Inciting hatred of transgendered people in general terms is acceptable in law

Francis Sedgemore, Monday 14 January 2013 at 15:01 UTC

Since the publication of Julie Burchill’s hate-filled rant against transsexual and transgendered people in yesterday’s Observer, a number of complaints have been made to police forces around the UK. The word coming back from officers handling the complaints, which have been treated as public order matters, is that no prosecutable offence was committed by Burchill.

A CID officer from Lewisham in southeast London with whom I spoke today appears to be arguing that an offence requires there to be a specific individual or identifiable group of individuals targeted. I say appears, as the officer made reference to race hate, which is covered in a different manner, with legislation that predates the law covering hate crime in broader terms and which makes explicit reference to transgendered people.

Note that in 2002 Burchill was investigated for a race-related hate crime after she damned an entire national group – the Irish. Prosecutors decided that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction, and so dropped the case. But at least it went to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The CID officer with whom I spoke suggested that I take the case to the Press Complaints Commission. That will not work, as the PCC refuses to act on complaints unless they are from individuals directly targeted. There is therefore no possible sanction against the likes of Julie Burchill other than an editorial ticking off, or at the very most a refusal to commission further articles from her. Burchill is a freelance writer rather than a Guardian Media Group employee.

There is precedent for such editorial sanction, and I am thinking in particular of Julie Bindel’s temporary exile from the Guardian following some or other gobby outburst that led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But Bindel was soon rehabilitated, as no doubt will Burchill should she be sanctioned for her latest bigoted rant.

I suspect that Burchill will get away with it once again. She is not daft, and neither are her editors. Those who recommend that click-bait comment journalists be ignored should be realistic. This is a national newspaper we are talking about, and Burchill is a popular writer with a fan base that looks to her as a cultural and political icon. She is an influential commentator.

When Burchill casts transgendered people in a sub-human light, her followers are encouraged in their hatred. Since the publication of Burchill’s latest Observer article there has been a marked increase in online hate comment against transsexual and transgendered people. What is important now is that the individuals making such comments be monitored. If they escalate their hatred via harrassment of individual transgendered people or groups, evidence should be collected and handed to the police.

Incitement is why criminal complaints were made against Burchill, not the offence caused by her writing. Free-speech imperatives dictate that no-one has the right not to be offended, but everyone has a right to be safeguarded against physical and rhetorical attack because of who or what they are. The line in the sand is not always easy to distinguish, but it is definitely there.