On the subject of freedom of expression, I am a near absolutist. As a general rule, the only category of speech that should be constrained by law is that coming under the time-honoured definition of ‘Fire!’ shouted in a crowded theatre.
However I cannot get excited about edicts by the social network Facebook over the depiction of beheadings and female nipples, beyond observing that any rule treating them as equivalent spectacles illustrates the absurdity of censorship.
Facebook is a private publisher - admittedly one with a uniquely large base of contributors - so is quite free to set its own rules about what can and cannot be published.
All publishers have such rules. They differ according to the cultural expectations of readers, editors and the jurisdictions in which they operate. For example I am pretty sure that, even today, no British newspaper would run across five columns the sharp, close-up, though mercifully monochrome, photograph of a severed head that I once put on page three of an English language daily in the Middle East. (Our Arabic counterparts put it on the front.)
Yet that was a newspaper where metaphorical heads almost rolled after an inquest into the appearance of a photograph on the social pages of a Balinese dance troupe performing in a local hotel. The issue, furiously debated with the aid of magnifying glasses and expert testimony from the print foreman, was whether a grey dot just visible under a performer’s blouse was a reprographic error or something more anatomical. We got away with a stern lecture from the Ministry of Information.
It was another two years before I got to make my own pictures of a decapitation. Like many young reporters in the Middle East I spent an unhealthy amount of time seeking out violent judicial punishments, usually while pretending to be accidentally passing by. This is quite hard work, especially when not compatible with activities permitted by your visa. I’d like to pretend I was motivated by a mission to explain, but of course l was really after a yarn to tell next time I was propping up the bar at the Commodore, and to make my name and a few quid selling photos.
That February Friday in Dira Square, Riyadh, I failed on all counts. I perched on the bonnet of a pickup truck to capture the proceedings with my Nikon concealed in a Heathrow duty free carrier bag - not a particularly intelligent choice of camouflage - but was immediately picked up by plain clothes police, who angrily interrogated me and confiscated my film before driving me back to my hotel.
I had a couple of days before my flight out, being paid by a London trade magazine, but I spent them in my hotel room watching Egyptian soap operas, interrupted five times a day by the call to prayer, and living on club sandwiches from room service. Not that I ate much.
The moral? Just that certain types of young men - I was 24 - are fascinated with violence, the more taboo the better. Most of us grow out of it. I did after a couple of further experiences in the Middle East and Africa finally persuaded me I was no Don McCulliin. I didn’t even watch the video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, despite having a strong interest in his fate, but given my own past I can’t condemn those who did. Nor social networking sites who allow post such things to be published - so long, of course as the postings are not for the purpose of shouting ‘fire’ in crowded theatres.
And be assured that, although lawyers are supposed to be robust souls (small-print law reports frequently contain material that would not be permitted on the front page), the Gazette’s news pages will be decapitation-free for as long as I’m in charge. Almost certainly nipple-free, too.