The Health Nazi

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The BBC, perennially careless on language issues, incorrectly states here that radio talk show host Jon Gaunt was disciplined by Ofcom (the UK communications regulation authority) for calling a local councillor a Nazi. The error is repeated by The Times here, and by The Independent's headline here (and there may be many more). They misreport Gaunt's alleged offense. As the BBC article reports further down the page:

The pair had been debating Redbridge Council's decision to ban smokers from fostering children when Mr Gaunt called Mr Stark a "health Nazi" and an "ignorant pig".

I don't know the extent to which "ignorant pig" was the issue, but I do want to point out that "health Nazi" is not to be equated with "Nazi". The longer phrase evokes the bad-tempered and bossy lunch counter boss in Seinfeld — the one that they referred to with awe, though only when out of earshot of the awful man, as "the Soup Nazi".

Calling someone a health Nazi strikes me as a semi-jocular (if rather abusive) way of accusing him of foisting his health ideas on others in an authoritarian way. Gaunt wasn't saying that the councillor was a card-holding member of the National Socialist party.

Gaunt was fired from his job for the remark, even though he apologized for it later, and that is bad enough (he is now trying to take Ofcom to a court of appeals after it upheld the complaints against him). The UK has nothing like the protections for free speech that the USA has; in the communications industry especially, you can lose your livelihood for an epithet. But things are made even worse when jocular phrases like "soup Nazi" are confused in media headlines with serious allegations like being a Nazi which are arguably actionable defamation.

The Seinfeld characters were tagging the Soup Nazi in the sort of way an insulting cartoon would do. They weren't making a defamatory claim about his political affiliations. If we lose track of a distinction like that, the appallingly draconian and restrictive the communications regulations and defamation laws in Britain will be even more dangerous than they are right now.

[Actually, there's bit more to it, because as Ian Preston reveals in a comment below for which I thank him, Gaunt also used the word Nazi without its modifier before he went on to use the phrase health Nazi immediately afterward. But he claims that was just a slip, and health Nazi was what he meant throughout. —GKP]

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41 Comments »

  1. KCinDC said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    It reminds me of a bit of fake outrage a few years back over someone supposedly calling Cindy Sheehan a whore, when the insult used was actually "media whore". At the time I compared it to saying someone had accused you of being a murderer when they say you're a character assassin.

  2. CIngram said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Surely he lost his job for breaching his terms of contract with his employer, not because of any lack of free speech in Britain.

    [Don't forget the government role: Ofcom ruled against him, which meant his employer was in a mess of trouble. The cultural difference between the countries is huge, I think. Try to imagine Rush Limbaugh being disciplined by the FCC and dismissed from his job for putting it to a local government official that he was a health Nazi. —GKP]

  3. Ian Preston said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    According to the Independent article: "In the heated debate that followed, Mr Gaunt referred to Councillor Stark as a “health Nazi”, a “Nazi” and an “ignorant pig”." That suggests he did use the term "Nazi" on its own.

    This is borne out in the Guardian transcript here where the following exchange takes place:

    JG: "So you are a Nazi then?"

    MS: "Erm, I find that …"

    JG: "So, you are, because – you are, you're a Nazi …"

    … then later:

    JG: "You are a health Nazi … you have no evidence."

    MS: "Oh, you've put another word in front now, to carry out the legal part … health Nazi, that's all right. You'll probably get away with that one."

    According to Gaunt's agent here: "He apologised on air immediately. He regrets using the term but it was a slip of the tongue. He meant to say 'health Nazi' and he clarified it very quickly in the conversation."

  4. Mr Punch said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    Given the English judiciary's strict construction of, e.g., "bogus," I don't give the plaintiff much of a chance.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    The OED does give sense A.2.b "A person who is perceived to be authoritarian, autocratic, or inflexible; one who seeks to impose his or her views upon others", with citations

    1982 P. J. O'ROURKE in Inquiry 15 Mar. 8/3 The Safety Nazis advocate gun control, vigorous exercise, and health foods. 1995 Independent 3 Nov. (Suppl.) 8/2 According to Hutchins, current fitness theory is peddled by ‘nazis’. Aerobics Nazis. 2000 Minx Aug. 71/2, I learned to be more open and not such a Nazi in the studio.

    The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English gives "clothes nazi" from 1984, "surf nazi" from 1988 (though probably associated with the movie "Surf Nazis Must Die", which was about real though fictional (neo-) Nazis), and "jazz nazi" from 2002. And Google Books suggests a 1979 date for "surf nazi", probably in the figurative "fanatic" sense:

  6. Zwicky Arnold said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Posting on the pattern X Nazi here, with links to some earlier Language Log discussions.

  7. CIngram said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    @GKP

    I was thinking that his broadcaster had sacked him and Ofcom had confirmed that the sacking was legitimate. I now see that it was the other way around, ie the regulator told the broadcaster to get rid of him. That is scandalous indeed.

  8. Ian Tindale said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    Interesting. So, in the event of some years ago when the police routinely gave me a section 44 part two for the blatant offence of taking a photograph, I should have called them “policing Nazis” but not “police Nazis”.

    In the event, all I could think of was at the time was “fucking Nazis”, and I considered mention of it superfluous because they probably already knew. Next time, I’ll remember — they’re “policing Nazis”.

  9. James Donnelly said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    Paul Theroux called someone — a brash young granola-chomper, I'm pretty sure — in one of his books on train travel, probably "The Old Patagonian Express" (1979). Just the kind of interesting nasty thing to say that a magpie like P.J. O'Rourke would snatch up (is my ungenerous guess).

  10. Ian Preston said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    @CIngram: I now see that it was the other way around, ie the regulator told the broadcaster to get rid of him.

    His sacking came ten days after the broadcast after an internal inquiry at the radio station and preceded the Ofcom ruling by almost six months. That ruling was concerned, I believe, with whether broadcasting standards were upheld in his broadcast rather than directly with his employment. I think the decision to get rid of him was therefore the station's own. (There seem to be separate legal actions over his dismissal and infringement of his rights by the regulator.) That said, the station had been fined recently by Ofcom for failing to act decisively in cases where presenters transgressed electoral impartiality rules and anticipation of more regulatory criticism to come could have weighed heavily on managers' minds when taking decisions in this case.

  11. Dan T. said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    Is Godwin's Law actually legally enforceable over in Britain?

  12. Kutsuwamushi said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    I wonder what the people who think calling someone is a "health nazi" is the same as calling them a "nazi" would make of the hundreds of people in amateur writing circles who describe themselves as "grammar nazi."

    I think it's in very bad taste (and also that many of them are wrong about grammar), but it's obviously not equivalent to saying that you're a member of the Nazi party.

  13. Kylopod said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    The ADL did complain about the Soup Nazi back in the day. So this kind of thing does offend some people.

    In America, of course, calling someone a Nazi without any qualifier is so normal that the idea it would be libelous sounds absurd.

    I once visited a zoo in Maine that from then on I referred to as the "Nazi Zoo." It featured signs that said–I kid you not–"Anyone who steps beyond this fence will be shot."

    I am Jewish and the grandson of Holocaust survivors.

  14. mollymooly said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    "In America, of course, calling someone a Nazi without any qualifier is so normal that the idea it would be libelous sounds absurd."

    I think this is pertinent; further, I believe* the use of "Nazi" with an attributive is much rarer in Britain, so the idea that "an X Nazi is not a Nazi" is not obvious (cf. is a "dwarf planet" a "planet"?)

    *my only hard evidence is the absence of relevant hits for "_{N} nazi" in BNC, but that corpus predates the trope's popularity. Anybody care to test a more recent UK corpus?

  15. Amy Stoller said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    My two cents only:

    I don't know what Seinfeld's particular family background is, but he's Jewish, his character was Jewish, his partner was Jewish, and I thought the idea of a Soup Nazi was funny. I still do.

    Is the use of Nazi in this way in poor taste? Maybe yes, maybe no. Personally, I can live with it.

    Rush Limbaugh calling feminists feminazis was not funny to me, and I think it was borderline.

    Anti-Obama protestors calling Obama a Nazi was defamatory, an outrage, and the result of genuinely dangerous ignorance of a type that spreads all too easily. He was actually being compared to members of the Nazi party. Even given our rights to free speech, it might have been actionable. But suing would have cost Obama more than he could ever have won.

  16. Kylopod said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    Generally speaking, using Nazi as a political epithet is considered far more offensive than when it is used in silly phrases like Soup Nazi or Grammar Nazi. But the former is still commonplace. The last three presidents were all likened to Hitler or the Nazis by some critics. I don't know how frequent this is in Great Britain; I typed "Tony Blair is a Nazi" into Google and came up with only two hits.

    None of this would be defamatory in the American system, even in theory, since nobody ever claimed that Obama, Bush, or Clinton was literally affiliated with the American Nazi Party. Insulting public figures through metaphor and comparison is protected under our system. In a famous case, Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine for a mock ad that implied Falwell had had sex with his mother. It was obviously nothing more than a cruel, tasteless joke, and the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Falwell.

    Of course, proving libel and slander in the U.S. system is significantly harder than it is in Great Britain, no matter what was said or written, and it's even harder when the aggrieved is a public figure.

  17. Tom said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    I'm not sure your attack on the British 'draconian' broadcasting regulations is fair, really. There are certainly problems with our defamation laws – though I think the US laws go too far the other way – but this is a very different issue.

    Our broadcasting laws actually restrict very little content, so you can be as offensive as you like for comedy and so on, but when it comes to current affairs and politics we expect a little more decorum. There, broadcasters are under a duty of impartiality, which means although they can have very robust interviews (see Newsnight or Today for examples), simple abuse and bullying of a guest is not allowed.

    I'm quite pleased that a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity would be unable to succeed in the UK, really. They add nothing to public discourse but vitriol and misinformation.

    [Hear, hear. Don't get me wrong: I love the absence of Limbaugh and Hannity and Beck in the UK, where I currently work. Such people are just part of the price paid for America's astonishingly liberal laws about linguistic (and particularly political) expression. So I find myself in the position of loving the USA and its principles, and, as part of the penalty paid for the values maintained by the land that I love, having to tolerate the vile outpouring of broadcast lies and hostility and bigotry from scum that I despise. —GKP]

  18. Alex said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    1. Couldn't Gaunt (legitimately) be sacked because his work was poor quality? I.e. throwing around terms like "Nazi" is not the quality that his employers expect? Maybe that wasn't the reason given, but would it be reasonable (under US or UK law) to sack someone for that reason instead?

    2. Richard Littlejohn is a goldmine for this sort of thing:

    Littlejohn gave us the: 'elf 'n' safety nazi', 'road safety nazi', 'anti-smoking nazi', 'eco-nazis', 'dustbin nazis', 'recycling nazis', 'diversity nazis', 'tinpot nazis', 'condiment nazis', 'nail-varnish nazis', 'noise abatement nazis' and 'City of London Corporation safety nazis.

    Furthermore he also railed against: 'health fascists', 'eco-fascists', 'five-a-day fascists', 'diversity fascists', '"global warming" fascists', 'elf 'n' safety stormtroopers', 'condiments communists', 'sandwich stasis', 'weights and measures gestapo', 'equality and diversity commissars','condom commandos' and the 'fascist left'.

    http://www.angrymob.uponnothing.co.uk/richardlittlejohn/littlejohns-2008-audit

  19. Kylopod said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    I'm quite pleased that a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity would be unable to succeed in the UK, really. They add nothing to public discourse but vitriol and misinformation.

    Are you suggesting that British broadcasters are prohibited from saying things that aren't true?

  20. The effin' bear said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 1:43 am

    Thank you Geoffrey for bringing to light in several of your posts the UK's draconian restrictions on free expression. I hope that, given their Iran-like nature, you aren't thrown into a lengthy and expensive court battle, possibly involving torture (I don't know the UK's system of renditions), for discussing them here.

    But I wonder — isn't there a similarly subjective nature to the judgments by which a comment on LL might be regarded as either acceptable or worthy of banning the poster? What if you didn't fully understand the context of a remark made on LL and felt that the comment was intended to deeply offend someone — wouldn't you immediately send Mark an overseas telegraph: "911 BAN [whomever] ASAP"? In the case of Gaunt, you happen to understand the reference — in the U.S., health nazis even tend to refer to themselves as such, as a matter of pride — but if you didn't, and it was a joke whose audience is very narrow, wouldn't you be prompted to perhaps warn or ban the poster?

    While I wouldn't expect LL's posting guidelines to adhere exactly to the U.S.'s free speech law (considering spam, gibberish, strongly hateful speech, and the like), where do they fall w.r.t. the U.S.'s and the UK's?

    [Language Log is hosted in America, and is under American law (indeed, also the regulations and guidelines of the University of Pennsylvania, since Language Log's server is housed at the Linguistic Data Consortium, which is hosted at Penn). As for our policies, you can see them here. We value brevity, relevance, non-idiocy (read the post before you comment, turkeys), and a modicum of courtesy for others. We delete comments that we think detract from the value and pleasure of our pages, and of course we would have to remove anything that was libelous or illegal even under US law. But in practice we ban hardly anybody, and we certainly don't take away anyone's livelihood for what they say. Everyone has the right to say anything they want to say, but if it doesn't suit the Language Log ambiance, they have to say it elsewhere — nobody but us has any particular right to say it here, as opposed to on their own blog or refrigerator door or front lawn or local public toilet wall. —GKP]

  21. Sid Smith said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    British broadcasters are bound by rules of political impartiality, which also applied in the US until the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine by Ronald Reagan in 1987 – leading to the new phenomenon of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. Broadcasters in the UK are pretty robust in confronting politicians, but cannot display an apparent bias.

    There's also the matter of corporate culture. The UK doesn't have a Rush Limbaugh, but neither does CNN, CBS, etc. It seems that TalkSport didn't want its presenters calling a local politician a Nazi (not just a safety Nazi).

    And the FCC can seem pretty interventionist to UK eyes: remember the Janet Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction', and such matters as the impromptu 'fuck' on that Fox music show?

  22. The effin' bear said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 4:47 am

    Sid Smith: Can you give an example of how the FCC can seem "pretty interventionist to UK eyes"? Because apart from Janet Jackson's nipple, which did receive a bit of coverage at the time, you seem to be saying that in England anything goes, which of course isn't true.

  23. The effin' bear said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 4:49 am

    Also, the censoring practices of the media agencies and the anti-defamatory laws of the state are very different things.

  24. Elizabeth said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    I'm not sure whether it's occurred to many folk – but Seinfield is not actually of huge cultural relevance in the UK (or even other countries outside of the USA – gasp). Most people in my UK office had not heard of a "soup nazi" at all.

  25. Sid Smith said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    A further thought: for some years there's been an apparent role reversal in US/UK media. In the UK, broadcasters are (supposedly) impartial whereas newspapers are overtly partisan. Contrarywise, the US has Fox News but also newspapers that can seem disinterested to a fault: the New York Times was allegedly too compliant during the build-up to Iraq; can seem like a mere stenographer in giving space to politicians whose statements are just plain wrong; and has made a policy decision not to use the word 'torture' about events in Gitmo, Bagram, etc, while being prepared to use it about similar abuses in Iran and China (http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/07/04/torture/index.html).

    PS: We should all be vastly entertained to see that – six years on – the FCC has launched yet another review of the Jackson case, which has already been up to the Supreme Court and back again.

  26. Graeme said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    There's some major cultural and political dissonance here.

    First, the tenor of British broadcasting – long a more socially and legally policed sphere than the US – is far less laissez faire, let alone boots and all, than the US (or Australian) media.

    Second, Britain, as part of Europe, has a deep and scarred memory of the existential threat that Nazism posed. Relatively distant island continents like the US (and Australia) lack that.

    A related anecdote. An ex law teacher of mine, now Australian Senator, was able to weave an entire parliamentary speech around accusing Greens as being inheritors of Nazi traditions. (That is, mainstream elected Greens MPs and their party, not the so-called eco-fascist, deep greens). People discounted his rhetoric, but his career did not suffer (indeed he soon after became a junior minister in a conservative government). In the UK he would have more likely have been labelled as temperamentally suspect and his career sidelined. In the US Senate, it would have been considered an offence of manners, rather than a rhetorical misdemeanour.

  27. Graeme said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    ps I also cavil with Professor Pullum's equation of British media law and norms with ogrish repression and the US's with lithe libertarianism.

    Sure, US English 'swings' a bit more than its forbear. But who could defend 'soup Nazi' as an enlightening term in political debate? It's just a daffy, spit-ball of a line from a sit-com. Indeed, whatever humorous impact it possesses, it owes to the power and fear that the term 'Nazi' earned in political discourse. Chant 'fascist', 'Nazi' etc long enough in political debates and you'll devalue the terms out of existence. Or at best give them some strange new meaning: eg could anyone explain this novel form of 'socialism' that Obama represents?

  28. Sid Smith said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    "Can you give an example of how the FCC can seem "pretty interventionist to UK eyes"?"

    Nope. I'm hanging my entire case on Janet Jackson's nipple.

    "you seem to be saying that in England anything goes, which of course isn't true"

    I agree.

    Perhaps I also agree with GKP that, "The cultural difference between the countries is huge." To hear a petty local official repeatedly described as a Nazi on a middle-of-the-road radio show is pretty extreme to UK ears. Meanwhile, US regulators are upset about a nipple.

    I do take your point that there's a vast difference between impartiality as an individual choice (some US media) and impartiality imposed by the state (UK broadcasting). I'd add that this difference is likely to endure: it's certain that the example of Fox and Limbaugh have made any slackening of UK rules far less probable. I wonder if any Americans regret the end of the Fairness Doctrine.

    NB: I should clarify that I have no particular stance on the NYT's editorial policy: it's a great newspaper, and its desire to be kind-of-sort-of non-partisan in its news pages is (to put it mildly) defensible. Instead I was, rather clumsily, pointing out that some on the left and centre-right of US politics (eg, Greenwald and Sullivan) believe that its even-handedness is, er, extreme.

  29. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    In and along the same lines, some of the ignorance at the 9/12 TEA party protest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUPMjC9mq5Y

    Obama is called a Nazi (completely unqualified) a number of times. But there are a number of points of linguistic interest. E.g., using 'socialism,' 'communism', and 'fascism' interchangeably; the idea that "barack obama" literally translates as "anti-Christ" and appears in the Bible.

    But at 6:25, and what took me to this video in the first place, is a discussion about the so-called 'czars' in government. The same sort of thing as with X Nazi — the people in this video see "drug czar" as first and foremost a czar.

    Some apparently believing that a drug czar is somehow related to a Russian king. One woman worries that these czars will be given tracts of land and control over the people in those lands. (They also completely miss the fact that the Bolshevik Revolution deposed the czars; czars = Russia = communism.)

  30. Ellen K said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Graeme, check your geography. The U.S. is not a continent, and the continent it is on is not an island.

    Also, no one would say "soup nazi" in a political debate, even in a sitcom, because politicians don't dish up soup. Or, if they did spend time serving up soup, and the term "soup nazi" was used, it would refer to their soup serving, not to anything political.

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    To steer back to linguistics as such and possible differences between U.S. and U.K. lexicon, I think that in BrE the word "bolshie" (from Bolshevik or Bolshevistic) is frequently used in various informal/jocular contexts with substantially less risk of causing serious offense than "communist" or "commie" might in the U.S., even if it would be obvious in the U.S. context that the usage was hyperbolic or semi-jocular. (Although calling a left-wing politician or policy "Bolshevistic" in the U.S. might actually be less likely to give offense because of the oddly archaic feel of the word; it would be like calling Al-Qaeda supporters "Saracens" or "Paynims.")

  32. Amy Stoller said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    @Kylopod: You are right; public figures, especially politicians, are considered fair game in the US. You can perhaps get away with implying Carol Burnett a drunk, although the National Enquirer didn't; you couldn't possibly get away with calling her a Nazi, if she chose to call you on it. It's pretty easy to lob any insult you like at a political figure.

    @Elizabeth: I'm not a huge fan of American cultural imperialism. And it's true that Seinfeld was not a big hit in the UK, as both Frasier and Friends became. But it was not unheard of, and the Soup Nazi episode was a particularly famous one. Still, isn't that beside the point? It was raised here as an example of how "Nazi" can be used as a non-political epithet. And it is a good example of exactly that.

    @the effin' bear: I think the point of the wardroble malfunction nonsense was that Janet Jackson's nipple did not receive a lot of coverage at the time.

  33. Kylopod said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    I'd like to respond to a number of points here.

    abolition of the Fairness Doctrine by Ronald Reagan in 1987 – leading to the new phenomenon of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc.

    The Fairness Doctrine applied to cable TV?

    The UK doesn't have a Rush Limbaugh, but neither does CNN

    Glenn Beck, this generation's Limbaugh, was on CNN's affiliate channel HNN for two years.

    Second, Britain, as part of Europe, has a deep and scarred memory of the existential threat that Nazism posed. Relatively distant island continents like the US (and Australia) lack that.

    But the jocular use of "Nazi" here in America very often has come from Jewish entertainers like Mel Brooks or Jerry Seinfeld for whom Nazism has a very potent historical association.

    But there are a number of points of linguistic interest. E.g., using 'socialism,' 'communism', and 'fascism' interchangeably

    This is all part of the weird right-wing universe that has been crafted by the propaganda conglomerate of talk radio and FOX News. Jonah Goldberg's pseudohistory Liberal Fascism provides the intellectual rationale for this mindset of laying both fascism and communism on American liberals.

  34. Boris said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    I think, here in the US at least, there is a distinction between news and commentary or entertainment. The same networks who employ Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck would never say the things these people say on a newscast. Even Fox News, during a newscast, would never call Obama a communist or whatever. They may slant their reporting and choose what to say and what not to say, but they wouldn't say anything demonstrably false or based on opinion. Now the problem may be that commentary is increasingly displacing news on "news networks", but that's hardly the same thing.

    Now am I to understand that UK broadcasters cannot express their opinions about politics in any context? If so, then yes, that would be pretty draconian.

  35. Picky said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    UK broadcasting organisations take a view of what their staff say on air which is different from their view of what guests on their shows may say. Generally they tend to hope that their staff, particularly on current affairs shows, should behave with some degree of decorum. (That doesn't stop interviews being challenging). The shows themselves carry a legal duty of political impartiality. Any British broadcaster would tend to think it improper for a talk show host to behave the way the unpleasant Mr Gaunt did (and yes, Prof Pullum, my understanding is that he did call the man a Nazi, and that your intro is void).

    I suspect most British people would regard the impartiality requirement on television and radio, and the lack of one for newspapers, to be perfectly acceptable (although I quite understand why this seems objectionable from across the Atlantic).

  36. Boris said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    But why are newspapers different? They are meant to report facts, commentary, and entertainment in different sections. I expect news stories to (pretend to) be impartial, while the rest of it not so much. So what's the difference? Certainly in other matters written word is more authoritative than speech. For example a legal contract usually exists in writing because anything anyone said can be denied later (unless it's recorded, which is the case of most broadcasts, but can be inadmissible as evidence in other contexts if the speaking party was unaware of being recorded)

  37. Sid Smith said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    "I think that in BrE the word "bolshie" (from Bolshevik or Bolshevistic) is frequently used in various informal/jocular contexts"

    Indeed, JWB. Oddly enough, I almost used the word (it means "argumentative", I suppose, or "full of objections") during my previous comments – but decided I was already in over my head!

    "Now am I to understand that UK broadcasters cannot express their opinions about politics in any context?"

    You are.

    "If so, then yes, that would be pretty draconian."

    As I said, similar rules applied in the US till a couple of decades back. For an idea of how far Brit broadcasters nevertheless go, this Youtube clip is useful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCo7qbzEX3c

    You could also check out the same journo, Jeremy Paxman, interviewing Ann Coulter when she complains that US rules about the separation of church and state are oppressive. I suppose she could even call them a restriction on free speech. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aiHbUplz3k

    NB: I find Paxman pretty obnoxious.

  38. Sid Smith said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    "But why are newspapers different?"

    I think the difference was plurality. There were traditionally far more print publications than broadcasters, and therefore more of a danger that broadcasters would not offer a wide range of views: hence the government insistence on neutrality.

    On the one hand, perhaps the argument loses its potency as broadcasting outlets proliferate; on the other, perhaps the argument is strengthened by the fact that lots of people get all their news from broadcasters.

  39. The effin' bear said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

    Sid Smith: Though I did get a chuckle (more than a chuckle?) out of your comment about Janet Jackson, whom I'd prefer to no longer joke about as she is a very sweet woman, you seem to be saying that it is best for a state to rid itself of peripheral Beck-esque and Limbaugh-like figures to ensure the proper functioning of the televised news services. I see your point–a nipple poses less of a threat to the national conscience than Limbaugh–but at the same time:
    1) in a developed nation, it is okay to broadcast ppl who are full of sh*t because the majority of the populace has a decent enough education to detect their sh*tfulness
    2) and those who can't detect it are going to be crazy regardless of evidence to the contrary
    3) CNN
    4) The Daily Show
    So yes, it's true that Americans fret over certain details of what might be shown on TV, such as whether a *covered* nipple may or may not be shown, but there are very strict rules regarding bodyparts (the reasoning being: at some point you've gotta figure out what's legal and what's not), whereas there are no rules regarding the type of viewpoint that my be telecast (or said). In contrast, you allude to a society in which a nipple passes here and there, but there is a single news telecast that is "opinionless" (not your word, but an implication). Apart from the fact that an opinionless telecast is impossible, there is some benefit to deviating from the Iranian model, so I think that you should put your nationalism in check. Americans have d*ckheads like Beck and jerkholes like Limbaugh, but they (we-perhaps you've figured out by this point that I'm American) welcome those opinions into our national debate. When they veer too far from what's right–e.g. when Beck called Obama a 'racist' with 'deep-seated hatred toward white people'–they lose credibility.

    I regret that this has played out as kind of a nationalist argument, but in my defense I would say, he started it!

  40. Picky said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    @the effin' bear: Your arguments are fine, of course.

    Both societies understand that free speech is a basic right; both societies recognise that there are many circumstances where other rights impinge. A judgement has to be made, and I'm certainly not saying the UK has got it right. Our libel laws, for instance, are in clear need of reform. In the matter of campaign spending, though, I think we are closer to the right judgement: arguably limiting free speech to ensure that the rich can't totally dominate discussion.

    In broadcasting, the impartiality thing goes back to the time when the BBC was the monopoly broadcaster and there was seen to be a constitutional requirement that it should be impartial between parties.

    This has continued as the number of broadcasters has grown, because there is still no free market in free-to-air broadcasting: frequencies have to be managed and allotted, and the major broadcaster, the BBC, is public-funded (as, effectively, is Channel 4). Even in cable and satellite, a very few, very big players dominate the field.

    Newspapers are a different kettle of fish – a free market that anyone can enter, where government regulation of political bias would be quite unacceptable.

    We may have got all this wrong, but it's not an unreasonable state of affairs, and it really is not the hellbound thought-dictatorship some commenters seem to believe.

  41. Sid Smith said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    @ effin bear

    I'm with Picky – who sums things up more eloquently (and temperately!) than I have managed.

    I got defensive-aggressive back there, and I do apologise to our American friends.

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