People get a bit confused about freedom of speech. They don’t always see the line between “being allowed to talk” and “other people having to listen”. It’s a conversation I have every so often in the comments here – the fact that you’re not allowed to say something on our website does not mean you’re not allowed to say it (comments are off, by the way). And I’ve seen people complain, when some celebrity or other blocks them on Twitter for one abusive tweet too many, that they’ve had their freedom of speech trampled on. No: the celebrity has simply employed their freedom to ignore you.
This morning, the BBC will be employing the “free speech” defence. They had Anjem Choudary, the fringe Islamist extremist – who calls for the imposition of sharia in Britain, and the whipping of Muslim restaurateurs in London’s Brick Lane if they serve alcohol – talking about the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the prime 8.10am interview slot on the Today programme. That’s the slot they usually give to people like George Osborne or Ed Miliband. You know, quite important people. They will, without doubt, argue that it’s important that all voices be heard.
But that is, without wanting to put too fine a point on it, nonsense. Choudary no more represents mainstream British Muslims that the Westboro Baptist Church represents American Christians. He is a fringe voice in a fringe community. He has, for instance, 6,700 Twitter followers – around half that, to pick an example pretty much at random, of Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge. His YouTube channel, in which he talks about the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, has 1,300 subscribers. For comparison, the Slow Mo Guys, two British public schoolboys who blow stuff up and film it on a super-high-speed camera and say “dude” a lot, have somewhat over three million.
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My point is, no one actually cares what this guy thinks, apart from a few furious bedroom loners. He is not a great leader of the Muslim disaffected. He is not the voice of radical Islam. He’s a Muslim David Icke.
The thing is, it’s obvious why the BBC have got him on. As someone who commissions pieces around here, I know the temptation, and so does everyone else on every newspaper. It’s the same reason the Sun have hired Katie Hopkins, and why she gets so many appearances on BBC Breakfast: because she’ll say something outrageous and get the Twittersphere raging and get people like me writing pieces about how ghastly it is and so on, and it’ll get lots of rubbernecking car-crash traffic from people rubbing themselves all over in the thrill of being appalled. (“And how does I’m-so-appalled traffic show up in the ratings?” “It shows up the same, my friend. It shows up just the same.”)
You can’t, sadly, defend it like that, by saying “we run it because you idiots will click on it”. Not if you’re the BBC, and you’re supposed to be above such grubby things. So you say that you’re “starting a conversation”, and that you’re “allowing all voices to be heard”. In a liberal democracy, you say, gravely, it is important that we defend the right of free speech, even for those of whom we disapprove.
And that’s true. But – and this is where we came in – defending the right of free speech does not mean providing a platform. It does not mean giving a loudhailer. It does not mean giving a man who (thankfully) only a minority of people have heard of, who represents nobody but a lunatic fringe, an audience of millions, so that he can tell them that Britain is a war zone.
Anjem Choudary is an idiot and a thug, who wants to exploit the horror of Woolwich to make his own fatuous points about British foreign policy (as though Michael Adebowale’s mental illness was brought about by the invasion of Iraq). He should be free to do so, in his hate-filled little corner of the internet. But by giving this Samantha Brick of radical Islam a platform, the BBC has gone beyond “defending free speech” and started trolling us.
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