A couple of weeks back the British columnist Stephen Glover laced his Independent niche - with polemical musings on Roy Greenslade, a columnist at the Guardian and Professor of Journalism at City University. The fire in the belly of Glover was ignited by Greenslade having earlier attacked his own Guardian colleague Henry McDonald - who, in the eyes of Geeenslade, had erred grievously by making an inaccurate assertion in a news report on a killing in Northern Ireland. McDonald rushed his fences and wrongly claimed that the killing of a West Belfast man had been the work of ‘republican paramilitaries’ from the dissident camp. This sort of mistake while not without precedent in journalistic coverage of Northern Irish affairs, nevertheless spurred the pen of Greenslade into action. Writers are invariably pricked about something so Greenslade in having a go was doing little other than beating a well trodden path.
When the matter crossed the radar of Stephen Glover at the Independent, he used his pen to assail the ‘Guardian sage’ on the grounds that he had been less than forthcoming about his associations with Sinn Fein. From this Glover extrapolated that what really propelled Greenslade into launching his broadside against his Guardian colleague was a dislike on his part for ‘McDonald's articles about Sinn Fein's links to organised crime.’
Greenslade’s right to criticise McDonald is as strong as Glover’s right to criticise Greenslade. And both columnists’ claim to such a right is arguably stronger than McDonald’s right to get matters wrong in the first place. There was nothing in either Greenslade’s attack on McDonald or Glover’s subsequent assault on Greenslade that would constitute grounds for a 999 call to the thought police bidding them to come hurtling with sirens blaring, ire extinguishers in hand. In a theatre of discussion and debate the cut and thrust that took place here is par for the course. It is what free speech is about.
By now readers may be excused for invoking Sayre’s Law which holds that ‘in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue.’ Few are probably interested in what Greenslade thinks of McDonald, or what Glover feels about Greenslade. However, what should concentrate their minds, particularly in a journal like Index On Censorship, is that since the brouhaha Stephen Glover has lost his job at the Independent in what would appear to be a blatant act of political censorship.
The evidence for this is to be gleaned from two sources. ‘Media Monkey’ writing in the Guardian claimed that Glover’s polemic against Greenslade was the ‘final straw’ and that ‘the word is that it was felt that such ad hominem criticism was not what the Independent editor wanted in future.’
Former BBC producer Paul Larkin, who took strong umbrage at the Glover column and then warmly applauded his dismissal by Independent Editor Chris Blackhurst, has in similar fashion argued that Glover’s critique of Greenslade was ‘the final straw for Chris Blackhurst ... Stephen Glover is sacked over putrid article.’
If this is true then freedom of expression is increasingly exposed to strangulation. What Roy Greenslade makes of it all remains to be seen. He certainly has a history of conflict with Glover. Yet crucially in 2006, despite being on the receiving end of Glover’s ire, he defended his Independent nemesis against censure. Then the Daily Telegraph had been lobbying the Independent to have it compel Glover to pull his horns in; horns he had been goring senior Telegraph staff with. Independent management caved in and insisted that the Independent editor censor Glover. Greenslade, while arguing that he had some sympathy with people at the Telegraph for feeling peeved at Glover, nevertheless made a firm stand on solid journalistic principles:
I have made many appearances in his columns over the years and the references to me have usually been uncomplimentary. But I've never complained, nor even retaliated. However much I might be annoyed I accept that Glover has a right to his views, however wrong-headed or ill-informed they might be. I think of Voltaire and turn the page. That's journalism. That's press freedom. That's how it should be ... What signal does this give out to politicians and celebrities who loathe what is written about them in newspapers?
This is exactly how it should be. The ‘gagging of a columnist’ is a serious issue at a time when the print media is in the public eye as a result of the Leveson inquiry. Greenslades’s views on McDonald or Glover’s opinions on Greenslade are secondary to the right to be able to hold such views and express them. Society either has free speech or feeble speech.