discussion for the Arts Council on self-censorship. One manager of a theatre in the Midlands said that before his staff confirm their next run, they convene a meeting of local "stakeholders" to check whether anything planned might remotely cause offence. I was astonished, but several others round the table suggested this was quite normal.

During the last general election campaign, Index on Censorship held a hustings debate on the record of the three main parties in supporting freedom of expression. The then Justice minister, Michael Wills, praised the Labour government's role in extending legislation that protected citizens' sensibilities, particularly of ethnic minorities. One commentator in the audience, a Sikh, told the well-meaning minister that he and everyone he knew didn't want or need his warm paternalistic embrace, thank you very much.

Legislation there already is aplenty. Not only does the UK have some of the most punitive libel laws in the Western world, but we have ample religious and racial hatred laws. The only absolute in this area is incitement to violence. Beyond that, the issue of offence and free speech is as much a judgement as a rule. It is, I admit, harder to upset a middle-aged, middle-class white man than it is a section of society that feels itself particularly vulnerable. But most of the time these judgement calls are being made by white middle-class liberals with an extenuated sense of guilt.

Just over a year ago, I was asked to give the keynote speech at Amnesty's UK annual general meeting. I challenged those assembled to agree that free speech was as important a right as any of the others they were fighting for. I am not sure I convinced them. Many people, particularly on the left, find it hard to disentangle a liberal society from an open society.

For sure, I would prefer a world in which spiteful or glib comments were not made about other races or religions. I would rather that committed Christians did not denounce homosexuality as a sin.

One can cite many such examples of bloggers, authors, film-makers, artists or tweeters saying or doing something that upsets. It would be hard to imagine any work of any merit that doesn't upset someone. The European Convention codifies our rights. It is by no means perfect, but the best we have on offer. Sometimes these rights stumble against each other, such as the competing right to privacy and the right to free speech. One right is not enshrined, but is now, wrongly, assumed to be sacrosanct: the right to take offence. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I suggest we dust off a phrase that probably hasn't seen the light of day since the 1950s. "I beg to differ." That should suffice the next time someone sees Starkey talk about blacks on TV or reads Moir on gays in the Mail.



The writer is chief executive of Index on Censorship and author of "Freedom For Sale".

www.jkampfner.net

twitter.com/JohnKampfner

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
One calculation suggests that Isis has recruited more British Muslims than the 600 or so who serve in the British Armed Forces  

Jihadi John and his fellow Isis fighters from the UK are flippant, fanatical... and distinctly British

Boyd Tonkin
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed