The Kilroy side-show

How did a silly, smarmy TV presenter get to pose as a martyr for free speech?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

A week is a long time in the world of C-list celebs and second-rate journalism. At the start of January, Robert Kilroy-Silk was the presenter of BBC 1’s daytime chat’n’confession show Kilroy, a kind of unthinking man’s Oprah.

Then on 4 January the Sunday Express re-ran a rant by Kilroy-Silk that was first published in April 2003, in which he referred to Arabs as ‘suicide bombers, limb amputators [and] women oppressors’; the Commission for Racial Equality sent the article to the police as a case of incitement to racial hatred; the BBC pulled the plug on Kilroy; Kilroy-Silk gave an interview to the BBC’s rivals at ITV’s Tonight With Trevor McDonald; and now daytime TV’s Mr Cheese is talking himself up as champion for free speech and a martyr to what some have called the ‘commissars of political correctness’ (1).

How did a silly article by a smarmy TV presenter whom not very many people take seriously come to dominate the news? It is a sense of defensiveness on the part of British institutions, and a broader uncertainty about issues like TV censorship and public debate, that allowed this non-story to become the big story and a man off the box to become a modern-day martyr.

None of the players has emerged from this overblown incident with much dignity. The BBC has shown itself to be petty and censorious, buckling under the pressure to stop its presenters from saying anything offensive about a religion or its adherents; the Commission for Racial Equality has further demonstrated its fear and loathing of the masses, who apparently might be stirred up to commit anti-Arab violence upon reading a column in the Sunday Express; and Kilroy-Silk and his defenders make a poor advert indeed for freedom of speech.

Kilroy-Silk’s column was an idiotic rant. Under the headline ‘We owe Arabs nothing’, he asked what contribution Arab countries have made to ‘the welfare of the rest of the world’ – to which many commentators have already answered: ‘Man’s first written word, maths, science and medicine.’ (2) He also said that one such Arab state, Iran, is a ‘vile, terrorist-supporting regime’ – it may be, but it isn’t an Arab state. Still, they’re all the same, aren’t they?

Yet Kilroy-Silk isn’t the only person off the telly with a newspaper column where prejudice masquerades as insight. The ladies of GMTV – Lorraine Kelly in the Sun and Fiona Phillips in the Mirror – write on everything from Britney Spears’ bum cleavage to What The Government Should Do About Domestic Violence. Vanessa Feltz, Ulrika Jonsson and Anne Diamond all have newspaper columns, in the mistaken belief that because they’re on the box (or used to be) they must have something profound to say about the state of the world. Why should readers take Kilroy-Silk’s views on Arabs any more seriously than they take Fiona Phillips’ views on food (‘too much salt can cause cancer…diet influences behaviour…and Scottish salmon is riddled with toxins’)?

The BBC claims it suspended Kilroy-Silk because his column in the Sunday Express clashes with its post-Hutton attempts to rein in BBC journalists who write ‘contentious’ articles for newspapers, that this is a simple attempt to uphold the BBC’s impartiality. As one report says, Kilroy-Silk is ‘bound by the same restrictions imposed on other BBC colleagues in the wake of Hutton’, which are ‘generally sensible’ (3).

These claims are highly disingenuous; the BBC announced this post-Hutton clampdown in December 2003, but said its journalists could work out their newspaper contracts up to spring 2004. What really unnerved the BBC about Kilroy-Silk’s Sunday Express column was not the fact that he still has a column, but the massive reaction to it. A BBC spokesman explained the decision to suspend Kilroy-Silk: ‘It was everything together – the letter from the Muslim Council of Britain, the involvement of the Commission for Racial Equality and the amount of media coverage of the situation.’ (4)

Like other British institutions, the BBC is petrified of being accused of Islamophobia, of being in any way associated with criticisms of Islam and its followers. In multicultural, pluralist, tolerant Britain, ridiculing religion is frowned upon and causing offence or undermining the self-esteem of communities is a cardinal sin. Whatever you might think of Kilroy-Silk’s views, it is a ridiculous notion that religious beliefs, or anything else, should be above criticism for fear of upsetting people; in an open, democratic society, we should be free to offend the sensibilities of anyone who peddles superstitious nonsense and irrational theories, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews or Scientologists.

Now, Kilroy-Silk is left posing as a warrior for freedom of speech – perhaps the most unbelievable part of this story. In his interview with Trevor McDonald, he said he was exercising his ‘right to free speech’. (He also claimed that his show had ‘done more to improve race relations in this country than any other single institution’.) (5)

Yet anyone who has watched Kilroy will know that it is no forum for free speech. It is a narrow-minded show where Kilroy-Silk and the audience discuss child abuse or incest or extramarital affairs or some other big issue, and where those who say anything contrary to the accepted wisdom can expect to be shouted down. Indeed, the producers sometimes wheel on a ‘dissenting’ voice, usually some liberal or other, so that Kilroy-Silk’s stage army can take a pop at them like an Aunt Sally. Kilroy-Silk is no defender of free speech; it is the overreaction and anti-free speech instincts of so many others in this case that has allowed him to claim this mantle.

Surveying the claims of Kilroy-Silk and his supporters, Guardian columnist David Aaronovitch concludes that this case ‘has nothing to do with free speech’. He ridicules the notion that ‘guaranteeing jobs to controversialist talk-show hosts [is] the very essence of liberty’ (6). But quite aside from Kilroy-Silk’s own claims, having being overblown into a big issue this has now become a question of free speech – not because it is important to defend people’s ‘right to be racist’ or the right to write rubbish in national newspapers, but because of what censuring Kilroy-Silk says about the rest of us.

As in so many other contemporary free speech cases, it is the audience who are insulted by the censuring of Kilroy-Silk, where it is assumed that the newspaper-reading and TV-watching masses are incapable of reading or hearing obnoxious views without being tempted to act on them. Behind many of today’s calls to clamp down on offensive or outrageous content lurks the notion that we need to be protected from ourselves – and from each other. It is this insidious idea that needs a thorough drubbing.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) sent Kilroy-Silk’s column to the police ‘to consider whether it might constitute an offence under the Public Order Act’. It describes the article as ‘indisputably stupid’ and accuses Kilroy-Silk of ‘trivialising one of the most important and difficult areas of international relations facing the world today’.

But the CRE’s central concern is with the impact that the article might have on those who read it. ‘[I]ts main effect will be to give comfort to the weak-minded’, says CRE chair Trevor Phillips; ‘given the extreme and violent terms in which Kilroy-Silk has expressed himself, there is a danger that this might incite some individuals to act against someone who they think is an Arab’ (7).

The implication behind the CRE’s statement is that the real problem is not Kilroy-Silk’s article as such, which is just ‘indisputably stupid’, but the audience who read it, who might go out and commit violent acts as a result. This idea is underpinned by a pretty dim view of people, who, it is assumed, inevitably copy or emulate what they read in the papers or watch on TV. Behind the CRE’s concern about inflammatory articles inciting racial hatred or racial violence there is a deep contempt for the public, considered so gullible (or perhaps ‘indisputably stupid’) that they can be stirred to anti-Arab violence by a semi-literate column in a Sunday newspaper. Indeed, we are even worse than Kilroy-Silk in the CRE’s eyes – he just writes stupid stuff; the rest of us might act on it.

Such views inform the CRE’s, and many others’, view of free speech today. The CRE says that, ‘The right to free and unfettered political speech and debate is fundamental to a democratic society’. But…. ‘it should not be viewed as an absolute right which has no limits’. Because…. ‘there can be no place in the democratic political process of our society for those who seek to incite, whether blatantly or covertly, racial hatred, prejudice and discrimination’ (8).

You, like me, might have no time for racist speech and those who seek to stir up inter-community tensions; but we should equally reject the notion that the unelected, unrepresentative guardians of morality that make up the CRE should make it their job to restrict such speech, on the grounds that if we ignoramuses hear it there is no telling what might happen. This is a trivialisation of racism, which is presented as a product of individuals’ prejudices as inflamed by irresponsible content, rather than anything to do with society; and it assumes that freedom has to be curtailed for the public’s own good.

Others argued that Kilroy-Silk’s column was problematic because it could have a detrimental impact on Britain’s Arab and Muslim communities, who will assume that ‘they do not belong here’ (9). The widespread view is that we the people are easily insulted or incited by words and images; that fragile Britain is easily offended or brutalised by an article in a newspaper. And the only solution, it seems, is to censor content and watch what we write and say.

This is a degraded view of the public. The one sensible thing that Kilroy-Silk said in his interview with Trevor McDonald was: ‘I think we should be able to say what we like; we are all robust, decent people and we should be able to deal with this.’ If a few more believed that, maybe we could have avoided having an indisputably stupid debate about a silly newspaper column.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

A safe stirrer, by Neil Davenport

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) An English martyr?, Guardian, 13 January 2004

(2) What have Arabs ever done for us?, Nick Sommerlad, Mirror, 9 January 2004

(3) An English martyr?, Guardian, 13 January 2004

(4) ‘Kilroy may return to TV soon as BBC bows to viewer backlash’, Daily Mail, 13 January 2004

(5) Kilroy-Silk looks to be on the way out after interview with BBC rival, Matt Wells and Brian Whitaker, Guardian, 13 January 2004

(6) It’s nothing to do with free speech, David Aaronovitch, Guardian, 13 January 2004

(7) CRE response to Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article in the Sunday Express, Trevor Phillips, Commission for Racial Equality, 4 January 2004

(8) Free speech and race relations in a democratic society, Commission for Racial Equality, 1996

(9) CRE response to Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article in the Sunday Express, Trevor Phillips, Commission for Racial Equality, 4 January 2004

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Topics Politics


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