“Freedom of expression is not just a British value or a French value. It’s not a Christian value or a secular value. It’s a fundamental human right, probably the single most important freedom we possess. If you can’t stand up and say who you are and what you think, all other freedoms become virtually meaningless. (UK Culture Minister Sajid Javid, ‘Killers Want to offend but not be offended’, The Times, January 10, 2015)
"Police Scotland will thoroughly investigate any reports of offensive or criminal behaviour online and anyone found to be responsible will be robustly dealt with." (Statement by Police Scotland, December 31, 2014)
It was not the greatest start to the year. As one who believes the UK has already gone WAY too far down the road called ‘Censorship Avenue’, the announcement from Police Scotland that they would investigate Tweets from Katie Hopkins – in which she made some disobliging comments about Scots and their response to a nurse diagnosed with Ebola – were both depressing and infuriating. The key thing in the quote above – from an Inspector Glyn Roberts - is chilling. He expressly links CRIMINAL behaviour with being OFFENSIVE. So, now we know. Merely being offensive IS in itself liable to make you the subject of a police investigation, and possibly getting your collar felt. Welcome to Britain 2015!
Just to make it clear, if you didn’t actually see La Hopkins’ Tweets. She did NOT suggest or imply in any way that Scottish people – let alone Ebola victims – should be attacked. She didn’t even do a ‘selfie’ burning the Saltire. She suggested that Scots were prone to perspiring and were of small stature and that they did not have the medical facilities to isolate and treat a very unfortunate (and, at the time of writing, critically ill) nurse who had contracted Ebola. The Tweets were silly, nasty and crude. But a police matter?
It was probably too much to expect the politicians to say anything, but step forward (and you may not like this!) Nigel Farage. Not a single politician in Scotland or anyone else in public life so far as I can see made an ounce of support for her right to be offensive, or condemn the police’s response.
Questioned on it today, in a TV interview about free expression, the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, who had given quite a convincing defence of free speech in a newspaper interview the previous day, claimed he did not know enough about it to comment. Really? You’re supposed to be on top of this stuff aren’t you? Did you not get a briefing note from your civil servants? Does the Culture Secretary not read the press? Well, of course he does and that he DID know all about it. Bet you! It’s just that he has calibrated that it’s not good for a Cabinet minister to criticise the police, or upset the Scots, or indeed the literally tens of thousands of people who signed one of these online petitions for Hopkins to be prosecuted (probably quite a few would ‘like’ “burn the witch at the stake and show it live on Sky News” option, had there been one).
We shouldn’t be surprised. Our laws have long stated that “insulting” speech can be a breach of the criminal law. Here’s what the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 says:
A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he— (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.
Now, if I’ve done my calculations right, that Act (which was an amendment to the Public Order Act 1986) our Culture Secretary was only 16 years old when his party (then the sole part of the government) introduced that in parliament.
The point is we can already see the way our law has made the link between threatening BEHAVIOUR and abusive and insulting WORDS (signs or other visual representation thereof). This is not good!
Furthermore, as Kanan Malik has argued, we can only counter bigotry and hate by using our right to free expression:
“The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate, to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious, and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.” (Kenan Malik. Blog Post: “Why hate speech should not be banned”).
Get Your Mockers Out
Most of us find out as children and certainly by adolescence that the one thing that those in authority hate is mockery. I had the marks on my skinny backside to prove that some of my teachers did not appreciate my mocking impersonation of them, or for writing ‘cheeky’ essays I’d been given as punishment. They demanded respect, and I wasn’t prepared to show them it – or not all of them, at any rate. I realised at around the aged of 14 that, although I was short and puny I had power in my pen and in my ad hoc classroom and playground performances. I was determined not to be fearful of them.
Hate those in authority and you have demonstrated their power. Margaret Thatcher LOVED being hated, and if she is up there (or down there!) would have thoroughly enjoyed all the hate-filled demo’s and celebrations of her death. Loved it! Religious authorities, politicians, lawyers, journalists, teachers, managers, industrialists – anyone in a position of power HATES mockery. Feared, loathed, despised – YES! Ridicule, no, because it undermines the whole basis of the authority. It even eats into their own psyche and confidence.
In my first few months as a university lecturer, my (first year) students had a ruse, causing me to leave the classroom in a few minutes. When I returned, they had displayed on each of the computer monitors – which were arranged in a horseshow shape - a photo’ they had found on the internet from the mid-'80s when I was a commercial radio ‘jock’ in full Alan Partridge mode. “Mentalist!” they shouted in unison – referring to then recently aired episode of Steve Coogan’s series about a deranged/obsessive fan of the Partridge. They all watched my reaction – I remember laughing, which made them laugh more. I then got slightly miffed: “It’s not THAT funny!” But, of course, it was. I was still a bit insecure, it being my second semester as a university lecturer. It was the defining moment of our relationship and I still see them and keep up with them. Now, after I’ve known them a bit, I contrive to let my students know they can take the piss. I know I have ‘broken through’ when they do. And guess what? I think they respect me more for it. They open up and we have a good, adult relationship (of a platonic kind, I hasten to add).
Of course, what I did then and much of what I did now is ridiculous. I AM ridiculous. So are you, probably. We should have a National Day of Ridiculous. The obvious date is April Fool’s Day. We should all post on Facebook and Twitter ten ridiculous things about ourselves (Buzzfeed, are you getting this?). Because, once you have accepted our joint and individual ridiculousness, we can relax. It is actually empowering! You can’t be hurt by anyone or anything if you’ve already decided you’re absurd! Once we’ve done that we can in fact get serious about what we can do to help each other and make a better society. The ‘white noise’ that so often gets in the way of our relationships and attitudes - that causes suspicion, fear and envy - could be swept away.
I am always suspicious or at least wary - of people who don’t have a sense of humour, and who take themselves seriously. In my view they lack perspective and that means they lack judgement. I don’t mean that one should just regard everything as a joke, and be facetious about everything (such people are often in fact aggressive and hostile). But we should be serious about finding ourselves funny. And this is precisely why in a free society it is essential that they should all be open to be mocked.
All the assurances we have had – given in spades this week from UK politicians in the aftermath of the horrors in Paris – that they support the right to freedom of expression, are hokum. The same goes for most of our so-called liberal press, who won’t even take on Plod Scotland. And this, of course, was long before social media. Now, the Twittermob sets the terms of the debate. But that’s the new democracy, so it’s OK, right? Wrong! The rule of the mob was precisely why – ironically enough – democracy got a bad name in the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. Democracy means (yes) the will of the majority (usually via a majority of elected representatives), but with the protection of the rights of the minority. And this is where there is an exact link in my mind to human rights.
It is a sad indictment of the liberal-left that freedom of speech is often most convincingly promoted by the political right. So, it’s no surprise that Nigel Farage should be the political leader to defend the rights of Katie Hopkins. As I have argued before in this blog – and others have argued much more eloquently – you only know you have freedom of speech when people are offended by some of it, and those who have done the offending are not hounded, either by the authorities or the mob. But – and here Nigel Farage and co will be far less supportive – you only have human rights when you give those rights even to those who clearly have ill intent; not just in their speech but also in their actions.
The European Convention of Human Rights provides exactly the same rights to you and me as it does a ‘radical’ cleric, who is intent on fomenting violence. He is just as entitled to a defence team, he is just as entitled to be judged by his peers and be convicted only if they decide he is guilty of the criminal offence beyond reasonable doubt, and has the same right not to be sent to a country which practises torture.
It’s really difficult to stick with it – don’t worry, I have struggled with it, too! Don’t think I haven’t let contradictory/hypocritical attitudes infest my logical processes. I’ve looked at some of these cases and worked myself up to a right old state about them. This man’s a menace! He wants to kill us! He’s forfeited his rights by behaving this way! This is not what those (mainly) English lawyers intended when they wrote the original Convention and set up the legal system to enforce it some 65 years ago! We’re just being soft and decadent! We’re constructing our own gallows and supplying the rope! He’s taking the piss! Let him go! I’d willingly apply electrodes to his testicles to get information from him that might make his safer! I’d even pull the lever to the trapdoor! Kill the bastard!
I’m not proud of these sentiments, but I’m not ashamed either. They are the natural reaction of humans when faced with a threat and a frustration that what seems to be the sensible course of action to reduce the threat is frustrated by what can seem a circus of clever-clever (and very well remunerated) lawyers and a legal theory that bears no relationship to reality and ‘common sense’. So, a natural reaction - but wrong. They’re wrong because the moment you accept that the state (let alone the mob) has the right to decide that some human beings have fewer rights than others, then you have accepted that the state might one day decide that YOU or someone you love, might not be worthy of those rights.
The moment you accept that some views and attitudes expressed by others should not be allowed, and subject to criminal sanctions, you have accepted the fact that one day someone will decide that YOUR views and words are not acceptable and YOU find yourself in jail, losing your job and possibly your home. Freedom of expression/human rights. The same side of the same coin.
So far, so much clarity. Sorted! But then...
My Internal Debate
I am genuinely sorry that some Muslims find the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so offensive. I was discussing it with a Muslim the other day. In fact, we’ve never discussed religion before, but he asked me what I thought of it all – I am touched that he seems to respect my views and ‘take’ on things - and I asked him what were his views. He is very bright but left school as soon as he was able to work in his father’s shop so has had no formal education since. He reads the papers and watches a lot of documentaries and news. He explained that he wasn’t an especially devout Muslim and neither were most of his family. He was brought up not to make any pictures of The Prophet. An uncle of his, a Doctor (and, I gather, someone whose views he respects; classic ‘two-way flow’, meeja studies types!) said that he though the cartoons had gone “too far”. Of course, nobody he knew thought that violence should be the response; it’s ‘just’ that they shouldn’t be published. It wasn’t respectful. Indeed, it was very hurtful. I tried to explain (very briefly!) the arguments above. Plus, if they felt it was disrespectful, they could mock back. “But that would make us just as bad!”, he protested. So, there is a gulf there between us. And I don’t know how it can be closed.
This is the problem I have with the cartoons. Because, you see, I have this romantic idea of journalism. You should use your privileged position as one who has access to the mass media to monitor the activities and statements of the powerful, and to attack and, yes, sometimes to mock them. You should not use that platform to attack and upset the powerless and marginalised – which most Muslims are, not least, it seems, in France.
Attack the ideas in words - yes; but you can do that without showing images which in themselves others find so deeply offensive. Not just common or garden offensive, but something that strikes right at the heart of what they are; their very being. You may say they shouldn't think that way; that they should 'get over it'. But they do. I don't feel that way about anything. There's nothing you could say to me or write abut me that would hurt me that deeply.
Some Muslims have argued that ridiculing the Prophet is like attacking one's parents. But if someone said something vile about either or both of my (dead) parents, I would just think: "What a sad, nasty person - they must be a bit disturbed." I would feel sorry for them. This is how many Christians and those of other faiths think when their religion is attacked. Some Muslims seem to, as well. But many others don't. And is it not arrogant for me to say they SHOULD - indeed, MUST feel a different way?
But here's the really big problem. I don’t claim any to be a scholar of Islam, or of any religion, but one of the features of Islam is that there is not a single person or organisation with power and money and who/which issue decrees as to what their followers should and should not do or think. If only there were! I would feel quite content to attack them, then! There is no equivalent of The Pope and The Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the tentacles of the Church of England.
Instead, there is a sacred text and a firm set of deeply-held beliefs, which is much more difficult for me. There is also the personal fact and experience that I have greatly liked all the Muslims I have known. They have been, in fact, amongst the kindest, most thoughtful and empathetic people I’ve ever known – also, with some of the greatest sense of humour. So, could I knowingly publish something just to establish my right to do so, no matter how deeply hurt they would be? To do so seems like bullying. And I don’t like bullying in any form.
I also have a rule that I would never put anything in print (including in this Blog and on social media) that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face. And I wouldn’t want to push one of those cartoons in the face of my Muslim friend. As a journalist you have power and any power should be used responsibly. If you are going to hurt people there must be a justification for so doing – exposing wrongdoing, etc. Do these cartoons do that?
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should – but that is a personal, ethical decision. I could tell someone they were fat. But it wouldn’t be very nice, and what purpose would it serve?
I wouldn’t publish the cartoons and neither would I write those Tweets from Katie Hopkins (or re-tweet them). But I defend the right of others to do things that I find nasty and unnecessarily hurtful. And - it should go without saying - they must be able to do so without being physically attacked, let alone murdered, or living in fear of this happening. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING can ever excuse or justify what happened in Paris this last week. At least that's clear!
But as you'll probably have surmised, I am expressing here an internal, conflicting dilemma. A conflict between very important principles and, if you like, a great reluctance to cause unnecessary offence. It makes the human rights’ thing seem quite straightforward and unproblematic! In fact, I have never been so conflicted about any issue in my life.
Maybe you’re thinking: “Oh, he’s just trying to rationalise his cowardice over the cartoons. The truth is he just wouldn’t have the balls to do it!”
Don’t think I haven’t wondered this in my internal dialogue. To concede that that would conflict with one thing with which I credit myself: that I am courageous; fearless even, and won’t be intimidated. Maybe I’m deluding myself. Maybe we all delude ourselves; maybe that’s why billions turn to religion - to help resolve these inner conflicts.
Or am I just being ridiculous? See you on April 1st!