Now it’s a war on words

Free speech controversies involving Prince Harry, Carol Thatcher and Jeremy Clarkson show the new thought police are in danger of running riot.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Ever since ‘Sachsgate’ – the BBC controversy involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand – it has been a constant story of another day, another ‘scandal’ about some celebrity or other being banned, investigated, suspended or censured for saying something offensive or outrageous. It is not only the frequency of these media controversies that stands out lately. Something new is happening in the free speech wars. It has become a war on words.

The motley crew in the firing line for saying the unacceptable recently – from Prince ‘Paki’ Harry and Carol ‘gollywog’ Thatcher to Jeremy ‘one-eyed idiot’ Clarkson and Jo ‘poo the BNP’ Brand – are an unattractive bunch, all of whom I might find offensive for one reason or another. But then again, standing up for free speech has always been about defending the right of other people to say what we don’t want to hear. It is only those forms of speech seen as offensive, obnoxious or extreme that need defending. The mainstream and moderate can look after themselves.

And free speech needs defending in an urgent way today. Something has changed. In the past, the free speech wars tended to be about ideas or arguments considered too subversive or dangerous to be allowed public expression. The recent controversies have gone way beyond that. The backlash against the likes of Prince Harry, Thatcher or Clarkson focuses not on ideas, but on words that nobody is apparently allowed to use in any circumstances, whatever they meant by them, and regardless of whether they are spoken in public or private – or even inside somebody’s own head.

spiked tries not to go in for too much shrill hyperbole. But it is not too much to suggest that the thought police are in operation here. Indeed, things have lately reached the point where the real police have become involved – investigating Jo Brand over her onstage ‘joke’ about sending ‘poo’ to members of the British National Party, and then arresting a British foreign office official who allegedly ranted about ‘Fucking Israelis! Fucking Jews!’ while watching TV reports from Gaza at his local gym.

Once upon a time when it came to judging language, context and meaning were all. The same words could mean something different, and be judged very differently, depending on whether they were used in an argument or a joke, in public or in private, as an outburst (‘I’ll kill you for that!’) or a real threat, and so on. Now it seems that words themselves can be seen as inherently evil, regardless of context. This looks more like a modern version of the Middle Ages when people believed there were ‘words of power’ that, whether uttered as a prayer, a spell or a curse, could themselves alter real lives and situations.

Take a word such as ‘Paki’. For referring to ‘our little Paki friend’ in a private video diary made three years ago, Prince Harry was recently dragged over the coals and accused of endorsing Seventies-style ‘Paki-bashing’ racism. Nobody should be surprised that posh boys and princes still have prejudices about ‘little people’. Yet anybody should be able to see that to use such a potentially offensive name among mates or comrades is very different from shouting it at people in the street. In a similar way, when some working-class people talk about going to their local ‘Paki shop’ it might seem parochial and insensitive; but is it really racist and aggressive? Such considerations of context no longer matter to the language-and-thought policing authorities, it seems; the P-word is automatically deemed a verbal pogrom.

Or take the BBC’s decision to sack Carol Thatcher after she was reported to have referred to a French tennis player as a ‘Frog golliwog’ in the hospitality green room after a programme. There may well be questions to be asked about why such a useless individual as Thatcher, who is stupid enough to use such language in front of the left-wing loudmouth comic Jo Brand, was employed by the BBC as a high-profile ‘journalist’ in the first place. But as for whether such a woman uses a word she probably learnt as a child from her old Enid Blyton books, over a glass or several of wine in the back of the BBC TV centre, who really gives a golly’s arse?

The gollywog controversy was blown up as if it were a farcical re-run of the war between the liberal left and Thatcher’s mother, the former Tory prime minister. But the real meaning of this ridiculous episode seems far more contemporary. It was summed up by the BBC 1 controller Jay Hunt. She did not merely deny that things said in the green room, off-camera, should count as private, but also rejected the very notion of a public-private distinction, declaring: ‘I don’t think it’s fine that she [Thatcher] says this at home.’ And if you are not allowed to say something in your own bedroom, presumably you should not be thinking it in your head either.

Like the riot cops forcing back the picket lines of striking miners 25 years ago, the cultural thought police have been busy pushing back important lines in the free speech wars. They have blurred the traditional distinction between what people say in public and in private. And they have crossed the divide between words and deeds. The conventional notion that speech was ‘only words’, and that actions spoke louder, has even been turned on its head. In some cases now it seems as if offensive words are treated as potentially more harmful than weapons, at least in the long-term.

Much of this new thought policing builds on changes in the practise of physical policing in the UK. The landmark 1999 Macpherson report, into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, introduced the concept of ‘unwitting racism’ and established that any incident could be legally defined as racist if it was seen as such by the victim ‘or any other person’. The context or intended meaning of what was said or done were deemed irrelevant, all that mattered was that somebody somewhere felt racially offended or hurt, even if they were not involved. This definition was soon written into law by the New Labour government via the new categories of ‘racially aggravated’ offences. The Macpherson report also proposed that it be made an offence to use racially abusive language even in the privacy of your own home. At the time that was rejected by New Labour as a step too far. A decade later, however, it is effectively being implemented anyway by the thought police.

Another line that is being pushed back in a dangerous way through all this is the divide between hate and incitement to hatred. It has never been illegal to despise people because of the colour of their skin, political or religious beliefs, football affiliations or whatever. And rightly so; as American civil liberties lawyers argued in a free speech trial a few years back, in a free society we should have ‘the right to hate’, so long as we are talking about thoughts and words rather than violent deeds. The incitement of others to racial – and now religious – hatred is a criminal offence in Britain, although even that is a potential infringement on free speech that the courts have been wary of using. Yet now we see hateful words themselves treated as crimes. For example the official reported to have shouted ‘Fucking Jews!’ at the TV set in his local gym might have been expressing his own hatred, but could hardly be said to be inciting anybody else. Any of his apparently horrified fellow gym-goers would have been perfectly entitled to tell him to shut up or clear off. But why on earth was he arrested by the police for saying the wrong thing?

It might be said in response to this that we don’t want to endorse or encourage the expression of racist or other offensive views. But to try to suppress words is simply to impose a polite etiquette, a snobs’ speech code to make ‘them’ talk like ‘us’. Imposing etiquette is not the same thing as having an argument. It means telling people what they should say rather than engaging with what they think. In the interests of open debate and clarity of opinion, I have always felt that on balance people’s prejudices are better out than in. Those who think that banning offensive words is the way to change attitudes have it upside down. Words such as ‘nigger’ or even, in its aggressive use, ‘Paki’ have faded from public use as more enlightened attitudes have taken hold across British society.

Perhaps the flipside of the new war on words is the rise of silly gestures by celebrities making self-consciously ‘outrageous’ remarks – like Clarkson calling Gordon Brown a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’, for example, or comedian Russell Brand calling ex-president Bush retarded and, with Jonathan Ross, leaving rude messages on Andrew Sachs’ voicemail. These infantile tantrums do not amount to serious protests against or questioning of the censorious climate – especially when followed by the inevitable sincere apologies. It is more like briefly sticking two fingers up to the teacher in the playground, before we all head back to the classroom to be taught another lesson.

At a deeper level the war on words reflects what many, particularly in authority, think about other people today. The thin-skin syndrome that makes people hyper-sensitive to anything offensive rests upon the divisive mood of mistrust in our atomised society and the sense that everybody is potentially a victim of somebody else’s words. Things have even reached the point where the British National Party, self-styled champions of free speech, got the police to investigate Jo Brand on the basis that she was inciting hatred of them as an ethnic grouping.

It would be better if we trusted others – and ourselves – to say what we really think and then respond accordingly. That might mean ignoring their nonsense, or telling them to go fuck themselves – or having out a proper argument where appropriate. What it should not mean, however, is calling in the thought police.

Instead we are entering a cultural age where people can be sacked, censured or censored for saying the wrong word, regardless of where or what they meant. The inevitable consequence will be a chilling effect, making many people more cautious and further restricting conversation over a chilled glass of wine, never mind heated debate. Look at the wave of petrifying timidity now sweeping the BBC in the wake of Sachsgate, which has already led to the Carol Thatcher farce.

It is 20 years since I first wrote about the Right to Be Offensive, in response to the confusion and controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The need to defend that right is even more pressing today. And now bizarrely it seems as if we also need to defend the right to think what we like.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume criticised the contemporary ‘you can’t say that’ culture. Tim Black argued that football fans must have freedom of speech, too, and defended Prince Harry against the thought police. Josie Appleton urged us to stop playing the ‘offence’ card. Brendan O’Neill argued that no area of life was free from the censors. Dolan Cummings said free speech is more than a slogan. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today