One of the things journalists frequently claim a right to do is to challenge people and express opinions which “offend” people. From Jan Moir to Rod Liddle to Julie Bindel and Bea Campbell, journalists regularly claim their right to offend. It is strange however, that this “right to offend” is almost never exercised by journalists representing a marginalised or relatively powerless group “offending” a group of interests in a position of relative power to them.
The problem is that articles by those journalists who claim the right to offend are all too often articles by someone from a group whose power and status is much greater than those they are trying to offend. In this sense this type of journalism takes advantage of the principle of freedom of expression to employ it as a tool of repression. So journalists, who are in positions of power anyway, who then write articles about groups of people who are in positions of powerlessness relative to the group to which they belong are engaged in an exercise of repressive power over a more marginalised group. They do this as journalists as well as members of a more powerful group.
This “right to offend” as such becomes little more than the exploitation of freedom of expression as a tool of repression. Now, of course I am not in any way advocating that freedom of expression is curtailed to prevent this sort of repression from happening, this is not something I would ever advocate, as it would surely become used to prevent the most powerless from speaking. However I think that it is time we became clear in ourselves and indeed acknowledged in our culture, that there is a difference between, for example, a cisgender journalist, Julie Bindel writing an offensive article about transgender people or indeed a straight, cisgender journalist writing an offensive piece about gay people, and someone like Thierry Schaffhauser writing an article about sex workers from the point of view of one of this most oppressed groups of people.
So, “Right to Offend” articles generally come in two types; those which are an exercise of repressive power on behalf of a more powerful group, examples being Julie Bindel’s articles about trans people or Jan Moir’s article about Stephen Gately, and articles which represent a challenge to current social and culturally accepted thinking. Thierry Schaffhauser’s articles about sex workers are a good example of this as is Natasha Curson’s article about the problems faced by transgender people who are not transsexual. As such we have repressive and liberation journalism.
What is important to remember is that, whilst both these types claim to be “radical” the former is little more than an act of repression by those in positions of power, whilst the latter is truly radical.
Of course one of the tools those who write repressive articles employ is to claim “victim” status. These horrible trans people are hounding me and trying to censor me and prevent me from exercising my right to free speech! As far as I know trans people have not hacked into the Guardian website or the Standpoint Magazine website to try and prevent her articles from being published. The response to this has to be that those who use the right to free speech as a repressive tool, cannot complain when those in positions of relative powerlessness oppose the repression being meted out from on high. Supporters of Jan Moir, astonishingly accused the 22,000 people who complained about her homophobic article about Stephen Gately via Twitter, of censorship! It would appear that those in these positions of power as journalists seem to think that freedom of speech is a one-way-street.
So, whilst repressive journalism will always be legally justified, it should never be morally acceptable. It should be viewed as a means of misrepresenting those in positions of marginality, misrepresenting their interests, misrepresenting their actions, misrepresenting their actions and building public support for measures which are counter to the interests of these people. Liberation journalism on the other hand, whilst much rarer than the repressive type, will always be the most interesting, valuable, challenging and valid form of expression in the media, seeking to remove repressive measures against marginal groups. It is this type of journalism which the principle of freedom of expression was created to protect. In repressive regimes the repressive type of journalism, such as Julie Bindel’s articles about trans people, intensify. In repressive regimes liberation journalism disappears, although it does not die, instead people risk their lives to create and distribute it.
We need to start developing a culture, essential for a free society, or at least a society which values freedom of speech, that distinguishes those repressive articles written by Moir, Bindel and others and the, often courageous articles, which are a genuine challenge to accepted thinking, which are iconoclastic, which seek to undermine repressive power structures and which permit those who are usually misrepresented through the exercise of power by repressive journalists like Bindel, to begin to speak for themselves.
Natacha Kennedy 26 march 2010