That Voltaire didn’t write “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” does not take away the power of those words. In any society that claims to be democratic, freedom of speech has to be the default position. But what about words that express hate of others or want to deny certain people equality or full access to all parts of society? What about violence inspired by hate speech? Or what about the effect of hate speech on the self-esteem and well being of those who are hated?
These question are at the core of the furore over boxer Tyson Fury being nominated for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) and the campaign to get him removed from the shortlist. Few would doubt that many of his comments are homophobic, misogynist and frankly disgraceful. But should he, and others who hold similar views, be sanctioned for their reprehensible words?
We already have laws criminalising incitement to violence. All of this legislation is controversial. On its website, Liberty acknowledges that freedom of expression cannot be absolute, but it goes on to say “What is controversial is the criminalisation of language which may be unpleasant, may cause offence but which is not inciting violence, criminality etc”.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell agrees. He told KaleidoScot: “Although Tyson Fury has made outrageous homophobic and sexist comments, the police investigation is excessive and unwarranted. In a free society, objectionable opinions should not be subject to police enquiries unless they involve threats, menaces, harassment or incitment to violence. Tyson has done none of these things. Just because I and others are offended by Fury’s intolerant views this is not a sufficient reason for a police investigation. Britain is a democracy, not a police state.”
The police have now dropped their investigation into Tyson Fury: no matter how offensive his statements, he has not broken the law. He is at liberty to compare my homosexuality with paedophilia. Likewise, I am at liberty to call him a bigot.
Does this mean it was okay for the BBC to shortlist him for SPOTY? And is the campaign to get him removed from the shortlist a denial of his right to express his bigotry?
In his statement to KaleidoScot, Peter Tatchell addresses this: “Justifying his continued inclusion as a nominee for Sports Peronality of the Year, the BBC claims that Fury should be judged solely on his sporting achievements. This is not the view of most sporting bodies, including the British Board of Boxing Control. The BBC is out of step with sporting professional bodies who say that prejudice has no place in sport. If Fury had made racist comments I am certain that the BBC would have never shortlisted him. This decision smacks of double standards.”
Peter Tatchell’s words were backed up by Ewan McPherson of the Glasgow based LGBTI boxing club Knockout. Speaking in a personal capacity, he told KaleidoScot: “Although Tyson Fury is entitled to speak his mind, as I think we all should be, he should be really responsible for the consequences of his actions. I’m hoping the boxing associations that Tyson is connected with do not take his comments lightly as they can have a major impact on the LGBTI community, especially young LGBTI people attending boxing gyms who may be struggling with coming out – Tyson has hardly been a great role model. I would be curious what actions would be taken had he shown prejudice against black people or other ethnic minorities – would he still be boxing?”
Olympic gold medalist Greg Rutherford was going to withdraw his SPOTY nomination because he didn’t want to share a platfrom with Tyson, but was persuaded not to.
If Tatchell, McPherson and Rutherford are right – and I believe they are – then the BBC removing Fury from the SPOTY shortlist would not be a denial of his freedom of speech. He can continue to spout his bigotry: that is his right in a democratic society. But by nominating him, the BBC is giving him a platform it is denying its own journalists. Northern Ireland newsreader Andy West has been suspended by the BBC after writing on his Facebook page: “My employer is hurting me and other gay people by celebrating someone who considers me no better than a paedophile…” Northern Ireland LGBTI activists have condemned his suspension, with Alliance LGBTI chair Micky Murray describing it as “censorship of opinion.”
Does this mean we should support the campaign to get him removed from the SPOTY shortlist? There lies a dilemma. On the one hand, if activists ignored the nomination what message would that send out to all those LGBTI people who want to be involved in sport? I have spent over 30 years challenging homophobia wherever it rears its ugly head. I don’t believe we can be silent on bigotry.
However, there is no doubt that the campaign has given Fury the opportunity to restate his bigotry on many media platforms. On last week’s edition of the satirical TV programme “Have I Got News For You” comedian Paul Merton made it clear he wasn’t prepared to give Fury any publicity and received applause from both audience and fellow contestants. UKIP leader Nigel Farage suggested that the campaign could backfire and lead to Fury winning SPOTY. Farage went further, telling the Independent that Fury’s views were “in the 1950s and 60s mainstream views.” In my experience they were also pretty mainstream in the 1970s and 80s. That they are no longer mainstream is a testament to the courage and commitment of LGBTI and feminist campaigners.
That the BBC thought it okay to nominate Fury is only one of a number of worrying aspects to this whole sorry episode, and if Fury does win (or even comes close to winning) that will be even more worrying. It is my opinion that the BBC got it wrong on this occasion, and should be criticised for doing so. It is also wrong for not changing its decision.
However, the BBC’s independence from both political and commercial pressures should be defended: it is what makes the corporation one of the most trusted news outlets in the world. In this context, interventions by some politicians calling on the BBC to withdraw the nomination are not helpful. Once the BBC is seen to respond to pressure from politicians, it will begin to lose its hard earned reputation.