The Liberal Principle

There is currently a campaign going on against a ghastly article published yesterday in the Daily Mail which was written by a woman called Jan Moir. Complaints have been made about it to the Press Complaints Commission and it seems to have been the fastest and most complained about article of all time. The PCC website crashed yesterday and they resorted to sending out computer generated e-mails to people saying that as they wouldn’t do anything unless those directly affected (the partner, family and friends of Steven Gately) complained themselves. I think that the PCC dealt with this pretty badly. How can a computer judge who is a third party to a complaint?

Anyway, there are now people saying, “Oh, but what about free speech, can journalists not be free to say what we like?”

Well, yes they are up to a point. But “up to that point” is a place that is up for grabs.

When the online mob gets going, those of a liberal persuasion need to remember that people should be free to do (and say) what they like. However, they also need to remember the fundamental liberal principle which is what might enable people to live in close proximity to one another peacebly – which is that people should be free to do what they like so long as they do not impinge on the freedom of others to do what they like for example, by causing them harm.

Judgements have to be made as to what level of harm impinges on the freedom of others to get on with their lives.

Lots of people decided yesterday that statements of Ms Moir went beyond what is acceptable in public discourse in British society right now. I don’t always agree with the online baying crowd, but on this occasion, I happen to believe that the article in question harmed the ability of certain members of society to live and thrive in peace and freedom.

The Daily Mail comes out of this pretty badly. Although they are undoubtedly being discussed across the nation, it seems likely to harm the paper. Advertisers are known to have pulled their advertising pretty quickly. People don’t like their money to be associated with prejudice.

I think that the opinions of Ms Moir are based on principles not a million miles away from those currently being used by our bishops to determine who is or is not acceptable to be a bishop in God’s church.

Watch the online mob in action. And learn.


  1. Rosemary Hannah says

    I thought it was outrageous because it was insidious and sly. It started off calmly enough and then slipped into half fact, lies and distortion. Two high profile gay men in permanent relationships have died in totally different circumstances. Sadly, high profile straight men also die – sadly because I don’t want any young people at all to die. Somehow this became: ‘I told you so all along, they are all unstable and promiscuous.’ Only she did not even have the guts to say that straight out. As though plenty of high profile straight stars did not have well publicised relationship disasters. As those of us straight and low profile did not also have our own disasters. There is no place for snide dishonesty. Plain simple criticism might be another thing.

    • I see that Colin Coward over on the Changing Attitude blog also sees a link between Jan Moir’s article and the way bishops behave. In particular, he notes that she shares her “lifestyle” inuendo with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is on the shaky foundations of Rowan Williams’s thought that our Scottish bishops are making policy.

  2. Rosemary Hannah says

    The trick is done this way. One takes something which is true, and sandwiches onto it something which is not, thus making refutation harder. Thus: lifestyle.

    Having a partner is something which can be avoided. [true] Having a partner of one’s own sex is bound to involve the kind of excesses which are more generally associated with the Emperor Tiberius/the more lurid kind of pornography [false]

    It is outrageous to use language in this way, because it both slanders groups of people and devalues human thought and human language. I have no idea which is the greater sin, but both are pretty bad. Aren’t I in a good mood?

  3. Calum says

    It can be easy to get swept into the excitement of those tweeting and blogging without thinking about the arguments intelligently. As you say, it’s an equally small step to finding ourselves asking to refuse others’ right to freedom of speech. This, however, is not one of those cases. Jan Moir’s article was beyond ambiguous in its hatred. The time for tolerance of those being intolerant is well and truly over.

  4. fr dougal says

    The right to express distasteful opinions is one thing but the right to splatter factually inaccurate opinions all over the papers is another entirely. I complained because the article was ignoring medical investigations and was scurrilous in in its use of innuendo drawn from factually dubious data. It was bad sloppy journalism as well as scurrilous.

  5. Thanks for pointing out the Moir piece. It seems to have struck y’all as a little off. In the States it would be par for the course, our political discourse hasn’t risen above this level in decades. Especially fine was the line about “the happy-ever-after myth of civil union.” No one has ever promulgated such a myth, yet when the reader agrees that such a myth is not borne out by the facts, his reason, if any, is stained with the notion that Moir is right about all the rest. The lie bleeds across the truth. I always wonder whether the Moirs of this world convince themselves, or if they’re just zealously cynical. Oggi, 21/10/09, printed a pleasing foto of Mr. Gately, said he was found dead in Maiorca. “Gately, 33, was gay and was on vacation with Andrew Cowles, whom he had married.” Sposato. No quibble, no condescension, no polemics, no nastiness.

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