Let the American anti-Quran pastor visit Britain

Theresa May is being urged to ban him. Free speech demands she shouldn’t.

I'm sure we all remember Terry Jones, the Florida pastor with a novel and bracing approach to interfaith dialogue – he's the one who thought the best way to mark the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks this year was to declare it "International Burn a Quran Day" (although only, as you'll notice if you look at the poster he had made, between 6pm and 9pm).

The English Defence League has announced that Pastor Jones is due to address an event in Luton in February "on the evils and destructiveness of Islam". As a result, as today's Observer reports, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is now "under intense pressure" to ban him from Britain.

The views of the EDL should be perfectly clear by now, as should the group's low opinion of Islam. (For those who require clarification, this report by my colleague Daniel Trilling, "God bless the Muslims. They'll need it when they're burning in effing hell", should suffice.)

As for Pastor Jones: although on one level his physical similarity to the hicks and halfwits who populate the town of Rock Ridge in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles inclines one not to take him too seriously, there was nothing remotely amusing about his hate-filled proposal, nor about the international furore it caused, earning him the condemnation of the US state department, the Vatican and the US army in Afghanistan.

Is he a welcome visitor? No, of course not. Neither was the Dutch politician Geert Wilders when he came to Britain in March. I find it sickening, and distressing, too, that they should propagate such an extreme and distorted picture of Islam – just as I find it sickening and distressing that there are some Muslim clerics who do the same.

But I am also alarmed at the alacrity with which many then jump to saying that this person or that – in this case Pastor Jones – should be refused entry into the UK. The Labour MP Jon Cruddas says, "We should not allow racial hatred to be whipped up in this manner in our country" and promises to table a parliamentary motion to ban Jones tomorrow, while the Hope Not Hate campaign has set up a petition to stop him coming.

I understand the feeling behind this, but it's just too easy a response – and a dangerous one, too. The same kind of sentiment lay behind the outrage when it became clear that Nick Griffin was to appear on Question Time. These opinions are repulsive, disgusting, beyond the pale – let's ban them.

But ban what exactly? You can't ban a viewpoint, at least not from being held in an individual's mind. And if the public, verbal or written expression of that viewpoint contravenes no laws, on what grounds would you curtail it?

I was absolutely for Griffin's right to appear on the Question Time panel, for instance, because he is the leader of a perfectly legal party (one for which over half a million people voted in this year's general election and nearly a million in last year's Euro elections) and an elected MEP. You cannot have one set of rules – still less laws – for "acceptable" parties and another for those we deem "unacceptable".

Griffin, however, is a British citizen, so there is no question of not letting him into the country. What of Pastor Jones? According to today's Observer: "The Home Secretary has the power to exclude or deport an individual if she thinks their presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens. She can also do so if she believes their views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime."

Clearly Jones is not a threat to national security: but endangering "public order" and "the safety of citizens"? I find it rather unsettling that the Home Secretary is expected to justify excluding a citizen of a friendly country by using the kind of vague wording that authoritarian regimes the world over use to stifle free speech. It is clear, too, that this "Man of God" does not explicitly "glorify terrorism" or "promote violence".

We consider him to be distasteful, for sure, uncivilised, uncouth, the possessor of barbaric and ignorant views. But if we value free speech at all, those can never be reasons enough to ban him. David Allen Green recently pointed out on The Staggers for the NS that when the Quran-burning (non-)event became noticed, creating huge anger that could have put Americans abroad in harm's way, "even though it was plausible to contend that Pastor Jones was creating a clear danger to others, he was not arrested. It was the persuasive and not the coercive power of the US government which was deployed to stop the gesture happening." He then asked: "What would happen in the United Kingdom?"

We shall see when Theresa May chooses to act or not. One may well ask, as we are at it, why it is that we are so concerned with restricting people's free speech while the legislation that exists to punish them, should that expression constitute incitement to racial or religious hatred, is so rarely used. Surely that is the wrong way around?

So, say I: let Pastor Jones come to Britain, and if his speech breaks any law, then throw the book at him. Make it clear that such laws truly afford the mighty protection of the state to those they are meant to shield. But if his words do not, then I would ask this:

What has anyone to fear from a man so confused and deluded that, before his Quran-burning stunt, he could seriously declare that its aim was "to send a message to the moderate Muslims to stay peaceful and moderate"?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.