Readers are being denied the full picture as far as Hugh Gaffney’s offensive remarks go

The instinct not to repeat words that are beyond the pale is understandable, but it sells readers short.


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Another day, another MP in the news for making off-colour remarks. This week it’s Hugh Gaffney, the Labour MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, who told a Labour Students Burns Night gathering a rhyme about someone not being “bent”, having kicked off proceedings by saying they were lucky to have him as he could “be at home having a Chinky”.

Or, as reported in many of the newspapers,   “offensive remarks about LGBT and Chinese food”. The BBC’s write-up, in all likelihood given the way the average person consumes their news likely to be the most-read story on the topic, quotes neither of the remarks. Nor does the National, a pro-independence newspaper. PoliticsHome opts to quote the word “bent” but eschews the offensive reference to Chinese people.

A similar story could be told about the coverage of Newton Abbott MP Anne Marie Morris’ description of a no-deal Brexit as “the nigger in the woodpile”, or Sheffield Hallam MP Jared O’Mara’s forum posts, in which he mocked gay people as “fudgepackers”, “poofters”, referred to anal sex as “driving up the Marmite motorway”, and made a series of misogynistic comments, including that “fat women don’t deserve respect”.

In all the cases, I can understand the unwillingness to use language that many people, in my view rightly, regard as beyond the pale. (If you write a morning email such as mine, there is another problem: offensive language trips up many workplace content filters, increasing the chances that your work will be lost in the ether.)

But the difficulty in doing so is that it denies the reader the ability to make an informed judgement about the politician in question.

People can reasonably disagree, but to me at least, the problem with O’Mara’s posts wasn’t just that they were quote unquote “offensive” but that they were virulently homophobic. Gaffney’s comments, like Morris’, leave me perplexed as to how you can become an MP and be unaware that making comments like that, particularly a a gathering of young Labour activists, hardly a ripe audience for Bernard Manningesque “banter”, is going to back fire on you. However, they are, to my eyes at least, of a lower order to O’Mara’s posts.

Quoting the language used also allows us to come to our own conclusion, both about the original offense, the politician in question and the appropriateness of the punishment. Again, I’m not saying that this will lead to some kind of consensus about the offences in question. My feeling is that Gaffney’s punishment of undergoing diversity training is a more useful one than merely suspending the whip for six months then letting someone back in, as in the case of Morris, but others can and will fairly disagree. It does however, as with the wider debate about “online abuse” which can make it seem as if what people are being subjected to is a few off-colour remarks about their choice of tie as opposed to violently racist and sexist remarks, mean that people are left in the dark about the true scale of the problem.

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we ought to, at least once, refer to the offence directly, not hide it.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.