Tuesday, 9 October 2012

prison for a facebook post, slippery slope to removing freedom of speech?

Today a man was jailed for twelve weeks after posting offensive jokes about missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann on Facebook.


The twenty year old was arrested on Saturday night for his own safety after a fifty-strong mob turned up at his house with baseball bats.  Interestingly though, none of the mob were arrested. 


For me this is not about the inappropriateness of posting offensive jokes on social media. The issue here lies with freedom of Speech, and the message that sending someone to jail for exercising their right to that freedom of Speech sends. 


Twitter, Facebook etc. are full of offensive material which is passed off as jokes.  Go into any comedy club in the country and you will find the most distasteful jokes imaginable, most of which are made at the expense of other people.  The elderly, men, women, the disabled, dead celebrities, and apparently missing children.  When it comes to humour, pretty much any topic is fair game.  Many of them are crass and distasteful, deeply offensive even, and would not be considered funny at all by the vast majority of people.  We have the right to be offended at the jokes that others make which are considered distasteful or offensive, and we have the right to voice that disapproval both to the individual concerned and even publically if those jokes are made on a public platform. 


But surely it is a slippery slope when we start prosecuting people for making jokes which are considered distasteful?  After all, where do we draw the line? what to one is offensive, may not be to someone else, and vice versa, and even if something is considered to be universally distasteful, does it make it worthy of prosecution purely based on the offense caused to others? 


There is no question that posting so-called jokes about missing children is distasteful and offensive in the extreme.  But then I feel the same about posting jokes about people with learning difficulties, severe disabilities etc.  There are several well-known comedians who have a reputation for being deliberately offensive.  Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Ricky Gervais all have reputations for making the most distasteful jokes imaginable, people actively boycott their shows/appearances on television/publically express their distaste on facebook, twitter and even in the media.  Yet we don’t hear calls for them to be arrested and jailed and rightly so.  Because while distasteful jokes are offensive to many, those making the jokes still have the right to do so, and once we start taking away people’s right to make distasteful jokes, where do we then draw a line? 


In this country we regularly speak out about people being jailed in other, less liberal countries for daring to express opinions which we have the freedom to express here.  By jailing people for posting offensive jokes on Facebook, it is just a slippery slope towards eroding our ability to exercise freedom of speech. 


Matthew Woods was an idiot.  If he was posting such tasteless jokes on my Facebook newsfeed or twitter timeline I would have no hesitation in unfollowing him.  But that doesn’t mean I feel he should be sent to jail, after all, we all have the ability to offend someone at some point or other.  Should we all be careful what we post in case it offends someone and lands us in jail? 


We have the right to freedom of speech in this country.  That includes the right to express our opinions over other people’s distasteful comments made in the name of humour.  We need to ensure we retain that freedom of speech, and applying prison terms to people who do so is going down a slippery slope to removing our right to that freedom of speech.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

tactless journalism and society's responsibility

Yesterday Sky News reporter Kay Burley sparked complaints after revealing live to a volunteer in the search for missing five-year-old April Jones that this was now a murder enquiry and then asking her how she felt. 

Previous to this, Burley had said a few days before that Sky had a development which viewers would be excited about, before going on to interview the estranged son of a man currently being questioned on suspicion of April Jones’ murder. 

Kay Burley’s tactlessness is already well documented, from incidents such as her interview with Peter Andre, where she queried how he would feel if Katie Price’s new husband might want to adopt his children, to an interview she conducted with the wife of Suffolk Strangler Steve Wright, in which she asked, “do you think that if you’d had a better sex life, he wouldn’t have done it?” 


Journalists are generally not known for their tact or sensitivity, although it would appear that Kay Burley has a particular skill for asking the most tactless and insensitive questions imaginable at the most inappropriate times. 


However, I can’t also help wondering whether the public’s desire for rolling reporting of news events fuels the need for the Kay Burleys of this industry. 


When a serious crime happens, Sky News are there, reporting every detail as it happens, when it happens, regardless of whether it has been verified as being true or not.  Truth and speculation are intermingled and after watching about twenty minutes of a broadcast it can be impossible to know which are the actual facts of the case and what is speculation handed to reporters by members of the public, many of whom are often seeking their five minutes of fame. 


And where there is Sky news there are the millions of viewers who watch it, taking in every detail and speculating about it all amongst their close friends and family. 


Whether we like it or not news has now become the new entertainment.  It’s almost like reality TV, except the participants are real people who didn’t actually apply to be there. 


Yesterday hundreds of complaints were apparently made to Sky News and Ofcom by outraged viewers, and #sackKayBurley was trending on twitter.  But today I don’t imagine those viewers will have switched news channels to the BBC in their outrage.  Some will, some won’t, and some new viewers will even go over to Sky to go and have a look to see what it’s all about. 


Broadcasters should have a responsibility to broadcast actual news in a sensitive way while at the same time still being informative.  However we as a society also surely have a responsibility to remember that the news is actually someone else’s life, which we have been given an insight into purely because of the factors that have brought them into the news in the first place, and not entertainment fodder created by the broadcasters for our own edification.