The Burchill saga encapsulates the free speech issues of our age
Jane Fae: The Burchill saga encapsulates the free speech issues of our age
15 Jan 13

As the trans/Moore/Burchill spat draws to a close, and an article that gave much offence to trans folk is taken down from the Observer’s site — it is time, perhaps to reflect how this episode encapsulates, in one seamless narrative, the two or three most serious issues facing free speech in the UK today.

Over all lies the question of censorship.

I do not believe Julie Burchill’s article should have been published: doubt it would find space in a respectable publication were it written about any other minority; and have little time for the many in the press who defend it on grounds of free speech.

Once up, though it should not have come down as it did.

The damage was done, in terms of hate speech published and serious traumatic stuff distributed where it could do most harm, in the original publication. 48 hours on, copied, commented, archived its dread power was mostly spent. (And meanwhile, the fatuousness of the Observer decision to remove the piece was instantly exposed by the Telegraph’s mischievous counter-decision — to put it back up! Will they, one wonders, be paying a repeat fee to the Guardian for the privilege? Have they even, one wonders, sought permission not just from the author — but the article’s original publisher, the Observer?)

It leaves an awkward hole on the Observer website, filled by an apology that most in the trans community feel is mere token: too little too late, and the suspicion that it only finally went when Observer lawyers pointed out the paper could run the risk of prosecution. From whom is not entirely clear.

One person who took the matter to the police did not get very far. They told him, he claims, that they could not act because no identifiable group of individuals had been targeted. Huh?

They suggested, instead, he try the Press Complaints Commission. But the PCC won’t intervene because no named individual is targeted (which is why some groups would like to see a right of class complaints under whatever new regulations are put in place post-Leveson).

Still, the legal dimension does drain, somewhat, the worth of the apology — as does recent press conduct in respect of their sacred cow of freedom!

The Observer, happy to host the initial carefully confected abuse, stuck doggedly to its rules of moderation. Why, though, bother to moderate at all, I inquired, not altogether facetiously — as another commenter, reproducing an extract from Burchill’s piece with “women” substituted for “trans women” found their post blocked.

There is much lack of consistency here. The same press that squeals “censorship” at the least attempt to regulate, is other times busy taking out libel writs when people say nasty things about them (Daily Mail take heed!). Meanwhile, if you live by a creed of happily dishing up offence to all and sundry, Moore and Burchill, don’t be surprised when someone trumpets that offense back at you.

If questions of censorship topped the bill in this case, lesser issues also played a part: the question of online etiquette, for instance.

As Brooke Magnanti writes eloquently in the Telegraph, today’s world is more interconnected than ever before. Any and every faux pas regarding a minority community is magnified: so politeness is more than its own reward. It is the price one pays for not being continually distracted from what one wants to say by the need to apologise for every least deviation from the currently acceptable mode of expression.

Barrier to free speech? Yes: sort of. But also common courtesy: for why would you go out of your way — as Suzanne Moore clearly did at the start of this episode — to insult the subject of one’s writing?

Then there’s the “cabal” thing: the suggestion by Julie Bindel that online nastiness might be being orchestrated — in this case by a bunch of trans activists. Well, hardly. It makes as much sense to detect caballerous behaviour in informal links on the journalistic side of the kerfuffle: from the saccharine tributes paid by Burchill to her friend, Moore — or the pre-tweeting of a line from what Burchill eventually filed by colleague and co-author, Nick Cohen, approximately 24 hours before it went live. Nothing wrong with this, especially as it appears to reflect behaviour exhibited by most journalists, myself included.

However, the online “monstering” of Moore that Burchill objected to was probably the least organised behaviour around. Elsewhere, I’ve likened it to the murmuration of a flock of starlings, wheeling this way and that in instant response to external stimuli: “mobbing” any predator, actual or potential, that puts their nose above the parapet.

But that’s not right, either. We live, all of us, nowadays, with the reality of social networks. If Moore writes something offensive about trans folks, then, she must get that her views will percolate at light speed across the web. The angry and the obsessed and the merely voyeuristic will turn up, in a trice, to deliver a good drubbing and the net effect (no pun intended) is likely to be horrid.

I’ve been on the receiving end of net monsterings twice. They are awful and not for the faint-hearted: a sort of bullying lite, with most individuals making reasonable if sharp comment, but the whole being much worse than the sum of the parts, and the total effect being one of intimidation. I sympathise with those on the receiving end. I sympathised with Moore.

But I am not sure where to go from there. Bullying is bad. But how, short of implementing online some exceedingly illiberal “common purpose” laws do you stop it? I’m stumped.

Moore temporarily rejoined Twitter to address the issue, and while she may not exactly have agreed to kiss and make up with the trans community, she has agreed to talk about kissing and making up.

Meanwhile, the speech issues of our age, the responsibility of press and public alike for online offence rumble on unresolved — albeit with a growing sense, in the trans community and elsewhere, that they are already returning to their bad old ways.

Jane Fae is a feminist and writer on issues of political and sexual liberty

By Jane Fae

Jane Fae is a feminist, journalist and campaigner on political and sexual liberty.