Nobody will admit to being against free speech. The difficulty comes with how the doctrine is applied in practice. Some only want to uphold it for those who say things they approve of.
One catch-all that crops up a lot is that free speech should not apply if the view expressed is “offensive”. Given that it is possible to find someone to take offence at almost anything, this constraint would end up being pretty severe.
In this context the victory for Kelvin MacKenzie in a ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation is tremendously heartening.
Here is one of many outraged social media messages responding to the piece:
Kelvin McKenzie. Because calling yourself the BNP isnt taking it far enough pic.twitter.com/MQJ4EaRkLI
— marvelzombie dude (@marvelzombiek) July 18, 2016
He went on:
“The presenter was not one of the regulars – Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Matt Frei or Cathy Newman – but a young lady wearing a hijab.
“Her name is Fatima Manji and she has been with the station for four years. Was it appropriate for her to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim?
“Was it done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sign of the slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion?”
Why Ipso was correct: freedom of expression means the freedom to offend https://t.co/cdCmatZ8yr
— Roy Greenslade (@GreensladeR) October 19, 2016
Certainly this was a provocative piece. I don’t watch Channel 4 News regularly.
When I do I try and avoid being distracted by what the presenters are wearing – for instance the awful attention-seeking ties of the insufferable Jon Snow.
Even if the scheduling of Manji for this particular item was some crass stunt by the channel then I would struggle to get too worked up about it.
As for Islam – and the much disputed interpretations of its meaning – I envy MacKenzie in finding it to be “clearly” anything.
Still, that’s his opinion – which he should be entitled to hold even if you disagree. That’s the real meaning of freedom which some people struggle to grasp.
MacKenzie later added: “I agree 100% that no Muslim should be prevented from covering any story. But there is a legitimate debate about whether it is appropriate for journalists to wear prominent symbols of their faith on air, particularly when reporting on stories with a religious angle.”
Some key stuff in the IPSO conclusion re. Fatima Manji and Kelvin McKenzie pic.twitter.com/jxHo30DRwq
— Hussein Kesvani (@HKesvani) October 19, 2016
Sadly even journalists cannot be relied on to back free speech. Thus Channel 4 News – disregarding its duty of impartiality – went on the attack. MacKenzie’s comments were (you guessed it) “offensive” and “arguably tantamount to inciting religious and even racial hatred“.
But despite over 1,900 complaints, IPSO has declined to give the lynch mob its scalp.
“While the columnist’s opinions were undoubtedly offensive to the complainant, and to others, these were views he had been entitled to express,” they say in their ruling.
“The article did not include a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant on the grounds of her religion.” It did not amount to harassment, they ruled.
So far as Islam being “clearly a violent religion”, that “was a statement of his opinion.”
George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
MacKenzie succeeds in that admirably.
It is shameful that Channel 4 News tried to silence him and right and brave of IPSO to ensure that he can continue in the robust manner to which we have all become so accustomed.