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Monday 26 February 2007

Tyranny of the individual
House of Fraser’s removal of an ‘offensive’ ad following a single complaint shows that any
sensitive soul can play the chief censor these days.
Alex Hochuli

The British House of Fraser chain has pulled a promotional poster from its 61
department stores across the UK and Ireland after one woman complained that it was
‘racist’. Promoting this season’s fashionable colours, the poster declared: ‘Black is back,
White is right.’ The woman who complained said these words reminded her of a 1960s
racist poem. The store’s management pulled the ad, seeming to accept the woman’s
assertion that the marketing team must not be very ‘culturally aware’.

Society has always had its fair share of self-appointed moral guardians, usually groups of
individuals with that unfortunate combination of over-sensitivity and over-zealousness. Such
illiberal groups, made up of hundreds or just scores of people, have been able to convince
individuals, businesses and councils to back down over the merest slight or ‘risque’ advert or
campaign – and thus to police public space and debate. Yet now we have moved from the tyranny
of the minority to the tyranny of the individual, where one seemingly thin-skinned complainant can
determine what is appropriate for the rest of us to see and hear. This is more pernicious than
anything Mary Whitehouse’s army did in the past.

Recently, tiny groups of people, or just one person, have been able to censure other people’s
speech and actions. In 2004, the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom) upheld the complaints of
three people who had taken offence to Somerfield supermarket’s advert for a meat dish which
included the use of the word ‘faggot’, on the grounds that the word is also derogatory slang for a
homosexual. spiked recently reported on a similar row over a West Midlands pub selling something
called ‘The Michael Barrymore Pie: Faggots Swimming in Gravy’ – here, too, a very small number
of complaints managed to turn this misplaced piece of pub humour into a national controversy (see
Why we’re standing by our un-PC pie, by Neil Davenport).

A series of incidents involving ‘anti-Welsh racism’ has demonstrated that complaints from fewer
than a dozen people can lead to censure. A publican in Somerset, England who pinned a Welsh flag
on her wall so that patrons could take pot shots at it on St George’s Day (it was the only dragon
she could find) received a visit from the police after a single complaint was made. A single viewer
of BBC 1’s Question Time instigated an investigation by the police into a Daily Mail journalist for
supposedly having made ‘offensive and belittling’ comments about the Welsh during the
programme. Yet when 81 people (also a very small number, of course) complained about the TV
ads for Pot Noodle, which depict Welsh miners digging for noodles down a coalpit, their complaint
was not upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Clearly this is not a numbers game. The fact that there was 81 times more indignation over Pot
Noodles than there was over a journalist’s comments on Question Time is irrelevant, both to the
official regulatory system, where, in Ofcom’s case, only one complaint is required to initiate an
investigation, and to the question of free speech more broadly. Why should it be any more
acceptable for one person or 81 people or 81,000 people to determine what the other 60million of
us can see, hear and watch?

Even when there are ‘high’ numbers of complaints, which apparently justify taking censorious
action, we are still actually talking about tiny minorities of outraged individuals. Barclay’s Bank
retracted an advert showing a man being stung by a bee following 290 complaints, mostly from
allergy sufferers (standing up for their ‘cause’, presumably). A Fanta ad was pulled after 272
people complained that it was ‘disgusting’ – it showed individuals spitting out streams of Fanta from
their mouths. What kind of people could seriously be offended by that? Following the complaints,
the ad was restricted to post-watershed (that is, post-9pm) TV, in case children might be tempted
to copy the people in the Fanta ad and spit their drinks everywhere.

In these instances, there is not even the pretence of being democratic. Democracy is about
empowering the majority over the dictates of a minority. In the new forms of minority censorship,
we have the empowering of the individual; the endowing of each citizen with the power and
influence to be the gatekeeper of decency. This might sound well and good…empowering even. In
reality it is censorious and belittling. One might even say it is offensive.

The upholding of complaints made by a tiny group of people or even a single individual turns every
one of us into the potential eyes and ears of regulators, the footsoldiers of every jumped-up
interest group in the country. Take the couple of police officers who complained about an advert for
a Wearside law firm. The promotional poster advertised the fact that everyone who is taken to a
police station is entitled to free legal advice. It was placed opposite the main police station in
Sunderland and showed an attractive woman dressed as a sexy copper waving handcuffs under the
words: ‘It’s a fair cop! (but it might not be)….so let [our solicitors] advise, assist and defend you.’
Following the police officers’ complaints, the law firm removed the poster.

This was not a case of the long arm of the law intruding into citizens’ lives. Rather the couple of
cops who complained were speaking as ordinary citizens, defending not the image of the police
against uppity lawyers but rather the integrity of female officers against an ad they found to be
‘sexist’. It seems that even when the police demand censure these days, it is as small groups of
offended individuals rather than as a body of armed men.

Today, it isn’t only those who have been personally offended who file complaints; now the morally
righteous tend to complain on behalf of others. A Swansea receptionist made a complaint to the
police after she witnessed a man shout ‘Sieg Heil!’ at an Asian woman from his car as he drove
past. The man was a BNP member, and he was fined; he argued that the case should never have
come to court as the victim of his spiteful words never actually complained. He has a point.

The fact that an increasing number of statements, adverts and actions are withdrawn as a result of
individual complaints is the inevitable outcome of trying to defend any group from ever being
offended. Today’s culture of inoffensiveness, the idea that ‘You can’t say that!’ if it hurts someone’s
feelings, has given rise to censure based on tiny numbers of people claiming to have felt offended.
Once society accepts that it is legitimate to protect individuals or groups from the subjective
category of ‘offensive’ speech or expression, then that gives carte blanche to individuals
everywhere to demand the removal of things they don’t like. At least the old censors claimed to be
democratic, to represent a ‘silent majority’ or ‘public decency’; of course this was nonsense,
because in fact they tended merely to dress up their own values as the nation’s values. Today, by
contrast, groups like Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority openly respond to tiny
handfuls of complaints, using the bogeyword of ‘offensive!’ to remove certain words and images
from the public realm.

The consequence is an unmistakable narrowing of what is acceptable and unacceptable speech, and
the spread of both formal and informal speech codes. Such minority censure can only encourage
ignorance and heightened sensitivity amongst the public. We might update Burke’s dictum: all that
is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to complain.

Alex Hochuli works at the Institute of Ideas.