Wednesday, November 15, 2006

free speech

Nick Griffin is the head of the British National Party. Nick Griffin is almost certainly not a very nice man. The British National Party are a far right David Duke-ish bunch of Know-Nothings. They've been ever-so-carefully avoiding saying racist things, but at the very least, in the past, the have been an overtly racist political party.

Nick Griffin was speaking above a pub to his party faithful several years ago. An undercover television reporter happened to be in the audience. One of the things that Nick Griffin said in his vitriolic speech was that "Islam is a wicked, vicious faith." For this and several other controversial utterances, he was brought up before the dock on charges of "stirring up racial hatred." Charges which he vigorously defended himself against.

There were some mutterings of protest amongst the general public at the time. Most people didn't really defend what he'd said, but many people have said something a little off-color in a pub at one time or another or at the very least failed to protest when someone else had done so. But Nick Griffin is hardly a beloved national character, so not too many people came to his defense. To make it even easier to swallow, the Government promised that charges such as these wouldn't be brought against your every-day bigot, but would only be brought in egregious cases like Nick's.

In Griffin's first trial, he was acquitted of most charges. The case was pretty weak. Is saying "Islam is wicked..." etc really stirring up racial hatred? After all, Islam is a religion not a race, and as a religion Islam really is about as multi-racial and multi-cultural as it's possible to be.

But the jury failed to reach a verdict on a few of the charges. An independent prosecutor is supposed to make the decision about whether a case should be brought to trial, whether it's in the public interest to do so. This decision takes into account the probability of achieving a conviction, the importance of the crime and even the cost of the trial. But I don't believe that the decision to prosecute Nick Griffin a second time was an independent decision. And Nick was brought to court again recently. And he was acquitted of all charges this time.

Did the Government accept defeat graciously? Did the Government say "Well, we are bringing in a law soon which makes it illegal to stir up religious hatred. And we couldn't have got him that time, but with our new law we'd be able to get him if he did it again,"? No, no they did not. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor and heir apparent to No 10 Downig Street, was stating to reporters the next day that they would be looking at ways to toughen up the laws to stop people like Nick (or anyone?) saying the things like Nick said. Absolutely sickening. And the Attorney General is looking at "gaps in the law". What is happening to our ancient liberties of freedom of speech?

Protest in Parliament Square, London
A sign I saw in front of Parliament Square on Remembrance Sunday

Not just the law
What is stirring up religious hatred? Saying things like "Islam is wicked..." doesn't stir up any hate in Islam for me - and I'm very unlikely to make such blanket statements. But what if I say "I think Islam treats women as second class. I find the way that women are treated in Islam, by and large, abhorrent," or "Islam as is popularly practiced in many communities is encouraging seperatism, discord between communities and even terrorism," or even "I think literalist, fundamentalist Christianity such as I witnessed growing up in the Bible Belt encourages a decline in empiricism and reason and a blinkered world view." Will I be prosecuted for stirring up religious hatred? Am I allowed to criticise Christianity because that's the religion I grew up in? Or am I not allowed to criticise Islam because no one is allowed to?

This isn't just about the law. Carol Gould, writing about the weird juxtaposition of the prosecution of an Islamist terrorist, the head of MI5's report on the danger of Islamist terrorist plots which received little social commentary and the universal hand wringing which resulted after Griffin walked free.

No sooner had Griffin been cleared than every pundit in Britain, and even the BBC reporter who had covered the case, was pontificating about the appalling state of Her Majesty’s empire that such a scurrilous character as Griffin could be allowed to go scot-free. It was mooted that the government would ‘urgently explore new legislation to curb religious and racial hatred.’ The disappointment that Nick Griffin had gone free was palpable on the faces of the usual crop of social commentators wheeled out on various television stations.


No sooner had I absorbed this bizarre sequence of events than I opened my mail to find an urgent call to members of my union, the National Union of Journalists, asking us to endorse the idea of censuring journalists who use terms that denigrate Muslims and encourage Islamophobia. Journalists who will report their colleagues to the union or to law enforcement authorities will be performing a virtuous deed.

Fair and balanced
Nick Griffin is a nasty sort and BNP politics are divisive and worse. When I heard that BNP candidates were running for council seats in our neighbouring borough, it actually struck fear in my heart. That was too close for comfort. Generally speaking, where BNP candidates run racial tensions will be high and can only be made worse still by their presence. Yet still, I defend his right to free speech partly because I strongly value my own right to free speech.

So I can't comment on his acquittal without commenting on the conviction of Mizanur Rahman. Rahman was convicted of "stirring up racial hatred" for his part in protesting at this rally outside the Danish embassy or a related one about the Danish "Mohammed cartoons". Rahman had been carrying a placard saying "Behead those who insult Islam." Lovely. If you watch this video of the rally, you can see that quite a few in the crowd were to my untrained legal eye inciting violence on both a personal and a monumental scale. But I really didn't see anything that incited racial hatred against Westerners, not to me anyway. It think it's pretty clear that the hatred was for non-Muslims, the foolish Kaffirs who cling to their traditions of discourse that include satire.

It's true that Rahman may be retried for inciting murder, but his conviction also shows the Government's willingness to bring charges of stirring up racial hatred wherever they can and against people like 23 year old web-designer Rahman who may be abhorrent but who's hardly a public figure on the scale of Nick Griffin.


jen said...

(You beat me to posting about this!)

Just goes to show how incredibly subjective this stupid law is. Because what they're trying to do is legislate based on the *effect* the words have. Which is virtually impossible to gauge, unless someone turns around and says "i committed this crime because of what so-and-so said."

Anonymous said...

I see a bright line between saying something is evil and encouraging beheadings. Don't you? Even if the first is said by a community leader and the other by the most marginalized person. One is expressing an idea and the other is encouraging a violent action.

Vol Abroad said...

Oh yes, I don't think what Nick Griffin said and what Rahman said are in the same category at all and I think it's fair enough that Rahman is being tried again for inciting murder - which is what he did. HOWEVER, I don't think either one of their statements, deliberately or otherwise stirred up any hatred toward any particular race - except perhaps toward the race of the person saying it??

My point about Rahman being essentially a nobody is that they used the racial hatred law against him when the Government implied that it would only be held for bigwigs like Griffin. Not that I EVER believed them.

Anonymous said...

Good piece VolAbroad. You may not be aware, but there was a nasty flavour of a political prosecution in the Griffin case. Rod Liddle has covered this from time to time in the Spectator and Sunday Times since2004. The saga is too long to repeat in full but apparently he found out from ordinary PCs that the orders for the initial arrest came from much higher than the Chief Constable -implying the Home Office. And don't tell me that it was pure coincidence that the Attorney General announced the prosecution the day after the 2005 General Election was announced (remember those lost Muslim votes). This cries out for a real piece of investigative journalism -I suspect a scandal of Watergate proportions, or going way back into history, the John Wilkes case.


Anonymous said...

BTW, do the legs in the remembrance photo belong to members of my family? VM

Anonymous said...

Free speech is the cornerstone of any true democracy. The 2 and a half main parties pay lip service to it but, as I have long suspected don't really mean it. What they really mean is, so long as it is in the comfortable envelope of the accepted wisdom of the main parties.

What is really sad is most ordinary people are unconcerned with this dangerous erosion of our liberty.

And what is even sadder is that all those in power and influence, who say they are there to protect and guard over our liberties do not lift their smallest finger to defend it. They are all on the gravy train.

I support the BNP.

Vol-in-Law said...

"Free speech is the cornerstone of any true democracy... ...I support the BNP."

I think this position is inconsistent - I recall reading the BNP's own press officer, on their own website, explaining that when the BNP takes power, the 'lying media' will be suppressed, and all news will come from only government (BNP) approved sources. As far as I can tell from the evidence, the BNP may not be neo-Nazis anymore* but they are still very much a fascist party. So if you believe in free speech, support their right to free speech, but don't support the BNP.

*Real neo-Nazis supported the 9/11 attacks and support the Islamists' attacks on the West, since in the Nazi & Islamist viewpoint they are on the same side in the struggle against the Jews & western capitalist liberal democracy. Modern Islamism in fact derives as much from 1920s & 1930s European Nazism as from traditional Islam. The Islamist MPAC-UK's founder was
recently found to have devoted money to neo-Nazi historian David Irving & encouraged other Muslims to do likewise. The BNP has officially turned away from neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism, although I think Jews are right to still be wary of it.