From gollies to Gazza: Journalists could be next when causing offence appears to be illegal

gazza_reuters

It can now only be a matter of time before a journalist in the UK gets a criminal conviction for writing something deemed offensive.

(If I was a betting man my money would be on Rod Liddle in The Spectator, but that’s an aside.)

Over the last few years our cherished right to freedom of expression appears to have been eroded to the point where offending people has become a criminal offence.

As journalists we were always taught that the bar was set high for this sort of thing.

We stand the risk of committing an offence under the Public Order Act if we publish material that is “threatening, abusive or insulting” which is likely to stir up racial hatred.

But today all manner of material outside the editorial pages, and far below this threshold, is considered beyond the pale.

As the Spectator notes here, former footballer Paul Gascoigne was put on trial and fined £2,000 after he said to a black security guard assigned to look after him at a theatre performance: “Can you smile please, because I can’t see you?”.

Judge Graham Wilkinson said: “A message needs to be sent that in the 21st century… such words will not be tolerated.”

Surely the right to freedom of speech, also means the right to offend.

Compared with some of the stuff Katie Hopkins has come out with in her column for The Sun and now Mail Online, Gazza’s poor excuse for humour was pretty tame.

In July this year a man “lost everything” because he wore a t-shirt which made an offensive joke about the Hillsborough tragedy.

He admitted a public order offence and was fined £600. The slogan on the t-shirt suggested the disaster was “God’s way” of helping a pest control company.

The t-shirt upset survivors of the disaster because it was photographed and shared on social media.

Again, it was a bad joke in terribly poor taste – but hardly a criminal matter.

The likes of Gazza and the Hillsborough t-shirt man deserve to be publicly villified if they have caused offence. Expose them, criticise them, but don’t criminalise them.

Yesterday a picture of a children’s fiction character was banned from the advertising pages of the Purbeck Gazette after two complaints to the Advertising Standards Association. As I understand it the origins of the Gollywog, in children’s literature in the late 19th century, are entirely innocent. But because it is now seen by some as racist it can no longer appear in newspapers.

Even if we disagree with someone vehemently, and find their words offensive, I fear we use the law to constrict their right to freedom of expression at our peril.

 

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