Terence Blacker: Stand up for the right to cause offence

Constraint on language leads to constraint on thought

For the first and I very much hope the last time, I share a problem with the celebrity hardman Vinnie Jones. We have both recently laid ourselves open to the charge of what is now known as "ableism".

Jones was reported to Ofcom when, during an interview for Celebrity Big Brother, he referred to the presenter Davina McCall as "walking like a retard". The remark was deemed to be insulting to the handicapped.

My ableist moment occurred at the recent Aldeburgh Literary Festival. Appearing in a show called "Taboo-Be-Do", which looks at politically incorrect songs of the past century, I sang an excerpt from "I'm Not All There", a song written in 1924. The lyrics, if heard on TV, would almost certainly be a case for Ofcom: "I'm not all there, there's something missing/ I'm not all there, so folks declare/ They call me Loopy, Loopy, nothing but a great big booby..." and so on.

There were complaints about the show, but they were not about that song, nor did they concern various inappropriate ditties about race, sexual orientation and obesity. It was a sequence about domestic violence, including Carole King's "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" , which caused concern. There we had gone too far, I was later told by more than one concerned liberal who had been in the audience. The hitting songs should really be edited out.

Laughing at political correctness, it turns out, is fine until one's own particular sensibilities are affronted. Reactions are entirely subjective. The response from Mencap to Vinne Jones's remark was, as is now obligatory, emotional and personal, with a spokesman declaring that he had been left feeling "hurt and disgusted". A mother of two handicapped children has argued that diversity should be positively represented on Channel 4 and that a public apology is required.

With heroic good sense, Ofcom has rejected the complaints. "Freedom of expression and the right to broadcast and receive information and ideas will mean that material which has the potential to offend might be transmitted," it said. It is an important ruling because the argument that everything broadcast on a channel should reflect the values of diversity and fairness will have a chilling effect on programme makers. Constraint on language leads to constraint on thought. There is the thinnest of lines between avoiding offence and self-censorship.

Nor, in matters of offensiveness, is it easy to separate the personal from the political. This month in America, Sarah Palin has been energetically campaigning for the resignation of the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel on the grounds that he described the actions of opponents within his party as "fucking retarded". Could this sensitive Sarah Palin be the same politician who once declared "screw political correctness" and who said that countries which declare illegal words that are not politically correct (France was the villain) "scared the heck out of me"? It could.

Notions of what is acceptable or not change with perspective and with time. The right of broadcasters to cause offence, even if it hurts and disgusts good, worthy people, is closely connected to political freedom.