The Big Issue, 21 January 2013
Commissioning Julie Burchill to write an op-ed and then feigning shock when she riles your readers is a bit like hiring a male stripper and being aghast when he waves his willy around.
Riling readers is what Burchill does. She’s been at it since 1976, when as a teen punk she joined the staff of the then square, prog rock-obsessed NME; she positively made pissing off Priggish of Primrose Hill into an artform during her later career as a newspaper columnist in the 1980s.
She has in her time as Fleet Street’s busiest bruiser slated gays (apparently they brought AIDS upon themselves through “copulating with the natives of faraway places”); Ireland (a “Hitler-licking, altar boy-molesting” country); and Islam (“While the history of the other religions is one of moving forward out of oppressive darkness and into tolerance, Islam is doing it the other way round”).
So it’s a bit weird that the editor of the Observer, John Mulholland, was seemingly dismayed to discover that a Burchill piece on transsexuals that he published on January 13 upset some of his readers.
It’s even weirder, and worryingly precedent-setting, that in response to shrill cries of “I’m offended” from trans people and their supporters he “withdrew” Burchill’s piece - “withdrawing” being a euphemism for censoring it, squishing it.
Burchill’s piece, as one would expect, used fruity language. In response to transsexual activists attacking the Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore for something innocuous she said in the New Statesman, Burchill said these “dicks in chicks’ clothing” and “bed-wetters in bad wigs” should stop bullying “natural-born women”.
The Twittermob went into overdrive, bombarding the Observer with spittle-flecked emails of complaint and even reporting Burchill to the cops for committing a “hate crime”.
That was a depressing enough spectacle (trans people and self-styled radical queers running to the police over being called names? The 1969 Stonewall gay-lib rioters will be mortified.) But even more depressing was the moral cowardice displayed by Mulholland, editor of a supposedly liberal paper.
This sad episode exposes what a parlous state freedom of speech is in these days. When even liberal editors can casually demolish an article in response to a small but loud online mob of professional offence-takers, you do wonder if there is anyone left who will dare publish out-there, consensus-kicking commentary.
Today, we’re elevating the feelings of the easily offended over the age-old principle of publishing and being damned. Indeed, a look back at the various blow-ups in Burchill’s own hacking career reveals the slow but steady rise of the idea that we must protect the allegedly weak from offence over the ideal of allowing writers to write what they want and readers to read or discard it.
So when Burchill wrote that absolutely scathing piece about gays and AIDS for New Society magazine in 1987, there was a storm, yes, but it was largely confined to letters pages. No one reported her to the cops and the editor of the New Society said he would never censor Burchill - gays of all people, he said, should know how wicked censorship is.
Things had moved on by 2002, when Burchill used her Guardian column to attack Ireland as a country of “compulsory child molestation” and other bad things. Then she was reported to the police, who kickstarted a shortlived, fruitless investigation into her column under the Race Relations Act. But even during that outburst of Burchill-bashing censoriousness, only three people complained about her to the Press Complaints Commission, and the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger basically told everyone to calm down - Burchill “frequently indulges in over-the-top, iconoclastic polemic”, he said.
Fast forward to 2013, and now not only do we have more people than ever reporting Burchill to every wing of officialdom that has the power to censor, but we also have a national newspaper editor unwilling to defend his writers from their censorious critics.
Burchill’s shifting fortunes over the past three decades reveal how much the parameters of Acceptable Thinking have shrunk; how much controversy-stoking has come to be frowned upon and feared; and how influential the idea of making free speech play second fiddle to individuals’ feelings has become.
The Observer’s actions set a dangerous precedent. They send a clear message to those sections of the public arrogant enough to believe they have the right to wipe from the public record any idea that offends them. That message is: “If you scream and wail and threaten, you too can have columnists who wind you up censored.”
Read more of my articles for the Big Issue and other publications here.