Free expression – weekend roundup

In an interview in the Irish Times on Saturday, comic Dara O’Briain had some harsh words for Ireland’s new blasphemy law:

“I think it is a ludicrous notion that you can sue people for blasphemy,” he says. “I think it is an absolutely abhorrent idea that religion in and of itself must remain without question and cannot be insulted and cannot be attacked. I don’t say this in a childish, petty way. I am not going to rush to become a challenge or a test case for it, but it is insane in this day and age that a quasi-medieval church-and-state symbiosis should exist and that somebody will step in.”

O’Briain also voiced his support for the libel reform campaign:

“It is not that I think that comedians are going to be hit with this, I don’t think we are,” he says. “A company would look ridiculous for suing a comedian for a joke about a brand of shampoo, or a set of razor blades, but it is worrying that cardiologists can be sued for making quite justifiable and fair comments about medical equipment on Canadian TV in a British court.”

Read the full interview here.

Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner updated Observer readers on the campaign’s progress:

Just before Christmas, the justice secretary responded to the flurry of activity around our campaign by announcing his own inquiry. He asked our two groups, Index on Censorship and English PEN, to nominate one among our number to sit on his group.

When I found out that they had invited Carter-Ruck and Schillings, two major law firms which feast on chilling the free speech of scientists, authors, NGOs and journalists, I suggested to Straw’s people that the two authors of the libel report, Index’s editor, Jo Glanville, and PEN’s director, Jonathan Heawood, should both be members of the inquiry team. As it stood, the composition ran against Straw’s “apparent desire to be seen as a reformer”, I suggested. They quickly relented, arguing that my term “apparent” was unfair. We shall see. This Labour government, after all, has form, creating commissions with the purpose of delaying or diluting change or delivering whitewashes. Perhaps this time Straw may deliver positive change. If he doesn’t, we won’t be bashful in our response.


Read more here.

And in the same paper, David Mitchell defended the right to be offensive in the light of Islam4UK’s proposed demonstration in Wootton Bassett:

The thing about freedom of speech is that people are allowed to say offensive, indefensible things; that we needn’t fear that because we’re sure that wiser counsels are more likely to convince. “Let the idiots and bullies speak openly and they will be revealed for what they are!” is the idea. It’s a brilliant one and, in confident, educated societies, it almost always works — certainly much more often than any of the alternatives. Why has Alan Johnson lost confidence in this principle? Why have the 700,000 signatories of a Facebook petition calling for the event to be banned?

Read the full article here

Provocative processions

Oliver Kamm responds to my post on Anjem Choudary’s proposed march through Wootton Bassett, where I asked if previous attempts to stop provocative processions, such as Oswald Mosley’s attempt to march through Cable Street, were wrong:

Yes, those who tried to stop the British Union of Fascists from marching in the East End in October 1936 were wrong. The BUF had a democratic right to march in peacetime, and the attempt to stop them did them a power of good. Mosley was looking for a way to call it off anyway, so that he could get to Berlin and secretly marry Diana Mitford Guinness in Goebbels’s drawing room (which he managed to do two days later). Support for Mosley in the East End increased after the Battle of Cable Street, as did antisemitic violence. Thugs attacked Jews and their properties, in the so-called Pogrom of Mile End, a week later.

In the end, despite an appalling failure among leaders of the main parties in the 1930s (Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, Herbert Samuel and the ineffably foolish George Lansbury) to recognise the threat from the dictators, it was democratic politics that defeated Mosley and secured economic recovery, not opposition on the streets. When he was interned in 1940, Mosley was a permanently discredited figure.

Read the full post here

From Cable Street to Wootton Bassett

Anjem Choudary is the closest real world British politics has to an Internet troll. Provocative, emotive and quite, quite silly, Choudary and his cohorts in al Muhajiroun/Saved Sect/Islam4UK learned at the feet of Syrian preacher Omar Bakri Muhammed, (see Jon Ronson’s excellent documentary on Bakri Muhammed, Tottenham Ayatollah here).

Muhammed revelled in his controversialist role, and was quite a figure of fun for UK journalists right up to the morning of 11 September 2001, when the west woke up to jihadism. From then, he became a “preacher of hate”, and was eventually barred from the UK in the wake of the London 7/7 bombings, leaving Anjem Choudary to run (blacklisted) al-Muhajiroun.

After an August 05 ban, al-Muhajiroun did what pretty much all banned groups do: announced it was disbanding, came up with a new name (in fact, a series of new names, of which Islam4UK is the latest) and carried on with business as usual.

Business as usual this week has consisted of announcing a plan to stage an “anti-war” march in Wootton Bassett, the town where the bodies of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan are repatriated. (I put “anti-war” in quote marks quite deliberately: Islam4UK are not “anti-war”; they are pro-war, just on the other side.)

This is trolling. It is nothing more than a calculated attempt to upset people. As Wootton Bassett’s MP James Gray has pointed out, if they have a grievance with government foreign policy, they should protest outside parliament or Number 10, not in a Wiltshire village.

And yet… have we been here before?

Of course: provocative, insulting demonstrations — and the reactions to them, form landmarks for many people: two in particular spring to mind: the British Union of Fasicts’ attempt to march through (largely immigrant, Jewish) Whitechapel in 1936, which resulted in the Battle of Cable Street, and the attempted march by the National Socialist Party of America through Skokie, Illinois, a village with a large population of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families.

Reactions to the outcomes of these proposed marches are mixed: most British people, for example, would approve of the violence used by Whitechapel residents to prevent the Blackshirts marching down their streets: meanwhile most liberals would approve of the American Civil Liberties Union’s decision to support the NSPA’s right to march through Skokie (a right that was established in law, but, in the end, never exercised).

While Islam4UK’s mooted march is not directly comparable to the marches of the other two, the aim is the same: not to gain support, or win an argument but to provoke and even appall. Classic trolling. But while one would support the right of an Internet moderator on a privately-run site to ban trolls, one would not nearly be so comfortable with Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s statement that he would have “no hesitation” in banning the “particularly offensive” proposed march through public streets.

Support for free expression includes support for the right to expression of “particularly offensive” sentiments (though not support for the sentiments themselves). It would follow then, that Choudary and his friends should be allowed to march through Wooton Bassett without hindrance. But does this mean the residents of Cable Street were wrong?