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
Getty
Show Hide image

Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies