Policing private speech: the new inquisition

The ridiculing of Richard Scudamore shows how Orwellian our society is.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

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Not content with restricting what we can say in public – whether we’re football fans referring to ourselves as ‘Yids’ or Christian preachers having a pop at homosexuality – the new speech police now want to control what we can say in private. Slowly, tentatively, today’s self-styled warriors against hateful or offensive speech are turning their attentions from the public square to the private sphere, desiring nothing less than the punishment of men and women for saying apparently bad things in their own homes or in utterly cut-off chats with mates. Having outlawed certain forms of public speech, they’re now hell-bent on criminalising certain forms of private chatter, and even thought itself.

Over the past month, there have been a handful of scary cases on both sides of the Atlantic that have exposed our betters’ latent urge to violate the once-sacred space of private life and tell us what we can think and say there. In Britain, the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, was hauled over the coals for things he said in private conversations with, as he describes them, ‘friends of many years’. In the course of completely private email chats, Scudamore used fruity or sexist language (depending on your point of view) to describe women. His friends and he referred to someone having sex with ‘skinny big-titted broads’. They used Carry On-style double entendres in a chat about golf, with one saying he had spent ‘all day fending Edna off my graphite shaft’. (The subject of that somewhat infantile banter, one Peta Bistany, says she wasn’t offended by the emails.) They also said ‘female irrationality increases exponentially depending on how many members join your family’.

His emails were leaked to the Sunday Mirror by his PA, Rani Abraham, who has since become a feminist icon and tabloid star for claiming she felt ‘humiliated and belittled’ by Scudamore’s email banter. It is testament to how far today’s poisonous culture of betrayal-sanctioning, Wikileaks-style leaking has gone when a woman who read and then helped to publish a man’s private thoughts is treated as the hero of the story. Truly do we live in an Orwellian society when snitching is treated as the highest public duty, and public exposure of someone for having the ‘wrong’ private thoughts is applauded by media and politicians. When the inhabitants of foreign authoritarian regimes take relish in publicly denouncing someone who has problematic private attitudes, we frown; when someone does it over here, we cheer.

As soon as Scudamore’s emails were made public, there were demands for him to be thrown out of his job on the basis that a man who says sexist things in private is not fit for public life. A writer for the Guardian said Scudamore had brought the game of football ‘into disrepute’. Another columnist said referring to women as ‘big-titted broads’ is unacceptable ‘even when there isn’t [anyone] cc’d in’ (my italics). PM David Cameron hinted that Scudamore should lose his job. In the event, Scudamore stayed in his position, but only after he was made the subject of widespread media and political handwringing and issued a grovelling apology for… well, for how he speaks to his friends; for the sort of jokes he uses in private; for what he thinks and does behind closed doors. In other words, for having a private existence.

In essence, Scudamore found himself on trial for the contents of his mind, for the whispers of his private life, in a kangaroo court set up by hacks outraged by sexism and politicians keen to score some points with feminists. We need to appreciate how historically illiberal it is to subject a man to public ridicule and threats of the sack for things he said in a private conversation. If Scudamore had stood in the middle of a football pitch, grabbed a mic, and referred to all the women attending the game as ‘big-titted’ and ‘irrational’, there would be a very strong case for the Premier League getting shot of him. But he only used those words and phrases in private, and if we are not free to speak our minds behind closed doors, to make foul jokes or simply to be unguarded among friends, then we are not free to do anything. A properly civilised society is built on the idea that there is a distinction between our private lives, where we can be absolutely honest, open and experimental in thought and speech, and our public lives, where we present a better-behaved, more orderly version of ourselves. The Scudamore scandal suggests we’re moving towards a more tyrannical society where the line between our private and public existences is being completely blurred, making it easier for both arenas to be policed, on the basis that, as one Scudamore-hating observer put it, it is impossible to ‘wipe [prejudiced] views from your mind every time you step into your office’. So they will have to be wiped for us, by the new determiners of what it is acceptable to think and say at home, in the pub, and in phone or email chatter.

In the US, meanwhile, the treatment of Donald Sterling has provided an insight into the authoritarian cesspit that the policing of private speech will lead us. Sterling, a business magnate, is owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. At the end of April, the gossip/news website TMZ leaked a secretly recorded conversation in which Sterling was heard saying to a female friend who had posted on Instagram a picture of herself with Magic Johnson: ‘It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.’ Global hysteria ensued and Sterling was made into a major hate figure of the media on both sides of the Atlantic. There were demands for him to be thrown out of basketball forever. That’s eventually what happened. The National Basketball Association enforced a lifetime ban on Sterling, meaning he may never again attend a basketball game; it is currently seeking to rescind his ownership of the Clippers, too.

Here, again, an individual has been publicly punished – very publicly punished – for something he said in private. Yet even self-styled defenders of freedom of speech cheered his humiliation, with one congratulating America for dealing with Sterling ‘swiftly and appropriately’. A columnist for the Washington Post unwittingly provided a snapshot of a future world in which even our private thoughts and speech can earn us public punishment when she cheered the treatment of Sterling by saying: ‘If you don’t want your words broadcast in the public square, don’t say them… Such potential exposure forces us to more carefully select our words and edit our thoughts.’ This is terrifying. What is being said here is that the Stalinist-style threat of being publicly exposed over our private beliefs and speech is a good thing because it will force us never to say – even in private – things that others have decided are bad or wrong. What these ostensibly liberal commentators are calling for is the creation of a world where fear of exposure forces us all to curb what we say even in our own homes and among friends. Tell me – how is that any different from the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four?

It took the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates, echoing spiked’s Sean Collins, to tease out the alarmingly illiberal nature of the new fashion for exposing and policing private speech. ‘Am I the only person in the US surprised that a private conversation, no matter how ugly, can be the basis for such public recrimination?’, she asked, before going on to stand up for what once would have been considered a core principle of a democratic society – namely that we should be free to ‘say anything in private, no matter how stupid, cruel, self-serving or plain wrong, and not be criminalised’.

Yet society is speedily moving away from that principle, as captured in another recent case in Britain – that of BBC TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson and his alleged use of the n-word. Here, again, an individual was publicly harangued, and forced to apologise, over speech that had never been broadcast publicly (Clarkson said the offending word on film footage that was shelved but later leaked to a tabloid newspaper). The response of the deputy leader of the UK Labour Party, Harriet Harman, to the Clarkson scandal revealed how deep is the new political class’s instinct to control what we say in private. ‘Anybody who uses the n-word in public or private in whatever context has no place in the BBC’, she said. Think about what is being said here: that all forms of speech, regardless of where they occur, should be open to public sanction and reprimand. Our leaders genuinely long, Big Brother-style, to control how we express ourselves in completely private spheres.

It’s worth considering how much the urge to police private speech has grown in a relatively short period of time. In 1999, the Macpherson report on the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of black London teenager Stephen Lawrence proposed, among many other things, the creation of a new offence that would outlaw ‘racist language or behaviour… where such conduct can be proved to have taken place otherwise than in a public place’. That is, the use of racist words in private settings, in homes themselves, should be criminalised. The proposal was rejected. It was felt that it expanded state authority too far. As the philosopher Brenda Almond warned at the time, ‘We should be very careful about policing thoughts’. Yet now, not 20 years later, people are being ridiculed, sacked and threatened on the basis of comments made somewhere ‘otherwise than in a public place’, and leading politicians openly say that even certain private thoughts and forms of banter should be enough to deprive one of a job at the BBC and presumably in any other major public institution.

Macpherson’s tyrannical call to police private speech is being introduced informally, by stealth, with the assistance of Twittermobs and a scandal-hungry media, leading to a situation where we might not have an actual law against using offensive speech in the home but we do have an unofficial army of speech-watchers just waiting to expose the private expression of problematic thoughts and to punish the expressers. There is surely only one solution to the alleged scourge of people saying bad things in private – put a telescreen in every home to capture our banter and alert the morality police to the utterance of dark or daft thoughts.

We are witnessing an historic rewinding of the values of the Enlightenment itself. That liberal, freedom-loving turn in thought in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was in large part about guarding individuals from punishment for their private beliefs and ideals. Following the calamity of the Inquisition, in which people were hauled before religious authorities and explicitly tried and punished for the contents of their hearts and minds, the new, more Enlightened era was about guaranteeing mankind freedom of conscience, the right to feel certain things, and to express them, without fear of punishment. As the great seventeenth-century English jurist Edward Coke put it, ‘No man, ecclesiastical or temporal, shall be examined upon the secret thoughts of his heart, or of his secret opinion’. The seventeenth-century liberal philosopher Thomas Hobbes likewise distinguished between our private minds and public lives, writing: ‘The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, profane, clean, obscene, grave and light, without shame, or blame; which verball discourse cannot do, farther than the judgement shall approve of the time, place and persons.’ In short, there ought to be a special freedom given to private and secret thoughts and speech, though we might naturally curtail our utterances in a particular ‘time and place’ and among certain ‘persons’.

Today, we are once again ‘examined upon the secret thoughts of our heart’. The right of our secret thoughts to run over the profane and obscene ‘without shame or blame’ is being demolished. The Inquisitorial mindset is returning, this time dressed in PC rather than religious garb, and it is insisting that individuals should be made to pay a heavy price indeed for the content of their souls and minds and private conversations. If we allow this to go any further, we will witness the diminution of civilisation itself, for without a private space in which we can fully be ourselves, and be totally open and honest and unguarded with those we trust and love, we cannot be fully human; we cannot work out who we are, or what we believe, or how we will present ourselves in public life and what we will do there.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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