I read this story from the Guardian tonight and stumble across the following figure:
The BBC will pay £185,000 in damages to Lord McAlpine following the Newsnight broadcast on 2 November that wrongly linked the former Conservative party treasurer to historic allegations child sexual abuse.
Further background to this story, including an interview between the BBC and Lord McAlpine, can be found at New Statesman at the moment.
A wrong was clearly exacted of this gentleman by a well-known TV programme. Paul has some thoughts as to why this happened in the first place – others will believe and hold that there were other reasons and causes.
No matter. I’ve already given my opinion of where this is now taking us and what we run the risk of losing here. But this post is for a different purpose. This post aims to suggest our society is becoming more infirm by the minute in its ability to inform itself.
Free speech shouldn’t mean gratuitous speech. I’m not arguing that. Reputation is important to what a person is, becomes and cares to be. But a society where people begin to feel the need to speak in code isn’t a healthy society either. It’s probably a kind of litmus test of the degree of democracy we enjoy. And I sincerely do not think we are doing at all well right now. I sincerely do not believe we are healthy in the least.
Innuendo is an unpleasant way of transmitting information. It demonstrates a lack of a proper desire to exhibit ownership for the statements made. It causes unhappiness and yet serves to simultaneously deny to the victim that anything irregular has been communicated.
It’s not a fair way of communicating; it belongs, more often than not, to the anteroom and sphere of lynch-mob behaviours; and it leads only to a frustrating and painful sense of inferiority in the person or persons who find themselves subjected to its craft. We only have to read what New Statesman quotes from the McAlpine interview to realise this:
[...] Asked whether Boris Johnson was right to say that to call someone a paedophile is to “consign them to the lowest circle of hell – and while they’re still alive”, McAlpine replied:
Absolutely. I think it describes pretty much what happened to me in the first few days of this event…it gets in to your bones. It gets into, it makes you angry. And that’s extremely bad for you to be angry. And it gets into your soul. You just think there’s something wrong with the world.
Yes. Innuendo is a craft – a craft which many hone. Tabloid newspapers for starters. I think we could safely argue whole empires have been built on – for example – spreading celebrity innuendo. Gossip wouldn’t work without the tool of innuendo fulsomely employed and applied to so many citizens. Meanwhile, I think it would also be safe to say that the object of innuendo, and by extension gossip itself, is to destroy as many reputations as it can possibly entertain.
A reputation is a necessity for most people as they attempt to earn their way in this life. It’s often built with great difficulty and can often be dashed with a terrifying immediacy. It looks as if this is what has happened in this case – whether legal action will return intact the reputation formerly held by Lord McAlpine is something only time will tell. But for the injured party, the damages thus agreed upon must help vindicate the same in some small way.
Just a couple of observations, then, in relation to wider issues. Whilst nothing can return the situation to what it was before the ill-fated “Newsnight” report, the kind of sums which have been paid out do not seem excessive to me. But I would want, hope and – indeed – expect for the judicial system to operate with the same alacrity, fierce resolve and contingency in cases of rape victims, sexual abuse sufferers and others on the receiving end of serious crimes various. We have only to remember, for example, how long the phone-hacking inquiry is taking, or how long the first investigation into the cases of sexual abuse at the heart of the “Newsnight” programme in question originally took, to realise that justice is a poor servant to ordinary people here in Britain.
If Lord McAlpine does deserve the speedy compensation and admission of guilt his legal team has negotiated with the BBC, and in this matter I’m sure he does, there are just as many people out there who deserve the same.
People who are unable to make the system work as it should.
People who, in different ways, are as unfortunate as Lord McAlpine himself.
If truth be told, reputations are not always accurate. They can be maintained and constructed on the basis of violent falsehoods – as happened in this case, and manifestly so; in other cases, however, these reputations may nominally be good, even splendid – and yet the falsehoods are just as untruthful. Those who own and perpetuate them do so without real justification.
And people around them know this is exactly the case. They know that the justification does not exist for the splendour of such reputations. So where extreme hierarchy rules a society is when coded speech becomes a norm. Where people in power can get away with not telling the truth is when innuendo of a primarily political nature becomes a terribly destructive norm. Especially when those in power choose to insist that all defamation must be tracked down and eliminated.
Lord McAlpine is fair to ask people to apologise – and it is up to him to be the judge of how best to fight his corner as the process proceeds, especially as the corner he was painted into was as dramatically tight as it was. But the implications longer-term here in Britain, where freedom of speech more generally is already an unhappy, damaged and damaging beast, are not good. Which is why I suggest that if it continues thus, then – instead of free speech as per our world-renowned democratic reputation of other times – we will as a nation begin to acquire notions of how to codify our most intimate and frank thoughts, quite before we allow them to reach the light of dangerous and public examination.
And this, if I am right, would be a very sad moment.
A sad moment for free speech. A sad moment for free thought.
A sad moment, in fact, all round.
Except, of course, for literature.
We all know why the Irish have won so much adulation for the blessed exercise of using English creatively, now don’t we?
Centuries of awful British oppression meant they had no choice but to refine and make far more subtle their use of a language which essentially belonged to the oppressor.
Oppression can be good for art, then. As well as for gossip and innuendo.
Just terrible for the heart and soul.
As well as, ultimately, democratic discourse itself.
Free versus coded speech? You really don’t want to go there. But there is where I’m afraid we’re all being led. There is where the future lies.