John Kampfner: We're too easily offended

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

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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".

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