Vir Cantium

I'm right, you know …

Stephen Gately, Jan Moir and That Slippery Slope

Many will remember the article by Jan Moir that was published about the death of Stephen Gately. A not insignificant 25,000 people complained to the Press Complaints Commission about it. Now, the verdict has been passed:

The press watchdog has decided not to uphold a complaint about a newspaper comment piece on the death last year of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.
Ms Moir’s article was published the day before the gay singer’s funeral. It discussed his lifestyle and suggested the cause of his death had not been natural.
Ms Moir said Gately’s death struck a blow to the “happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships”.

This was the right decision, however inappropriate or distasteful the comments*. The old maxim applies: “I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it”.

Ben Summerskill from Stonewall, interviewed on the Today programme this morning, seems to think differently. He disagreed with the IPCC ruling and suggested that more needed to be done to deal with such situations. He has, unfortunately, fallen into the familiar trap whereby someone sees that a self-regulatory mechanism doesn’t produce a result he agrees with, therefore “self-regulation isn’t working”. He expanded on the point thus (not verbatim – working from memory):

We don’t let investment banks say “don’t worry about the audit, we’ll self regulate” or to mining companies “don’t worry about health and safety” we’ll self regulate”

If investment banks aren’t audited, then a lot of money is at stake (including, somewhere down the line, yours and mine). Health and safety can literally be a matter of life, death or limb. Jan Moir’s ill-advised comments were simply upsetting.

The problem here, and I think it was cited this morning, is that offensive comments about black or Jewish people are now covered by criminal law. Well, in my view, hate speech legislation has already gone too far. It provides for someone to be jailed because they expressed a viewpoint the government and legislature disagree with. Of course, the line must be drawn somewhere, but we had perfectly sensible, tried and tested rules covering incitement to violence, slander and libel for many years before hate speech laws came about. Too many have died for the right of free speech for it to be compromised just because someone’s feelings were hurt.

The fact is that to put regulation of the press on a legislative footing will not be putting us onto a slippery slope … we are already on that slope. Even so, that doesn’t mean that we should dig the ski poles in and give ourselves an extra push.

* Update: I think I should clarify – it wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong, given the independent nature of the PCC, to have decided the other way, but on balance I think the decision was right. Jan Moir was suitably castigated following publication, and apologised afterwards. End of.

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2 responses to “Stephen Gately, Jan Moir and That Slippery Slope

  1. Peter February 18, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Homophobia isn’t acceptable in public and most workplaces so why should it be acceptable in print media under the disguise as ‘free speech’?

    • Vir Cantium February 18, 2010 at 6:15 pm

      It’s not under the disguise of free speech … it is free speech. The difference is between homophobic speech as an incitement to homophobic violence and just plain outdated bigotry. Also, a behaviour being socially unacceptable shouldn’t automatically render it a criminal offence.

      I just think the best thing to do with “mere” homophobic views is to ignore or ridicule them, not seek to criminalise the speaker/writer.

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