Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Offensive article? Freedom of speech

Like most cat lovers, I know our beasts can be an inconvenience to the neighbours; they go out, they sit in gardens, and some cats do other things in gardens. It's the nature of cats and the fact that the owner can't be held responsible for what a cat does may reflect that, or it may be the other side of the coin that say you have no legal rights - if someone steals your dog it's theft, if someone steals your cat it's not (usual caveat: I don't even play a lawyer on the Intertron). If someone poisons your cat, it is a crime (as well as a horrible, hateful thing, whatever the provocation). If a columnist in the Sunday Times congratulates the poisoner and commiserates with them on being fined, that's free speech. Specifically, it's not against the Press Complaints Commission code.

I though the article was a bad one and I asked if the PCC covered offensive articles; the answer was pretty much, no.
"Thank you for your complaint about the Rod Liddle article.  We have received several complaints about this matter. I do understand your concerns.  However, I must make two points about the role and function of the PCC:
1.  The PCC can only consider complaints framed within the attached Code of Practice:  This does not cover issues of offensiveness.  The PCC will not be able to intervene in a columnist's right to free expression on the grounds that his comments are offensive.  This does not make your concerns invalid; rather it means that the PCC is likely not to be the appropriate forum to consider them. 
2.  It is not for the PCC to determine whether or not a criminal act has been undertaken or incited.  Issues of alleged illegality must be for the police and the courts.
If you feel that your complaint falls within the remit of the PCC, and the Code of Practice, do let me know.  Otherwise, we will not be able to take this further."

The PCC says basically you can't harass people, or do insider trading, or pursue children, and you should try to be accurate and give a right of reply. Tasteless photos (unless they're intrusive) and tasteless comments aren't covered. And I suppose that's about right. If we framed a clause that said 'you can't say it's a good idea to poison someone's cat because it pees on your vegetable bed', it would be hard to word it in such a way that it didn't stop people writing about the BNP or issues of racism generally - and as I believe that information rather than censorship is the way to deal with propaganda I'm in favour of it. I could write to the Sunday Times and complain to them, but I'm loathe to let them know I bothered to click a link to read the column in the first place. So I'll use my freedom of speech to say that while the columnist does a fine job of amusing people who like spite and bile, this was offensive and I'll actively try to avoid his writing in future. Free speech is a fine line to walk and being gratuitously offensive does no-one any favours.
Tags: rant

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