Kelvin MacKenzie’s baffling compulsion to pick at Liverpool has brought him up a cropper again, with the Sun pulling his latest polemic on Everton FC player Ross Barkley. MacKenzie has compared the footballer, recently victim of an assault in a nightclub, to 'a gorilla at the zoo' and added that, in Liverpool, 'the only men with similar pay packets are drug dealers and therefore not at nightclubs, as they are often guests of Her Majesty'.
Liverpool is outraged. Fair enough. Everton has mimicked Anfield in banning the Sun. Why blameless footie hacks should be punished is beyond me, but that's up to the club. In a fairly extraordinary step, however, the Sun has suspended its columnist and denounced his copy as 'wrong', 'unfunny', and 'not the view of the paper'. (Since MacKenzie apparently broke into the office, brained the night editor, and snuck his column into the paper with no editorial oversight, suspension is quite a mild rebuke.) Should a columnist be suspended over copy that was seen and (presumably) approved by at least three other people at a newspaper? It doesn't sound right to me, but that's a matter for the Sun and its owners.
It has also become a matter for the police, or the Old Bill as the MacKenzie-era Sun would have called them. Ross Barkley's grandfather was born in Nigeria and, given the gorilla metaphor, MacKenzie's column has been reported to the Rozzers as a potential criminal offence. Merseyside Police says a member of the public has complained about a 'racial hate crime' and officers are now working 'to establish the full circumstances of the incident'.
The incident. As the gruff Glasgow polis DCI Jim Taggart thankfully never said: 'There's been a column'.
MacKenzie has his fans but I’m not one of them. Under his editorship the Sun published a photograph of rape victim Jill Saward and branded gay vicars 'pulpit poofs'. Not to mention the smearing of an entire city with his tabloid's now-notorious coverage of Hillsborough. But however obnoxious his column might be – he insists he was unaware of Barkley's heritage – the spectre of PC Plod investigating controversial pundits should alarm anyone who gives a damn about freedom of the press. There was no point in resisting the sinister prescriptions trotted out after Leveson, or the wolf in wolf's clothing that is Impress, if we are going to allow state regulation by the cellblock door.
Newspaper columnists are supposed to be offensive. That's what they get paid for. (As Lynn Barber snooted of MacKenzie's Sun: ''Of course it was vulgar. What do you expect your plumber to read – the Independent?') If MacKenzie can get nicked for being a loudmouth, we will soon be treated to comical scenes of the nation's polemicists lifted for excessive bile. Dawn raids on Melanie Phillips. A historic allegations inquiry into Julie Burchill. Simon Heffer barricading himself inside Buckingham Palace Road, firing off memos to the subbing desk to remind them it's Telegraph style to refer to the female officers as 'woman police constables'. First they came for Rod Liddle...
What unites the political pathologies spreading across the globe today is that they are all varying flavours of anti-liberalism. Whether it's the deplorables in Trumpland, the millennial moralists of Corbynised Labour, or the happy-clappy cultists of the SNP, there is a common antipathy towards a free press and the dissenting views contained therein. These new authoritarians, like their forebears in the 20th century, seek to silence voices they consider ideologically disruptive.
This anti-liberal mood music was first sounded on the university campuses, where the criminalisation of offensiveness began in earnest. In the United States, this started out with insidious 'speech codes' and in the UK with 'no platforming' of certain speakers. Conservatives and pro-Israel activists are regularly shouted down or prevented from coming in the first place. Right-wing sociologist Charles Murray's appearance at Middlebury College last month ended in violence.
In a barely-literate manifesto which has since gone viral, the editors of the Wellesley College student newspaper this week announced their opposition to that most basic of liberal precepts, freedom of expression:
'Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging... [I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.'
The Wellesley mindset has been loosed on the wider world and its mission is to replace free speech with 'acceptable speech'. If liberalism is to continue to underpin our political and legal affairs, Wellesleyism has to be defeated. Kelvin MacKenzie is an unappealing poster boy for press freedom - but it's called press freedom for a reason.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail.