Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Harry, you can't just say what you like

I have some sympathy for the Prince. In an age of verbal break-out, anything goes
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The Independent Online

When Harry met Ahmed and called him "Paki", he thought it was such a damn good joke that it was filmed on video it for posterity. Posterity, alas, was not amused. Nor, I imagine, were his granny, dad and PR minders as they woke up to yet another princely scandal. His granddad though, will laugh wickedly, for he too is prone to such lapses of good taste and decency.

Prince Philip makes what are affectionately known as "racist gaffes", as if he just forgot to remember it is not nice to call oriental people "slitty-eyed" or to say that Romanians breed to fill their too many orphanages. He is old, say Royalist apologists, a man of his times. Harry's racist "humour", say the same devotees, must be excused because he is so young, and a victim of his times.

Ah, pity the poor chaps, one too old, one too young, living lives of numbing privilege and untold duties. Think how hard it is to attend parties and functions, to summon up discretion and diplomacy, smile at fawning subjects, dress up in expensive garb and patronise worthy causes. They live in a world of make-believe. And I am not being sarcastic. How can they possibly be expected to understand rapidly changing societal manners? The simple answer to that plaintive question is because that is their job. Each person on the Civil List is paid a vast stipend and the least they can do is think before they speak.

But I have some sympathy for the young Princes . This is an age of verbal break-out, when anything goes. Harry must be as baffled as Jonathan Ross was when he and Russell Brand left lewd phone messages for Andrew Sachs about his grand-daughter and broadcasted the prank. It was just a joke. In post-modern, post-PC, hi-tech Britain, punters say what they want on YouTube, blogs, radio and TV reality shows. In the current wild habitat, what is racist discourse – what is acceptable or not – is mightily confusing. Remember the hapless Jade and how shocked she was that her racist remarks on Big Brother raised so much protest. We do not know the rules any longer.

This last week has been an eventful one for me, and it captures the muddle and mayhem out there. Several recent surveys have shown that a large percentage of white working-class Britons are irredeemably hostile to immigrants whom they blame for all their ills. I rebutted these views and in a tone that was uncompromising, but never abusive. I also predicted that an almighty furore would be generated by the column and oh lord was I right. There followed an orchestrated BNP campaign, furious letters and formal complaints to the authorities. Many accused me of racism for criticising a section of the white population and pointing out its anti-immigrant bigotry. What Kafka would make of that. The complaints on both sides were sincerely felt. However, what the objectors understand by racism is not my understanding of it.

Over the same week, I have also had abusive emails that come out of pure racial and religious odium. They think they can say what they say in the privacy of email exchange. Here is a sample of the most printable. Paul Schofield says "shit" like me should leave the country. Jane Cuthbert says it better: "Go back to bongo-bongo land". Steve believes "trash like me should be hanged from the nearest tree".

Stephen Douglas lashes out: "I would put you all on a ship and light them on fire [sic] and send you back to the devils that created you". GWS says I am a "Muslim pig whore" and there is much else which mixes racist bile with sexist, violent fantasies. Five years ago, such expressions were rarely, if ever posted to journalists or people in the public eye. Now they are part of what is called democratic – honest freedom of expression.

Harry may just believe that "Paki" or "rag-head", another insulting expression he used on the video, is fine now that we are so freed up from constraints. He did it without malice, the Palace reassures us. We don't know whether Ahmed would agree. Harry was with his army comrades, his trusted peers when he filmed himself "Paki"- joshing. But he was also in the army, an institution that has tried tremendously hard to recruit soldiers of all backgrounds and to change a deeply embedded culture of racism. So he was wrong, but it is hard for the young to know what that means these days.

Speaking to the youth in our family and their mates, most say they know "Paki" is a bad word but that everyone now says it, so why go for poor Harry? These are kids of the perpetual technological revolution, the effects of which they barely understand.

I don't think intimate conversations should be policed or censured. People must be free to speak between themselves – even if they are being unfair and prejudiced. But there is no private space any more. Weddings, intimate dinners, even phone calls on Tubes can be heard, recorded and disseminated. Anything you say within your circle or home, or what you do as a private citizen can be put out to the public. And usually is, sometimes distorted.

Many of us now fear this new spy network. I went to the demo on Saturday to protest against the Israeli massacres in Gaza and was intensely worried that someone would or could take a phone image of me near an extremist placard or an anti-Semitic hothead and I would then be set up as one of them. Thankfully, I found that old Jewish hero, Walter Wolfgang, to hold on to (he needed my strength and I needed his validation) so possible accusations would be avoided.

Emails, various websites and blogs have crashed through the vital boundaries between the private and public and nobody is now protected from the communal gaze. There can be no regulation either of what is out there. And the more we see and hear stuff that should be avoided in public discourse, the more de-sensitised society becomes to what is unacceptable speech or behaviour.

What surprises me is that Harry's "fun" video nasty has produced old-fashioned condemnation in all the papers, including those on the right. Ross and Jade provoked similar outrage. Maybe all is not lost yet. We still know the limits of freedom of expression. Sad to say Harry clearly doesn't. Or didn't until now.