Is journalism – including BBC journalism – ‘on the side of’ civil liberties? Or at least, on the side of free speech?
A question worth putting after the Sun twice asked last week “whose side are these guys on?” ... meaning, the BBC. Their question was first prompted by a 10 o’clock News report on the Birmingham terror arrests that reminded viewers – Forest Gate? Jean Charles de Menezes? – "this is an intelligence-led operation. Intelligence can be wrong".
And secondly by the appearance of one of the men arrested - and after seven days released - on Radio 4's Today programme. In that second editorial, the Sun mused:"It sometimes seems the BBC would prefer terrorists to succeed than for an innocent man to be briefly held without charge. In their politically correct bubble, intelligence is always flawed and anti-terror action is inevitably heavy-handed. So the release of two suspects held over the alleged plot to behead a British Muslim soldier was a gift from heaven."
Over at the Mail, the former Sun commentator Richard ‘you couldn’t make it up’ Littlejohn (sadly, his two employers of choice have done just that) mused similarly, objecting to Abu Bakr's freedom to say on Today that Britain was ‘a police state for Muslims’.
Littlejohn’s' logic was tortured – mind, it was in the same column in which he appeared to support, or certainly not condemn, bomb attacks on government offices ... so long as not too many people weren’t too badly hurt.
I quote:“Be honest, until you heard that a woman had been injured, how many of you suppressed a cheer at the news someone had sent a letter bomb to the company which runs London's congestion charge? …Even after we learnt that two men were treated for blast injuries, I'll bet that there were still plenty of motorists who thought: serves the bastards right. “
Two things made Abu Bakr a bit ‘dodge’ apparently; one, that he seemed ‘very well briefed’ and two – and this bangs him to rights, squire – he was represented by one of Britain’s best known civil liberties lawyers. He should have made it a fair fight and engaged a copyright lawyer.
Littlejohn is, of course, wrong footed by the inconvenience that, in the eyes of the law if not a Mail columnist, Abu Bakr is as innocent as anyone … perhaps even more innocent than someone with an ambiguous stance on blowing up government offices.
It would, he argues, have been ok to interview Abu Bakr if the BBC had a record of interviewing, let’s say, the (innocent) associates of gangsters.
Or perhaps the BBC and the police were taken in by a plot to inflame Muslim opinion which “doesn’t take very much inflaming at the best of times”. That’ll be unlike the level headed people who send letter bombs to the DVLA, then.
BBC Head of TV News, Peter Horrocks, wrote in Monday’s BBC Editors’ Blog – in response to the Sun’s first attack – that it’s “not the BBC’s job to take sides”.
If journalism is about anything it is about free speech. Even without the constitutional protection here that free speech has in the US, few would question the right of Sun leader writers and Mail columnists to speak freely. If predictably.
It’s the same right that allows the pub bigot to void his spleen in the snug … or an innocent bookshop employee like Abu Bakr to tell Today whether he thinks he and his fellow Muslims enjoy the same civil liberties that, say, Richard Littlejohn enjoys. However offensively well-briefed he seems about his arrest(?!).
The Mail and the Sun are in that great tradition of punchy, gobby, misguided, opinionated, rabble-rousing journalism in this country – and long may it survive. Long may they keep their right to be wrong.
But they couldn’t do that without the rights of the individual to speak, to be treated fairly and according to the law and to be free to live a life unburdened by prejudice (‘Muslim opinion doesn’t take much inflaming at the best of times.”)
There’ll always be forces pressing to take those liberties away; there’s always a new ‘crisis’ that means this age is different from all that went before, the pieces will always be in flux …
But when journalists write leaders and columns against freedom of speech … you really do have to wonder whose side they’re on.