On Sunday morning, I was delighted to be invited on to Jumoké Fashola’s BBC Radio London Breakfast show, to discuss free speech.
This week, the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn caused outrage with a typically controversial column. Olympic diver Tom Daly had shared an ultrasound image on social media – he and his partner Dustin Lance Black are expecting a baby via a surrogate mother.
“Pass the sick bag, Alice” wrote Littlejohn. “I still cling to the belief that children benefit most from being brought up by a man and a woman.”
In response, the campaign group Stop Funding Hate drew attention to the advertisers that had appeared in the Daily Mail and where therefore subsiding Littlejohn’s journalism.
Today's Daily Mail advertisers include @southbankcentre @SuzukiCarsUK @Honda @coopuk @Plusnet @BootsUK @Carpetright @IcelandFoods @DFS @Morrisons #thecoopway #startspreadinglove #stopfundinghate pic.twitter.com/CJM4CWLPAs
— Stop Funding Hate (@StopFundingHate) February 16, 2018
Once the holiday company Centre Parcs, which is a family brand, became aware that their advertisements had appeared adjacent to Richard Littlejohn’s unavoidably anti-family column, they pulled their advertising from the Daily Mail.
It was this that I was asked to discuss on Jumoké’s programme. Isn’t a campaign to hurt the Daily Mail bottom line an attack on free speech?
During the discussion I was pleased to be able to go ‘full Voltaire’—by which I mean, I was able to express my distain for Richard Littlejohn’s article, while also defending his right to write it.
More importantly, I was able to attack the notion that this controversy is merely about ‘offence’. It’s not. If one actually listens to what groups like Stop Funding Hate say, it’s that writers like Littlejohn spread hate and cause harm. Many free speech defenders, and the self-styled ‘politically incorrect’ seem to ignore this argument, and instead find it easier to push the myth that the outrage is just about hurt feelings (the tweeted replies to the Stop Funding Hate post are a good example of this tendency).
Free speech defenders need to stop whacking this straw man, and instead interrogate whether the harm principle is really invoked by homophobic newspaper articles.
During the interview, I also had time to make the trickier argument, that there is a virtue in permitting—perhaps even encouraging—the publication of unpleasant ideas. Our own opinions, beliefs and values should always be tested, less they become yet another kind of dogma. Provocateurs like Richard Littlejohn force us to perpetually re-affirm and re-win the argument. With each iteration, we refine our arguments and can persuade new people to our point of view.
Finally, I was pleased that Jumoké gave me time to plug You (Still) Can’t Say That, the Big English PEN Comedy Gig. It’s a comedy fundraiser on 1st March 2018, and tickets may be purchased via the Union Chapel website.