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July 11, 2012updated 12 Jul 2012 2:20am

BBC presenter’s Keith Chegwin jibe was ‘honest comment’ – in fact she could have gone further

By Cleland Thom

The decision by a BBC local radio presenter to apologise to Keith Chegwin for claiming his voice made her ‘physically sick’ was a curious one – and a sad day for free speech.

Radio Wiltshire presenter Marie Lennon made the comment after discovering Chegwin was to star in a pantomime in Swindon this year. He played in Cinderella there last year.

Reacting to the news, Lennon tweeted: “Keith Chegwin’s voice makes me feel physically sick”.

She later apologised and deleted the tweet after Chegwin hit back: ‘@BBCWiltshire Top presenter @marie-lennon using BBC’s name, is slagging me off. How BBC Radio has changed. Sad.’

To me, the only sad thing was that Marie felt the need to apologise. Legally, her comment was 100 per cent safe.

In fact, under the laws of honest comment, she could have said more. In a test case in 2001, a judge ruled that it was OK to make comments that are motivated by “spite, animosity, an intent to injure or an intent to arouse controversy”.

He added: ‘Critics need no longer be mealy-mouthed in denouncing what they disagree with.”

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That meant she could have followed Sunday People critic Nina Myskow, who famously wrote that actress Charlotte Cornwall … “can’t sing, her bum is too big, and she has the sort of stage presence that blocks lavatories”.

Although Myskow lost that action, she would probably win it today as the rules on honest comment have since been relaxed. And Lennon could have established the size of Chegwin’s bum (and other body parts) here

The European Convention on Human Rights also provides Lennon with the right to freedom of expression. A judge in another case in 2003 said it was safe to publish views that ‘offend, shock or disturb.’

So Lennon’s only crime may have been breaching BBC editorial guidelines, which say staff … ‘ should not post derogatory or offensive comments on the Internet’.

Chegwin, however, should be the last person to complain about offensive material.

In 2000, he caused controversy by presenting an edition of the Channel 5 gameshow Naked Jungle, in which  he and  the contestants appeared entirely naked The Daily Mail said the show ‘plumbed new depths of indecency on television’.

Since Chegwin’s is appearing in Aladdin in Swindon at Christmas, let’s hope Lennon won’t feel she has to be wishy-washy with her tweets!

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law

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