From the publication of a letter from 130 academics in The Observer on Saturday decrying the “no platforming” by some universities (or, more specifically, student unions) of various people because of views they espouse, to a letter rather gratuitously headlined “Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have got it all wrong” published only a couple of hours ago, even moderate trans people are now seething with anger.
I’ve stayed out of the “debate”, partly because I’ve got so much work on at the moment – it’s in danger of leaching into the small hours on a daily basis – but partly also because my position is nuanced – but increasingly less so.
I always feel there’s a massive irony in people complaining they’re being sidelined or censored or “no-platformed” by having something published in a national newspaper – be that this recent episode, or George Carey complaining on the front page of the Daily Telegraph about how the Anglican church no longer had a voice. And in the post-Charlie Hebdo atmosphere, those who work in the media feel that the freedom of the press is under threat, so are more likely to look for pieces which support their feeling of vulnerability.
The debate about the freedom of the press and freedom of speech has gathered momentum since the Leveson Inquiry. Largely fabricated by the press while they were positioning a (still absent) “Leveson chill”, different voices seem to mean different things by “freedom of speech” – something that Article 19 of the UN Human Rights Convention translates as “the right to freedom of opinion and expression”. From the way Saturday’s letter was worded, it appears clear that the angle being pursued within it is the “right” to have unbridled access to platforms of your choice. The thing is, there is no such right. I don’t have the right to demand that my writings are published in national papers, nor that I appear as a regular on television debate programmes. No-one does.
In principle I agree with the view that attempting to censor someone’s views is wrong. The core of the issue is who decides what views are abhorrent enough to censor. There needs to be space for people to challenge the status quo. Galileo got into awful trouble for proclaiming that the earth went round the sun, to name just one example. But this is not an absolute.
You do have freedom of thought. You also have freedom of speech – in as much as anyone can go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and spout off whatever you want. But you do not have the automatic right to have whatever you write published in mainstream media, or appear on platforms across the country.
For a start, in the UK press, there’s a thing called the Editors’ Code. It proscribes certain things from being published – or it should do. When challenged on potential breaches of the Code, editors usually now retort immediately in terms of challenging “censorship” – when all we were seeking was compliance with the Code they had freely signed up to. Well, an editor is automatically censoring certain things by virtue of being an editor. A newspaper, or any other publication, has to select what it publishes and, by default, is censoring the other, unpublished views. And the Editors’ Code, however liberally interpreted, is saying that there are certain things you simply should not publish.
We also have laws on defamation and libel. You are at liberty to publish stuff which is defamatory or libellous – you just have be prepared to suffer the consequences. Freedom of speech, but only up to a point determined by a court of law.
Similarly you don’t have the right to have a platform for your views. Platforms are given by others – unless you are wealthy enough to have your very own mass media outlet. If organisations are unwilling to give you a platform – well, you have to convince the organisation otherwise or try to find another platform.
Rightly or wrongly, my view is that rights generally come with a set of balancing responsibilities. The right to access medical care comes with a responsibility not to misuse it. The right to privacy comes with the responsibility not to harm others in that privacy. With the freedom of speech, there is a responsibility to use it wisely.
Social media is an example of the democratisation of the media. Twitter does employ a very limited level of censorship, in that if you report certain offensive tweets, sometimes they are taken down, and sometimes accounts are barred. But, by and large, it’s an area of unbridled freedom. And, as a result, things get posted which are probably unwise – including death threats. Blogs, like this one, are another example – although Yahoo did remove my very first “web diary” back in 2004 completely without notice, and without recourse also.
In practice, though, the playing field is not level. Taking a position of resolving issues through debate is fine in theory, but sometimes does not work well in practice. Certain despots are or were master orators. And the difficulty is that, the greater the difference in debating experience between the combatants, the more likely a certain outcome is.
For many years trans people had no authentic voice in the media. That has begun to change in numerous small ways since 2010. But the small group of feminists who persist in denying the validity of trans womens’ (it nearly always is trans womens’) identities have been names on the broadcasters’ circuits for many, many years. There is an immediate imbalance of exposure and experience. The fact that a letter has been published, as well as a follow-up piece in the New Statesman, but there has been no high profile rebuttal in the media indicates that the imbalance still exists. Indeed, the coverage has been largely focussed on how awful the trans responses have been.
I can understand the anger over both the letter and the New Statesman piece – I feel it myself. I absolutely support the right of responsible free speech, and I also absolutely support the rights of people not to be forced to invite or host speakers they don’t want. The two are not opposed.
Those with the greatest freedom of speech, the media, also have the greatest responsibilities. From phone hacking to Peter Oborne’s dramatic resignation from the Telegraph this evening citing editorial censorship of stories regarding HSBC, the media, or more specifically the press, is showing itself as failing in those responsibilities. The principle of “freedom of the press” was founded in the 16th and 17th centuries to hold those in power to account. Instead recent decades have seen the press round on vulnerable and voiceless people, and letting those in power almost completely off the hook – a complete subversion of the principle.
The current debates around feminism and trans people are a smaller version of this. A group of people who have been used to getting pieces published and speeches heard are now being told their views are no longer welcome. A group of vulnerable people are beginning to be heard, and are finding allies. When people start to lose power and influence, it can be frightening and desperate measures are usually taken.
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