We might be welcoming in a new year, but it is likely to be another in which we need to defend our right to express legitimate political opinions. From today Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, has expanded its definition of hate speech to include:
‘All forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance on the grounds of disability, ethnicity, social origin, gender, sex, gender reassignment, nationality, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, colour, genetic features, language, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth or age.’
That is quite a list and provides potentially rich pickings for those who weaponise the taking of offence as a political tool. I would argue that it moves Ofcom well away from the worthy principle that they themselves declare, ‘To ensure that material likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime or to lead to disorder is not included in television or radio services or BBC ODPS [On Demand Programme Services].’
By framing ‘offensive’ alongside ‘harmful’, and therefore inviting vexatious complaints from those who choose to take offence, broadcasters are placed in an invidious position by Ofcom. In the future, will the BBC feel so confident reporting the views of an intensive care doctor who told 5 Live that people who do not follow social distancing rules or wear masks ‘have blood on their hands’?
While that view may well be considered offensive, surely the best strategy is to counter it – perhaps by discussing evidence that masks may not be the magic barrier that some believe – and not just silence it. Because in 2021, opinions do not go away when they are ignored by the mainstream media; they proliferate across social media in a sea of misinformation.