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Voice of liberal intolerance must not muffle opinion

The president of the United States says his 10-pin bowling scores are "a bit Special Olympics", and fawning liberals rush to pretend it never happened, and, even if it did, Obama didn't mean it. Two Sky Sports presenters, meanwhile, say women don't understand the offside rule, and they're thrown to the wolves.

Of course, Andy Gray was only sacked after footage appeared on YouTube of him suggestively asking a female presenter to tuck a microphone down the front of his pants, and Richard Keys departed soon afterwards, muttering conspiratorially on radio about "dark forces". But even if Keys hadn't departed voluntarily, and Gray had kept his trouser-related suggestions to himself, Sky would still surely have found a way to show the Gruesome Twosome the door. The King Herods in the media were already calling for the men's heads on a plate from the moment that tape appeared of them before last week's Premiership match between Liverpool and Wolves questioning the right of women to be referees.

And you know what? Who cares? By all accounts, Gray and Keys are a couple of deeply unpleasant, alpha-lame creeps who've long thrown their weight around like they truly believed they were the God of Football's chosen representatives on Earth, making themselves about as popular with their colleagues, male as well as female, as an outbreak of dyslexia at a spelling bee. As a female viewer, they always made my flesh crawl. They won't be missed.

Unfortunately, the reason they got into trouble in the first place was nothing to do with workplace bullying. For the first few days after the story broke, the only issue was something which was said between two grumpy old men in what they had every reason to believe was a private conversation. It wasn't a particularly edifying conversation. In fact, the initial defence the pair made that the comments were humorous banter would have been more believable if the recorded words hadn't been delivered with such sour-faced acidity; there's plenty of humour to be had at the expense of women in sport, as Private Eye's longstanding and hilarious spoof female sports reporter, Sally Jockstrap, has been proving for years, but the Gray and Keys Show was about as far from genuine comedy as a Katherine Lynch special.

No, the chaps meant every word. They self-evidently have a problem with uppity women invading what they regard as their sacred male-only territory. But what of it? It's a point of view. They simply want to be left alone in their little, hairy-handed dinosaur world of oranges-at-half-time and jumpers-for-goalposts, making sniggering remarks over a pint after the final whistle about women only being good for two things, neither of which involves playing with balls -- oh no, wait, one of them does, phwoar phwoar. It's puerile and pathetic, but it's not a hanging offence. As long as they treat women properly in a professional context, they should be entitled to their personal views, however antiquated.

Andy Gray seems to have crossed that line, though we'd still need to know how frequent an occurrence that behaviour was to form a final judgement on his character. If he did mistreat female colleagues, then he has no cause for complaint. But it would be rewriting history not to point out that the initial furore and calls for resignation came about as a result of what someone -- a football commentator at that, not a policy maker -- said in private, never dreaming the words would become public property.

People say worse things than this to their friends all the time. I know I do. I say appalling things, just for a laugh, or to see what reaction it might provoke, every single day. Among family and friends, you let your guard down, tell inappropriate jokes, pass on smears and gossip.

Privacy used to be respected. Indeed, Andy Gray is one of the celebrities who is currently suing the News of the World for allegedly tapping illegally into his voicemail messages, and we're all supposed to find this infringement of his civil rights shockingly disgraceful. Yet when his equally personal conversations are replayed on the news, suddenly he's fair game. Which is it -- are private conversations private or not?

Right now, that seems to depend on whether those sitting in judgement personally approve of what is said and who said it. Fail on either score, and the true voice of liberal intolerance blasts out from the Twitter tannoy, and people are not only prepared to hound someone out of a job for expressing an opinion which differs from their own, but are vindictively gleeful of the fact that they got the desired result.

Laughably, they even think this frenzied overreaction copperfastens, rather than contradicts, their liberal values.

Nothing would ever be said or done if this became the norm, because people would simply stop saying anything controversial, or even remotely interesting, retreating instead into anodyne platitudes or, safest of all, silence. Brian Lenihan, to his cost, found that out in recent weeks when his own private conversations about the Taoiseach's failings were repeated on the news by disgruntled Fianna Fail backbenchers, possibly costing him the leadership of his party.

It's going to make for a much duller world if everyone starts biting their tongues for fear that their every private remark might end up as a headline on Six One News. Who wants to live in a society where every utterance has to be rubber-stamped first by a committee of the righteous?

Sunday Independent