The Observer has removed Julie Burchill’s controversial article, in which she insulted transgender people, from its site, leading many to complain that the paper is guilty of censorship. The Telegraph has gleefully reprinted the article, and its blogger Toby Young, an old friend of Burchill, has penned a piece lambasting the Observer for their decision.
This raises a couple of interesting questions about free speech: Is removing a writer’s article from a website, in effect de-publishing it, an act of censorship? And if it is, is that censorship justifiable?
Our intuitions about what counts as censorship vary according to the particular situation in which the speech is forbidden. If for some unfathomable reason Julie Burchill decided that she really wanted to write a similar piece of bigotry for my own blog but I refused to publish it, that would hardly count as censorship. There are plenty of other places Burchill could go to print her stuff, and the proprietor of a particular platform is not obliged to give space to people or speech just because that person wants them to. If they were I would be complaining vociferously about how this country’s national press just won’t print my stuff!
It feels differently, however, when the platform is a national newspaper that has repeatedly published material by the writer in question before, as is true in this case. The Observer is a national newspaper, and as such it is part of our public sphere, a place where issues are to be debated. Its editors have in effect blocked off a part of the public sphere to a writer they deem to be offensive. As Burchill is a prominent journalist whose views many are eager to read, the Observer is denying those readers that chance, which does indeed seem like censorship.
But is that censorship justified? As the Telegraph’s witty blogger Tim Stanley pointed out, Burchill’s prose could have been “recited in the middle of a pub fight”. She refers to transexuals as “trannies”, “shemales”, and “shims”, words no doubt uttered by many a red-faced boozer across the land. There can be little doubt many in the transsexual community would find such language offensive. Indeed the LGBT hate crime charity Galop have expressed their “overwhelming sense of sadness and anger”, adding that articles like Burchill’s “help create a society that allows [harassment of transsexuals] to happen”.
Sensibly Galop have rejected calls to prosecute Burchill under any hate speech legislation, but they have reported her to the Press Complaints Commission (She must be pertified!). It will be interesting to see what the PCC thinks about this, especially after the criticism they have endured since the phone-hacking scandal.
My own personal view is that the Observer should not have published the piece because it was a crudely offensive attack on a persecuted minority, but, importantly, their publishing it should not be criminalised. People should be free to say the things Burchill said, but national newspapers should be wary of publishing them.