Thursday, 30 January 2014

Is it fear or is it editorial judgment?

In the past week, a battle within the Liberal Democrat Party has become news, if only because it highlights the clash between those who believe in absolute free speech, and those who think free speech should be tempered by it not "causing offence" to others - which of course is not free speech.  The latter is the sort of "free speech" seen in China, when you can talk about anything, as long as it doesn't offend the Communist Party, or in Islamist countries where you can't offend the local clerics.

It is anything but liberal.

- A Sunday morning BBC discussion programme included two people who wore t-shirts from "Jesus and Mo".  Here it is 

Image on tshirt worn on "The Big Questions"
- On that show, a Liberal Democrat (and Muslim) candidate, Maajid Nawaz said he was not offended by the t-shirt images, and that he did not accept that Muslims who were spoke on behalf of all Muslims.  He said that Muslim opinions were varied and diverse, and whilst some were offended, others were not.  Others on the show said they were offended.

- Maajid Nawaz subsequently sent a Tweet of the image saying he did not find it offensive.

- Muhammad Shafiq, a Liberal Democrat activist, took offence at this and subsequently set up an online petition to get Nawaz de-selected and warned that he had "informed other Muslim countries" of Nawaz's actions.  Nawaz is Pakistani, and regularly visits his family there.  The language used by Shafiq effectively said Nawaz had committed blasphemy, which carries the death sentence in Pakistan.

- Shafiq has subsequently backpedaled and claimed that he would never endorse violence or condone threats towards Nawaz, and he is entitled to his opinion, but so are Muslims who are offended.  He then focused his complaint not on the cartoon, but on the "colourful" language Nawaz used against Shafiq and others.

The debate then shifted to national television news, with it appearing on Daily Politics, then subsequently Channel 4 News and more lately Newsnight.

Let's not forget both the BBC and Channel 4 are state-owned.  That means that by the measure of the supporters of publicly owned broadcasting, both broadcasters are meant to reflect us all.  It is not illegal to produce drawings or cartoons of any religious figure in the UK.

Channel 4 News on 28 January chose to broadcast as its lead item a piece on Mexican organised crime, which included images of the victims of brutal lynchings by the local drugs gang.  The item is here, and you can see the images of the hangings from 1.35.  It includes 8 corpses, 6 of which are hanging from the neck. 
It was warned some viewers might find the images disturbing, and rightly so.

However, later in the bulletin it covered the Mohammed cartoon issue, and censored the Mohammed part of the image above.  It has not made it clear why this is so much more offensive than the image of anonymous corpses hanging by the neck in a bulletin broadcast just after 7pm (so at a time when families are likely to be watching).   BBC's Newsnight also censored the image on its show the following night.

One claim is that showing the cartoon is "gratuitously offensive", and is unnecessary.

Well it may be to some, but how is such a test applied?  Depictions of dead bodies could be seen as being so as well, as are repeat images of "disaster porn".  Most recently, footage of people performing the quenelle was shown as part of a story about a footballer performing this arguably anti-semitic gesture.  That's gratuitously offensive to many Jews and others who see it as a stylised Nazi salute (in part because the Nazi-sympathising "comedian" Dieudonné M'bala M'bala performs it).

So do publicly owned UK TV channels find showing a gesture offensive to some Jews to be "not gratuitous", but a cartoon image offensive to some Muslims to be "gratuitous" (even if the latter is not designed to offend).

To top it off, the producer of the Jesus and Mo cartoons was on BBC's Newsnight, but with his name, picture and voice all suppressed, out of fear.

Because this is, ladies and gentlemen, about fear.

Islamists - those who want to take Islam and alter laws and politics to follow it, create fear because all too many of them are prepared to use violence and threats of violence to get their way.  It's hardly surprising, because all Islamist states are brutal towards dissidents, apostates and those who are deemed to "offend Islam".

Jews, Christians, atheists and indeed people of any or no-religious faith, and of the multiplicity of secular views, are rarely willing to promote violence to meet their goals in the UK today. There are extremists in the environmentalist and animal rights movements (and far-left "anarchists") who will, but let's leave them for another day.  The news media would never censor its own narratives to avoid offending them.

What has happened is a clash - between the values of a free, liberal, open society, and those of an intolerant, aggressive and conservative (pre-enlightenment) one.

It is one that, finally, some on the "liberal" left are starting to realise they have been ill-equipped to respond to, as has been seen by the pathetic limp-wristed snivelling appeasement of the Liberal Democrat party, and the appeasement of the two state owned broadcasters.

I don't believe that Channel 4 or Newsnight have decided that it would be gratuitous to show the cartoon that is at the heart of the context of the story.

It is fear.

Fear that either network will be accused of provocation, accused of insulting "Islam" (as if it is a monolithic entity with some leadership and single source of guidance like Catholicism) or Muslims, as if there is a right to not be offended.

Or it is fear of reprisals.  Of violence or threats of violence.

That isn't a reason to censor content, it is a reason to publish it.

For if British publicly owned broadcasters do not believe they can show a fairly low resolution drawing, because some viewers find it offensive and a small number of them will use violence to express their point of view, then it is capitulation by the state, to those who would sanitise, limit and constrain our free speech.

A week or so ago there was a story about footballer Nicolas Anelka performing the Quenelle, a gesture thought by some as being neo-Nazi in intention, and used to express anti-semitism.   Censorship of the gesture was out of the question.  Is it because Jews don't threaten to do violence to those who perform it?

It is incumbent upon all of us, who believe in freedom of speech, to demand that this cowardly double-standard cease, and not on the side of sanitising public discourse.

Not because we want to antagonise those who are offended, but because effective public discourse about an issue of freedom of speech is compromised, by submitting to those who seek to suppress that speech.

It is, by proxy, the state taking sides.

It is perfectly honourable to show the image, to even apologise that it may cause offence to some viewers in advance, and to justify doing so because the story is about that.

It is to cowardly submit to those who find offence to do otherwise, and to invite justifiable calls of hypocrisy when broadcasting anything that offends people of other beliefs.

The UK is not a theocracy.  It is, meant to be, an open, liberal society where free speech is cherished, and there is not a legal right to be protected from offence.

Unfortunately, the law does not consistently uphold this, and unfortunately the UK's two state broadcasters are now parties to cowardice in public discourse, to taking the line that offending others is a reason to censor elements of a story.

In many countries broadcasters don't face official censorship, but unofficially censor themselves because they fear reprisals from the state or the state's proxies.   Venezuela, Argentina, Malaysia and other countries have broadcasters that capitulate to fear.

The people of Britain should not tolerate their state owned broadcasters capitulating to the fear of threats from those who seek to undermine our freedoms.

The only way to do so is for those who love freedom, libertarian, liberals, conservatives and indeed anyone for whom free speech is truly precious to say no.

For those who are offended, so what?  You have no right to not be offended.  Broadcasters are not seeking to offend you.   If you don't like it, boycott the programme or the channel.

As for the Liberal Democrats?  The party has lost any residual moral authority to use the word "Liberal" by capitulating to debate about this issue.   If you can't be categorically clear that threatening another member is unacceptable, then you're worthless to freedom and free speech.

Then again, who is really surprised?

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