I obviously didn’t shed a tear when Nick Griffin was arrested on Tuesday for inciting racial hatred but I wasn’t exactly cheering either. It was probably because the first I heard of it whilst watching Channel 4 News was seeing the BNP leader being released on police bail, punching the air, before a crowd of cheering supporters. It was not a pretty sight. But then he is not a pretty man.
Unfortunately, I also have my doubts about the law under which he was arrested. Now clearly I am not suggesting that I agree with inciting racial hatred; but I do believe in free speech, and I am very uncomfortable with any law which tries to undermine it. We can agree that inciting racial hatred is wrong, but at what point should it become a criminal offence? The famous quote often attributed to Voltaire, that”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” seems as relevant now as it ever did. When I was at University there was a “No Platform” policy towards the National Front (I don’t know if there still is) and I always argued against it. These people should be engaged in debate and defeated; otherwise their lies and misinformation will still be heard but will go unchallenged.
Of course, I don’t think you should be able to say anything; if Griffin roused the crowd into a call to attack and burn Asian houses, then I would be happy for him to face severe legal consequences; but there already is a law against inciting violence. Fair enough, we can take into account whether or not any incitement to violence is racially aggravated, that seems fine by me; but do we need a separate law, and is it effective? Surely we should be free to hold opinions some may find offensive, and be able to speak our minds; if you go too far, then there are other laws which can deal with you. I am not sure there exists a point at which I would be happy for free speech to be compromised, but which is not covered by other more general laws on incitement, discrimination, public order or defamation; in which case, the law on inciting racial hatred causes me some concern with regards free speech. Perhaps I will change my mind when the case comes to court and we fully learn what Griffin has said; but this is my current position.
At the same time the debate has started up again regarding extending the law to cover religious hatred. Charles Moore of the Telegraph was recently criticised for saying “It seems to me that people are perfectly entitled – rude and mistaken though they may be – to say that Mohammed was a paedophile, but if David Blunkett gets his way, they may not be able to.” The interesting thing here is that were one to say that “Jesus was a paedophile”, then that could fall foul of the current Blasphemy laws which are in fact stronger that the proposed law on inciting religious hatred; this somewhat blunts Rowan Atkinson’s belief that the law could result in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian being banned. But his basic point, as stated again last week, that “the freedom to criticise ideas is one of the fundamental freedoms of society” is surely right. The Home Office asserts that comedians jokes will not be compromised, but the reaction to Charles Moore’s comments shows how freedom of speech could be affected when potentially offensive but non threatening comments could be dragged to the courts.
But perhaps the main reason to criticise these laws is the fear I have that they will be counter productive. I haven’t looked at the BNP website since Griffin’s arrest, but I don’t have to. They will be saying that the arrest is due to an out-of-touch political elite, ignorant of the problems suffered by native brits. They will say it shows that immigrants and asylum seekers rights are prioitised ahead of the the concerns of the majority of law abiding (white?) citizens. They will say it shows how scared the major parties are of the electoral threat posed by the BNP, and illustrates again how the opinions of immigrants are affecting Britain’s longstanding principles and traditions such as freedom of speech. They will say that only the BNP truly understands what you understand, about the threats facing the nation, and only they can do something about it. These opinions will be repeated from now until the case comes to court; but unlike Griffin’s original statements which were made to a small rally of far-right knuckleheads, these comments will be played out across the national press and media, to a far larger audience. The BNP will get more free publicity, and some people will be stupid enough to believe them.
Then we will see just how effective the law has been in trying to prevent racial hatred.