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.’Ofcom
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.
But as well as elevating ‘offence’ alongside ‘harm’, we should also be concerned about the proliferation of protected characteristics. Surely hatred is hatred, whether it is directed at an individual or a group? If someone is abused, that should be sufficient for them to seek redress; they should not be required to identify into a group. The new rules expand the list from four to eighteen protected characteristics. While I smiled at the inclusion of both sex and gender – clearly the committee couldn’t decide on one or the other – the list almost reads like the product of a brainstorming session.
Maybe the best policy is to treat everyone involved in the political environment as adults – who need to be prepared to ignore views they consider to be offensive – and as human beings. It is not progressive to demand we identify into some protected characteristic before we are protected from hatred and abuse.
Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.