At time of writing, George Hook has been suspended from Newstalk with immediate effect, following the furore surrounding his now infamous comments on rape earlier this month. Most will now be familiar with what he said. The substance of Hook’s intervention was essentially to say that, while rape is an awful crime, surely some blame must be attributed to a woman who endangers themselves on a night out.
Most of the debate has centred around whether Hook should be allowed continue presenting his High Noon programme. Broadly speaking, we might categorise opinion into three main camps; those who feel Hook had a point, those who found his remarks rather unsavoury but feel he shouldn’t be silenced or driven off the airwaves, and those who consider his position untenable.
Among the most tired defences of Hook are that it’s unacceptable now to say anything “politically uncorrect” for fear offending the left-liberal-feminist-gender-abolitionist lobby. Listeners of Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 complained that the left were attempting to silence one of the few controversialists in the Irish media.
It is important to recognise, however, that this is a carefully cultivated narrative. Those who hold conservative or right-wing opinions are now painted as the victims, unable to speak their mind in a suffocating, liberal-dominated society.
It is easy to recast this narrative with a much healthier dose of reality. In truth, feminists, and those who feel rape and sexual assault are normalised to an unacceptable extent, have been silenced for decades. Opinions like Hook’s have formed the official common sense in a country where marital rape was legal or at least unprosecutable until 1990. In fact, as an article by Kitty Holland demonstrated just over a year ago in an article in the Irish Times, marital rape is still “extremely difficult to prosecute” in Ireland.
It is manifestly absurd to claim that, in a country where legal protection for rape victims has advanced at a snail’s pace and abortion laws are still considered inhumane by international bodies, that there is somehow a restrictive feminist consensus.
Rather, the backlash to Hook’s comments represents a frustrated and angry reaction against normalised sexism and sexual assault. It is communicating that women and men alike are no longer prepared to tolerate such callous attempts to divert blame onto victims. In this light, Hook appears much less of a combative journalist or refreshing controversialist voice, and more like a gargoyle in a media landscape that has not been cleaned out thoroughly since the 1950s.
Should Hook, then, lose his job? It would, on balance, seem like the fair result. A media landscape where a presenter loses his job for attempting to apportion blame for rape to victims would be one in which listeners and the wider public are not prepared to tolerate such opinions. Statements such as those made by Hook can only legitimate sexual assault and make excuses for perpetrators.
Crucially, it would not amount to a suppression of free speech. This is perhaps the most curious of arguments put forward by those who defend the rights of media commentators to express such vie These situations never have anything to do with free speech – no one is arguing that Hook doesn’t have a right to hold these opinions or to espouse them.
Rather the argument is and always has been that such views should not be given a platform on national radio, where they carry the air of legitimacy. When it is acceptable to blame rape victims for their own experiences on national radio, the net result is to empower perpetrators rather than victims themselves.
Hook’s employment, however, is not the decisive issue. The battle against misogyny and rape will not be won or lost on whether he continues in his current role. Rather the fact that he has made it this far and that someone with these views is a flagship presenter on one of Ireland’s most popular radio stations points to much deeper problems within Irish media.
His is a nefarious brand of right-wing, verbalised gruel which masquerades as anti-establishment, wherein the establishment is defined as fundamentally liberal and “politically correct”. The tyranny of political correctness is a clever narrative utilised to great effect by the alt-right in North America. This distorted reality is one in which racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia – in other words, the ideology that has legitimised oppressive state policy – are recast as the voice of the silent majority.
A perfect case in point is provided by Hook himself. Writing in the Irish Independent in November 2015, he urges us not to be “coerced into being liberal”. He, championing the ordinary punter who isn’t part of the elite liberal bubble, complains that he had been ostracised for having “the temerity to question Europe’s attitude to the refugee crisis”.
One paragraph from that article should be sufficient to demonstrate the spirit of Hook’s views on migrants. For context, Hook is discussing the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks in Paris, organised by a second-generation Belgian citizen. He references the now iconic image of the corpse of three year old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore:
“Images of a child drowned in the surf have also pulled at people’s heartstrings. Interestingly, Abaaoud [organiser of the Bataclan attacks], at aged 12, won a scholarship to an elite Catholic school. He was a model pupil before being radicalised.”
This paragraph could be presented without comment. But since Hook’s supporters are now painting him as a brave contrarian who is being hounded out by a witch hunt, it is worth dissecting his actual contributions to public discourse.
Here, Hook does really appear to be suggesting, implicitly at the very least, that the three year old Alan Kurdi who washed up dead on a Mediterranean beach could have easily grown up to be the orchestrator of an attack such as that in Paris in November 2015.
Is this once again the “decent man” who “misspoke”? Or is it simply a right-wing ogre who resents what he sees as excessive levels of concern for women and foreigners? Even when presented with a dead three year old child, whose story elicited sympathy and grief from people all across Europe, George Hook could not see beyond a liberal consensus that had to be challenged.
If Hook is a lone contrarian voice in Irish media, it is only insofar as there are few who are so comfortable in contradicting basic human values of solidarity and compassion when the subject is not white.
It is hard not to digress into why Hook should be expunged from public life altogether, but the most important point here is that these views are presented as anti-establishment and in defiance of political correctness. Political correctness is, more and more, a uniquely negative label. There are few now who would lack the self-awareness to defend something as “politically correct” as if this was a straightforwardly positive value in and of itself.
To label something as politically correct now is to paint it as divorced from the attitudes of ordinary people, an elitist liberal view that is being imposed on us. It is effectively to say that we are being told how to think. We are all supposed to be feminists now, so the argument goes, we are all supposed to put foreigners ahead of “our own”.
Yet compare this to actual state policy. Hook may claim to be going against the grain, but try and apply his politics concretely. If someone rang into Hook’s programme and argued that we should abolish direct provision and replace it with a more humane asylum policy, what would he say? If someone argued for public sector pay restoration and the strengthening of trade union rights, what would he say?
Hook’s form on these issues is well documented, and to ask these questions is to answer them. He and his ilk masquerade as anti-establishment figures, yet on concrete matters of state policy, they are Irish capitalism’s most useful mouthpieces. They reflect the pitfalls of a private media sector dominated by billionaires such as Denis O’Brien.
Our airwaves are full of such people, spouting right-wing and anti-worker, anti-migrant, anti-women bigotry and yet play the victim when they are held accountable for their views. The solution is not the dismissal of one individual but the construction of new, alternative media networks that speak to the interests of the oppressed rather than the oppressors.
This may, then, be the demise of George Hook. But his status as a mainstay on national radio speaks to a media landscape in which offending “political correctness”, i.e, minorities and the oppressed, is a virtue in itself. Hook is free to carry on the good fight against political correctness in his private time. Our sympathy is better saved for women and all those who fall victim to the system he defends.