Wednesday 1 April 2015

Punishing pernicious bigotry is not irreconcilable with free speech

What informs my views on the latest utterances of Katie Hopkins is being comments administrator for three websites. We get comments from the cretinous, the deranged, the hostile and the downright slanderous. I delete them on sight. Kipperish views are two a penny, you can find them anywhere on the internet, they subtract and divert rather than adding to the debate - and a flame war does nothing for the quality of the debate and drags down the reputation of the website, as indeed Kippers do to Breitbart - which is already held in low esteem. So in effect I am a regulator of speech.

I don't control the debate. I welcome disagreement and encourage it, but I clearly set out the terms that people may not be abusive, misrepresent the views of others or use bigoted and crass language. Consequently our sites are often praised for wide ranging and thorough adult debate, and that is something you just won't find on unregulated sites. Good debate and civil discourse is 50% of any website's value. I am no fan of the Guardian for its values but I respect it above all other newspapers in that the quality of debate in the comments surpasses any other. Those wishing to make a point who phrase it in rational and measured terms can voice an opposing view and will get a hearing. That's why I read their comments and not those on the Telegraph and Breitbart. It's not about being politically correct, it's about being polite and accurate and not appropriating sensitive subjects for self-gratification and amusement from the fallout.

It's true I sometimes get good comments deleted by sneaky mods at the Guardian but there are skilful ways of sneaking a point past them. They get it wrong sometimes but it's better to have some regulation than none at all because otherwise all you get is unproductive ego driven noise and bickering. This is the reason why debates have chairmen - to keep things in check. Eventually commenters learn the boundaries and learn that if they want to make a point then they must approach it with wit, respect and skill. Consequently I see no reason why bigots in the public eye should not be excluded from the national debate for the same reason. After all, what is politics if not a debate?

Nobody is saying you can't criticise a faith or race or culture. You can expect to be challenged on it, but no thought is policed nor is any voice or idea stifled - except for those self-serving malevolent individuals who wish to exploit that debate - not for the purposes of promoting greater understanding, but to pour petrol on bonfires for their own amusement and self gratification.

Those in the public eye, without the mechanism of accountability that MPs have are put into prominence by an exploitative media monopoly. They answer to no-one in that despite the fact few part with money for their wares, they still have a disproportionate and unrepresentative voice in the national debate. There needs to be a mechanism by which such people are held to account for stoking up bigotry when they have a force multiplier like Twitter and act as enablers of malicious prejudice. Punishing pernicious bigotry is not irreconcilable with free speech.

Whatever that measure may be, be it a public accountability order, or incitement prosecution, it must apply to those who knowingly abuse their influence. I'm not talking about jailing dissenting people. But in the case of Hopkins, I wouldn't mind seeing her hauled in front of a judge for her to be confronted with the profundity of her idiocy and a sentence of community service be imposed to visit Rochdale and Rotherham to meet the Muslims she maligns, and to listen to the testimony of the specialists and experts attempting to understand the issues and to prevent Child Sexual Exploitation in ways she is too lazy and stupid to attempt. And that might include talking to Simon Danczuk, whom she is so eager to slander.

I sincerely hope that the far right rally in Rochdale does not materialise, but if it does, it's Hopkins who can take a bow. But the racist abuse that follows her worthless interjections, she takes some responsibility. It is her doing. She enjoys a privileged position and has abused it - and wilful ignorance such as hers should not be tolerated or given house room.

We can have a free and far reaching debate about sensitive issues without the likes of her and if we uphold a standard in public debate, like the Guardian, all participants will get the message eventually. Those who approach debate with honest intentions will be heard. Those who don't will not. The product is better debate - not stifled debate. The power to bully, harass and incite is not free speech. It is malevolence. And why should any of us tolerate that?

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