Jon Gaunt: free-speech martyr
A High Court ruling against the ‘shock jock’ confirmed that the state can pick and choose what we’re allowed to hear.
Even idiots should have the right to free speech. And idiots don’t get much bigger than Jon Gaunt.
Jon Gaunt – ‘Gaunty’ as he likes to be known – is about as shocking as UK ‘shock jocks’ get, which is not terribly shocking. He’s been the presenter of noisy phone-in shows for the BBC and Talksport and a columnist for the Sun (where he now presents an online-only talk show). Like many ‘shock jocks’ – he apparently dislikes the label – he has appointed himself as the voice of the common man. ‘My whole career has been aimed at talking to people who aren’t represented in mainstream media and aren’t involved in the democratic process. I’ve always seen myself as some sort of conduit for them to speak’, he told the Independent in 2008. ‘My audience are ordinary guys and women who are struggling to turn a pound.’
Gaunt sees himself as an antidote to a self-important metropolitan elite that ignores the interests of the majority of the population. It’s no wonder that Gaunt rose to fame under New Labour, a government that provided plenty of evidence for the view that those in authority liked nothing better than to dictate the lives of ordinary people and screw over the little guy.
Listen to the
interview via YouTube
But while the assumption that the country was being run by a bunch of little Hitlers was the subtext of every Gaunt show, his career took a nosedive when he said as much out loud. In November 2008, Gaunty interviewed a councillor from the London borough of Redbridge, Michael Stark. The borough had just adopted a new policy that only non-smokers would be allowed to foster children. Gaunt – who spent time in care as a teenager himself – was livid with the idea, describing Stark at various points during the discussion as a ‘Nazi’, a ‘health Nazi’ and an ‘ignorant pig’. (As it happens, Gaunt had good reason to be incensed: refusing to allow smokers to foster children potentially denies kids something approaching a stable home life while turning smokers into second-class citizens, all on the flimsy basis that passive smoking is a health risk for children.)
However, despite the fact that he apologised both to listeners and to Councillor Stark on-air shortly afterwards, Gaunt’s tone was deemed to be unacceptable by station bosses and he was fired from his show. In May 2009, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom ruled that Talksport had been in breach of broadcasting rules. Ofcom also censured Gaunt for his comments, noting that it ‘considered the language used by Jon Gaunt, and the manner in which he treated Michael Stark, had the potential to cause offence to many listeners’.
This week, Gaunt lost an attempt at the High Court to have Ofcom’s ruling overturned. Gaunt, backed by the civil liberties group Liberty, argued that such a ruling could have a detrimental effect on his freedom to speak freely on air. The show was clearly a political one and, Gaunt’s barrister argued, regulators should be particularly wary of interfering with the content of political programmes. Ofcom retorted that its ruling was ‘directed to the bullying and insulting of the person being interviewed, a form of expression which contributed nothing to any political or policy debate’.
If Gaunt’s interview style is irritating, the High Court judgement is downright unedifying, coming down to m’luds’ Media Studies 101 analysis of the interview and whether it was offensive or not. For example: ‘we consider that to call someone a “Nazi” is capable of being highly insulting. It may be that the first use of “Nazi” and the soon to follow qualification had some contextual content and justification. It came after a reasonably controlled introductory dialogue and was not expressed with undue vehemence. Just as the claimant’s use of the word in his newspaper article had a contextual content and was not unduly offensive, so this first use (offensive though it was) may be seen as an emphatic and pejorative assertion that Mr Stark was, in the matter of smoking and fostering children, one who imposes his views on others.’ And so it continues, with the conclusion that Ofcom was right to censure Gaunt.
The ruling is extremely problematic, as it makes the courts the final arbiters of what is appropriately robust debate and what is offensive. It will surely have a chilling effect on the willingness of broadcasters to take risks in political discussions. It should not be the place of state-appointed bureaucrats to decide what should or should not be heard or how interviewers go about their business. On the basis that interviewers should not hector their guests, John Humphrys – a man who would never knowingly allow an interviewee to finish a sentence – should now be sacked from Radio 4’s Today programme. While this is certainly an attractive idea, it’s also an authoritarian one.
Yet this is exactly the attitude taken by many lawyers. For example, civil-rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy has argued recently in a House of Lords debate on a bill to amend Britain’s notoriously illiberal defamation laws that ‘Libel reform must be coupled with reform of press self-regulation’. In other words, press freedom should be given with one hand and taken away with the other, with state regulators deciding what is and is not acceptable.
Of course, there is a problem of powerful press barons and media owners being able to dominate the terms of debate to the detriment of those who have far less money and influence – though it is a problem that is routinely overstated. But undermining the capacity of the media to hold politicians to account doesn’t help.
Worse, the regulations that Ofcom enforces – as now backed by the courts – treat viewers and listeners as idiots who cannot figure out for themselves what to make of heated debate. When Gaunt referred to Stark as a ‘Nazi’, this was a childish reaction, but it is surely obvious that Stark is not actually a Nazi. We can figure such things out for ourselves. We don’t need the paternal hand of the state to decide that for us.
Instead of nit-picking over heated radio interviews, the interests of robust debate and free expression would be better served by abolishing Ofcom and allowing us – the viewers and listeners – to make our own minds up.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and editor of What’s the Future of Food? (Buy this book here.)
Previously on spiked
Wendy Kaminer asked if criticising gays is now a secular form of blasphemy. Tim Black defended shock jock Mike Savage’s right to be offensive. Brendan O’Neill called for us to reclaim Voltaire and his defence of freedom of speech. Mick Hume examined today’s You Can’t Say That culture. Dolan Cummings argued that free speech is more than a slogan. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.