Fear of minority offence is stifling legitimate debate, says Patrick Barrow, MD of agency Reputation Communications
6th April 2017
One of the media’s primary functions is to reflect the world we live in. Sometimes it ends up doing so unconsciously. When it does, the results can be informative, telling us far more about our times than anyone could have intended.
A case in point is the cautionary tale of that grandest of broadcast dames, Jenni Murray who was yellow carded by the BBC for her views on transgender women. The presenter of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour professed her belief that men who are now women are not “real” having spent most of their lives “enjoying the privileged position in our society generally accorded to a man”.
Think of that what you will but Murray, rather dismissively described by a BBC spokesperson as “a freelance journalist”, has been warned that BBC guidelines demand “impartiality” in public utterances on “controversial issues”. Meanwhile transgender former ITV presenter India Willoughby has labelled Murray a “dinosaur”, “spouting bile”.
It’s not a new phenomenon, of course. Germaine Greer, who holds similar if more trenchantly phrased views on transgender women, found herself on the receiving end of student activist “no platform” outrage for it. She was followed in short order by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for having the temerity to defend what the Australian feminist described as “an opinion, not a prohibition.”
Elsewhere, former Equality and Human Rights chief Trevor Phillips, himself a black man, was accused by a Radio 4 commentator of “pursuing a racist narrative” when he dared to suggest that Barack Obama’s presidential record had been mixed. For his Channel 4 documentary Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?, Phillips had no difficulty in finding a female student representative – benefitting from Greer’s pioneering efforts on women’s rights – to decry the great feminist war horse as “a decrepit old bigot”.
Meanwhile, back in the media, The Spectator defended Murray from the charge of bigotry by making the obvious point that “bigotry” is principally defined as being intolerant of the views of others. She was, in other words, “a victim”.
Victimhood was the theme of a similar refutation in The Independent which lamented; “Jenni Murray broke the rules, because the rules are always set up to break women. The more we’re punished for saying that, the more insultingly obvious the truth of it is.”
This rather overlooked the fact that the unwomanly Rod Liddle was actually fired by the BBC from his position as editor of Radio 4’s Today programme for “the most blatant bias, animus, and even party allegiance” in a column he wrote for The Guardian attacking the Countryside Alliance.
All of which triggers the least attractive spiral in an unattractive phenomenon. Identity politics compounded by competitive victimhood and fuelled by offence.
Murray has now discovered the awful nature of the beast; that its children will always come back to eat the parent. The reasons being the very essence of the liberal paradox; by constantly sub-dividing people into identities based on a sense of victimhood, you will, inevitably reach a situation where victim groups will collide with each other, each competing for the right to be more offended than what has gone before. A game of top trumps, each player laying down a new card with an ever-higher grievance score, adding new players and taking out the old ones.
In this, the media is an active agent. Murray aired her views through The Sunday Times, other media outlets then indulged columnists on a bidding war of outrage with Murray herself and her primary antagonist India Willoughby actually employed by the media.
The media, of course, thrives on conflict. BBC journalist training used to rely on an acronym to help trainees remember the essence of a good story. CHORTLE. The first two letters being Conflict and Human. And at that point, too much journalism stops.
Identity politics, victim politics, have it as you will, started as useful way to defend minority interests but, as Phillips argued, fear of minority offence is now stifling legitimate debate. A truth Jenni Murray has now painfully discovered.
But beyond Jenni Murray’s ironic plight, it’s also meant that everyday people, whose lives focus more on the more prosaic and less on the increasingly arcane divisions of identity politics, have found an identity of their own and expressed it through the ballot box. Women who don’t always see men as the enemy have voted for Trump, men whose concern has been more with their sense of self than academia’s views on transgender, have voted for Brexit. And in that regard, it seems, the media hardly reflects the world we live in at all.
Article written by Patrick Barrow, managing director of agency Reputation Communications