Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Freedom of speech includes freedom to be wrong

Another day, another race row. Poor Channel 4 seems to be mired in bigotry at present. How will it cope?

After the furore of the Big Brother Race Row (which I feel now warrants the use of capital letters), it now appears that a contestant on Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands has made some daft and probably offensive comments supporting slavery. She has also condemned fat people and called for a return to the British Empire, which suggests that she may not be all there, but it is the former comment – along with various anti-immigrant sentiments – that has caused the greatest uproar. In light of the BBRR, that is unsurprising.

Not having dipped my visual toes into this particular (cess-) pool of entertainment, I don’t know what she said, but if the transcript on BBC Online is accurate it looks like a tirade of idiocy rather than hate.

The question is, however, should Shipwrecked now be removed from the air? Should the offending contestant be throw off the island? Or reprimanded by producers and hauled into line? (Note that she already has been confronted by other contestants.)

I think not. As I commented before in another context, freedom of expression is most easily threatened when we seek to curtail expressions of opinion that are abhorrent or threaten our treasured beliefs. It is easy to rebuff the suggestion that Brian Haw or Behzti should be censored, but harder to defend David Irving or Vybz Kartel when they air their opinions. So too with the Shipwrecked contestant.

Appalling though we may feel her views are, I find more appalling the thought that media outlets might vet people against standards of opinion. It reminds me of an excellent posting by a fellow blogger (I’m afraid I forget who) arguing that while Simone Clarke’s membership of the British National Party might make most people’s stomach’s turn, it would be wrong to exclude her from employment with the English National Ballet merely because of her politics.

Let’s remember, this is supposed to be “reality TV”. Should we not allow these “real” opinions to be aired, taking the rough with the smooth, rather than hiding the seedy underbelly of British opinion away from the public eye? Is it not better that public debate be provoked rather than that it is avoided at all costs? I suspect that the contestant will learn more by witnessing the shock and opprobrium of her fellow islanders than she will by being hauled in front of the Channel 4 producers and given a dressing down.

Racism is a real part of British culture. It is also, let us be clear, a real part of all cultures. I have heard of no country where foreigners are universally trusted or welcomed. If we are to reduce its influence, or at least pull its sting, we need to witness it and admit the fact of it, and then to debate it – not just in the media, in politics and at great public meetings, but in pubs, at work and even around the camp fire as the sun sets over a glorious tropical beach.

1 comment:

Liberal Legend said...

Tom, it's a very strange feeling as a white person to be on the receiving end of racism. Happened to me in China a few times.

I totally agree with your comment about all countries having an element of distrust towards foriengers.