Rudeness and Free Speech: Why Chief Whips Should Set an Example

Rudeness is back in the news today.

When is it ever absent, you may well ask, when Russell Brand still stalks the airwaves or our courts are obliged to discuss whether a footballer's stream of public abuse of a rival player breaks the law, not because it is foul-mouthed and offensive, but because a racial epithet may be attached? Rudeness about Islam is an inflammatory topic – literally so – again this autumn.

By comparison with riots over American films and French magazines, today's domestic excitement is mild and not all the news is bad. Andrew Mitchell, the government chief whip, is accused – by the Sun, no less – of being rude to Downing Street police officers who told him he couldn't ride his bike through the big double gates into Whitehall but would have to use the pedestrian side gate like everyone else in the biking community.

I'm slightly torn on this one. I try not to believe what I (rarely) read in the Sun unless it's strictly necessary. Last week's Hillsborough exposé has reopened some fading wounds and uncharitable thoughts about its operational habits in the Murdoch era, though I accept Ofcom's verdict that they don't behave that way at BSkyB. Being accused of rudeness by the Sun is like being accused of egotism by Edwina Currie.

There again, I know that smoothie, Andrew Mitchell. He can be charming, but also a bit snooty and rude. I can well imagine him saying something along the lines reported by the Sun. Was it just gossip which the paper picked up? Or did annoyed coppers shop the chief whip to teach him good manners, the more so because the incident took place just a day after the double police murder in Manchester?

Perhaps. That sort of thing happens in these less than deferential times, but even in the days of steep social hierarchy the better sort of toff was not supposed to abuse their social inferiors in such coarse terms. In what nostalgics call the good old days it wasn't remote like Downton Abbey where most of the Crawley family's time seems to be taken up with worrying about the staff.

But putting on a decent show did not include effing and blinding at police officers or (denied) calling them "plebs". In the good old days the coppers might have quietly punctured Mitchell's tyres or, worse, breathalysed him biking home. In the Flanders trenches of 1914-18 they might just have shot him.

The better overnight news is that Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions (DPP), said this week that offensive tweets on social media should not attract prosecution unless they can be shown to be part of "a sustained campaign of harassment" – the kind of nastiness which causes persistent distress and occasionally drives people to suicide.

Good for Keir Starmer. In launching a consultation on how best to proceed in our new world of instant and often horribly inaccurate social media here's part of what he said:

"Access to social media is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Banter, jokes and offensive comment are commonplace and often spontaneous. Communications intended for a few may reach millions.
"Against that background, the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] has the task of balancing the fundamental right of free speech and the need to prosecute serious wrongdoing on a case by case basis. That often involves very difficult judgment calls and, in the largely uncharted territory of social media, the CPS is proceeding on a case by case basis."

Free speech, eh? What will they think of next? He's right and he's also right that it's not easy when the police, over-stretched in so many ways already, are now dealing with 14,000 such cases a year. Elsewhere in today's papers we learned that the internet troll who abused the diver Tom Daley and his diving partner, Peter Waterfield, after they failed to win Olympic medals. It had been a misguided attempt at humour and a one-off, meant for limited circulation, the CPS decided.

Yet the person who set up a Facebook site to celebrate the alleged murderer of the two Manchester police officers was arrested this week under the Communications Act 2003. Putting aside the personal feelings of the arresting officers I think we can follow the logic of that, can't we. A website is a much more positive act that a tweet, its offence calculated and sustained.

But it's tricky territory in which all of us are sometimes confused and contradictory.

To take one obvious example on my working patch, many voters dislike the slanging match they witness at PMQs – but some of the same people hate it even more when they see the political class in constructive agreement. That's cosying up, we don't like that. Ditto Nick Clegg's now-famous apology – at this rate It will be a West End musical by Christmas – which attracted vituperation out of all proportion to its merit. I thought we wanted our elected leaders to own up to error?

Women columnists have long complained about the violent and misogynistic tone of comments made below the line in what is an overwhelmingly male (and safely anonymous) world of tweeting and trolling. But it's far wider than that and hard to escape the suspicion that the liberating possibilities of the internet unleash demons as well as the wholesome decency anyone of us can find if we make a Google search for jam-making, medical advice or beekeeping.

It matters because – so the BBC's Justin Webb was reporting on the Today programme from Florida – the temper of many Romney-Obama partisans in US presidential elections is getting even uglier and lies circulated online are hard to monitor or expose. I'm making a judgment here about Andrew Mitchell's clash with the coppers and conclude he was indeed probably rude to them. But I could be wrong …

Overshadowing most such debates about our wired world is Islam and the hyper-sensitivity of some Muslims to slights, real or imaginary, justified or merely abusive, on their faith and its founder. It's all far worse than it was in 1989 when the Iranian fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie over his impenetrable novel The Satanic Verses. Hearing him promote his memoirs this week is to be reminded what an irritating fellow Rushdie can be, the Edwina Currie of literature.

But the British taxpayer was right to protect him, even though he has been characteristically ungrateful. Would we be so brave today? I hope so but Channel 4's recent cancellation of historian Tom Holland's film on the historic – as distinct from theological – origins of Islam is one of many straws in the hurricane which suggest otherwise. Holland is not some ignorant American crazy with a grudge.

Islam is a religion undergoing the enormous strains of belated modernisation which we must hope will eventually deliver it to a better place. So I have some sympathy. As an American judge once observed no one's free speech gives them the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. The law exists to protect cinema-goers from such dangerous irresponsibility and Muslims – or police officers - from incitement.

And, as with internet trolls, chief whips too for that matter, manners and taste should also act as restraints. But the argument cuts both ways. The absence of free speech and rigorous intellectual inquiry during the declining centuries of Islam – the Ottoman empire banned the new-fangled printing press – contributed to its decline, just as the onslaught by Christian fundamentalists on American science will do there unless it is checked.

Free speech under the law is fundamental. Now Keir Starmer, tell us exactly what the law says.

Powered by article was written by Michael White, for on Friday 21st September 2012 17.57 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Trodel

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