Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences

Written by Kirsty Strickland on 29 April 2019 in Comment

We are all free to say whatever we like, but it doesn’t follow that what we say will be received positively, says Kirsty Strickland

Kirsty Strickland - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

When Gordon Strachan appeared to compare the racist abuse of footballers with the plight of convicted paedophile and former footballer Adam Johnson, there was a justifiable backlash on social media.

Soon afterwards, TalkSport and Sky Sports announced Strachan would no longer appear as a commentator on their programmes.

In a statement, Strachan apologised for his remarks, saying: “In no way did I intend to confuse or conflate the very serious issue of racism targeted at footballers with the potential verbal abuse towards a player who has been convicted of a sexual offence.”

This furore coincided with the government taking the decision to sack housing adviser Roger Scruton after he denied Islamophobia was a problem and appeared to repeat anti-Semitic statements in a newspaper interview.

What followed was the inevitable media commentary on the right to free speech and how sacking people for their viewpoints is tantamount to ‘silencing’ them. 

The guttural cries of the silenced rang out from our radios and televisions, as they brayed about the injustice of controversial comments being challenged by a critical and increasingly vocal public.

Some have argued that the prevalence of high-profile figures losing their jobs over comments they have made is an attempt by liberals and the left to impose their narrow viewpoint on wider society, while punishing any who step outside the norms of acceptability.

It’s an argument that boils down to ‘PC gone mad’ and it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. It never has.

The regurgitation of this defence every time bigoted viewpoints collide with criticism is merely a tactic used to avoid accountability.

Manifestly, we are all free to say whatever we like, but it doesn’t automatically follow that what we say will be received positively by either the public or our employers, and nor does anybody have an automatic right to be given a ‘platform’ to air their views.

When I am invited to take part in discussions on live radio, I am free to say whatever I wish. If I chose to, I could go on an expletive-filled rant and turn the airways blue.

As tempting as that sometimes may be, I know that if I did so, the radio station would be likely to turn off my microphone and not invite me back in future.

The argument over whether career-ending consequences for vocalising certain controversial views is encroaching on free speech often plays out in the pages of our national newspapers.

The disquiet over the sacking of both Strachan and Scruton highlights the gradual transfer of power and influence from identikit white, middle-class men to those groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in the media and public life.

The hard reality is that well-heeled white men are no longer uncritically accepted as the authoritative voice on society and its values. Despite this, many are still coming to terms with their diminishing stature and have shown themselves hostile and thin-skinned when challenged. The former gatekeepers of what is deemed acceptable debate are having to make room for others – and they are not happy about it.

Social media makes it much easier for ordinary people to communicate their anger and disappointment about the conduct of public figures.

Companies and political parties are wont to protect their brand image at all costs and so it is no surprise when they part ways with representatives who bring a storm of negative publicity their way.

While free speech is something to be cherished and upheld in any civilised democracy, so too is the right of the public to protest, complain and push back against hatred and bigotry.

Those commentators who, predictably, line up to complain about the silencing of those with similar viewpoints to their own are notably, and ironically, silent when minorities face consequences for the things they say online or in public.

When transgender model Munroe Bergdorf posted comments on her Facebook page about white supremacy and violence in western societies, L’Oréal promptly terminated her contract and said her values did not align with their own.

When Labour MP David Lammy criticised Comic Relief for the ‘’white saviour complex’’ of much of their promotional work and fundraising efforts, days of condemnation and hundreds of column inches of outrage followed.

And when Channel 4’s Jon Snow covered a recent pro-Brexit rally and casually remarked, “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place”, his innocuous comment prompted a barrage of complaints and an OFCOM investigation.

Challenging those with power and influence isn’t easy or free of risk.

Until relatively recently, privileged groups have been afforded the opportunity to frame public discourse in line with their personal beliefs and prejudices.  

Times are changing and it will take some a while to adjust to not being the only ones allowed a turn of the microphone.

The things you supposedly ‘aren’t allowed to say anymore’ are still being said. The only difference is that they are now being challenged upon delivery. 

Those who rail against so-called political correctness and the freedom to offend shouldn’t worry about being silenced.

To my ears at least, their voices are as loud as they always have been.

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