They may yet come to regret this.
The newspaper powers-that-be and grand panjandrums and the like. Not so much the publishing of Burchill, which in the end feels to me like little more than an aberration: a desperate circulation raising measure by an editor with few scruples and a sad belief that a tokenist apology 48 hours after the event makes it all alright.
No. The real casualty here may be the press’s somewhat dodgy claim to the moral high ground, at least as far as free speech is concerned.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Any fule kno that “regulashun of the press” is the end of the world as we know it. Afterward is nowt but evil: the triumph of the antichrist (Theresa May in her Judge Dreddfullest outfit) and the zombie resurrection of Mary Whitehouse (may she be forever blessed!). OK. I exaggerate. A little. But the core of press objection to Leveson is that pretty much any regulation is a bad thing. And that’s that.
Next base. Another bad thing – and here I absolutely agree – would be the creation of state-registered journalists. Any sort of test regarding who is, who is not a real journo is seriously dangerous and runs the risk, as we have seen in some eastern European states, of journalists who ask awkward questions having their accreditation withdrawn.
Even in the UK, mostly in the dodgier realms of corporate press offices, that culture holds sway. In my earliest days as a freelance, I would sometimes be working for a newspaper, sometimes working on spec: creating a story that I would then sell on. I am assiduous: insistent; but polite. So when I detect bullshit on the part of corporate fibbers (sorry,press officers) I have been known to call them on it.
At which point – back in those days – every now and then, someone would try and bounce me out of the game. Unless I had my press card…unless I was on assignment for a particular paper. What was interesting was how far this behaviour correlated not with my manner, so much as the awkwardness of my questions, in terms of their embarrassment potential for the firm in question.
I digress. Creating official divide lines between press and public is dangerous and risks, ultimately, some official body deciding that it possesses the power to decide which side of the line people fall. Free speech, then, divides in two: an absolute right for those peeps in the press, the NUJ,and so on. Lesser rights for those outside the press.
This, I would humbly suggest, is NOT a defence of free speech: it is a defence of very particular privilege – and is precisely what the Observer has exposed in all its glory over the last couple of days.
For read (or rather don’t read) the ruder comments. Above the line: Burchill in all her vicious, venomous glory, pouring out an apparent stream of consciousness flow of vitriol and bad language. Below the line, it’s prissiness as usual. Say anything – I mean anything – remotely rude and you’re out.
Full marks to the moderator – obviously one with a great sense of humour – who blue-pencilled in its entirety a comment that merely cut and pasted a par of choice Burchill, substituting another minority for t’tranz. Proof, if any were needed, that there is one rule for them,another for all the rest.
Such (press) hypocrisy underlines both the double standard over freedom and the hypocrisy over use of language.
Tom Peck, in today’s Independent, plays a curious game of journalistic double bluff, using a comment about trans folk having broad shoulders in an ever-so-knowing nudge and a wink fashion: making the joke and then deconstructing it as if to say “can you see what I did there?”.
Mmmm. Would the press be anywhere like as tolerant of a piece about Jewish journalists that opened with a line about them knowing how to sniff out stories (on account of their BIG noses, doncha know?)? I hope not. I imagine not. But who knows: if this constant abuse of transness is permissible, WHY is it not allowed to take on any and every other minority that crosses the pages of our press?
Three’s a riot
Then there’s the bullying. I think this is another and difficult issue. In Index on Censorship today I write of the difficulty of policing acts that individually were not too awful, but which, when repeated by dozens of people, even inadvertently, become something else. You or I walking purposefully down a street are no more than determined passers-by. Holding hands, we might be a nuisance: and in the company of several hundred other folk all doing the same thing, we graduate proudly to demonstration status, whereupon we need the police to shepherd us.
That, then, is one aspect of online comment, tweeting, social networking – and it is what Suzanne Moore fell foul of last week. I do not under-estimate the effect on Ms Moore of the combined effect of loads of people being nasty. Yet how far is it true to say that the individuals taking part were doing anything untoward? As individuals, I suspect, their conduct wasn’t all that bad. As mob, they were probably terrifying.
Which brings us back to press bullying. According to Private Eye, the Mail , which before Leveson stood firm for free speech has been known to take legal action against the likes of twitter, demanding to know the names of those tweeters who have been “bullying” their poor ickle journalists. Well, quite.
Until you wonder whether that doesn’t, shouldn’t cut both ways. If a torrent of adverse tweeting is bullying, what do you call a steady stream of abusive press pieces by privileged and apparently uncaring columnists?
No. About the only conclusion here is that far from being principled upholder of public freedom, the press – and the press barons that many journos serve – are little more than defenders of privilege. Freedom to say what we want, when we want – for the press, not for the ordinary everywoman in the street.
Because THEY, untutored in the proper way of doing such things, might say something we don’t like. And that would never do…