Julie Burchill, Lynne Featherstone, and Leveson

There has been a hell of a lot written in the past week or so since the New Statesman published feminist writer Suzanne Moore’s article Seeing red: the power of female anger, and I really do not want to go over the details again. There’s more to be written on transgender issues by people with far better knowledge than I. Suffice to say, people got angry over a phrase in Moore’s piece, she was rather forcefully criticised, responded in kind, and gave up her Twitter account as the weight of group anger became too much. Then Julie Burchill further fanned the flames with a massively controversial article in the Observer.

What I want to briefly focus on here is the frankly disastrous response to the furore over Julie Burchill’s Observer article by International Development minister Lynne Featherstone. Weighing in to the twitter discussion on Sunday evening, Featherstone tweeted that Burchill should be sacked by the Observer, and subsequently implied agreement with another tweet suggesting that Observer editor John Mulholland should also be sacked.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that Julie Burchill is not actually on staff at the Observer, and can’t be sacked, and examine just what’s happened here: a government minister in a modern democratic state has demanded that a journalist be punished for writing a contentious article. And then nodded along with the notion that a national newspaper editor be sacked for publishing a contentious article. An article that has not, as yet, been deemed illegal, or even in breach of the Press Complaints Commission code.

Featherstone has made a mockery of Britain and the EU’s declared commitment to promote free speech. Cast your mind back to the 2011 riots, when it was suggested that social networks be shut down to prevent people co-ordinating movements. The state media of regimes such as Iran and China gleefully reported this suggestion, using it both to mock the UK’s hypocrisy and to justify the censorship of their own people.

Now imagine the next time a newspaper such as China’s Southern Weekly steps out of line, and a senior Communist Party member calls for the head of a reporter or editor. Should a Foreign Office official even attempt to condemn such censorship, be in no doubt that the authorities in China will point to Featherstone’s intemperate tweet and say the UK is in no position to lecture.

There’s the international aspect. Now look at the domestic. Independent editor Chris Blackhurst has said he fears that politicians will use post-Leveson statute to “wreak their revenge” on the press. Speaking on Sky News, Blackhurst commented:

“Once a draft Bill goes into the Commons and the Lords and once they get their teeth into it they can add all sorts of amendments.
“That’s where the revenge will happen. That’s one reason why some of us are very keen that there should not be statute.
“It’s not just expenses, let’s not forget there are a lot of MPs, all sorts of shenanigans down the years, many of which we all know about and have been highlighted, and they can’t wait. They are sort of ‘bring it on’.”

Pro-statute campaigners such as Hugh Grant tell us that we should not be alarmed by the prospect of a new press law. But when, even before such a law is debated, a government minister thinks it’s OK to interfere with the press in this manner, why should we trust politicians with free speech?