The Press Complaints Commissionshas decided not to uphold complaints about an article by Jan Moir about the circumstances surrounding Stephen Gately’s death. I’m not going to rehash the details of the case – a quick Google will allow you to find the original article, but my main interest is in some of the comments that I’ve heard floated up on Twitter and other web sites about the findings of the PCC. The PCC did indeed receive a record number of complaints – 25,000 – about the column, and there was a fairly hefty campaign mounted over social networks such as Twitter to encourage people who felt strongly to complain. The newspaper concerned, The Mail on Sunday, dodged censure:
PCC chairwoman Baroness Buscombe said the commission found the article “in many areas extremely distasteful” but that the Mail had escaped censure because it “just failed to cross the line”.
The PCC had considered context and “the extent to which newspaper columnists should be free to publish what many will see as unpalatable and unpleasant stories”.
and two complaints to the Metropolitan police that were passed to the Crown Prosecution Service were also rejected as grounds for prosecution because of insufficient evidence that the piece breached the law.
Jan Moir’s piece was ill-timed, and some of her comments were hurtful to some people. I guess that there were those who found the piece upsetting who didn’t complain, and that there were probably quite a few people who wholeheartedly agreed with what she had to say; after all, complaints procedures rarely get support. But, as they say, process has been carried out and judgement bought in by the PCC and the CPS, and in many ways that should be the end of it – whether you agree with the outcome or not.
Having said that, I wasn’t surprised today when I saw a fair amount of blather on Twitter from the ‘chattering classes’ referring to the PCC judgement, starting off by saying that as the editor of the Mail on Sunday is on the PCC, the verdict is immediately biased. I guess that’s to be expected. We then went in to slightly disturbing territory, with a Tweet that I came across along the lines taht the Tweeter didn’t want to censor comment but felt that something to rein in columnists from claiming authority they didn’t have. There’s also this debate on the BBC’s own web site. Now, why do I find that tweet rather disturbing?
It’s all in the wording. Where does ‘claiming authority’ start and end? Do we apply it across the board? Do you have to be a political scientist to talk about politics? A GP to write medical articles? A physicist to comment on the LHC? And what about us bloggers? Do we have to ‘in with the in crowd’ before we can comment on the activities of celebrities? Do I have to have a degree in economics before I can comment on the parlous state of the UK economy? Should we have license to comment?
I’m sorry – but a good columnist SHOULD occasionally say something that pisses people off; one shouldn’t b personally offesnive or abusive, but the sacred cows of modern society should be up for comment. Once you start down the road of ‘reining in’ columnists it’s the thin end of the wedge towards full blown censorship. Would there have been so much fuss from the media and liberal intelligentsia were the column about the death of a young ‘smack rat’ in similar circumstances? I very much doubt it; I fear that a lot of the reaction here has been about the death of ‘one of their own’ in what must be described as unusual circumstances – unusual in my experience, any way.
There’s an old saying that someone stays liberal on law and order until they get mugged or burgled; perhaps we might expand that to suggest that some people stay liberal on freedom of speech until someone dares to use it to say something they disagree with.