The PCC is no match for the witch-hunters

The PCC’s ruling on Jan Moir didn’t cause much fuss because the job of censuring her had already been done.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Free Speech

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to recall a sequence of events that dominated the news in Britain last autumn. On 10 October, 34-year-old Stephen Gately, a member of Irish boyband Boyzone and a gay man, was found dead in his Spanish apartment. The post-mortem confirmed that he had died of natural causes. Unperturbed, the Daily Mail published a column by Jan Moir six days later – on the eve of his funeral in fact – entitled ‘Why there was nothing “natural” about Stephen Gately’s death’.

And whoosh, the feeding frenzy started. From out of every online nook and cranny, the easily offended appeared: Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker twittered their anger at this ‘hateful’ piece of work to their digital legions; others preferred to rage in the ‘comments’ section of Moir’s article itself. The Daily Mail did try to dampen the outbreak of I-am-livids by changing the title online to ‘A strange, lonely and troubling death…’, but the contents were still too good to be true for those looking for something to be OUTRAGED about.

Admittedly, Moir’s column wasn’t the best judged. Gately’s death, coming as it did while he and his partner shared a night with a now notorious Bulgarian man, was ‘sleazy’, Moir had chirruped, and ‘less than respectable’: ‘the sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath’. As far as Moir was concerned, the circumstances of Gately’s death dealt another blow to the ‘happy ever after myth’ of civil partnerships. Still, Moir, who after all was simply expressing an opinion in a newspaper that expects her to be, well, opinionated, couldn’t have anticipated the scale of the protest. Nor its official culmination: an investigation by the official regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Approximately 25,000 complained to the PCC, including Gately’s civil partner Andrew Cowles, the official complainant. And on Friday, the PCC finally delivered its verdict: the complaint was not upheld. ‘As a general point, the Commission considered that it should be slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views, however controversial they may be. The price of freedom of expression is that commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate. Robust opinion sparks vigorous debate; it can anger and upset. This is not of itself a bad thing. Argument and debate are working parts of an active society and should not be constrained unnecessarily (within the boundaries of the Code and the law)’.

The PCC’s defence of freedom of expression in the Moir case was stated most forcefully towards the end of its adjudication: ‘To rule (in favour of the complainant) would be to say that newspapers are not entitled to publish certain opinions (which may be disagreeable to many) on events that are matters of public discussion. This would be a slide towards censorship, which the Commission could not endorse.’

Some, such as the Independent, have seen fit to praise the decision as brave, a stand against censorious impulses and for freedom of speech. And in this particular case it is. But, as Brendan O’Neill has pointed out in a piece for Forth, the PCC is not unequivocally for freedom of speech. Rather it says it should simply be ‘slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views’. Being slow to prevent views from being expressed, being ever-so discerning when censoring, is not the same thing as being opposed to censorship. The PCC still reserves the right to do just that: censor, as and when its Code is deemed violated.

In many ways, however, the PCC’s role is not to censor, so much as to censure. It reprimands after the fact of publication, rather than censors before it. Even in the Moir case, the act of making public the adjudication was an act of censureship. In the PCC’s own words, it was a ‘means by which general discontent can be registered in the form of a public judgment’. Throughout the adjudication, this ‘registering of a public judgement’ was apparent: ‘The timing of the piece was questionable to say the least’; ‘[the Commission was] uncomfortable with the tenor of the columnist’s remarks on the topic’; and in a statement of solidarity with the amassed complainants: ‘While the Commission has made clear previously that issues of taste and offence do not fall under the remit of the Code, it wished to state from the outset that it could quite understand how the column had generated wide anger, given the stance taken by the columnist.’

This is the function of a body like the PCC. As we have argued on spiked, unlike traditional censors, bodies like the PCC, Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority are not required to enforce a moral worldview – that would require a ruling elite with authority, a view of how things ought to be (see The attack dog of mainstream misanthropy). Rather, they issue ‘judgements’ on how things currently are, that is post festum, whether it’s a rude advert, or a homophobic column, all the while deriving authority for their judgements from an illusory public – which, in Moir’s case, was made up of the thousands of people who have signed up to Fry’s twitterings or who read the Guardian.

Like censorship, censureship is still a way of saying what is and is not acceptable, of regulating the boundaries of debate. It does so, however, from a position of diminished moral authority. This isn’t a case of ‘you can’t say that because it’s wrong’; it’s a case of ‘you shouldn’t have said that because it upsets people’. Censureship is censorship for a morally uncertain age.

The problem the PCC faces, as criticism mounts, is that is has been outstripped by the agents of censureship – that is, the bloggers, twitterers and commentators who can turn a misjudged column into an occasion for amassed outrage in the course of just a few hours. Slow and deliberative, the PCC lacks the immediate, condemnatory force of the ranks of censurers, armed with their laptops and iPhones. It looks weak and cumbersome. Little wonder that criticisms of the PCC and similar bodies always use the same canine, guard-dog metaphor: they are always ‘toothless’, and the army of the outraged want ‘bite’. This is precisely what those stirring up a ‘twitch hunt’ do have – they can shame someone into silence, or better still, an apology in no time at all, just by baring their anger, their offence, their upset – their teeth.

That the tide of bile recedes as quickly as it rose – note the relative lack of outrage accompanying the PCC’s judgement – does not diminish the problem of censureship. A well-dressed lynch mob, armed with social networking apps, becomes through bodies like the PCC an arbitrator of taste, a standard bearer of decency. While it might not prevent you from saying certain things, it does something just as destructive for ‘an active society’: it inhibits.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black said the reaction to Jan Moir’s Stephen Gately column showed that offence now trumps open debate. Elsewhere, he opposed the UK government’s ban on an American shock jock. Wendy Kaminer defended the ‘right to hate’. Helene Guldberg argued that an ‘historic’ House of Lords ruling still left press freedom subject to bad law. 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.

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Topics Free Speech

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