Friday, 23 December 2011

Tesco and Free Speech

In recent years, the press has delighted in throwing up examples of anti-Christian "political correctness gone mad", for instance the suppression of school Nativity Plays, the creation of the words Winterval and Winterfest, the case of a British Airways worker banned from wearing a crucifix around her neck while at work, or of a nurse censured for having offered to say a prayer for a patient.  Depending upon the newspaper, the tone of the article will either be of measured approval (eg The Independent or The Guardian), or of indignance and moral outrage (eg The Daily Mail).

In the last few days, a similar story has been doing the rounds, this time coming from the opposite perspective.  Someone called Nick Lansley, who is supposedly senior in the management of the Tesco website, posted some comments on his own personal Flickr page that his employers later, it seems, suggested that he might want to remove. 

What had Mr Lansley said?  The reports suggest that he had said “I’m also campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.”

The first half of Mr Lansley's comments is clearly not directed at Catholics.  Catholics do not wish unhappiness on anyone.  Sexual orientation makes not a jot of difference to that.  The second half, well Mr Lansley doesn't really say enough for his meaning to be understood easily.  Is he talking about civil partnerships?  Is he talking about the current proposed legislation to allow civil partnerships to be conducted in religious premises (by the Quakers and two or three other small organisations)?    Is he talking about those frustrated by the Catholic Church's and (so far) the Church of England's lack of enthusiasm to redefine what marriage is in their eyes?  It's all rather vague, and as such it isn't easy to get worked up about it.

In any event, this blog has no wish to get itself tied up in that particular debate.  There are plenty more informed and more eloquent writers who would be able to do so much better than we ever could.  (No comments debating the point will be published.)

No, the point being made here today is rather different.  Frankly, I see no reason why Mr Lansley shouldn't be able to make those comments.  It's his opinion, we have free speech (more or less) in this country, so why not?  Nobody obliges any of us to like or agree with what he says.  Indeed, none of us really even have to be aware of what he writes on his own personal Flickr page.  It's his business, and might have remained so had he not also mentioned on that same site his high profile position at Tesco (the timing of his post, co-inciding with Tesco's equally publicised alleged reallocation of its corporate giving budget, was rather unfortunate for poor Mr Lansley).

However, if Mr Lansley should have that freedom (and I think he should), the same freedom should be given to people like the Housing Association manager from Manchester earlier this year, who made a comment on his own Facebook page to the effect that if churches didn't want to (or feel able to) conduct civil partnership ceremonies on their premises, they shouldn't be forced to do so by law.  The Housing Association manager was demoted and given a 40% pay cut for writing what he did. 

I know which statement I find more extreme.  One writer calls his opponents evil.  The other says that churches should not be forced, against their will, to conduct ceremonies that they believe they are unable to conduct (do people seriously want there to be police in attendance to make sure that Father X says the right words?). 

Yet, the making of one statement on someone's private internet account had severe and direct consequences, the other didn't really.  Whichever view you hold on the underlying issues, surely we could all agree that any suppression of free speech is unwelcome, and that the disparity between the consequences for those involved in the two publicised comments is quite simply unfair. 

Some people have felt that the above action calls for a boycott of shopping at Tesco.  I'm not at all sure about that, because to act in that way seems to me to be as illiberal as the (il)liberals who have punished the Housing Association manager.  Both he and Mr Lansley ought, I would suggest, to have the right to state their own views when doing so in their own name.

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