Monday, October 08, 2012

Cole v Shearer: how the media damage free speech

If Alan Shearer has the right to get paid vast sums of money to use the national public service broadcaster as a pulpit for criticising Ashley Cole, including calling for him to be banned from the England team, does Cole have the right to respond by highlighting a comment of another Twitter user which said:
"Alan Shearer says @TheRealAC3 needs to be banned for comments. I want his opinion on bans for kicking Neil Lennon in the head. #GlassHouses"
The comment refers to this incident in a Newcastle v Leicester match in 1998 when Shearer kicked Neil Lennon in the face. Shearer was England captain at the time. Lennon now manages Glasgow Celtic.

The tweet has now been removed from Cole's account, presumably on the receipt of advice or possibly second thoughts about the stink it might cause.

During a regular appearance on Match of the Day on Saturday Shearer called for Cole to be banned because he posted the following on Twitter on Friday (also subsequently removed from his account):
""Hahahahaa, well done #fa I lied did I, #BUNCHOFTWATS."
On balance I'd suggest deliberately kicking someone in the face is a more serious offence than calling the FA a bunch of twats. So it was a pretty reasonable question from Cole and the supporter he quoted really.

Given the sensitivities of the modern media ecology, starved as it is of celebrity opinion [sic] and the capacity to comment thereon, whether he was #wise to ask it on Twitter is another issue. The 'acceptable' approach might have been to ignore Shearer or issue a statement through an agent to "express disappointment at the former England captain's comments".

The newspapers and broadcasters have raised an almighty storm around this. Yet they are the first to complain when players and clubs employ PR people to lock them out and keep players and managers "on message".  The injection of Twitter gives them an extra excuse to go over the top. I've asked the question before but what is it about Twitter that makes the conventional media and authorities lose all sense of proportion?

The sight of the BBC getting it's underwear in an unholy twist over the inability to include the word "twat" in any of its many broadcast stories about the furore has been somewhat amusing. "Twat" hardly comes anywhere near the top of the table of explosive expletives. Until the BBC police got exorcised about it I wasn't even inclined to think of it as being in the top division - too weedy or apologetic to qualify as a proper insult really. The long line of journalists, commentators' and ex-footballers' uncontrolled (or dare I say feigned?) anger at Cole's FA twat comment, however, has been something to behold.  It's fairly doubtful that any of these bandwagon critics have not called the FA something significantly stronger than "twat" on more than one occasion during the course of their careers. And you know what? Good for them. They are entitled to their opinion. It does feel a bit like hypocrisy to now stir up the twitter/media lynch mob to target Cole, though.

We live in a democratic state that allegedly values freedom of expression. That means people like Shearer and Cole who live in the football and media bubble that has little connection with the real world are also entitled to speak freely. Shearer has a media approval rating that currently grants him the privilege of a large salary, large audience and the capacity to say things that are valued by those media, because of who he is rather than what he says. Giving Shearer effectively a more approved right to speak than Cole is a classic demonstration of the country's and the media circus's incapacity to apply the value of free speech, even before the addition of a large captive broadcast audience is factored in.

Should Shearer be sanctioned by the BBC for calling for someone to be suspended from work for saying something he found disagreeable? Of course not. Will he be? No.

Should Cole be sanctioned by the FA for saying something they, many in the media and the FA themselves disapproved of? No. Will he be? Yes.

If freedom of expression means anything, it means that free speech must be granted to those whose opinions are nasty, disagreeable, indefensible, outrageous, despicable, disgraceful, disgusting, idiotic and sometimes just different, surprising, incredible, unthinkable, implausible and paradigm shifting.

Freedom of expression is a right to speak, not a right to an audience. It's also a right not to be oppressed, harassed, persecuted, ill-treated or locked away by the state for your beliefs, thoughts or statements. It is to be hoped that our society as well as our state would value such rights.  Though in the UK there is no absolute free speech privilege and all manner of ways to trip over criminal sanctions for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way in the wrong place - s127 (1)(a) Communications Act 2003, s4-5 Public Order Act 1986, s1 Malicious Communications Act 1988, Contempt of Court Act 1981 (as amended 1991) and a host of anti terror regulations to name a few.

Every time the rabid news media stir a storm or incite a virtual lynch mob over a misplaced word or phrase by a 'celebrity', a politician, or whichever poor unfortunate becomes the latest to come to public attention, then they hammer another nail in the cause of freedom of expression and healthy democracy.   

It is already impossible to hold an informed public debate on challenging issues. The substance is set aside as the media frenziedly feed on an inarticulately phrased comment or poorly chosen word. Meaning is distorted and politicians resort to soundbite and bullet points to get their message across. So Romney comfortably wins a televised presidential debate by trotting out camera friendly practiced phrases and Obama loses by inarticulately trying to explain government is complicated. The party conference season in the UK sees the same empty soundbite nonsense trotted out here with the media primed to pounce on the first politician that says something off message.

The Cole v Shearer storm in a teacup will blow over and the football carnival is not that important in the scheme of things but the collateral damage these events do to the real world is worth paying attention to. Let people speak.  Then ignore them, debate them, explain the error of their ways to them or others, educate or just sit on the sidelines and treat it as entertainment, if you think it worthy of your attention. But let them speak.

I don't trust myself, the FA, the media or the government to determine who should be allowed to speak, where, about what, when, through what media, whatever the motivation of the speaker. So let them speak and to use an old cliche deal with bad speech through better speech. Banning from the workplace, threatening and/or sending in the 'something must be done' lynch mob are all disproportionate responses to a couple of footballers having a verbal/comment spat.