Vive Charlie Issue 2 - Page 18

For some people, freedom of speech is defined as the luxury of supporting the causes or people that you agree with. In fact, free speech is something we often take for granted but recently had a sharp lesson in how supporting free speech also means supporting the right of someone you may despise and be totally opposed to speak their mind.

That’s the situation I found myself in a couple of weeks ago when the universally despised Katie Hopkins – she of The Apprentice and now Celebrity Big Brother fame – opened her cavernous mouth and managed to stuff both of her feet in it by referring to the Scottish nurse and Ebola victim, Pauline Cafferkey, as a ‘sweaty Jock’. Personally I struggle figuring out what sort of mind thinks that spouting such bile is either constructive or dignified. The things is, lacking in common decency or being an idiot isn’t illegal; at least not yet! I was rash enough to tweet this opinion when the usual offendotrons on Twitter were calling for Katie’s prosecution for racism and poor taste. You could almost hear the sound of pitchforks being sharpened in readiness for the torch-wielding mob to march on Castle Hopkins.

Unfortunately I have a habit of defending the underdog or simply being contrarian and this came back to bite me on the arse when BBC Radio 5 Live phoned to ask me if I’d be willing to defend Katie’s right to free speech live on air. I assumed every other commentator in the country had either turned them down or switched to answerphone. This was in the week before the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and free speech was getting a good kicking from all quarters, especially north of the border.

So early the next morning I went head-to-head with former Labour minister Brian Wilson who was most robust in his insistence that Katie Hopkins should face prosecution for being racist (the law actually covers nationalities so you can be charged with racism for insulting a Welsh person or a Spaniard) and I had the unenviable task of defending Katie’s tasteless jibe about a ‘sweaty Jock’ who, at that time, was fighting for her life in London’s Royal Free Hospital. It wasn’t an easy task and I didn’t enjoy doing it but if I truly

believe in free speech I had no choice but to my belief defend her right to be offensive. I think the interview went well and afterwards I received some pleasant emails supporting me for doing the media equivalent of cleaning out the Augean stables.

The task of defending the right of someone I fundamentally disagreed with to speak freely taught me a valuable lesson. It actually strengthened my resolve to stand up for free speech in the future no matter what.

Tragically at the end of that week two crazed lunatics burst into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and massacred 12 journalists and cartoonists in cold blood. The reason for the attack was the magazine’s insistence on printing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. In certain sects of the Muslim faith this is a big ‘no no’. The world responded with horror and the Western World for a few days realised just what was at stake from Islam’s restricted view of free speech. Suddenly everyone understood that our very right to mock, ridicule and criticise religion, politics or traditions was at risk. We finally understood what marked us out as different from those gun-wielding fanatics.

Following the shooting I felt devastated by the killings but on the positive side I realised that we had finally got the message that personal freedom and free speech, however offensive, had to be available to all. That’s not to say that we should needlessly go around offending people for the hell of it, but if necessary we should have the right to point out irrational or repressive ideas that endanger our freedoms, the freedoms that so many people have died to uphold.

So, would I do it again? Well, even though Katie hasn't even so much as nodded in my direction for fighting her corner, I did wonder if I could be bothered to defend her again but then I thought about the terrible events of Paris a couple of weeks ago and I knew that I would… without question.

Je suis Katie.

Mark Sparrow is a writer, journalist, photographer and broadcaster. Presenter of Channel 4's Dispatches: 'The Truth About Hospital Food'. Mark uses Twitter to debate and discuss issues at @markgsparrow. Here's his ''take'' on the Katie Hopkins ‘sweaty Jock’ debacle, and on the way free speech is being eroded.