Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union.
When telling MPs on Monday that he had summoned the editor of the Mail on Sunday to his office for a dressing down, the Speaker of the House of Commons prefaced his announcement by saying he took the issue of press freedom ‘very seriously’.
But he said the paper’s story about Angela Rayner, which alleged she crossed and uncrossed her legs at the dispatch box to put Boris off his stride, was ‘demeaning’ and ‘offensive to women’.
The implication was that this article had crossed a line, thereby necessitating an official reprimand.
Today, the Daily Mail announced on its front page that neither the editor of the MoS, David Dillon, nor the author of the article, Glen Owen, would be keeping their appointment with Lindsay Hoyle – and the paper published a robust defence of the controversial story.
As the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, I stand squarely behind this decision.
So what if some female MPs and their male ‘allies’ – including the Prime Minister, according to the Speaker – found the article offensive? Someone should draw Hoyle’s attention to the words of Lord Justice Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999):
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
Owen’s article about the deputy Labour leader was certainly contentious and, to Mrs Raynor, possibly unwelcome – although the reaction to it won’t have done her political career any harm.
But it is so obviously within the bounds of protected speech, as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, that Hoyle shouldn’t need reminding that free speech includes the right to demean and offend.
Amidst all the pearl-clutching and moral outrage the story provoked, it appears to have been forgotten that Owen cited multiple Tory MPs as sources, one of whom claimed that Raynor admitted she’d used the Basic Instinct ploy while enjoying drinks with him and his colleagues on the Commons Terrace. He also included Raynor’s categorical denial, as he should have done.
IPSO, the independent press regulator, says it has received ‘a high volume of complaints’ about the story, but I doubt any will be upheld. As a piece of reporting, there was nothing wrong with it.
Today’s Daily Mail adds further corroborating evidence. In addition to the Conservative MPs Owen spoke to, three more MPs, including a woman, have come forward to back up the claim that Raynor was the original source of the story, having joked about it over drinks.
To add credibility to this testimony, the Mail has dug up a podcast interview she did with the comedian Matt Forde in January in which she brought up the fact that her appearance at PMQs that month had prompted people to compare her to Sharon Stone in Basic instinct, and joked that it had spawned an internet meme of her crossing and uncrossing her legs.
Moreover, if the reference to Basic Instinct was ‘misogynistic’ and ‘sexist’, as Raynor claimed in an interview on Lorraine yesterday, why did she bring it up herself three months earlier?
The Speaker may be aware that he over-reacted because he backpedalled a bit yesterday, stressing that he is a “staunch believer and protector of press freedom” and pointing out that when Barry Sherman, a Labour MP, asked him to remove the lobby pass of the Times sketch writer Quentin Letts for something he had written about a female Labour MP last week, he refused.
But he stopped short of withdrawing his summons, which I believe was a mistake. Even if he had no intention of removing Owen’s lobby pass on this occasion, he must be aware that that was the veiled threat he was making by demanding he and his editor come to his office.
And that’s an example of a state official using his power to interfere in the freedom of the press. Not a very egregious one, perhaps, but an example nevertheless.
Hoyle may not like the fact that House of Commons tittle-tattle is reported in the tabloid press, and he is perfectly entitled to express his disapproval, particularly if he thinks it is likely to put women off going into politics.
But he has no business going further and using the powers of his office to try to influence how the press covers female politicians. It is him who has crossed a line, not the Mail on Sunday.
In nearly every respect, Hoyle is a vast improvement on John Bercow. He is a bluff, convivial presence who radiates calm authority.
However, when there was a similar clamour two years ago after the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell depicted Priti Patel with horns on her head and a ring through her nose – which was condemned as racist as well as misogynist – the ex-Speaker did not order the cartoonist or his editor to come to his office.
No doubt the fact that the victim was a Tory Home Secretary, rather than the deputy Labour leader, helped steer Mr Bercow towards the correct decision – but right it was.
For once, the Speaker should take a leaf out of his predecessor’s book. He should withdraw his summons, admit his error, and never try to interfere in the freedom of the press again.