About 10 years ago my brother-in-law was giving me a lift through the early morning Washington traffic when he suddenly gave a whoop of joy. “It’s Howie!” yelled Ivo, turning up the radio. “We gotta listen to Howie!” And it was with mounting disbelief that I listened to the next 20 minutes of the Howard Stern show, a shameless and cynical attempt to scandalise the ear.
That morning Howard was appealing to his listeners to ring in with the most tear-jerking hard-luck story. In return he was offering a nude massage at the hands of an attractive nude masseuse. In a display of Oprah Winfreyesque exhibitionism, the audience was competing for that massage. We heard of divorces, and bereavements, and embarrassing disfigurements. But the winner (I advise sensitive readers to faint now) was a man who rang in to say that he had just been diagnosed with cancer, and might lose his gonads, but had not yet had the courage to tell his girlfriend.
Howard Stern pounced. “What’s her number?” he said. With lightning efficiency his producers patched the caller through to his girlfriend, and soon she was being told – live on air – that there was good news and bad news.
The bad news was that her boyfriend had cancer, and the good news was that he was the winner of a nude massage. The poor woman gasped and sobbed. I sat there in exactly the state desired by the producers of the Howard Stern show – appalled, disgusted, but also thrilled by the horror of what was apparently (and I stress apparently) taking place on the radio.
We just don’t have shows like this in Britain, I said to Ivo. That’s right, he said, and he told me about the shock jocks. He explained the tactics of men such as Stern and Rush Limbaugh, how they shamelessly chased after ratings by causing outrage, how they goosed the secret prejudices of their listeners. Some people tuned in because they actually agreed with what was being said. Most people just enjoyed the theatre, the vehemence, the provocation.
These shock jocks were national institutions, with millions of weekly listeners. They were a new and important part of the American constitution, and that is my first objection to the utterly demented decision by Jacqui Smith’s Home Office to announce that Michael Savage, America’s third most popular radio show host, is banned from entering this country. It just makes us look so infantile, so pathetic.
Every day the American airwaves are churned by the paranoid rantings of Michael Savage and his kind. Has this stuff warped America, or deformed its political psyche? On the contrary, the Americans have just had the good sense to elect a supremely gifted and eloquent black man – when the prospect of a black British prime minister still seems some way off. What are we, some sort of kindergarten that needs to be protected against these dangerous American radio shows? Does Jacqui Smith think we are all dimwits, who can’t tell when a man like Savage is talking rubbish? Why can America take it, and we can’t?
The answer is that America still has a constitutional protection of free speech, and I have been amazed, over the last few days, to see how few people in this country are willing to stick up for that elementary principle. Across Fleet Street, swords have stuck in their scabbards, swords that normally leap to the defence of liberty.
I am not aware that a single MP has spoken on this subject, apart from David Winnick, who went on Newsnight to agree with Jacqui Smith. Harold Wilson once called Mr Winnick “the stupidest man in the House of Commons”, a reputation he did nothing to shake with his performance. Mr Winnick said that Savage should be banned from this country for claiming that many children with autism were “brats”. That is indeed an odious and ill-informed opinion. But surely it should be blindingly obvious even to David Winnick that it is possible to despise the things that Michael Savage says, and yet to think that it is very odd indeed to bar him from this country.
Such is the terror of being associated with Mr Savage’s ugly ravings, that no one dares speak up for common sense and proportionality. To exclude someone from entering this country is a serious act of state. We have not been told how the decision was taken. We do not know which criteria were applied.
All we can say for certain is that there was no attempt to consult our elected representatives in the House of Commons, engrossed as they now are in defending their expenses, and it looks very much as though the list of banned persons was rushed out to cover up the hoo-ha over the Home Secretary’s taxpayer-funded bath plug.
Michael Savage has said ignorant and unpleasant things about gay people, autism and Muslims. But it is far from clear that he would be in breach of any law, even in this country. The world is full of loudmouth media berks with views that we would all like to keep to themselves, but we can’t ban them all from entering Britain.
Perhaps Jacqui Smith thinks that it “sends out a signal” about the kind of Britain we want. On the contrary, it reinforces a culture – created by this Labour Government, and its addiction to political correctness – where people are increasingly confused and panic-stricken about what they can say and what is forbidden, a culture where a police officer can seriously think he is right to arrest a protester for calling a police horse “gay”. Our courts and tribunals are clogged with people claiming to have suffered insults of one kind or another, and a country once famous for free speech is now hysterically and expensively sensitive to anything that could be taken as a slight.
The final absurdity of the Home Office ban is that huge numbers of British people have now listened to or watched Mr Savage, when they might otherwise have rubbed along without even knowing he existed. They will have found a boorish, excitable man who addresses his callers as “moron”, who is much less gifted than Howard Stern and who is certainly no threat to this country.
[First published in the DailyTelegraph on 11 May 2009 under the heading: “Michael Savage poses no threat to British security so why won’t MPs say so?”]