Friday 22 May 2009

Postal veto?

Following on from my last post: it looks as though my experience of receiving a BNP leaflet this week was just bad luck. If I lived in parts of north-west England, I wouldn't have to put up with the far-right party's rancid propaganda, or indeed any election literature at all, dropping on to my doormat.

Apparently some postal workers at a delivery depot in Macclesfield have refused to handle BNP bumf, and have accused Royal Mail of breaking a 'conscience clause' which allows staff to refuse to deliver material they find offensive. The depot manager has told workers that if they won't handle BNP leaflets, they won't be allowed to deliver any election literature at all, thus depriving them of the extra money they receive for doing so.

Leave to one side the issue of whether Royal Mail went back on an agreement with the union, or whether it should have made such a dubious undertaking in the first place. And let's acknowledge how awful it must be for postal workers to handle BNP literature, and in doing so feel they are somehow advancing the electoral fortunes of a bunch of racists... 

However, their demand to be let off delivering material they find 'offensive' raises serious problems. Who gets to define what's offensive? It's in the nature of being offended that it's a thoroughly subjective business. What if I'm a Conservative postal worker who finds the ideas of the far left offensive: can I plead the right not to deliver SWP or Respect leaflets?

And what if, the precedent having been set, other groups decide to take advantage of this kind of 'conscience clause'? Could a Muslim postman refuse to deliver advertising material from Oddbins, or an evangelical Christian postwoman be let off handling leaflets advertising 'Jerry Springer: the Opera'?

A woman in Hazel Grove, Cheshire, who was handed a BNP leaflet by her postman, was outraged: 'It was full of inflammatory statements relating to Muslims and asylum seekers. It annoyed me greatly, but how will people from black and ethnic minority groups feel about having this stuff pushed through their letter box?'

I sympathise: it's how I felt when I found the BNP leaflet in our mail yesterday. But if you genuinely believe a party's election literature is an incitement to racial hatred, then the answer isn't to let postal workers make arbitrary decisions about whether it should be delivered. The answer is to refer the matter to the police. Any other course of action threatens the democratic electoral process, and ultimately freedom of speech. I don't like having to receive BNP propaganda, but neither do I want the postman to have a veto over what comes through my letter-box.

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