It's one of the great dilemmas of the liberal society - how far do we tolerate intolerance? Two stories over the weekend raise this question - the continuing debate over the BBC's decision to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto 'Question Time', and Jan Moir's Daily Mail column on Stephen Gateley's death. Channel 4 News linked these together in a piece on freedom of expression, although there is a qualitative difference. Even as a panellist on Question Time, Griffin is subject to questioning and debate by fellow panellists, chairman Dimbleby and the studio audience. If his views are repellent, they can be attacked, challenged and dissected. Jan Moir, on the other hand, has a well positioned newspaper column to express her views, uncluttered by the need to constantly refine or explain them to challengers.
Moir's comments, implying that Stephen Gateley died an unnatural death because he was a homosexual, have been seen by many - if the twitter campaign and the complaints received by the Press Complaints Commission are anything to go by - as being just as repellent, and in the same bracket, as the views often expressed by Griffin. Both appear to want to attack and ghettoise groups of people for characteristics that such people are hardly in control of (skin colour, sexual orientation). The Moir column, in fact, exposes the frailty of such 'big-name' columnism. Writers such as Moir are given headline-heavy titles, prominently positioned in the newspaper, and then permitted to proselytise on any subject of their choosing, no matter what their own personal knowledge, as if they are somehow experts. Few such columns are particularly well researched, and effectively give someone who is little more than an articulate pub politico the credibility of a national thinker. In a visceral attack on Moir, the Guardian's Charlie Brooks, amongst other things, wonderfully mocks the forensic expertise she must clearly possess in order to challenge the coroner's report on Gateley's death.
Interestingly, the once lofty position of the columnist is being increasingly challenged and attacked, as the internet response to Moir adequately shows. Moir may not have to respond instantly to such criticism, and will doubtless have the luxury of her column to rebut her critics in a more leisurely way than will be afforded Nick Griffin on Question Time, but she will have to respond I think. And actually, that's why the liberal society can go some way to tolerating intolerance. Because as long as it's operating properly, with a range of alternate voices, such intolerance quickly runs into the sand of political debate. That it is the internet which increasingly provides the forum for such essential plurality is another reason for all liberals to praise the coming of the last great arena of free expression, good and bad.