I think that it is fair to suggest that Alexei Sayle isn’t one of my biggest fans. We agree on little politically and in the last few years I believe that his interventions on the issues of antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party were not only factually incorrect and morally wrong but also made my life, at a time when I was very vulnerable, even more difficult. So, it would be fair to say that I am not a fan of his either.
But… because there is always a but. Whatever my personal views of Alexei Sayle and his of me – he has a right to hold them. He has a right to articulate them and for him as for all of us – occasionally there may be consequences to his actions – but they should be proportionate and considered in the round. The consequences should not be a political football, used by people trying to get a headline. After all free speech is far too important for that – it’s not a toy that can be undermined at a politician’s whim. Especially a politician whose government is currently legislating to protect free speech on campus – would that not also apply to Alexei Sayle? Which is why I fundamentally disagree with the efforts of British parliamentarian, Matthew Offord, this week to stop the broadcast of an episode of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4.
Alexei Sayle made his name by being controversial, by being anti-establishment and in my opinion contrary – and he has done so on the BBC for decades. I may not like him – but that simply means I don’t have to listen to him – not that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak. And if I want to listen to him, I have the right, as does everyone else, to robustly challenge him on his views and pronouncements. That’s the joy of free speech and why it needs to be protected.
If you don’t like someone’s views – challenge them to a debate, expose the weaknesses in their argument, demonstrate why you are right, and they are wrong. Don’t try and silence them, you just martyr them and their views. And for a politician to advocate silencing speech it’s not just contrary to our basic human rights – in this instant it’s also really bad politics.
We need to robustly defend and protect free speech. Because not only does it ensure that everyone has the same basic rights to free expression but also because we need to be able to challenge views that offend and hurt so that others don’t have the excuse of ignorance when they espouse them. Our words and arguments are the most powerful tools at our disposal to shape the type of community that we live. So, let’s make sure we use them – rather than silence our opponents.