THE BLOG

What Can You Say?

17/01/2013 15:18 GMT | Updated 18/03/2013 09:12 GMT

The internet is getting nastier and nastier. It is taken for granted, now, that no writer should ever read the comments on the bottom of any article they write, because by about the third comment down, the thread has turned to vitriol, created by a large, mad cohort of nutjobs, fascists and fundamentalists, who deliberately misconstrue everything you, and all previous commenters, have said.

This week there has been a particularly peculiar issue where the feminist commentator Suzanne Moore made an unfortunate reference to 'Brazilian Transexuals' in a Guardian article, which caused a Twitter storm from the trans community, causing Ms Moore to leave Twitter. Yes, she said something thoughtless, but the offence taken was vastly out of proportion with the original wording. Apparently there was then a very rude tirade on Twitter, but it seems to have faded, with Ms Moore, into the ether, so I don't know what was said.

Not to be outdone, the polemical journalist Julie Burchill then weighed in with a vile piece in the Observer, both on paper and online, which called transsexual people 'bedwetters in bad wigs', 'screaming mimis' and 'dicks in chicks clothing'. I hope I've quoted that correctly, I can't be sure because the Observer has taken her article down from their website.

Apart from the obvious comment to Ms Burchill, 'who asked you?' it is obvious that her column had no journalistic merit, it was a total ad hominem - or maybe ad feminam - attack; a violent spasm of upsetting hate speech for no good reason. So, good, it's gone.

Except - wait a minute - on BBC Radio 4's The Media Show on Wednesday, Toby Young came up with the argument that Burchill's piece should stand. He made this argument on the traditional grounds that it is not an offence to give offence. The discussion begins at 14 minutes 15 seconds.

Young's opinion is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, as far as the actual newspapers are concerned, the Observer should be covered by the Editors' Code of the Press Complaints Committee. Take a look at it. This is the set of guidelines that is supposed to govern how the press behaves, but it can't be working, or there would never have been a Leveson enquiry. It says quite clearly in Clause 12, which covers Discrimination, that:

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

During the Media Show, neither Young, nor transgender activist Ros Kaveny, focused on the code. Peter Preston and Laurie Penny didn't mention it either. They seem to have forgotten it exists, and they concentrated on arguing whether Burchill's article caused 'harm' - a subjective question if ever there was one. Apart from Ros Kaveny, it seems that they didn't ask any transgender people before they came to their views. The code clearly shows that offence is not the issue, discrimination is the issue.

Of course, much of the discussion wasn't in newspaper, it was on line. Does the press code even apply to articles on line? Or should we be looking at the Malicious Communications Act? This is the statute that was used, only two months ago, to arrest a 19 year old man for posting on Twitter a photograph of a burning Remembrance Day poppy. Kent Police obviously took the view that it is not ok to offend somebody on line, and banged up the lad in a police cell overnight. I have not been able to find out from the internet whether a prosecution is being pursued in this case. The Act states:

The Malicious Communications Act 1988 section 1... deals with the sending to another of any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient. The offence covers letters, writing of all descriptions, electronic communications, photographs and other images in a material form, tape recordings, films and video recordings. Poison-pen letters are usually covered...

...The offence is one of sending, delivering or transmitting, so there is no requirement for the article to reach the intended recipient.

Transgender people might be one of the last oppressed minorities. If Ms Burchill's rant had been directed against black or Asian people, homosexual people, Jews, or Muslims, I am pretty sure it would have been met with the full force of the law. Because it was about hatred towards transgender people, all the media pundits could come up with was this bland platitude that nobody has the right not to be offended.

There is one other group in our society who get offended over and over again and there seems to be no redress, and that is women, whether transgender, or the regular cisgender sort. It seems that anyone on line can pour hatred at women with impunity, and we are not even a minority. The number of websites and Facebook pages dedicated to normalising and joking about rape, inciting violence, and reducing women to a collection of sexualised body parts in pornographic photos, is huge. Ask Facebook to take one of these sites down and they will generally say that it does not fall under their policy. In the actual print press, pictures of mostly naked women are legal, and newspaper editors would have us believe that it is normal and healthy for us to see women objectified in that way, every single day. It is not.

And yet, under the PCC's Editors' Code and the Malicious Communications Act, it would seem that there is a prima facie case for much of the misogynistic hatred that permeates our media to be removed. Feminist groups such as Object gave powerful testimony to that effect during the Leveson Enquiry.

We will see whether Leveson makes a difference. For now, it's a pity that a poppy will get you on to the wrong side of the law, but a vile ad feminam attack is just... normal.