The right to give offence

At the end of 2019 Sir Alan Moses, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, stepped down as chairman of the country’s leading press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, a post he had held since IPSO’s foundation in 2014. In an interview with The Times (26 December 2019) Sir Alan made some typically forceful observations on the right to be offensive and to give offence.

There is no right (he explained) not to be offended. The feelings of individuals (he insisted) “could not automatically trump the right to free expression.”  “If you’re the victim of something that is deeply offensive, it is the most unpleasant, uncomfortable thing that you can imagine. But what we have to acknowledge is that, in striking the right balance in this country, there is no right not to be offended.”

Bearing these wise words in mind, I invite you to join me in considering two recent instances affecting the Anglo-Jewish world, in which these issues have come to the fore.

The first concerns Melanie Phillips, one of the UK’s leading journalists and broadcasters, who writes regularly for The Times and the Jewish Chronicle. Phillips is a totally unapologetic Jew and Zionist who holds controversial views (with some of which I happen, in broad terms, to agree) on a variety of subjects, including Global Warming, the Two State Solution and Islamophobia.

In mid-December the Jewish Chronicle ran a column in which Phillips argued that whilst “true prejudice against Muslims” certainly existed and must be condemned, nonetheless the Islamic world itself was over-full of visceral and usually undisguised anti-Jewish prejudice, and that “the taunt of Islamophobia” was too often used deliberately “to silence any criticism of the Islamic world, including Islamic extremism.”

The Palestinians [she wrote] constantly spew out medieval and Nazi-themed hatred of Jews, presenting them as the source of all evil in the world. They claim that the Jews were behind 9/11, that they are current-day Nazis and that they control US foreign policy and the world’s finances and media.

Those who call out Islamic extremism or Muslim/ Jew-hatred for what it is find themselves defamed as “Islamophobes” in order to silence them. There have recently been events at which such smear campaigns have been mounted against proposed speakers whose record in fighting Islamic extremism and defending Israel and the Jewish people is little short of heroic.

No-one who pays any attention to political debate in the Muslim world could possibly disagree with this analysis. Islam, after all, was founded in part on the basis of an anti-Jewish discourse, which remains alive and well throughout the Islamic world. But Phillips’ argument did not find favour with a miscellany of Jewish machers, led by the Board of Deputies, which under its present lovey-dovey leadership seems to believe that the truth about Islam must be suppressed in the cause of multi-cultural lovey-doveyness. Phillips’ column had been online scarcely a day when the Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard, issued a statement apologising “to any reader who is angered or upset” by what Phillips had written.

This astonishingly misplaced act of contrition followed another, published by Pollard in early August, in which he apologised for having published in late July 2019 an obituary, commissioned by the Chronicle and written by me, of Dr Lionel Kopelowitz, president of the Board of Deputies 1985-91.

“Kop,” whose friendship I was privileged to enjoy, had many sterling qualities (not least a phenomenal memory of communal events), but as president of the Deputies he was an organisational disaster. In my obituary I said so. This clearly annoyed his family and friends. Pollard – without consulting me – at once surrendered to this cacophony. “It was a bad judgement” (he wrote) to have published my text, and he was “sorry” for having done so. So he ordered the removal of the online version of my obituary and prevailed upon his obituaries editor, Gloria Tessler, to write another, published in mid-January. This, incidentally, was the same Gloria Tessler who had judged my original text to have been “very balanced.”

An obituary is not a eulogy, and (as The Times usefully points out in its authoritative style guide) “obituaries are not a counselling service for grieving relatives.”

I have not the slightest doubt that my obituary of Kopelowitz was found in certain communal quarters to have been offensive. And I can well believe that Melanie Phillips’ excoriation of Islamophobia was deemed in certain communal quarters to have been unpleasant if not downright odious.

So what?

As Sir Alan Moses has reminded us, there is no right not to be offended.

About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist