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Financial Times: Prepare to be shocked

Author: John Lloyd
April 29, 2011

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A legal challenge may soon open UK airwaves to US-style polemicists, says the Financial Times's John Lloyd.

In November 2008, the Sun columnist Jon Gaunt, whose passionately opinionated career has seen him veer from an engagement with the far left in his twenties to the populist right in middle age, called Michael Stark, a councillor in the London Borough of Redbridge, a “Nazi” and “an ignorant pig” on the TalkSport radio channel, on which he was a regular broadcaster. Stark had roused his anger because Redbridge had decided on a policy that smokers should not be allowed to adopt children.

Though Gaunt apologised before the programme ended, TalkSport fired him; and the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, censured the station. The commentator took Ofcom to court in 2010, arguing that the ruling contravened his right to free speech; he was supported by the free speech charity, Liberty. He lost, and is appealing: the Court of Appeal is set to hear him in two weeks' time, on May 11 or 12.

I met Gaunt with his lawyer, Martin Howe: both men were certain that they would win on the basis of the free speech rights enshrined in European, and UK, legislation. “If we win the appeal it means a lot – it will be a very big event,” said Gaunt. “It means we will be able to have robust political debate in this country.”

This is the first time a ruling of this kind has been challenged in the UK under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free speech. Winning the appeal under that banner would, Howe believes, allow broadcasters to give the public their views on anything and everything. The regulations which now require that news about, and discussion of, current affairs be fair, balanced, neutral and objective, would be overridden. The British – and the Europeans – would be as free as the Americans.

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