A columnist’s job confers some privileges, and obligations
Opinion: With the megaphone comes a duty to protect freedom of expression
BMW: a nice car, but only if you can drive it.
In December 2010, I acted as MC for an Irish Congress of Trade Unions rally against the bank bailout and the arrival of the troika. The following weekend, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times carried a long, anonymous “profile” of me. It began with a description of me driving home from that rally in my series 5 BMW.
The implication was pretty clear: I was a hypocritical, champagne socialist, stirring up the masses from a position of wealth and privilege. The article continued as it began, painting me as a hypocrite, a liar and a lazy dilettante who was paid a massive salary in return for very little work.
I don’t drive a series 5 BMW. I don’t drive any other car either. I don’t own a car because, to my shame, I can’t drive. I went home that day, as I usually do, on the number 13 bus. The BMW story was pure invention and almost every “fact” that followed was wildly and demonstrably wrong.
The “profile” was, in other words, a gold mine. I had hit the libel jackpot. The Sunday Times couldn’t possibly go into court to defend an article that was so sloppily written and badly researched. Even the most aggressive lawyer would tell them to stuff my mouth with gold and make the whole thing go away fast.
I have to confess that for about five minutes I was intoxicated on the potent brew of greed and revenge that I imbibed to soothe my hurt feelings. I thought how lovely it would be to get Rupert Murdoch to buy me an actual series 5 BMW and pay for the driving lessons and a lifetime’s supply of petrol. I would call the car Rupert and every time I turned the key in the ignition I would give a mad cackle of glee.
Chapter in memoir
Any time I was feeling glum, I would just go out and stroke the soft leather seats or rest my throbbing forehead against the cool walnut finish on the dashboard. I even thought it would make a great chapter in my memoir, called How I Learned to Drive.
And then I remembered something. I am a national newspaper columnist. I occupy a position of enormous privilege. I’m allowed to take part in what we might call the semi-official national discourse. I’m allowed to be robustly critical of all sorts of people. I’m allowed to enrage some of those people and (though I don’t set out to do so) to upset others. I’m given those freedoms because there is a working assumption that free and open and robust debate is not just permissible in, but essential to, a democracy.