The death of AA Gill hasn’t only robbed The Sunday Times of its restaurant critic and newspaper readers of a weekly dose of sharp, stylish wit. It also marks the passing of one of that dwindling band of journalists who recognise that freedom of the press means nothing without the freedom to offend. Yes, newspapers will often print stuff that makes you want to ‘sneer or sigh or fling them with great force at the dog’, said Gill. But such press-induced piques are a small price to pay for the freedom of the press, a central part of freedom of speech, which, in Gill’s words, is what ‘all the other human rights and freedoms balance on’. It is better for thousands of people to feel offended than for a single newspaper to stifle itself or any of its columnists.
Gill’s defence of press freedom — ‘there’s no democracy without a free press’, he wrote — appeared at the start of his 2002 collection of articles, AA Gill Is Away. By that time he knew a thing or two about the threats to press freedom, particularly from that foul modern trend for marshalling feelings of individual outrage to try to tame columnists and extract apologies from newspapers. As someone not afraid to speak his mind — whether he was being acerbic about a restaurant or expressing a prejudice, as we all have a tendency to do — he frequently found himself on the receiving end of mob-like fury and even official sanction.
In early 1998 he was reported to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), no less, for his rather intemperate comments about the Welsh. He described them as ‘dark, ugly little trolls’. Rhyl, he said, is ‘a town only a man driving a crane with a demolition ball would visit with a smile’. He also had a pop at Welsh cooking: ‘You can easily travel from Cardiff to Anglesey without ever stimulating a taste bud.’ Anti-Welsh prejudice? Sure. Funny? You bet. And that’s surely the judgement that counts — not whether a column is prejudiced, but whether it entertains or informs or explains or riles. The only duty of a journalist is to connect with his or her readers, not to help bring about community cohesion or generate respect for all cultures.
Ray Singh, then Welsh commissioner for the CRE, took a different view. Like a politburo minion he proudly declared that he had ‘prepared a file containing [Gill’s] anti-Welsh material’ — gather all the evidence on this deviant’s speechcrimes! — and submitted it to the CRE’s litigation department ‘to see what action could be taken’. It was an alarming stab at official meddling in the expression of opinion. Thankfully it came to nothing. And Gill was brilliantly unapologetic. The Welsh say rude things about the English all the time, he said — he wasn’t wrong — and then he signed off his last column of the year by wishing Merry Christmas to all his readers, ‘except, of course, the Welsh’. He was having a laugh, people.
He wasn’t so lucky a decade later, when gay sports presenter Clare Balding hauled him before the Press Complaints Commission after he referred to her as a ‘dyke on a bike’. It was in a review of her TV show, Britain by Bike. The Sunday Times stood up valiantly against the complaint. It argued provocatively, but rightly, that ‘an individual’s sexuality should not give them an all-encompassing protected status’. Indeed. No one in the public eye deserves protected status; everyone in public life is fair game for criticism and barbs and satire. The Sunday Times also pleaded that Gill was a ‘controversialist who pursues the English tradition of lampooning and ridiculing public figures’. And what a tradition that has been. From John Wilkes in the 17th century to Auberon Waugh in the 20th, the English hack’s instinct to prick the pompous and deflate the self-important has been one of the finer, funnier things in journalism.