The Times, 15 June 2010

Index on Censorship Blog

So here's where I've been: New York. I know. Get me. And I had a very lovely time indeed, even if I now don't believe there are any Picassos left anywhere else in the world. Which there can't be, because I saw at least 10,000 of them at MoMA, The Met and the Guggenheim. So Europe must be Picasso-less, and no-one's mentioned it. Weird. Other things I did on my holidays included seeing Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music. Read that and weep, Murder, She Wrote fans. Jessica Fletcher playing an ageing courtesan and mother to Catherine Zeta-Jones. I kept expecting someone to stagger on with a knife between their shoulderblades, and Lansbury to leap up and solve the crime. It is the only thing that could have improved the night.

But don't think I wasn't thinking about you Indexers the whole time I was away, because I was. I thought about you every morning watching Good Morning America. And I especially thought of you when the story turned to President Obama's irritation with BP. Early last week, maybe Monday, the President said he wanted to know whose ass he should be kicking, with regard to the environmental calamity in the Gulf of Mexico. Now it seems to me that there are a lot of asses he should be kicking: BP, obviously; Halliburton; George W Bush, who apparently granted the drilling licences; anyone who drives a child the size of a small dog around in a mini-van the size of a small tank and considers that sensible behaviour; and pretty much all of us who want to use electricity, travel about, buy stuff and retain the moral high-ground. Then when he's finished kicking global ass (with the exception of a few anti-consumerist hermits), he can get on with being President again.

Only, Good Morning America couldn't report that Obama wanted to kick some ass. They are not allowed to say 'ass' on the news there. They had to say 'butt'. Which, if nothing else, begs the question of how much less rude than 'ass' 'butt' really is. I think they're roughly on a par. But I guess America thinks differently. And it made me realise that we spend a lot of time bemoaning our crappy freedom of speech laws in this country - and with good reason. We mutter about the libel laws here, and how American senators call it Libel Terrorism and so on and so on. And so I had kind of slid into the belief that America is the land of the free and we are the oppressed blah blah blah.

But I had simply forgotten that freedom of speech doesn't exist on American TV (with honourable exceptions like HBO). So much so that they can't report accurately a statement made in public by their president. He can say it, but they can't. That is, no matter how you look at it, batshit. Even David Letterman gets bleeped for minor swearing, and his show goes out at 11.30 at night. So next time we're wringing our collective hands at our crappy libel laws, let's all at least take a moment to thank our lucky stars that if David Cameron calls someone a prick, the BBC will most likely be able to say so.