Irreligious freedom

Should the right not to be offended have a place in the statute book?

Despite its recent, ahem, troubles, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is determined to press ahead with what its chair, Trevor Phillips, referred to as its "mission" in an article in Saturday's Guardian. But while setting out his agenda for the autumn, Phillips briefly mentioned one proposal that made me pause. "There will be new work," he wrote, on "hate crime against . . . religion and belief."

Why the hesitation? Who could object to stronger protection from intimidation, physical attack or bullying on these grounds? The problem is that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 already goes considerably further than that in its references to "threatening" words, behaviour, written material and public performance of a play. As Liberty warned at the time: "Criminalising even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with grave caution in a democracy."

Defenders of the act can point to Section 29J, "Protection of freedom of expression", which makes it clear that:

Nothing . . . shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents.

Further evidence of the act's innocent effect may be found in the paucity of prosecutions under the legislation to date, the charging last month of a former BNP candidate with incitement to racial hatred being a rare exception.

But there are two serious points to be made about this. First, the act's seeming toothlessness can hardly be said to be in its favour. If it is supposed to prevent the likes of Rowan Laxton, the head of the Foreign Office South Asia Group (since suspended), from shouting "Fucking Israelis" and "Fucking Jews" while exercising in his gym, as he is alleged to have done this February, then one must hope the prosecution is successful in bringing him to trial this month. (Many feel that his comments should have earned him dismissal and ostracism, but not prosecution. That, however, is an argument for the act's repeal, not in favour of our government producing legislation that turns out to be unenforceable.)

Second, what the act has contributed to, intentionally or not, is a climate in which the boundaries protecting free speech are slowly being pushed back without anyone ever discussing, agreeing, let alone legislating, that they should be moved. Not long before the act was passed, performances of Bezhti, a play by the British writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, were cancelled by Birmingham Repertory Theatre after hundreds of Sikhs protested at its depiction of rape and murder in a Sikh temple.

Worse was the response of Shirley Williams -- a woman whose political life has been at the coalface of liberal causes -- when asked on Question Time in 2007 about the decision to award a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. It was a "mistake", she said, because he was a man who had "deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way". You didn't have to concur with Christopher Hitchens's view of religion to approve of his rebuke: "I think that's a contemptible statement and everyone who applauded it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves."

This is the real worry about further "work" in this area: that well-meant legislation on hate crimes ends up giving force to a new right not to be offended that has not, and should not have, any place on the statute book. This may surprise readers who saw my column introducing this blog. Did I not castigate Sebastian Faulks for his comments on the Quran? I do indeed deplore his careless, thoughtless and offensive remarks. I don't think he should have made them. But I would never, ever, deny his right to have done so. So I look forward with interest to the EHRC's plans. When they meet, matters of opinion, belief and the law intersect in the most dangerous way. Great caution is required in policing this.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Just you wait – soon fake news will come to football

No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

So it is all settled: Cristiano Ronaldo will be arriving at Carlisle United at the end of the month, just before deadline day. It all makes sense. He has fallen in love with a Herdwick sheep, just as Beatrix Potter did, and like her, he is putting his money and energy into helping Cumbria, the land of the Herdwick.

He fell out with his lover in Morocco, despite having a private plane to take him straight from every Real Madrid game to their weekly assignation, the moment this particular Herdwick came into his life. His mother will be coming with him, as well as his son, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jr. They want to bring the boy
up communing with nature, able to roam free, walking among the lakes and fells.

Behind the scenes, his agent has bought up CUFC and half of Cumbria on his behalf, including Sellafield, so it is a wise investment. Clearly CUFC will be promoted this year – just look where they are in the table – then zoom-zoom, up they go, back in the top league, at which point his agent hopes they will be offered megabucks by some half-witted Chinese/Russian/Arab moneybags.

Do you believe all that? It is what we now call in the trade fake news, or post-truth – or, to keep it simple, a total lie, or, to be vulgar, complete bollocks. (I made it up, although a pundit on French TV hinted that he thought the bit about Ronaldo’s friend in Morocco might not be too far-fetched. The stuff about Beatrix Potter loving Herdwicks is kosher.)

Fake news is already the number-one topic in 2017. Just think about all those round robins you got with Christmas cards, filled with fake news, such as grandchildren doing brilliantly at school, Dad’s dahlias winning prizes, while we have just bought a gem in Broadstairs for peanuts.

Fake news is everywhere in the world of politics and economics, business and celebrity gossip, because all the people who really care about such topics are sitting all day on Facebook making it up. And if they can’t be arsed to make it up, they pass on rubbish they know is made up.

Fake news has long been with us. Instead of dropping stuff on the internet, they used to drop it from the skies. I have a copy of a leaflet that the German propaganda machine dropped over our brave lads on the front line during the war. It shows what was happening back in Blighty – handsome US soldiers in bed with the wives and girlfriends of our Tommies stuck at the front.

So does it happen in football? At this time of the year, the tabloids and Sky are obsessed by transfer rumours, or rumours of transfer rumours, working themselves into a frenzy of self-perpetuating excitement, until the final minute of deadline day, when the climax comes at last, uh hum – all over the studio, what a mess.

In Reality, which is where I live, just off the North Circular – no, down a bit, move left, got it – there is no such thing as fake news in football. We are immune from fantasy facts. OK, there is gossip about the main players – will they move or will they not, will they be sued/prosecuted/dropped?

Football is concerned with facts. You have to get more goals than the other team, then you win the game. Fact. Because all the Prem games are live on telly, we millions of supplicant fans can see with our eyes who won. No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

I suppose the Russkis could hack into the Sky transmissions, making the ball bounce back out of the goal again, or manipulating the replay so goals get scored from impossible angles, or fiddling the electronic scoreboards.

Hmm, now I think about it, all facts can be fiddled, in this electronic age. The Premier League table could be total fiction. Bring back pigeons. You could trust them for the latest news. Oh, one has just arrived. Ronaldo’s romance  with the Herdwick is off! And so am I. Off to Barbados and Bequia
for two weeks.

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Biscuit Girls” (Ebury Press, £6.99)

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge