If anybody doubts that free speech would be in danger after Leveson it is worth remembering what it is already like in this country.
A couple of months back Julie Burchill wrote a column in the Observer about transsexuals. It was a response to complaints by transsexuals about a piece by a friend of Burchill’s, Suzanne Moore. In a glorious broadside of a column Burchill referred to the complainants as, among much else, ‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ and ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.
The results were endless further complaints and a junior government minister – Lynne Featherstone – calling publicly for Burchill and the editor of the Observer to lose their jobs over the column. Featherstone said: ‘Julie Burchill rant against transgender community is absolutely disgusting – a bigoted vomit for which the Observer should sack her.’
Anyway, duly cowed, the Observer issued an apology and removed the article from its website. Now the Press Complaints Commission has issued its ruling on the affair. Happily it has dismissed complaints that Burchill’s comments were inaccurate or misleading. But this does not prove that transsexuals have bad wigs. Rather it is the opinion of the PCC that the words in question were Burchill’s opinion, ‘clearly distinguished from fact’ and thus permissible.
Most writers have been through this time-consuming process many times. Pre-Leveson, when anybody complained that their feelings had been hurt they could already tie you and the publications you write for up in endless time-consuming correspondence because of the ‘fact’. A couple of years back I ended up having an exchange with the head of the PCC in the pages of the Spectator. After one particular ruling in my favour he appeared to think that I should thank him for not just allowing me to possess opinions but actually – kindness of kindnesses – for allowing me to express them too.
The PCC is a rotten system. But if you liked it you will love Leveson. We will be able to look forward to years of people with the intelligence of Lynne Featherstone having the power to decide what we can read, write and say. It is good timing. Because there is now a whole bureaucratic and political class in this country which has absolutely no idea of what freedom of expression looks like or what ideas and principles it is based on. Speech codes, expression codes, ‘acceptable opinions’ and sackings of people who aren’t up to speed with whatever the new agenda is – these people are about to have the time of their lives.
Of course we could just have a first amendment.