Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Why should a smug politician dictate what we're allowed to say?
This article of mine on the New McCarthyism, appears in the First Post.
It all started with Glenn Hoddle.
When historians of the future debate when it was that Britain went from being one of the freest countries in the world, a place where people were able to express their honestly-held views and opinions without fear of comeback, to one where they could not, they're likely to fix on the date of 2nd February 1999.
For it was then that Hoddle, the England football manager, was dismissed, not because of poor results, or flagging team morale, but because of the views he had expressed on reincarnation and disabled people in an interview with a national newspaper. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair felt it would be a good move to jump on the anti-Hoddle bandwagon. He described the England manager's comments as "very offensive" and argued that it would be "very difficult" for him to stay in his position.
The sacking of Hoddle set a highly dangerous precedent for hounding someone out of their job for expressing the 'wrong' opinions on matters quite unrelated to their work.
The procedure is usually works like this: a public figure expresses opinions to which the New McCarthyites take exception. The public figure, fearing his livelihood will be threatened by the whipped-up hysteria his comments have generated, is pressurised into making an embarrassing - and completely unwarranted - apology for what they have said.
Ten years on, the latest recipient of the 'Hoddle treatment' is Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. Speaking on Channel 4 News, the sanctimonious Labour MP Denis MacShane (above) called for pressure to be exerted to get Ecclestone to stand down after he had criticised democracy and cited Adolf Hitler for his ability to "get things done". (It is actually rather difficult to deny this. After all, the big problem with Adolf Hitler was that he did manage to 'get things done' - more is the pity.)
MacShane's demands for Ecclestone to go were echoed by pressure groups from outside the UK: there were calls for his resignation from the president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder. And a senior German Jewish official called for him to be boycotted by Formula One teams. Dieter Graumann, a vice-president of the Central Council of Jews, said: "No team should work with him any more."
But although many people would take issue with the tastelessness of Ecclestone's assertions, we might ask what on earth do his views on Hitler, Saddam and the Taliban and the merits of different political systems, have to do with his stewardship of Formula One?
Ecclestone caved into the pressure and issued toe-curling apologies to the Times newspaper and the Jewish Chronicle, where, despite having expressed no support for Hitler's persecution of Jews in his original interview, he nevertheless felt obliged to state: "Most of my mates are Jewish people, I spoke to two or three very prominent people today, Jewish people. One of them said to me, 'Bernie, you're more Jewish than all of my friends'."
In 2007, it was pop star and former art student Bryan Ferry's fate to experience the wrath of the new McCarthyites for praising the iconography of the Third Reich, in an interview with a German newspaper.
In the furore which followed, Ferry was pressurised, like Ecclestone, into issuing an apology, in which he made it clear that he, like every "right-minded individual" regarded the Nazi regime "evil and abhorrent". "I trust that he will never make the same mistake again", said the former Labour MP Lord Janner, ominously.
Since the Hoddle affair, it has become increasingly common for people to have their livelihoods threatened for expressing opinions which are at variance with the officially approved positions.
Last December, PC Graham Cogman, despite fifteen years of service, was sacked for his opposition to gay sex. An NHS nurse, Caroline Petrie, was suspended for two months because she offered to pray for a elderly patient.
David Booker, a charity worker in Southampton, was suspended under 'diversity' rules after telling a colleague, during an informal night-shift discussion, that although he was not homophobic, he did not agree with same-sex partnerships. And Treasury civil servant Azad Ali was suspended for views he had expressed on Middle Eastern conflicts on his blog - though he has since been reinstated.
It could reasonably be said that at no point in Britain's recent history has expressing honestly-held opinions been such a high risk activity as it is today.
Due to the pervasive influence of political correctness, the efforts of vociferous single-issue lobbies and pressure groups and the passing of illiberal laws which infringe freedom of speech - such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, we are fast approaching the stage when only views within the officially approved parameters can be voiced without fear of comeback. And the parameters are getting smaller and smaller.
In the Britain of 2009, don't express disapproval of gay partnerships or you may be labelled a homophobe - or, in the case of David Booker, be suspended from your job. Don't criticise Israel too strongly or you run the risk of being labelled an anti-semite. Don't express a belief in reincarnation and the concept of karma. Don't say that you disapprove of contemporary 'democracy' and admire some dictators. And whatever you do, don't appear to offer a sliver of even grudging respect for any aspect of Nazi Germany, even the art-work.
Democracy should mean encouraging people to voice opinions freely and without fear. And it certainly shouldn't mean only being allowed to express opinions which the political elite or certain lobbies and pressure groups deem to be 'acceptable'.
Although the interventions of clowns like Tony Blair and Denis MacShane make the whole thing seem ridiculous and amusing, the sight of politicians coming on to our television screens to call for the heads of sporting figures for expressing their honestly-held opinions/the 'wrong' views, constitutes a threat to our freedoms which is in fact extremely serious.