News Ian O'Doherty

Tuesday 2 September 2014

People have spoken. They're tired of being told just what to think

Ian O'Doherty

Published 24/01/2014 | 02:30

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Zip it: Whatever happened to free speech?

As some of you may have noticed – and even fewer will have cared – the Press Council recently found against my good self in relation to a column about the Roma community.

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There's no point in rehashing the entire piece again, from both a reluctance to retread old ground as much as my own disinclination to give the Ombudsman yet another free shot. Long story short – lots of people agreed with the piece, some didn't and then someone called Shane O'Curry from a group called the European Network Against Racism made a successful complaint to the Ombudsman.

And here's the thing – I'm glad this happened.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not glad that the decision didn't go my way. Nor am I particularly surprised. But I'm proud that we live in a society where people can make a complaint and know they will be given a fair hearing. Obviously nobody wants to be on the wrong side of any decision, even if it is only the Ombudsman. But what we saw was a perfect example of the to and fro of free speech. Well, sort of.

It was free speech in the sense that I had the right to express an opinion and the European Network Against Racism had the same right to disagree – although I wasn't the one trying to shut an opinion down.

In fact, I firmly believe that all opinions should be aired. That's why I've always disagreed with censoring Islamic extremists, even if they were the same extremists who were fond of lobbing the odd half-hearted death threat in my direction. This isn't some cowed, passive ceding of ground to dangerous beliefs – it's about our ability and readiness to challenge such beliefs head on and in public, thereby exposing them to the ridicule they deserve.

Despite the Ombudsman's acknowledgement that this newspaper had offered Mr O'Curry a right to reply, he chose to go to the Irish Times and express his reaction to victory there.

It is certainly a strange choice. After all, if you want to get your message across to the biggest audience, one would have thought you'd go for a paper that had an average daily circulation of 121,000 copies in the first six months of last year, compared with 84,000 for The Irish Times. But each to their own. Maybe he just prefers The Irish Times.

I certainly learned something from reading Shane's piece, such as his claim that: "500,000 Roma, Sinti and Travellers were exterminated in Nazi camps, with millions more dispossessed and displaced."

Presuming by 'Traveller' he means Traveller in an Irish context, then my belligerent friend has surely uncovered one of the most secret aspects of the Holocaust – the dark and unrecorded extermination of the Travellers in the death camps. I could be glib about such an absurd and insulting misrepresentation of the Shoah to score a cheap point, but really – what's the point? The statement speaks for itself.

Despite the Ombudsman's decision I was taken aback by the number of people who disagreed with the decision and were quick to comment under the article. While I wouldn't be so foolish as to confuse that for a specific endorsement of me, it does indicate the growing unease of many people. This is an unease people feel at having to watch what they say because of the ever present threat of being accused of/or prosecuted for some form of incitement, or simply denounced online as that most mortal of modern sins, being a racist.

Let's put it this way, an Irish Muslim that I interviewed a couple of years ago spoke up in support of my right to say what I said – and you know that we're through the rabbit hole when even a member of a group who wouldn't have much time for me was saying that things have gone too far.

Similarly, The Journal carried the story but then had to shut down the comments section because there were too many abusive comments. I don't know what those banned comments contained, although I'd lay a fiver on them being variously abusive towards me, Mr O'Curry and the Roma in general.

But the opinions that were allowed to remain had one thing in common – irritation and anger at the seemingly arbitrary rules of what we are not allowed to say.

I don't mean the normal legal restrictions like libel, or some nutter openly calling for acts of violence, I'm talking about a growing weariness with this ever creeping suppression of expression.

The people who placed comments online, or emailed or rang me to express their concerns about free speech aren't racists and they aren't bigots, regardless of what some might say. In fact, many of them were at pains to say they don't even particularly like the column. Just in case I was getting meself a big head, like.

Instead, they are just regular folks who are tired of having to keep their mouth shut on hot-button issues because it's just not worth the hassle of having to preface every conversation with "don't get me wrong..." or "Look, you know I'm not racist, but...".

In closing his piece Shane O'Curry argued that: "Racism stifles debate about our intercultural reality."

Well, that sounds like a challenge to me. So, Shane – you want a debate?

Let's have a debate.

I'm free whenever you are, pick a time and place that suits and I'm happy to argue my case.

Let the public decide.

Irish Independent

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