Monday, February 09, 2009

Hate speak - look who's talking.

Yesterday, I committed an act of hate speak. Upon reflection I have decided to apologise unreservedly for remarks I made about Gordon Brown in the Sunday Herald. In the heat of the moment I wrote that: “To describe Gordon as an unmade bed is an insult to teenage bedrooms”. This was derogatory and I offer my sincere apologies to the teenage community for suggesting that they are deficient in their domestic arrangements.

Further I would like to apologise to the bedroom community for any pain and distress caused by a comparison with the Prime Minister’s state of dress. Finally, may I apologise to Gordon Brown, who has himself the target of hate speak from the Gauleiter of the Top Gear Nazi Party, Herr Jeremy Clarkson, and who is in no way untidily dressed, exhausted, not looking 100% or any of the other things I may or may not have said. And while I’m at it, let me issue a prophylactic apology to Britain’s petrol heads for comparing the presenter of their favourite television programme to a member of the far right.

Sadly, I’m only half joking here. I’m really not sure what is acceptable to say any more, in public or private, after this astonishing week in which Orwellian thought crime became a potent reality in the British media. A kind of madness has infected the country - an incomprehensibe witch-hunt for petty offence. I’m no apologist for Jeremy Clarkson, but I don't believe Scots are racially offended by his description of the Prime Minister as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”? I’m Scottish and I’m not offended, and I don’t need to be defended from people like Clarkson by self-appointed cultural guardians or rent-a-quote politicians. I’m frequently called an idiot myself and I refuse to take offence at the description.

If calling someone Scottish or English or an idiot or one-eyed is to be outlawed then a lot of books are going to have to be burnt and most Scottish comedians will be joining the dole queues. The Declaration of Arbroath will have to be banned as will the National Anthem with its talk of crushing rebellious Scots. Programmes like Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You are toast. I’m a republican, but I can see that jokes, such as the one on MTW about the Queen’s p***y being so old it is haunted, are offensive on so many grounds you hardly know where to begin. Little Britain made its name by being ageist, sexist and offensive to the disabled, rural gays and the people of Wales.

This is beyond a joke. There is a very real danger that satire, irony and other forms of comic abuse are now going to be driven from our screens because of the theoretical possibility that some minority group might be offended. Is the word “chav” offensive to single parents living on housing estates? I don’t like it myself, and don’t use it - but my children do, and so do travel companies who offer “chav-free holidays”. “Redneck” is a term of abuse used against truckers and poor rural whites in the southern states of America. Songs like “Short People” by Randy Newman can surely no longer be broadcast on the BBC; and terms like “one-armed bandit” must now be proscribed. Should Gullivers Travels be banned for its misrepresentation of smaller people?

Laughter is a serious business. The right to be offensive is an important part of our political culture, and was only won after a long struggle against laws on seditious libel. But can cartoonists like Steve Bell of the Guardian and Martin Rowson continue depicting politicians as rotting meat or gibbering morons? The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, was driven from office because cartoonists portrayed him as a corpse propped up by a zimmer frame. That’s surely ageist. It may not be possible to depict Barack Obama at all except as a secular saint because anything offensive might be interpreted as racist. Imagine if Steve Bell were to depict Obama as a chimpanzee in the way he has President George Bush? Or as a criminal, or a vampire or a lunatic, foaming at the mouth.

Freedom of speech is under enough threat in this country from official secrecy, defamation laws, anti-terrorist statutes without overlaying it with excessive sensitivity to minorities. And no, I’m not ranting about ‘political correctness gone mad’ - we are right to cleanse our language of racial abuse. But in our zeal to avoid hateful imagery we must not believe we can police other peoples’ thoughts. I’m sorry, but Carol Thatcher should never have been sacked for whatever she may or may not have said in a private conversation over a glass of wine in the BBC green room - and I speak as someone who has heard many profoundly offensive remarks being made on BBC premises. I am dismayed to see liberal commentators claiming it is acceptable for anyone, even Mrs Thatcher’s daughter, to lose their job because of a private conversation. I am as opposed to racial prejudice as anyone alive, and I might have taken issue with her had she compared a tennis player to a Gollywog in my presence. But I would never have gone telling tales. What were these people thinking of?

In every newsroom in the land there is an undercurrent of banter, much of it sexist, racist or sectarian. In BBC Scotland, whenever there was an old firm game on, the air would fill with jokey remarks about blue noses and papists. Are those who said these things now to be sacked? Should I be naming names? The late Kenny MacIntyre was one of the funniest and most humane journalists BBC Scotland ever produced. As was the butt of much of his humour, the late travel reporter and curry connoisseur Ali Abassi. They spent much of their time hurling hyperbolic abuse at each other much of which, out of context, could have been construed as racist or offensive to crofters and sheep. Yet in their relationship you saw the true image of racial tolerance in Scotland. What if someone reported them?

The surest way to drive a wedge between communities is to try to police what people think and what they say in private. That way lies only intolerance and hate. Now, have you heard the one about the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Englishman....

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