Putting the Power of Censorship in the Hands of the Mob


English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr
English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr

Here’s a post first published earlier today on Labour List (a new venue for me).  I hope there will be comments to which I can respond in a follow-up post.

The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians.  You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not.  First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.

Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy.  The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.

The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort.  But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term.  It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again.  This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.

Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition.  Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places.  Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”

Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob.  For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost.   Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright.  If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with.  Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawing Moonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’!  Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.

When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life.  We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times.  The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.

To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion.  Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division.  No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly.  This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday.  I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies.  They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL.  Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest?  So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.

It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech.  Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing.  Time for Labour to lead.


Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr
Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr

Political Correctness Jumps the Shark too?

Following my post earlier this week about Failed Multiculturalism Jumping the Shark, I was all-eyes when Alex Massie has suggested that using “political correctness” as an insult may have gone the same way:

First, let’s note that “politically correct” is a degraded insult these days. If jumping the shark hadn’t jumped the shark itself I’d say that political correctness jumped the shark long ago. Disparaging those who disagree with you as “politically correct” isn’t an argument, it’s a way of avoiding argument. Look at me, it says, and see how brave I am to stand alone against the tide. Here I must stand for I can do no other. Unlike the soft-headed simpletons who prefersome sort of lemming-like approach that makes them feel warm and fuzzy. Alternatively, perhaps “politically correct” is just another word for fashionable these days.

If either of my readers are not au fait with the term Jumping the Shark, here’s all you need to know about the phrase.

The Internet is A Really Nice Place

In the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes on the delights that post-colonials bring to the English language, and laments the decline of language and civility online:

The future looks bright then, until you notice those who use new technology without due care. Some crazed demons on Twitter believe anything goes. Written words matter and hold meanings beyond that narcissistic urge to send off instant thoughts. The Tory councillor who sent out a vile and scary message about me says it was a joke. After some thought I decided I will not press charges. My objections have been made and there is no need for more. Yet having read many blogs and tweets that followed the incident, I do wonder whether our manners and morals will survive and if English itself, the best thing about us, is now seriously endangered.

She joins Dame Helen Mirren in lamenting the decline in standards brought about by the new technologies.  Andrew Marr recently made similar comments about ‘ranting’ bloggers.

I fear that such comments will become a regular punctuation in our discourse from now on.  Such attitudes from the dead-tree columnists come about by a failure to understand that the new technologies like Twitter and teh blogs are not changing culture, but revealing it.  Clay Shirky, in his bestseller Here Comes Everybody, likens the net to a public mall.  Its a public space, but that doesn’t mean every conversation is directed at you.  In a shopping centre, if you were to eavesdrop on a chat between a group of teenagers, then make comments about their awful slag, you would be regarded as, at best, a curmudgeonly pedant; or at worst, a dodgy weirdo worthy of a report to the mall security guards.  Likewise with blogs and twitter, not every conversation in the public domain is intended to be a public pronouncement in the way Alibhai-Brown, Mirren and Marr traditionally understand it.

Of course, one could argue the opposite. Tweeting and blogging about a celebrity might also be likened to taking your conversation from the pub after last orders, and continuing it loudly outside the door of the house of the person you are talking about.  There, the awkwardness, the social autism, is on the part of the speaker, not the listener.  If (say) Yasmion Alibhai-Brown has to step over noisy yobs outside her gate, then she may well choose to call the police.  Thankfully, to take the analogy to its conclusion, she has told the yobs (in this case a conservative Councillor from Birmingham) to “stop being so rude, and to bugger off”… which seems the most healthy course of action to me.  Her disgust is registered without anyone’s free speech being censored.  Dave Osler’s take on the case is interesting and Paul Sinha’s speaks my own mind perfectly:

If you believe that Paul Chambers is a victim of a miscarriage of justice … then you should also believe that the police have no role to play in the strange case of Alibhai Brown vs Compton.

Back to those who feel that the Internet is generally unpleasant:  We can point out thousands of counter-examples!  Paul Staines, and his phalanx of Tourettes-suffering anonymous commenters, get all the attention, because the blog is the online equivalent of a tabloid, intent on winning readers in the rudest and crudest way possible.  However, for every Guido Fawkes there are hundreds of more thoughful bloggers, writing for pleasure and to seek out genuine and meaningful connections online.  How to pick just one?  Well, as it happens, I have Federay Holmes’ blog open on my browser (because she just won a PEN competition).  She writes thoughful posts about politics, literature and family life, and seems to have as much sincerity as Fawkes has cynicism.

Alternatively, read the fantastic story of How Justin Long Affably and Reasonably Ended and Internet Flame War.

Finally, I might point to the huge continent of Internet dialogue that is Facebook.  As far as I can tell, the discourse on that site is entirely made up of expressions of friendship, congratulatory messagages (concerning love and friendship) and photographs of events that are themselves marking friendship, love and achievement.  It can be saccharine at times, but its entire structure pretty much enforces civility and niceness.  There are ways to signify ‘Friends’ and ‘Like’, but no means to do the opposite.

Debating Political Correctness on CrossTalk

Here’s yrstrly participating in a TV debate on Political Correctness. The other participants were Robert Shibley from FIRE and Lenora Billings-Harris.

I am particularly pleased with the final point I made about “who reclaims” abusive language, previously formulated in a post on this very blog.

One disappointment was my failure to challenge to the host Peter Lavelle when he claimed that the Russian press do not feel pressurised to say anything bad about Vladimir Putin. I claimed that ‘political correctness’ was used in many countries to enforce the political orthodoxy of the ruling elites, including in Russia. Peter retorted that though there were states where that happens, he (working in Russia) was not living in one. On reflection, instead of shaking my head in disbelief (never effective on a split screen TV programme) I should have asserted that many Russian journalists would disagree with him.

I would also have liked more time to engage Robert Shibley on the censure of Christian groups on campus.  Very often I think that freedom of (Christian) religion is used as an excuse for unfettered homophobia, and the ‘political correctness’ that responds is really just healthy counter-speech.  Having said that, I think the discussion we had did go beyond the shrill superficiality of most debates on this subject.  Take a look at the comments on the YouTube page for the clip – almost universally vile and stupid.

"Psychosis" as a term of abuse

On Twitter, I have been discussing the use of mental health terms in political speech with the journalist Beatrice Bray.  In recent weeks, Guardian cartoonists Martin Rowson and Steve Bell have both used the term ‘psychotic’ to describe political figures in negative terms.  Beatrice says this is wrong and that is marginalises people who are actually clinically diagnosed with psychosis.

On the one hand, I think this is a case of ‘useful’ political correctness.  First, I’ve said before that a respect for names and labels, of people, groups or cities, is one of my tenets of useful and persusive speech.  Free speech campaigners always reserve the right to offend… but when we do, we are usually referring to the right to offend the people we are talking about!  What Beatrice is complaining of in this case, is that other people – those with an actual mental illness – are the ones being hurt in the cross-fire.  And I have sympathy with her contention that the ‘hurt’ caused is a very real social marginalisation, rather than just ‘hurt feelings’.

On the other hand, I cannot shake a feeling at the back of my mind, a sense that Rowson and Bell and others who use mental health terminology, are in fact using the words as metaphors.

Often, the term employed as a metaphor is not always used properly.  ‘Spastic‘ was often used to convey mental deficiencies when in fact it refers medically to a motor/physical illness; and schizophrenia means delusional and disorganised, not split-personality.

However, I think Rowson and Bell are at least getting their metaphors straight.  They seek to describe the Conservatives’ policies as being dangerously out-of-touch with reality.  They reach into our vocabularies for a word that describes such trait… and often, the word ‘psychotic’ fits the bill.  We all know that David Cameron does not actually have a clinical mental illness… but the term seems the perfect metaphor for his political tactics (as least to a liberal lefty).

So, while many will consider the word extreme, they nevertheless know that it is an accurate metaphor for the concepts under discussion.  Does that necessarily translate into harm against people with a clinical psychosis?  Thoughts and opinions welcomed.

Who Can Reclaim Derogratory Words?

The PCC have upheld the complaint made by TV presenter Clare Balding against the Sunday Times.  In July, the critic AA Gill called her a “dyke on a bike”, which the PCC agreed was a form of discrimination.

In addition, the newspaper drew attention to two organisations called Dykes on Bikes (an American lesbian motorcycling movement; and a UK-based cycling movement) whose members had reclaimed the word “dyke” as an empowering, not offensive, term. It argued that an individual’s sexuality should not give them an “all-encompassing protected status”. …
In this case, the Commission considered that the use of the word “dyke” in the article – whether or not it was intended to be humorous – was a pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality. The context was not that the reviewer was seeking positively to “reclaim” the term, but rather to use it to refer to the complainant’s sexuality in a demeaning and gratuitous way.

This reminds me of an interesting video blog I watched recently by Jay Smooth of the Ill Doctrine. In it, he makes the pithy point that, in general, “if you are not the original subject of an insult, you can’t be the one to reclaim it.”  This seems a sensible rule of thumb to me.

This reclaiming of offensive words relates to david Foster Wallace’s discussions around dialect.  He pointed out that words in opne dialect – for example, ‘Nigga’ in Black Urban English – is very different from using the ‘N-word’ in other contexts.  This should be the put-down to idiots like AA Gill who are deliberately offensive and then try and cover their tracks by wailing “but other people use it!”

When PC Myth Becomes Government Talking Point

Five Chinese Crackers spots a stinker from Baroness Warsi:

“Well I think there’s a difference between multiculturalism per se, and state multiculturalism, where the state intervenes and says, ‘You will do this, you will do that.'” For example, she offers, “When the state says ‘We’ll have winterfest instead of Christmas, so everyone feels included.’ That’s wrong.”

Eh? Did I miss something? When – and you don’t have to be exact now, a year will do – did the state say we’ll have Winterfest instead of Christmas? (Except for the time when Cromwell’s government banned Christmas, smartypants).

The Guardian article by Decca Aitkenhead is here. Now is the perfect time to link to Oliver Burkeman’s fantastic debunking of the Winterval myth:

Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-Christmas rebrandings is Winterval, in Birmingham, and when you telephone the Birmingham city council press office to ask about it, you are met first of all with a silence that might seasonably be described as frosty. “We get this every year,” a press officer sighs, eventually. “It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it’s bollocks, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.”

According to an official statement from the council, Winterval – which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since – was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham’s newly regenerated town centre. It began in early November and finished in January.

Clicking back from the Five Chinese Crackers post, I find that the Exclarotive blog has been logging similar myths.  Anton Vowl spotted another example of the Conservatives propagating the nonsense, this time over health and safety legislation.  Ann Widdecombe cited several examples of PC gone mad during our debate on the issue last year.  I wonder how many had any substance?

One might think that debunking articles, such as those mentioned above, might serve to sink the highly dangerous armada of lies that sails through our society, leaving a hatred of immigrants in its wake.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be so.  In the Boston Globe, John Keohane reports on a University of Michigan study that shows that the introduction of new facts may actually cause people to double-down on their strongly held misconceptions.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

This is why we need to discuss much of our politics in terms of narrative.  It sounds pretentious, but the fact is that a single article giving some facts will rarely reverse a political consensus.


Here’s my namesake in the Independent with a similarly fine debunking.

The Bookseller of Kabul

Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian author, has been successfully sued in Norway over her book Bookseller of Kabul.  It is a fictionalised account of her time staying with a family in Afghanistan, and much of the family’s private life is laid bare for the reader in unflattering detail.

On Comment is Free, journalist Conor Foley lays in to Seierstad, outlining the social faux pas she has committed:

Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.

Indeed.  But being stung, criticised and discredited for failing to respect cultural norms should not be punished in a civil or criminal court.   Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, explains in the Independent why this development is a worry:

That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?

The example that such cases set is a very bad one.  What happens when an investigative journalist wants to deliberately abuse the hospitality of an Afghan businessman, in order to expose corruption?  What if an Afghani journalist wants to make similar, off-message commentary about his countrymen.  Seierstad should certainly suffer the reputational and social hit of her insensitivity, but dragging this sort of roman a clef into the court-room is a terrible precedent for free expression.

More on the Political Correctness Debate

Joys!  A video of my Political Correctness debate is now online.  I will resist the temptation to embed it on the blog.  (h/t Olly)

I’ve been reading Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays by the late David Foster Wallace.  In the rambling but delightful ‘Tense Present‘, he lays into the concept of Political Correct English (PCE), which he sees as dangerous:

I refer here to Politically Correct English (PCE), under whose conventions failing students become “high-potential” students and poor people “economically disadvantaged” … This reviewer’s own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but confused and dangerous.

Usage is always political, of course, but it’s complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: On the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. These two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them — in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism … — enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s central fallacy — that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes — and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’S delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.

Forget Stalinization or Logic 101-level equivocations, though. There’s a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact — in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself — of vastly more help to conservatives and the U.S. status quo than traditional SNOOT prescriptions ever were.

On this final paragraph, I disagree.  As I said in the Cambridge debate, I don’t think Political Correctness is the same as Orwellian Censorship, because the latter is intended to make you forget concepts, which is surely the reverse of what PCE intends and achieves.

In a later essay ‘Host‘, he acknowledges in a sidenote the decent aspect of Political Correctness, and captures my own feelings on the matter that I tried to lay out in my Cambridge speech:

EDITORIAL OPINION   This is obviously a high-voltage area to get into, but for what it’s worth, John Ziegler does not appear to be a racist as “racist” is generally understood. What he is is more like very, very insensitive—although Mr. Z. himself would despise that description, if only because “insensitive” is now such a PC shibboleth. Actually, though, it is in the very passion of his objection to terms like “insensitive,” “racist,” and “the N-word” that his real problem lies. Like many other post-Limbaugh hosts, John Ziegler seems unable to differentiate between (1) cowardly, hypocritical acquiescence to the tyranny of Political Correctness and (2) judicious, compassionate caution about using words that cause pain to large groups of human beings, especially when there are several less upsetting words that can be used. Even though there is plenty of stuff for reasonable people to dislike about Political Correctness as a dogma, there is also something creepy about the brutal, self-righteous glee with which Mr. Z. and other conservative hosts defy all PC conventions. If it causes you real pain to hear or see something, and I make it a point to inflict that thing on you merely because I object to your reasons for finding it painful, then there’s something wrong with my sense of proportion, or my recognition of your basic humanity, or both.

I think this is at the heart of it.  I don’t think it is viable to deny that, at times, Political Correctness has indeed “gone mad”, because that’s obviously not true – Ann Widdecombe’s speech to the Cambridge Union was a litany of ridiculous examples of the genre.  But that is not the same thing as saying that the entire concept is flawed beyond redemption.  Abandoning political correctness because of the “gone mad” elements would be to throw the baby out with the bath water, I think.

Put another way, had the debate at Cambridge been something like ‘Political Correctness Has Gone Mad’ then my allies and I might have lost.  Luckily for us, the debate was framed in precisely the opposite terms ‘Political Correctness is Sane And Necessary’ placed the burden of proof on the other side.  This was an impossible task when Medhi Hassan asked, at the outset, whether we wanted to return to the days of ‘Paki’ as an easy, acceptable perjorative.  Of course we don’t, and no amount of textual acrobatics from David Foster Wallace will change that.

After The Debate

I promised I would put up a few afterthoughts on the Political Correctness debate I particpated in last month.  Its hardly a live story now, but I do think it is important to write follow-ups to such happenings.  I should say at the outset that our side eventually prevailed, 221-177.

Whose language?

One of the more forceful dissents from the floor, which addressed my speech in particular, asked why we needed to change our language when it gets misused. Surely that is giving into the racists if we allow them to ruin our language for us?

New Statesman Political Editor Mehdi Hassan
New Statesman Political Editor Mehdi Hassan

Mehdi Hassan responded to that immediately by saying that he really didn’t want to be called a ‘Paki’, thankyouverymuch. However, later, during David Aaronovich’s speech, the conundrum resurfaced when a person who was disabled said he didn’t find the term ‘spastic’ offensive, and that he would like to reclaim the name for his condition as a normal word, not an insult.

This was, I think, a reasonable dissent to my argument about respecting the names people chose for themselves, but there are a few retorts. The first is that his own preference may not be shared by others. The second, which answers the wider point, is that languages have evolved and changed according to the needs of the time. They are not immutable. There is nothing necessarily precious about certain names, that mean we can’t abandon them if they come to have offensive overtones (or histories, to carry forward my argument from the debate). In other circumstances, it is possible to reclaim words and shave off the offensive meaning. Think of ‘Nigga’ versus ‘Nigger’ (though many would argue that the former has unpleasant overtones of it’s own).

Involving the Police, and the ‘chilling’ effect

Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch
Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch

Both Medhi Hassan and myself were keen to point out at the start that we did not want to defend any police interference in matters of speech, except when it relates to incitement. This is not the sort of ‘political correctness’ we want to have anything to do with. I made an off the cuff remark that the police visit to Lynette Burrows, after she made some homophobic remarks on the radio, was a “one off” – Ann Widdecombe pointed out in a highly inconvenient ‘point of information’ that this was not the case. Later, in her speech, Widdecombe derided the tendency for one state agency (e.g. Local councils) to call another (the police) to investigate citizens on matters of speech. I’m still not sure how prevelant it is, but that is neither here not there. There exists, as Alex Deane pointed out in his summing up, a “chilling effect” of Lynette Burrows being visited by the police, regardless of whether or not she was charged with anything. This is a staple argument for the free speech campaigning we do at English PEN, so I had forseen the argument, and had been hoping (for the purposes of winning he debate) that no-one would bring it up. Alex Deane did just that, and in doing so made one of the most powerful arguments for his side, opposing the motion.

However, while the “chilling effect” is an issue, I don’t think it fatally undermines the political correctness argument. When Deane challenged me to account for what might have inspired the police to visit Burrows and others, I replied that I thought leadership was the problem. I think the principles of political correctness are pretty clear, but public sector employees are not given clear guidance and proper moral support, then you get cowardice on the one hand, confusion on the other, and ill-advised busy-bodies making decisions they shouldn’t. Thus we have the fiasco of Lynette Burrows encounter with the police, and the pathetic dictats like “Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep”, a litany of which made up the entirety of Ann Widdecombe’s speech. What I believed before the debate, and still believe, is that these nonsenses, the real political-correctness-gone-mad-stories, are outliers and anomalies, elevated by tabloid sensationalism. They are not, as Will Burrows claimed in his speech, genuinely part of the fabric of the nation. I think the audience realised this, which is why they ultimately voted in our favour.

David Aaronovich said he wished that someone would Google all Ann Widdecome’s PC-gone-mad examples after the event. I thought this rather stepped outside the boundaries of the debate, which depends on the rhetoric and facts you can bring into the chamber. Nevertheless, I would love to see a site like Fight The Smears which collected all Widdecombe’s examples in one place. Those that are false could be exposed in he manner of Oliver Burkeman’s fine debunking of the so-called ‘War on Christmas’. Those that are true would present a robust challenge to those of us who defend political correctness, because instances of stupidity really do undermine the cause.  It might even discourage a repetition in the future.   And of course debunking tabloid myths is always to the good…

Forbidden Words

Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe
Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe

Deane also derided Medhi, Aaronovich and yrstruly for uttering all the un-PC words in the manner of giggling schoolboys. I stood up to sincerely point out that I took no pleasure in saying those words. Widdecombe’s retort was “well, why say them, then?”

Quite. Having spent quite a bit of time recently working on a libel campaign, I guess I had it in my head that I should repeat the words as part of some sort of “qualified privilege“, to show that the offence of the words lies in the context.  But on reflection, I think this was unnecessary.