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18 March 2013

Bloody Tories: the shrinking realm of public discourse

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

By Preston Byrne

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.” 

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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.