Jon Gaunt: gatekeepers and free speech

Yesterday Jon Gaunt, the talk show host who used to run the morning show on BBC London, lost an attempt to appeal against a censure by Ofcom, the British broadcast media regulator, against his former employer, the AM talk station TalkSport (another of whose former presenters was George Galloway). Gaunt had called a councillor from east London a “health Nazi” and an “ignorant pig” while interviewing him about the council’s policy to exclude smokers from fostering children for obvious health reasons (Gaunt himself spent time in care as a child). Gaunt brought the action with the support of the human rights group, Liberty, on free speech grounds but his claim was thrown out by a judge who said his conduct “became increasingly abusive, hectoring and out of control”.

The censure was brought about by 53 complaints to Ofcom, and as Roy Greenslade points out, it’s not certain that all of those complainers actually heard the original broadcast. However, Greenslade still holds that Gaunt’s freedom of speech was violated as he broke no law and nobody is compelled to listen or be interviewed by him, while conceding that his manner is often offensive and he is prone to cutting interviewees off:

He interrupts his interviewees so often that he makes John Humphrys look positively reticent.

On my single interview on Gaunt’s online SunTalk show, in which I was defending the BBC licence fee, he made it impossible to mount a coherent argument because he gave me little opportunity to get through a sentence and also made some irritating ad hominem remarks.

On my occasional dips into SunTalk, I’ve also noticed that he even interrupts Sun staff when they are merely making straightforward statements. So I can see why his motor-mouth broadcasting approach annoys so many people.

But no-one is forced to listen to SunTalk, just as no-one was forced to listen to TalkSport in November 2008, when he called Councillor Michael Stark a “Nazi” and an “ignorant pig”.

The problem is that Gaunt’s use of his “freedom of speech” serves to prevent others enjoying theirs. Talk show hosts are gatekeepers: they have their finger on the cut-off button, they have the last word as they can insult or ridicule callers after their time is ended, and they frequently talk over and shout down both members of the public who call in, and interviewees. Their on-air ranting is not like a columnist writing his opinion in a paper or a blogger publishing his on his own space. They are meant to be there to facilitate freedom of speech for others, and to allow those who might be under criticism to put their side of the story. There’s no point if it’s all a rant by the host — after all, why does his opinion matter, exactly?

If the host is pretending that his opinions are those of “the man in the street”, that is even more dangerous as he is suggesting that really, his opinions are the only valid ones and anyone else is a moron, or just the pretensions of the effete middle classes. This type of radio, much like a lot of tabloid newspaper publishing, does not so much represent popular opinion as manufacture it, and those who use a privileged platform to bully or censor those they disagree with really have no business whingeing about freedom of speech.

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