Padraig Reidy: A disgraceful use of the Communications Act

Is Islam “satanic”?

Personally, I don’t believe Satan, or God, exist, so it’s not a question I give a great deal of time to.

Salman Rushdie gave it some thought. The title of The Satanic Verses comes from an old idea that there may have been parts of the Sura that were false. Specifically, a concession to the polytheism of the pre-Islamic Meccans to whom Muhammad preached: “And see ye not Lat and Ozza, And Manat the third besides? These are exalted Females, And verily their intercession is to be hoped for.”

Muhammad was, the story goes, tricked into saying these lines by Satan. The Angel Gabriel later told Muhammad he had been deceived, and he recanted.

For Thought-For-The-Day types, it’s a nice little “don’t believe everything you read” lesson. For literary types, it may even be seen as an interesting early example of an unreliable narrator. Muhammad trusted the angel to tell him the truth: but at that moment, the angel was not who he seemed.

I sincerely doubt Northern Ireland’s Pastor James McConnell has much truck with the idea of unreliable narration. Or even fiction, for that matter. McConnell is the type of person who believes that if someone is going to go to the trouble of writing a thing down in a book, then that thing should be true.

A book? No. The Book. There is one book for the pastor. It’s called the Bible, and it’s got everything you need. You might read other books, but they’ll be books about the Book. Books explaining in great detail just how great the Book is. What there are not, cannot be, are other the Books.

So the Bible can be true, or the Quran can be true: but they can’t both be true. And if the Quran is false, but Islam claims it is true, then Islam must be wicked. Satanic, even.

In May last year, Pastor McConnell, like many of his ilk, was very exercised by the story of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, who had reputedly been sentenced to death in Sudan after converting from Islam to Christianity. Here was further proof, septuagenarian McConnell preached to the congregation at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, that “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.” There may be good Muslims in the UK, he said, but he didn’t trust them. Enoch Powell was right, McConnell said, to predict “rivers of blood”.

McConnell seemed to know this was going to get him in trouble. “The time will come in this land and in this nation,” he preambled, “to say such things will be an offence to the law.”

Turns out, the pastor was half-right at least in this much. Last week, Northern Irish prosecutors announced that McConnell would face prosecution for his sermon. For inciting religious hatred? No, too obvious. McConnell, now retired and said to be in declining health, will be prosecuted under Section 127 of the Communications Act.

Section 127 is, free-speech nerds may recall, the piece of legislation that pertains to the sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

It’s the one that led to the Paul Chambers “Twitter Joke Trial” case, one of the great rallying points of online free speech in recent years. In January 2010 Chambers joked online that he would blow up Doncaster Robin Hood airport if his flight to Belfast (always Belfast!) to meet his girlfriend was cancelled. He was convicted, even though every single person involved in the case acknowledged that he had been joking, including the airport security, who did not for one second treat the tweet seriously, even as a hoax.

Chambers was convicted. Eventually, in June 2012, the conviction was quashed. Questions were raised about why then-Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer had persisted in pursuing the case. For his part, Starmer launched a consultation to draft guidelines on when the Communications Act provisions should and should not be used (this writer took part in the meetings and submitted written evidence).

During that process, Starmer was fond of pointing out (correctly) that the Communications Act had been designed to protect telephone operators from heavy breathers. It had nothing to do with stupid jokes on the internet.

And it certainly had nothing at all to do with the online streaming of sermons by fundamentalist preachers.

Let there be no doubt: the prosecution of James McConnell under the Communications Act is a disgrace and a travesty. It is the action of a prosecution service more interested in appearing to be liberal than upholding justice and rights. If McConnell is suspected of being guilty of incitement, then prosecute him under that law. But the deployment of the catch-all Communications Act, in a situation it was very obviously not designed for, suggests prosecutors were not confident of that case and have instead reached for the vaguest charge possible.

When one combines this latest prosecution with the recent “gay cake” case, in which a Christian bakery in County Antrim was fined for refusing to decorate a cake with a pro-equal marriage message, it’s hard not to think the people of Protestant Ulster may, on this occasion, have some real fuel for the siege mentality that’s kept them going for so very long. It feels as if an attempt is being made to force liberalisation on Christians through the courts. It’s hard to imagine any outcome besides resentment, and Lord knows the “wee province” has enough of that already.

This column was published on 25 June 2015 at

Social media guidelines: Nice start, but still a long way to go

Keir Starmer’s social media interim guidelines appear sensible enough, which is more than can be said for the controversial cases that led to the Director of Public Prosecutions’ consultation.

Index took part in that consultation back in October. I wrote at the time Starmer was adamant that the ruling in the Paul Chambers appeal (which overturned his 2010 conviction for jokingly tweeting that he would blow an airport “sky high”) was not to be seen as any sort of precedent. Yet in the guidelines published today, Starmer cites the two passages in that ruling that seemed to provide most protection for free speech, which noted:

…a message which does not create fear or apprehension in those to whom it is communicated, or may reasonably be expected to see it, falls outside [section 127(i)(a) of the Communications Act 2003], for the simple reason that the message lacks menace.


Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by [section 127].

So it would seem there’s been a slight change of mind, which is entirely reasonable and welcome (though on Twitter Chambers’ partner Sarah Tonner seems a little annoyed by this apparent switch).

Apart from that, what else have we got to discuss in these interim guidelines? Well, there’s a slight shift away from the use of the controversial section 127 of the Communications Act. At the consultation I attended, the various representatives, from diverse groups including anti-bullying and anti-harassment bodies, were keen to stress that section 127 was not appropriate for social media, and that it would be better to focus on patterns of harassment, abuse etc, and prosecute, if necessary, under anti-harassment laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. This is welcome – too often we focus on the medium rather than the behaviour.

More generally, there’s much on high thresholds on prosecution, and clear identification of public interest, perhaps not evident in the prosecutions of people such as Liam Stacey (sentenced to 56 days in prison for a “racially aggravated public order offence” after tweeting a poor taste joke about footballer Fabrice Muamba).

There is not much on the difference between “merely offensive”, which may not merit a prosecution, and “grossly offensive”, which could. As so often, this comes down to the probable perception of a right-thinking person. As in definitions of “obscenity” it seems a case of “I know it when I see it”.

There is a worry in the suggestion that removal of offensive posts by ISPs may provide a defence against prosecution.

While Facebook, Twitter et al will sometimes remove posts off their own bat, there is no absolute uniform system, and due to the sheer volume of traffic on social networks every day, some posts will slip through and others will be removed prematurely or inappropriately. Furthermore, this contains the germ of a suggestion of third-party liability, in which ISPs are held responsible for content. It will be crucial to examine this in the three-month public consultation on the guidelines which open today. It will also be worth examining whether section 127 of the Communications Act is appropriate at all in social media cases.

A decent start then, but more to be done.

Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index. Follow him on Twitter: @mepadraigreidy

More on this story:
Read the guidelines in full here
Graham Linehan on the Twitter Joke Trial
Paul Sinha on a tale of two tweets
Do western democracies protect free speech?