Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity?

4:45 pm - January 28th 2010

by Unity    

      Share on Tumblr

It’s often said that pride comes/goes before a fall.

In the case of public figures, it’s always struck me that the thing that most often seems lead to their downfall is that, over time, they come to believe in their own publicity. Margaret Thatcher is, perhaps, a case in point. Could the obvious inflexibility and intransigence she demonstrated during the latter part of her period of office, even with her own Cabinet ministers, have arisen simply because she had come to believe in her own public image as the ‘Iron Lady’.

That’s really a question for historians and future biographers to speculate on. For our purposes its enough to take the view that such things are possible and that the effort it takes to live up to a carefully constructed public image may well have untended and unfortunate consequences and side-effects.

Bearing that in mind, I’m becoming just a little worried that Liberty is starting to head down that same route and that its increasingly trying just a little bit too hard to live up to a public image that has, for the most part, been built up simply by picking the bushels of low-hanging fruit created for it by New Labour.

By any reasonable standards, Jon Gaunt is a low-rent, self-opinionated, hectoring, toe-rag. If the media actually had a hairy arse, Gaunt would be a tagnut hanging off the hairs around its sphincter, right next to Richard Littlejohn and Carole Malone.

In November 2008, Gaunt was sacked by Talksport after getting into an on-air row with Redbridge councillor, Michael Stark, over proposed changes to the council’s policy on foster care placements that would, if implemented, prevent smokers from fostering children in the borough.

As arguments go, this looks very much like a classic case of two bald men fighting over a comb. While it’s not unreasonable to treat smoking as a salient factor in risk assessments undertaken before a placement is approved, the imposition of an arbitrary no smoking policy smacks of the kind bureaucratic laziness for which councils are frequently, and rightly, lambasted.

On the other hand, even Gaunt apologised and admitted on-air, after the interview, that he’d ‘lost it’, as is clearly evident in the published transcripts of the show:

JG: “OK, so now we’re getting to it. So, therefore, somebody who says: ‘Yes, I like a fag – I smoke 10, 20 a day – but I’ve never smoked in the house; I smoke outside’ – that person would not be allowed to be a foster parent?”

MS: “No, because the trouble is, Jon, they do smoke in the house.”

JG: “How do you know that?”

MS: “Because we have councillors on our council who are smokers and they say: ‘We never smoke in the building, there’s a policy – we wouldn’t dream …’ You go in their offices, there they are, puffing away illegally as they drop it on the floor.”

JG: “So you are a Nazi then?”

MS: “Erm, I find that …”

JG: “So, you are, because – you are, you’re a Nazi …”

MS: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no …”

JG: “Because what you’re saying, what you’re saying …”

MS: “I’m not going to let you just say that, or whatever you’re going to say next. That is an offensive, insulting remark that is emotive and brings discussion down to the lowest key …”

It is, I think, a hell of a reach to arrive at a blanket assessment of the likely behaviour of putative foster parents based on anecdotal ‘evidence’ of what councillors get up to in their office when they think no one’s looking, which is really the argument that Gaunt should have gone for. But, he didn’t – he went for the ‘you’re a Nazi’ angle instead and got himself fired as a result.

Within days, Liberty were on the case and openly criticising TalkSport for the decision to dispense with Gaunt’s services, which is fair enough, even if Shami Chakrabati’s letter to the station’s management rather over-eggs the pudding:

Chakrabarti, in a letter to TalkSport management, said: “As someone who has been on the receiving end of Jon Gaunt’s blunt polemic … I believe that the airwaves of a great democracy would be the poorer for his absence.”

I’m not entirely sure about the ‘poorer for his absence’ bit. That’s a bit like saying that the quality of hospital-acquired infections would be all the poorer for the absence of MRSA, but as a matter of general principle and proportionality, Gaunt’s actions look to have merited nothing more than a stiff bollocking from the station manager. Give or take the fact that Gaunt was also threatening to sue TalkSport for breach of contract, that would have been that, were it not for the fifty-three listeners who forwarded complaints to Ofcom about the same interview.

Its worth stressing, at this point, that in the sequence of events leading up to Gaunt’s dismissal  there is absolutely no mention at all, in any of the media coverage, of any complaints to Ofcom. In fact, Ofcom didn’t get around to issuing a ruling on the complaints it received until May 2009, six months after the incident for which Gaunt was sacked, and when it did, it merely ‘censured’ Gaunt on the basis that the interview:

“had the potential to cause offence to many listeners by virtue of the language used and the manner in which Jon Gaunt treated his interviewee”.

“The offensive language used to describe Stark, and what would be considered to be a persistently bullying and hectoring approach take by Jon Gaunt towards his guest, exceeded the expectations of the audience of this programme,”

TalkSport were found to be in breach of two clauses of Ofcom code of practice (2.1 and 2.3) but there were no sanctions imposed on them. In essence, TalkSport were told that they’d let the side down, had pissed off some of their listeners and that they should make a bit more of an effort not to do the same in future.

Just under a month later, Ofcom’s regular bulletin notes that the ruling on Gaunt’s interview has been amended to reflect representations made by Gaunt in respect to the account of the events leading to his sacking that TalkSport had given Ofcom. Sure enough, the ruling as it exists today does include a footnote to this effect, which states that:

Following the original publication of this Finding on 11 May 2009, Ofcom received representations from Jon Gaunt disputing matters stated by Talksport in relation to him as set out in this section.

In particular, he disputed that the requirement to remain within the Code was ever made clear to him by Talksport, stating that he had received no training in this respect. He denied that he had been warned by the programme producer and assistant producer that the interview with Michael Stark might be emotive for him, given his own experience of being in care as a child. He also disputed that he had received any instructions from Talksport production staff to “calm down” during the interview; or retract his use of the word “Nazi”; or telling him to conclude the interview.

Jon Gaunt maintained that he decided to apologise on air of his own volition, without any advice, instruction or prompting from Talksport production staff; and that he himself decided to conclude the interview.

Ofcom put the substance of Jon Gaunt’s representations to Talksport, who in turn disputed Jon Gaunt’s account of events. Ofcom therefore notes that there are areas of dispute between Talksport and Jon Gaunt as regards the surrounding circumstances of the 7 November 2008 broadcast and the steps taken by Talksport in relation to it.

On the face of it, the points that Gaunt disputes are those you’d expect him to go after if his intention was to sue Talksport for breach of contract, in order to prevent the company from introducing the Ofcom ruling in court as concrete evidence of its actions. It appears, at this point, that Gaunt is simply putting down a marker for impending litigation against TalkSport.

However, its now emerge that it’s not TalkSport but Ofcom that Gaunt has his sights fixed on and so, this week, he’s been to the High Court, with the backing of Liberty, to set out his case for a judicial review of the Ofcom ruling on the rather dubious premise that a minor bollocking placed on record some six months after he got the sack amounts an infringement of his rights under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

And it also seems that the High Court has agreed that Gaunt actually has an arguable case – although fuck knows why, if the boneheaded rhetoric that’s being spewed out by both Chakrabarti and Gaunt is any reflection of their legal arguments. In just the one Guardian article, published before the High Court ruling, we’ve got Chakrabarti playing the ‘we didn’t fight the war, so…” card and Gaunt railing [inevitably] against “faceless government-appointed bureaucrats” before giving it the full Hancock:

“Ofcom overstepped its remit in my case, and infringed the free speech which I and every other British citizen has enjoyed since the time of Magna Carta. I do not intend to allow an unelected quango like Ofcom to rob me of my right to free speech.”

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? – Fuck me, enough with the clichés already.

And if things weren’t already ridiculous enough, up pops Corinna Ferguson, barrister and legal officer at Liberty with the absurd claim that Gaunt’s minor victory in convincing the High Court that he has an arguable case – not a winnable case, mind, just an arguable one – has somehow marked Ofcom’s ‘card’.

In reality, it’s far too early to read anything into this case other than the fact that the High Court want to take a look at it. Not only is the case not yet up on BAILI, so it’s not yet possible to assess the judge’s reasoning in allowing it to go forward to a full judicial review. But its also not unknown for cases to be allowed through to full judicial review simply so they can be properly slapped down by the court, if its felt that this is likely to generate a useful or important precedent.

Declaring a victory at this point, when its only half-time, is both rather hubristic and has to potential to backfire if the second-half doesn’t go anything like as well as Liberty might have hoped.

There are a number of things going on here that are worthy of closer scrutiny.

Perhaps the most obvious point to raise in connection with this case is that of the identity of Gaunt’s current employer, The Sun newspaper, where he’s both a columnist and a presenter of a talk radio show on the paper’s own internet radio station. Gaunt’s primary source of income comes from the back pocket of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, in turn, has a vested interest in hammering the credibility of Ofcom in an effort to spike its proposals to increase competition in the Pay TV market by forcing Sky to cut the wholesale prices that it charges competitors for its premium sports and movie channels. Like many obscenely wealth capitalists, Murdoch loves competition as long it enables him to build a near monopoly on the market, but is far less keen on it when it threatens to eat into his margins.

On a broader note, Gaunt’s case also seems to fit neatly into an emerging pattern of attacks by commercial media interests, and the people who work for them, against the growing number of avenues that Joe Public is using, very effectively in some cases, to answer back and hold the mainstream media to account.

It’s noticeable that amongst the empty-headed rhetoric deployed in an effort to sell Gaunt to the public as something of martyr to the cause of free speech, the line about people not having a right not to be offended has been trotted out. This is perfectly true but its comes with the caveat that this in no sense means that people do not have the right to be offended and to criticise and complain after the fact. The relevant quotation here is, in fact, that attributed to Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, on being informed of the courtesan Harriette Wilson’s intention to publish her memoirs, which are one of the earliest examples of what would today be called a ‘kiss and tell’.

Publish and be Damned!

She did, and the book remains in print today.

Today’s media seems to be increasingly fixated on a desire to reassert what Stanley Baldwin called ‘the privilege of the harlot’; an unfettered right to publish as they see fit under conditions in which they are entirely free of the risk of being damned. This is not without some degree of justification given that the pernicious nature of English libel law and the recent, and ad hoc, development of a new law of privacy courtesy of the sometimes less than tender ministration of Justice Eady can, and does, have a chilling effect on legitimate free speech. It does not, however, automatically follow from that that the media is justified in wheeling out free speech as a defence on each and every occasion that they do something that pisses people off or that individuals working in the media are entitled to an unfettered platform to voice their opinions without criticism or censure.

Gaunt is welcome to say what he likes – that is the essence of free speech – but it doesn’t also confer on him the right to a fad wad of cash and a daily radio show. The same is also true of Jan Moir, who famously dropped one of the biggest bollocks in recent press history with her reprehensible comments on the death of Stephen Gately, or Rod Liddle, who recently made an arse of himself with comments posted to an independent forum for fans of Millwall Football Club. As private citizens they can say what the hell they like, but that right doesn’t automatically come with the right to a regular column in the Daily Mail or the editor’s job at the Indy and it certainly does not come with the right not to take flak from Joe Public for talking a load of offensive shite.

Finally, and it pains me to have to say this, there are questions to be asked about Liberty’s sense of its own priorities.

While I’m sure that Gaunt appreciates having Liberty in his corner, there are one or two other issues kicking around in which the protection of the right to free speech is rather a central issue.

There is, for example, the campaign for reform of English Libel law, which is being co-ordinated jointly by English Pen and Index on Censorship and also what is, perhaps, the signature case linked to that campaign at the present time, the libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh. It may well have escaped Liberty’s notice but that last case appears to have been deemed important enough, by the Court of Appeal, for it to have lined up an unprecedented array of legal heavy hitters to hear Singh’s upcoming appeal against the hospital pass of a ruling by Justice Eady that left him looking at an almost indefensible case.

There also the little matter of the growing use of so-called ‘super-injunctions’ to suppress both the publication of criticism, and other adverse information relating to the conduct of certain wealthy corporate interests – particularly the kind that has its toxic sludge dumped on African landfill sites trades under the name ‘Trafigura’ – and public knowledge of the existence of the injunction itself.

Regrettably, it has to be said that if you take the time to bone up on any of these issues then the only time you’ll encounter the word ‘liberty’ sporting a capital letter is at the start of a new sentence. Liberty, the organisation, has been a conspicuous feature of these campaigns only, to date, by its absence. In fact, you could be entirely forgiven, particularly in view of its involvement in Gaunt’s case –for thinking that the organisation is rapidly turning into the ‘corporate rock whore’ of the civil liberties movement in the UK.

It’s also worth noting that the other case that currently occupying the best legal minds that Liberty has to offer is the utterly fatuous case of Nadia Eweida, the British Airways employee who decided that the company’s dress code didn’t apply to her because she’s a Christian and wearing a cross outside her uniform was her way of showing BA’s passengers that god loves them – pass the sickbag, please!

On the business of wearing crosses, I’ll freely admit to being firmly with Bill Hicks:

“A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? It’s like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a rifle pendant.”

As for the case itself, by far the best and most sensible analysis of this whole steaming pile of toss has come from Carl Gardner, aka Head of Legal:

The case isn’t actually about freedom of religion, but religious discrimination under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003. Under them, religious believers have claimed the right to discriminate against gay people at work and the right to be fully veiled when working with children. Add to this claims of a human right to wear the jilbab and the purity ring at school, and it’s clear we now have a specifically religious litigation culture (what might be called “religitigation”) in which believers and activists attempt by law to extend their rights over others.

Because equality with the non-religious isn’t Eweida’s aim. BA’s policy bans workers from wearing political symbols, too – some staff may be upset about that. But Eweida doesn’t want to be treated the same as them: she claims she should have been treated more favourably. What makes her think BA’s rules should not apply to her (and they now have been changed) is simply that the symbol she wants to wear is a religious one. Why, though, should religious jewellery be in a category apart, the freedom to wear it more protected by law than the freedom to wear any necklace? That isn’t freedom, but religious privilege.

The only thing I can see to commend either of these cases is the publicity value attached to them, and if that’s where Liberty are going then what’s the fucking point.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  

About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
· Other posts by

Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Law

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Reader comments

Today’s media seems to be increasingly fixated on a desire to reassert what Stanley Baldwin called ‘the privilege of the harlot’;

A classic line – “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” Fun fact – the line was written for Baldwin by Rudyard Kipling. Fun fact 2 – Kipling was Baldwin’s cousin.

Whenever anyone refers to the Magna Carta I just assume they’ve lost the argument, like with Godwin’s Law (appropriately).

TalkSport sacked Tommy Boyd too, for failing to censor a caller who said the royal family should be shot. I’m not sure that either that or Gaunt’s offence demand the sack. But of all the people whose causes I could fight, Gaunt wouldn’t exactly come very high up. “The religion of socialism is the language of priorities”, etc etc

3. astateofdenmark

This sort of thing is happening to most NGOs and advocacy groups. They’re forgetting who they are.

It’s why I stopped donating to Amnesty.

Whenever anyone refers to the Magna Carta I just assume they’ve lost the argument, like with Godwin’s Law

That’s because you’re a Nazi 🙂

OK. Being serious.

Whatever you think of Gaunt (and I enjoyed your hairy arsed media analogy) it’s not good enough to describe the actions of the Council by saying the imposition of an arbitrary no smoking policy smacks of the kind bureaucratic laziness for which councils are frequently, and rightly, lambasted.

If you define totalitarianism as The principle of government according to which all institutional and private arrangements are subject to control by the state then the Council acting to veto foster care placements because one of the prospective parents is a smoker fits the bill. It is a positive policy- more pernicious than “bureauocratic laziness”.

Whilst Gaunt was over the top in calling the implementer of the policy a Nazi (a term that brings with it all sorts of other baggage) the National Socialists were a well known totalitarian political party.

It would have been much more appropriate to have called him a Stalinist.

And he might have kept his job.

Fascinating to see one of Rupe’s Troops trying it on.

Especially considering how accommodating Young Dave has been towards Rupe and Junior so far: keeping Murdoch “family member” Andy Coulson in employment, saying he’ll effectively wind up Ofcom for having the effrontery to suggest Sky drop the price they charge other media outlets for content, and Jeremy Hunt telling that he’ll rip up the Beeb’s charter.

Otherwise, I’m concerned that your opinion of Jon Gaunt is worryingly high. I certainly wouldn’t make any Hancock comparison – more like Derek and Clive meet Paul Dacre.

Anyone who makes lazy comparisons with the Nazis is a Brownshirt.

(Sorry, sally was busy)

As to the crucifix, what’s the problem? Really? I’m an atheist and proud of it: I point and laugh at religious symbols – but if you deprive someone of employment simply for expressing their beliefs they might ban smug grins next.

This is a pathetic post. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion all attacked. Why shouldn’t someone (moron or not) be allowed to use the electromagnetic spectrum to call someone a Nazi? You can object to their speech all you want, but take government action against it? Why?

If tomorrow I set up my own printing press, or website, should I have less free speech on there than in my own home? Why? Because of the format of the speech? Because of the number of readers? Why?

What you seem to be saying is that the more popular a publication, the less free speech rights it has. We wouldn’t want it becoming too powerful to challenge the ruling classes, is that right?

As for the religion point, what bollocks. Why is Gardner talking of “rights over others”? It’s quite simple. A Christian lady wants to wear a necklace with a cross on it. BA said she couldn’t as they have a uniform policy of no necklaces (and as such they argue it’s not religious discrimination since it’s a blanket policy). However, it’s argued (and I agree) that religious liberty should only interfered with by employers when it makes sense i.e. when there are rational business reasons to say “no necklaces”. Since there doesn’t appear to be to me, BA was in the wrong. If you contrast it with the case linked above of the teacher wanting to wear the veil, there are strong reasons why a teacher’s face needs to be seen by the children being taught (so as long as it’s a blanket ban on anything covering the face, it’s not religious discrimination). Such strong reasons don’t exist in my book to interfere with the Christian lady’s religious freedom in the BA case.

Gardner’s point about how religious freedom shouldn’t be any different from any other freedom is nonsense. There are many good reasons and lesson from history why secularism is important. France, America and Turkey have tried to learn these lessons. It’s time we did too.

Why Gardner brings up those 4 cases I have no idea. In all 4 cases the religious person failed (in fact in one of them Liberty were on the side against the religious person). Does the fact that the cases were brought prove something? Not as far as I can tell.

I find it unusual for a liberal and a leftist to be arguing in favour of big business and against religious and worker freedom.

So free speech is so important that nothing else must be allowed to happen in an organisation devoted to it, unless it’s free speech for people who aren’t atheist socialists, in which case it’s negotiable.

no 10

Read the story, Liberty are not generally opposing Ofcom’s role but saying that in the case of Jon of Gaunt the regulator overstepped the mark because of his “robust” style of programme. Exceptions make bad cases. (also Ofcom didn’t actually ban Gaunt, he has a new job).

I’ve see people on demos getting lifted for shouting Nazis at the cops or BNP. I can think of a lot of people who get removed from workplaces for what they say or do and even wear – they’re called trade union activists. I don’t see Liberty and the “right to free speech” brigade vociferous in their support of any of these people.

But then I am Marxist and the cases above only confirm to me that there is no universal human rights and that for all the bluster about the right to be offensive it really is a cover for the right of the powerful to bully the weak. When a libertarian actually offends the powerful I might listen.

BTW if Liberty is going to make silly comparisons with the Nazis and Gaunt is going to blag on about Magna Carta and free speech (a laughable interpretation of the carta), maybe they shouldn’t be entrusted with defending free speech as they know very little about it.

13. Alisdair Cameron

There is (or at least should be) the right to free speech. What there isn’t is a right to have a high-profile platform.Therefore, Liberty is correct in opposing Ofcom, whose objections seem to be to the content of what Gaunt said (which was plain lazy language, but on this point, and this point alone of his, his highlighting of totalitarian tendencies has merit).However Liberty’s attacks on talkSport have less substance: while (via free speech) Liberty can of course criticise, it is TalkSport’s platform and they have the right to stop someone using it for whatever reason they choose.

Something of a confession to make here: I do hope Shami does trip up and thus need to move on.

Of all the jobs possible (full time that is) in the political/think tank/campaigning world the only one I truly, truly desire is hers.

Stomping around shouting about civil liberties, calling out the (insert swear word here) on their demolitions of the system we painfully built up over the generations: it would just be so much fun. And I think I’d be good at it…..

“Like many obscenely wealth capitalists, Murdoch loves competition as long it enables him to build a near monopoly on the market, but is far less keen on it when it threatens to eat into his margins.”

In one sentence, we have the greatest definition of why the ‘free’ market is a figment of Adam Smiths imagination. Murdoch and many others like him have no affiliation to free speech or free markets, they have an interest in ‘free’ products and acquisitions (the future BBC infrastructure and website users) and selling them on for a profit or bleeding the ‘users’ out of as much money as the evil regulators will let him.

“By any reasonable standards, Jon Gaunt is a low-rent, self-opinionated, hectoring, toe-rag. If the media actually had a hairy arse, Gaunt would be a tagnut hanging off the hairs around its sphincter, right next to Richard Littlejohn and Carole Malone.”

Graphic language, mental image has caused permanent damage, but the comparison is fantastic. The sphincter press community, the future of British freedom of speech.

“In one sentence, we have the greatest definition of why the ‘free’ market is a figment of Adam Smiths imagination.”

We do? Oh my.

And there wa I thinking that Adam Smith had actually warned us about businessmen, monopolies and combinations….

“We do? Oh my.

And there wa I thinking that Adam Smith had actually warned us about businessmen, monopolies and combinations….”

I agree. That is the point, clearly badly made, that the free market is a brilliant economic principle, but does not exist in the real global economy.

Kiefer @12:

Liberty are not generally opposing Ofcom’s role but saying that in the case of Jon of Gaunt


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity?

  2. Andy1120

    RT @libcon Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity?

  3. Newspaper News

    Liberal Conspiracy » Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free …: Perhaps the most obvious point to raise in con…

  4. Unity

    RT @libcon: Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity?

  5. Doug Goff

    Liberal Conspiracy » Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free …

  6. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by libcon: Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity?

  7. Tweets that mention Liberal Conspiracy » Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity? --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, Doug Goff, Newspaper News, Andy1120, Unity and others. Unity said: RT @libcon: Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity? […]

  8. George Allwell

    Liberal Conspiracy » Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity?

  9. Best of the web 25/01/10 – 31/01/10 |

    […] Liberty: Defenders of Free Speech or Free Publicity? […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.