The right to cause offence
Is there a growing intolerance of views that don’t fit a newsbrand’s agenda? And are the fine lines of acceptability growing ever finer? Ray Snoddy reports.
Philip Collins was an excellent political commentator for The Times – someone whose work you looked out for whether you agreed with his views or not.
The past tense “was” is used because Collins no longer writes for The Times. Commentators come and go, lose their jobs, get hired by rivals and as the journalist himself says, he will be doing what he does so well “elsewhere”.
However, it is the reason for his departure that is interesting and a little alarming.
As Collins said by way of explanation in a tongue in cheek tweet: “I always wanted to be thought too left wing but never thought I would achieve it.”
It’s a crude summary of course but Collins, a former speech writer for Tony Blair, unsurprisingly takes a Blairite view of the world.
He would often warn about the un-electability of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and highlight the disadvantages, and as he would see it, looming disaster of leaving the European Union.
Apparently such views and such an approach are no longer welcome or necessary at The Times, even from one political commentator among many.
This is surprising for several reasons. One of the strengths of The Times has been the diversity of the paper’s columnists at a time when too many other national newspapers too often sound like propaganda sheets.
Such diversity was a clever business strategy because it generally reflected accurately the wide range of views and political instincts of its readers - a majority of whom probably supported Remain, as indeed did The Times itself.
Can it really be that the views of Philip Collins are too left-wing for The Times? Too much an alternative voice as the UK heads for another four years of Conservative government, whether led by Boris Johnson or any possible Tory successor?
One journalist moving on, however talented, is hardly going to bring democracy to its knees but it might stand as a symptom of a narrowing of public discourse, a new intolerance of views that don’t quite fit.
Ironically, the Labour leader Keir Starmer, whom Collins probably approves of, stirred up a Twitter storm of opposition by daring to write an article for the Mail on Sunday.
It was not anything that Starmer said that was particularly controversial. As leader of the opposition, Starmer attacked the shambles of the Conservative’s education policies, appealed to the Government to accept teacher assessment – as indeed they have now done - and insisted that every child should be back in school “no ifs no buts.”
However, by the very act of writing for the Mail on Sunday, Starmer was denounced for endorsing racism, fascism and the usual assortment of other calumnies directed at the Mail, amid threats of Labour membership cards being torn up.
Never mind any notion of reaching out to readers who might not be your natural political allies or that Jeremy Corbyn was able to write a column for the Daily Mail in 2015 without the sky falling in.
There is also controversy and potential danger in absolute bans on the use of particular words by broadcasters - even “the N word” irrespective of context or even purpose.
Black BBC staff have expressed exasperation and anger that the highly offensive word was used in a news report, a 1Extra DJ resigned and the corporation has received more than 18,000 complaints.
At first, the BBC defended the use of the word and then director general Tony Hall admitted it had been a mistake. There could be early retirements in the BBC policy unit as a result.
Can any context or purpose justify causing such offence? Probably not but at least the context should be noted - that the offensive word was used for a purpose as part of a report on an alleged racist hit-and-run incident in Bristol.
The family involved are said to have approved the use of the word to convey the full horror of what happened. Therefore, was it arguably relevant in the reporting of a crime? Discuss.
All around us, there are fine lines to be drawn and it’s easy to get such judgements wrong.
The New York Times acted swiftly in June after the paper carried an opinion piece by Tom Cotton, the Republican senator for Arkansas, advocating that troops should be sent in to American cities “to quell unrest” following the Black Lives Matter campaign.
The tone of the article was harsh and the policy advocated was misguided, counter-productive and potentially lethal.
James Bennet, the editorial page editor, quickly resigned and the paper apologised for a breakdown in its editorial policies.
All around us, there are fine lines to be drawn and it’s easy to get such judgements wrong."
The article was undoubtedly inflammatory but its author was an elected member of the U.S Senate. You could then argue that his voters had a right to hear his views and judge him accordingly.
Besides, President Trump was making similar threats at the time and his Twitter views were widely reported.
Is there a substantive difference between reporting what a politician says in public and inviting them onto the op-ed pages to express their opinions, however distasteful?
Is there an implicit endorsement even though op-ed pieces clearly do not represent the views of the paper itself?
Perhaps, but again it’s often a fine line.
One example that is clear-cut is the apology issued by Newsweek for an op-ed questioning whether the Democratic candidate for the vice presidency Kamala Harris was eligible to stand.
John Eastman, a conservative attorney, tried to suggest that she was ineligible because of the immigration status of her parents. This comes into the barking mad category because Kamala Harris was born in California and is therefore eminently qualified to become vice president of the U.S if the Joe Biden ticket wins.
Newsweek rather disingenuously claimed editors “failed to anticipate the ways the essay would be interpreted, distorted and weaponised”, not least by Donald Trump and the racist conspiracy theorists of the internet.
In a reference to the false allegations long held by Trump that Barack Obama had not been born in the U.S, the incident has already been dubbed Birther II.
While racism in the media should never be tolerated, it is worth fighting to preserve the right of others to express views we disapprove of, up to and sometimes including the right to cause offence.