Bloody Tories: the shrinking realm of public discourse

The conviction of Bethan Tichborne begs the question: has Britain outlawed the truth?

Has Britain finally outlawed the truth? I struggle to find a case where any of the of thousands of members of the Stop the War Coalition fell foul of criminal law for accusing Tony Blair of having "blood on his hands", yet four months ago Bethan Tichborne was arrested and last week tried, convicted and fined, for saying the same of David Cameron, with an Oxford district judge finding that her words constituted "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" proscribed by the Public Order Act 1986. It could "hardly be more insulting to anyone, whether a politician or not," said the judge, to suggest that the Prime Minister "had blood on his hands."

Polemically, of course, the two are very different cases: where the former were clearly protesting against machinery of death, Tichborne's argument is more nuanced, suggesting that the Government, by cutting the welfare entitlement of the disabled, is responsible for the deaths of those who, out of "fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant WCA and ESA assessments and endless forms," take their own lives. While it is possible to employ various efficiency arguments to maintain that cuts in social welfare are worthwhile or not, there is considerable scope for disagreement. Though expressed in extreme terms, Tichborne's argument is not without basis in fact: not in that David Cameron actually has human blood on his hands, but in that there is an entire academic discipline dedicated to the study of the trade-off.

Tichborne's case is drawn in still sharper relief when one considers the involvement of the Public Order Act, Section 5 of which proscribes engaging in "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." Recall that, in January, a prominent national campaign backed by Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson among others secured the future removal of the word "insulting" from Section 5. This campaign notwithstanding, the word "insulting" continues in Section 4A (relating to intentionally causing harassment, alarm and distress) and, in the case of Section 5, while "'insulting' is gone, 'abusive' remains." This should not give politically active citizens much, if any, comfort, as "the courts are very willing to conflate the two" concepts in cases where language is sufficiently inflammatory (see paragraph 29 of Abdul v DPP), and in such instances - of which I should think Bethan Tichborne's is one - it is no defence that particular words are "not abusive and insulting because they were (believed to be) true."

Language permits myriad ways to call a man a scoundrel and, fortunately, the mere suggestion that a politician has "blood on his hands" is not, prima facie, illegal - at least, not yet. But it is not prima facie permissible, either. When one man's apt metaphor is another man's insult, where do we draw the line? The English courts have difficulty resolving the question, admitting that the existing legislation makes it impossible to define in advance which kinds of political speech are permissible, and which are not (at paragraph 57). So what appears at first to be a public order question becomes a civil liberties one.

Even if one disagrees fundamentally with Tichborne's politics, it would be difficult to maintain that she doesn't have an objectively valid point - one which she is now less free to express. For Tichborne, the subtler nature of her argument - the wider range of possible disagreement her claim invites, and little else - places her on the wrong side of a law which is not endowed with any "cognizance of unintentional offences." The combination of overbroad legislation and overzealous local policing leads, in her case, to a violation of what most of us would consider to be the "certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated" because, as put by Isaiah Berlin (pdf), "if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred." 

The statutory framework regulating speech in the United Kingdom is not remotely appropriate for a free state. I hope Tichborne appeals. I hope she wins. For if Bethan Tichborne is a criminal, so are we all.

 

 

A protestor dressed as Tony Blair shows his "bloody" hands. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue