Helen Thomas: why it isn’t about free speech

Several months ago there was a great big furore over when Daily Mail columnist wrote what was deemed a homophobic piece. Jan Moir’s murmurings about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately led to a host of complaints to the PCC and a storm of upset on Twitter and in the blogosphere.
Moir lived to write another day, but another journalist who didn’t watch what she said has not been so lucky.
Yesterday, amidst much pressure, veteran White House reporter
Helen Thomas announced her resignation from the Hearst news agency. Given her age – 89 – and the fact that she has been a Washington writer since Kennedy, her stepping down is perhaps unsurprising.

But of course, her age had nothing to do with it. Thomas walked only in the wake of a scandal of her own making.

She told a Rabbi, on video and during a White House Jewish Heritage Month event no less, that all Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

Around the comment-sphere opinion has been mixed about whether she should have been fired (she was also sacked by her agency and asked not to speak at scheduled school event) or whether it was ‘censorship’ to call for her head.
Most prominently, Roy Greenslade weighed in with this:

 “So, in the land of the free, where freedom of speech is guaranteed under the constitution, a person who expresses what are deemed to be controversial views is effectively gagged…

 “… one can see clearly how people in America who are willing to express anti-establishment opinions are demonised, marginalised and finally excluded from public debate.”
But with due respect, he’s wrong. This isn’t a case about free speech, or the lack thereof.

Free speech, as Voltaire would put it, is about defending the right to share abhorrent opinions. Thomas has the absolute right to do so, to say what she likes about anything from Israel to Lady Gaga, (and incidentally, her resignation will not prevent her from airing her views elsewhere), but not when she sits as a professional in the White House press room.
She can be as offensive as she likes, but to do so from a position of power is irresponsible.

And if she wishes to criticise Israel – as is her prerogative – she should do so with reasoned argument not narrow-minded slur.

Journalists can, and should, share their opinions. But it is a basic principle that fair comment should be based on true facts.
By calling for the Jews to go back to Europe Thomas forgets that a high proportion of Israeli’s were born in Israel and have lived there for generations, and that many of the immigrants to the country come from the Middle East, not Europe.

The reference to Europe, with its clear resonance of Holocaust-era attitudes, was particularly troubling from a woman who lived through the atrocities of the Second World War. It was a cheap comment, perhaps meant as a throwaway jibe, but cheap nonetheless.

And, whatever you think of Israel, Thomas’ comment was not simply a criticism of policy. She referred to “all Jews”, yet the Israeli government by no means represents the opinions of every Israeli – the intransigence of the Knesset is testament to that – nor indeed every Jew.
President Obama
called it “the right decision” for her to resign, and it was.

Substitute “Jews” with blacks, Muslims, gays, or any other minority, and the insult would be just as abominable and deserving of the same outcry.

Journalists should not shy away from controversy, and others from Moir to Thomas will continue to make such inflammatory comments. There are few writers out there who are not also passionate opinion-holders.
And most of the time, it’s OK to disagree. But in a just, democratic society, free speech must still be balanced with the prevention of bigotry.