Free Speech

How far can journalists take the idea of free speech?

A debate about free speech has been whipped following the removal of an article from the Observer’s website after a wave of negative response was provoked by its content. The events which led to the article being published in the first place began when feminist Suzanne Moore, in a recently published essay on the power of female anger, included the following statement:

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

It was those final five words that sparked a heated Twitter debate. Aside from the use of the word ‘transsexual’ in place of, say, ‘trans woman’ or ‘member of the trans* community’, her stereotyping of a marginalised group for a piece of cheap humour was, at the very best, tasteless. However, had her Twitter response simply acknowledged her lack of tact, apologised for it, or even been the starting point for a balanced and reasonable debate about the topic, the comment could have been put down to a regrettable misjudgement, and it is likely that nothing more would have been said.

Moore, however, chose to embark upon a defensive, profanity-littered barrage of abuse directed towards the trans* community and those who had dared to questioned her. Nevertheless, it could have ended there. Instead, Julie Burchill got involved, writing an article in defence of Moore’s stance for the Observer. The negative responses flooded in and the Observer’s editor John Mulholland took the decision to remove the offending item and issue an apology for his misjudgement.

It was then that the Telegraph’s Toby Young stepped in, republishing Burchill’s original article alongside his own piece decrying the decision, labelling The Observer’s move ‘a disgrace’ and the removal an affront to free speech that amounts to ‘censorship’.

While I adamantly disagree with the points raised by Burchill in her article, it is undeniable that the right to free speech is one of immense importance that should be upheld unwaveringly. This, however, has absolutely nothing to do with free speech. Not once has the Observer questioned Burchill’s entitlement to her views or suggested that she not be allowed to espouse them, it has merely decided not to be the medium via which she expresses them.

A newspaper may often serve as a platform for free speech, but this is not its raison d’être. It is a product, marketed at and sold to a particular audience with a financial end in sight. It trades in ideas, opinions and comments, in the form of articles. For a newspaper to be successful the articles it publishes must be of the highest quality, characterised by good writing, engaging content and interesting viewpoints; those that do not meet these criteria are rejected by the editor. This is the editor’s duty, and the refusal to publish a shoddy article does not infringe upon the writer’s freedom of speech. Publication is a privilege, not a right. However, editors can, and do, make mistakes (if they didn’t, Moore’s original reference to Brazilian transsexuals would never have been published) and at times their attention is only drawn to a misjudgement by their readers exercising their right to free speech, and highlighting the failings of a particular piece.

This is not to say that an article cannot be controversial, and often the best ones are. Many people may disagree with the content of a piece, whilst acknowledging that it is an example of good quality journalism. A good journalist will not resort to offensive language, stereotypes or contradictory points to construct an article that challenges ideas and prompts discussion; to do so is simply bad journalism and Burchill’s article is littered with examples of the above. Her views, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, are simply not well-presented or argued. The piece is reactionary and insensitive, and she demonstrates immense ignorance surrounding the trans* community and the issues faced by its members, who are, in her words, ‘a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’. Further appalling attitudes are revealed by the employment of such vocabulary as ‘trannies’, the subsequent defence being that ‘they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales’. The message is that marginalised minorities should simply be thankful for whatever small amount of respect granted to them, because the only alternative is no respect at all (a stance that becomes all the more incredulous and unjustifiable when Burchill’s position as an eminent feminist is taken into account). She complains that trans women ‘plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women’ without specifying what these ‘privileges’ might be. All that was requested in light of Moore’s initial comment was that the trans* community’s preferred vocabulary be used and that damaging stereotypes not be employed, which is surely nothing more than what feminists demand for women. Her implication that compassion must be reserved for ‘natural-born’ women, who are presumably more entitled to it because they are ‘real’ women, is simply inaccurate.

Trans women are women. Within the term ‘women’ there does not exist a hierarchy of those who are more deserving of respect and equality than others, nor does there need to be, because thankfully these are not finite resources. Ironically, she derides the trans* community for not showing solidarity with Moore, whilst resolutely refusing to stand by them. To top it off, she concludes by resorting to another damaging stereotype, that of women (those deemed by Burchill to be real women) as moody creatures ruled by hormones:

Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully we lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging PhDs as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment, and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.

Just as a supermarket would remove a food product making its customers sick from its shelves, a newspaper has the right to withdraw a badly written piece that causes widespread offence to its readers. To suggest that this amounts to censorship belittles the plight of those who truly do have their voices restrained.

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