UK Government Watch

 2005

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30th December   Britain Holds the Coats of Torturers

Craig Murray's site mysteriously went down for a long while but the blogging community soon ensured that 100's of sites carried the controversial documents eg:
www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0512/S00297.htm

It was also noted that the following Independent story does not mention the blogging sites republishing the documents nor does it quote anything from the documents. 

From The Independent

Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has defied the Foreign Office by publishing on the internet documents providing evidence that the British Government knowingly received information extracted by torture in the "war on terror".

Murray, who publicly raised the issue of the usefulness of information obtained under torture before he was forced to leave his job last year, submitted his forthcoming book, Murder in Samarkand, to the Foreign Office for clearance. But the Foreign Office demanded that he remove references to two sensitive government documents, which undermine official denials, to show that Britain had been aware it was receiving information obtained by the Uzbek authorities through torture. Rather than submit to the gagging order Murray decided to publish the material on the internet.

The first document published by Murray contains the text of several telegrams that he sent to London from 2002 to 2004, warning that the information being passed on by the Uzbek security services was torture-tainted, and challenging MI6 claims that the information was nonetheless "useful". The second document is the text of a Foreign Office legal opinion which argues that the use by intelligence services of information extracted through torture is not a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has defied the Foreign Office by publishing on the internet documents providing evidence that the British Government knowingly received information extracted by torture in the "war on terror".

Murray, who publicly raised the issue of the usefulness of information obtained under torture before he was forced to leave his job last year, submitted his forthcoming book, Murder in Samarkand, to the Foreign Office for clearance. But the Foreign Office demanded that he remove references to two sensitive government documents, which undermine official denials, to show that Britain had been aware it was receiving information obtained by the Uzbek authorities through torture. Rather than submit to the gagging order Murray decided to publish the material on the internet.

 

23rd December   Government Not Listening

From The Melon Farmers' Forum

Shaun 21-Dec-2005

Just tried to ask the home office about the consultation, and where the responses would be posted, and the email was returned to me.

Subject: `Consultation on possession of extreme pornographic material`
Sent on `Wed, 21 Dec 2005 14:45:36 GMT`
To: `CLPUconsultations@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk

The above Email has been blocked and has not reached the intended recipient. You are advised to identify and correct the problem or contact your systems administrator or Email service provider for advice.

It seems like their server doesn`t like the word "pornographic" in the Email. It was resent OK with 'pornographic' replaced by 'graphic'

How are they supposed to do their job with this kind of stupid censorship ?

I wonder how many responses have been blocked because of this

IanG 21-Dec-2005

I think such blocking mechanisms demonstrate the levels of infancy in Government departments. There`s nothing `wrong` or `rude` or `offensive` about the word "pornography". Indeed, the word was created by Government ministers to describe "the writings of prostitutes" at the time the OPA 1851 was introduced.

Of course, such a block may have been introduced very recently because the HO are tired of receiving responses to the consultation. Moreso, if as I suspect, the majority do not agree with the Government proposals.

BigAndrew 21-Dec-2005

The Home Office don`t dictate what gets blocked. They are the same as the Dept I work for and the work is carried out by an external supplier. They can of course ask for certain things to be allowed but generally it`s left to the company providing the service.

 

23rd November

updated 24th November

updated 29th November

updated 30th November

updated 1st December

 

 

Official Secret: Everyone Lost in the Iraq War

From The Guardian

The attorney general last night threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of a document allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq.

It is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way. Though it has obtained court injunctions against newspapers, the government has never prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents, including highly sensitive ones about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, last night referred editors to newspaper reports yesterday that described the contents of a memo purporting to be at the centre of charges against two men under the secrets act.
Under the front-page headline "Bush plot to bomb his ally", the Daily Mirror reported that the US president last year planned to attack the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, which has its headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where US and British bombers were based.

Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, said last night: We made No 10 fully aware of the intention to publish and were given 'no comment' officially or unofficially. Suddenly 24 hours later we are threatened under section 5 [of the secrets act].

Under section 5 it is an offence to have come into the possession of government information, or a document from a crown servant, if that person discloses it without lawful authority. The prosecution has to prove the disclosure was damaging.

The Mirror said the memo turned up in May last year at the constituency office of the former Labour MP for Northampton South, Tony Clarke. Last week, Leo O'Connor, a former researcher for Clarke, was charged with receiving a document under section 5 of the act. David Keogh, a former Foreign Office official seconded to the Cabinet Office, was charged last week with making a "damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations". Keogh is accused of sending the document to O'Connor between April 16 and May 28 2004.

Clarke said yesterday that O'Connor "did the right thing" by drawing the document to his attention. Clarke, an anti-war MP who lost his seat at the last election, returned the document to the government. As well as an MP, I am a special constable he said.

Both men were released on police bail last Thursday to appear at Bow Street magistrates court on November 29. When they were charged, newspapers reported that the memo contained a transcript of a discussion between  Blair and Bush.

The conversation was understood to have taken place during a meeting in the US. It is believed to reveal that  Blair disagreed with Bush about aspects of the Iraq war. There was widespread comment at the time that the British government was angry about US military tactics there, particularly in the city of Falluja.

Charges under the secrets act have to have the consent of the attorney-general. His intervention yesterday suggests that the prosecution plans to ask the judge to hold part, if not all of the trial, in camera, with the public and press excluded.

24th Nov   Update from The Guardian

The much discussed meeting between Bush and Blair took place at a time when Whitehall officials, intelligence officers, and British military commanders were expressing outrage at the scale of the US assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja, in which up to 1,000 civilians are feared to have died. Pictures of the attack shown on al-Jazeera had infuriated US generals. The government was also arguing with Washington about the number of extra British troops to be sent to Iraq at a time when it was feared they would be endangered by what a separately leaked Foreign Office memo called "heavy-handed" US military tactics.

There were UK anxieties that US bombing in civilian areas in Falluja would unite Sunnis and Shias against British forces. The criticism came not only from anti-war MPs, but from Blair's most senior military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers. When Blair met Bush in Washington, military advisers were urging the prime minister to send extra forces only on British terms.

Andrew Nicol QC, a media law expert, said he was unaware of any case going to trial where a newspaper or journalist had been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. He said Lord Goldsmith appeared to be trying to "put down a marker" to prevent further leaks or publication of further disclosures from the document already allegedly leaked.

Last night the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle tabled a Commons motion saying Blair should publish the record of his discussion with Bush.

29th Nov  Update:

From the Observer

The Attorney General was interviewed on Radio Four's Today programme over government plans to scrap jury trials in complex fraud cases. Instead, as the interview with John Humphrys ground to an end shortly after 8.30am, the urbane Lord Goldsmith found himself explaining why he had warned national newspapers not to reveal the contents of a top secret memo detailing a lengthy conversation between the Prime Minister and President George Bush over the direction of the war in Iraq.

I wasn't seeking to gag newspapers; what I said to newspapers was you need to take legal advice, Goldsmith insisted as an increasingly irritable Humphrys accused him of trying to silence the media for political expediency. It is not being used to save the embarrassment of a politician, Goldsmith persevered. That is completely not the case at all.

The status of the now infamous five-page document concerning the meeting between Bush and Blair, on 16 April last year, has already reached mythic proportions among bloggers on the internet. It is the smoking gun to end all smoking guns, claim conspiracy theorists, who believe it details everything from an agreed date to pull the troops out, to plans to take the one-time rebel stronghold of Fallujah.

The one indisputable fact, though, is that part of the memo - 10 lines to be precise - concerns a conversation between Bush and Blair regarding Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station that the US accuses of being a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda. According to those familiar with the memo's contents, Bush floated the idea of bombing the Qatar-based station. The Daily Mirror, which ran the story last Tuesday, claimed the Prime Minister talked Bush out of the plan.

The memo reveals Bush's profound obsession with Al Jazeera, an obsession that stretches from stucco-clad government offices in Washington to the tin huts located behind the razor wire in Guantanamo Bay. Why is the most powerful man in the world worried about a 24-hour news organisation?

Salah Hassan, an Al Jazeera camerman, was arrested by US forces in November 2003, while filming the aftermath of an attack on a US convoy near the city of Baquba. Following his arrest he was surprised to discover he had been trailed by US troops for weeks and had been secretly photographed at the scene of other attacks.

At the heart of the accusation is the fundamental tension between journalists - largely Arab reporters catering for an Arab audience - who say they are anxious to cover the story from both sides, and a United States that regards reporting on some aspects of the insurgency as tantamount to collaboration with terrorism.

Most gallingly for the US, its reporters have told a story that Washington either disagrees with or would rather remain untold: that the kind of war America is prosecuting in Iraq is messy and heavy handed; that civilians are too often the victims, and that the insurgents are not shadowy sinister figures but ordinary men with more support than politicians would like to acknowledge.

As a result Al Jazeera has seen itself under almost constant attack by a White House whose instinct has been to control the media since the war in Afghanistan. The US military has harassed its reporters. Its offices in Baghdad and Kabul have both been bombed by the US and reporters have been detained, threatened and abused.

By the April of 2004 - and the first battle of Fallujah - US official loathing of the channel had reached a tipping point. Its focus was the figure of Ahmed Mansour, who reported from the city.

Mansour told The Observer last week: The American authorities did not hide their extreme annoyance and fury as a result of my coverage of the first Fallujah campaign in April of 2004. My sole crime was broadcasting the reality of a war I was witnessing.

The controversial memo was ritten by a Blair aide who accompanied the Prime Minister to Washington it was headed 'top secret'. Lurking within the pages were also frank discussions over the US assault on Fallujah. It was clear from the tone of the memo that Blair was far from happy at the tactics used by American forces. Then, within a few short lines, came the bombshell: documentary evidence the US president had openly talked about bombing Al Jazeera.

Details of the Foreign Office's deep misgivings over the way the US was prosecuting the war had already been reported on 23 May last year in the Sunday Times , which had obtained another leaked document. Back then there was no desire by the Attorney General to pick a fight with Fleet Street and threaten it with the Official Secrets Act. Some suspect the difference this time is down to the fact the Al-Jazeera memo has deeply embarrassed the Bush administration.

30th November   Update from The Guardian

Two men appeared in court today charged with violating the Official Secrets Act over the leak of a document that reportedly detailed a private conversation between George Bush and Tony Blair where they allegedly discussed bombing al-Jazeera TV.

Former parliamentary researcher Leo O'Connor pleaded not guilty to "receiving a document through its disclosure without lawful authority from a crown servant".

David Keogh, a former cabinet office communications officer, did not make any plea. He is charged with "making a damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations without lawful authority".

Speaking outside Bow Street magistrates court in London, Neil Clark, the lawyer defending O'Connor, said his client was shocked when he learned he was to be prosecuted, more than a year after he was first arrested.

The two men were arrested in April 2004 but only charged on November 17 this year. Asked outside the court about the delay, Clark yesterday pointed out that any prosecution under the secrets act needed the consent of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith.

Prosecutor Rosemary Fernandes asked the court to remand the two men on bail on condition that they do not have any direct or indirect contact with each other and that neither leaves the country.

O'Connor is a former parliamentary researcher for ex-Labour MP Tony Clarke and allegedly gave the memo to his former boss. Clarke says he returned it to Downing Street.

The pair will reappear at Bow Street on January 10 for a committal hearing.

The Daily Mirror, citing unidentified sources, claimed the document reveals that Blair argued against Bush's suggestion of bombing al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The newspaper said its sources disagreed over whether it was a serious suggestion.

In a written parliamentary question, last week, Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price asked Blair what information you received on action that the United States administration proposed to take against the al-Jazeera television channel. The prime minister replied: None.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the newspaper's claims "outlandish and inconceivable".

[...Surely our persecution service would not use the Official Secrets Acts against comments that were so "outlandish and inconceivable". The use of this Act implies that the accusations are likely to be true...]

1st December   Update: from Alan:

There's one thing about the Al-Jazeera story that doesn't seem to have been picked up. Mr O'Connor was, as stated, an assistant to a former MP. He passed the leaked document on to his boss. Surely, in a purported democracy, it has got to be wholly legitimate to send information about an event of this kind to a Member of Parliament, perhaps through one of your mates who works for him, for the mate to open the letter, read it, and pass it on to his boss.... Or am I missing something?

 

22nd November   Light on the Truth

So how come the Home Office are planning to lock people up for 3 years for merely watching spanking videos? Hardly what I would call a light touch, more like a CIA torture interrogation

From The Register

Light-touch regulation, minimal legislation and a close working relationship with business is the answer to the net's problems, not least child pornography, according to UK secretary of state for trade Alun Michael.

Speaking to us at the World Summit, where he was the UK government's most senior representative, Michael said that working with industry on the child porn issue in particular had achieved more in one year that legislation could have done in five - and at minimal cost.

"Light regulation is the way forward. And a partnership between government and industry, and government and the voluntary sector. If you get those relationships right, you can get further than with a top-down regulatory approach. It’s not a soft approach, in many ways it’s a tough approach, but it’s one built on building relationships, building confidence and moving forward together."

It was in government's own interest to work with business and civil society, rather than attempt to deal with the internet and the problems it throws up with new laws, he said. Convergence of technologies makes it very difficult to have a rigid approach to regulation and to government. There are things that need to be dealt with - issues like international terrorism and child pornography - but our approach is light-touch regulation in co-operation with industry wherever possible. And we shouldn’t have regulation that anticipates problems that may never arise. Flexibility is very important.

As to the issue of human rights and freedom of expression on the internet, which also became a big topic at the summit, Michael declined to expand on the UK's official representations to the Tunisian government, stating only that:
Freedom of the internet is very important to us, and we have made that clear both on behalf of the EU and UK in the build-up to the conference and during it.

 

30th October   Censorship Games

Based on an article from MVC

Shameful nutter MP Keith Vaz looks set to create consumer confusion and industry fury with his plans to present a Bill to Parliament calling for a Government-backed age ratings scheme for games.

In an exclusive interview with MCV, the MP has revealed that he will demand a statutory system of regulation for the industry that could threaten the PEGI scheme.

Vaz is not convinced the tight regulations that already govern the industry are sufficient. I want to see a statutory system, not a voluntary code drawn up by the industry itself. I’m introducing my own Bill to make sure that happens. It’s not – and never has been – something that can be done by the industry itself.

These demands come despite the current procedures that require any game depicting sexual activity or violence to be automatically submitted to the BBFC for classification. All other titles are rated by the pan-European PEGI system.

This proposal is way beyond need, ELSPA director general Roger Bennet blasted back. Our system is tried, tested and trusted. A mandatory scheme would drive a coach and horses through the PEGI rating system which is robust, consistent across much of the Continent and open to consumers. It would fragment the entire procedure, forcing governments to draw up individual guidelines. It would be an absolute disaster for the games industry.

The Video Standards Council is similarly concerned. Vaz doesn’t want to know about the facts, VSC director Laurie Hall said.
ELSPA and ourselves have tried to explain this to Mr Vaz and he doesn’t want to listen. We have consulted senior lawyers and the government and they were both perfectly happy. What more needs to be done?

 

30th October   Can I Still Hate the Pope?

From The Observer

I hate the Pope. Wholeheartedly, gut-wrenchingly hate him. I hate him for sitting around in his white frock, luxuriating in the infinite wealth of the Vatican while casually denying condoms to the dying of Africa. I hate him for condemning the poorest of women to early death by childbirth. And I pretty much hate, by extension, the Roman Catholics whose devotion permits his tyranny to thrive.

While we're at it, I hate the people in the sinister church at the end of my street who beat 'devils' out of the flesh of children. I hate the Jamaican congregation who kicked a man to death on a rumour that he was gay. I hate Sikhs who bully theatres. I hate Muslims who fly planes into tall buildings.

And editors permitting, I am free not only to say so, but to admit that I hope to influence you. In other words, I admit to attempting to incite you to religious hatred of these people.

But not, I fear, for much longer. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was flung back from the Lords last week; in its present form, cried Lord Hunt, it had 'gone too far' - no comic vicars for Rowan Atkinson, that kind of thing - so when it comes back before them next month, they want to see 'amendments'.

What looks likely to survive, however, is a point thus far agreed on all sides: that even if you hate a religion, you will not be allowed to express a hatred for the religious; you may hate the thought, but not the thinker. Hunt (anti the bill as it stands) went out of his way to 'deplore the idea that anyone could be hated for their religious beliefs', while Lady Scotland (pro) claimed that her sex, race and faith define her, and that if anyone 'uttered words of hatred' against her on the first two counts, they could be 'dealt with' and so, therefore, they should be on the third. With which nobody, much, disagreed.

Common wisdom holds that a faith and its faithful are separate. As Estelle Morris put it on Question Time, we can oppose religious beliefs 'but not people for holding them'. She did not explain how that works, mind, and neither can I.

As long as a person's values top any list of reasons to like them or not, if these include adherence to a religion which you sincerely believe causes harm, then how can you not like the person less?

Beliefs, be they political or religious, are a matter of choice, and if we may loathe not only the BNP but, by inextricable connection, anyone who chooses to join it, so I should be able not only to loathe the devil-bashers at my local church, but also to say so.

All the damage that religion does is done by the hands of its believers. They can only be stopped by those of us whose belief that they are wrong - a belief, that is, every bit as strong as theirs - having the same right they have to yell fury at their opponents. If we further incited anyone to smack them about, that would be a different matter. But then, we've already got a law against that.

 

26th October   Hatred Bill Ridiculed

From The Times

Ministers sounded a retreat on their plans for a contentious new law to outlaw incitement to religious hatred last night as the Lords inflicted a crushing defeat by throwing out the Bill.

Peers voted by 260 to 111 to tear up the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and replace it completely with text that severely limited its scope and added safeguards for free speech.

The scale of the defeat would have been larger still had it not been for an last-minute offer from a Home Office Minister to attempt to find a compromise within the next fortnight.

Baroness Scotland, of Asthal, QC, admitted that there are issues which we found difficult and pleaded with peers to give her time to try to bring forward amendments at its report stage.

Opposition to the Bill, which has been led by an eclectic alliance including evangelical Christian groups and the comedian Rowan Atkinson, is likely to intensify after her admission of doubts within the Government over the Bill.

Lady Scotland told peers: We are thinking very hard indeed about how the gap that seems to have arisen, which divides us, could or should be bridged. If your lordships ask today, I am not able to bridge that gap. If your lordships ask (whether) I can bridge it by report (stage), that may or may not be the case but I am certainly going to look at it and I am going to try.”

Lord Hunt of Wirral, the Tory peer who led the debate, insisted on pressing ahead with a vote nonetheless after accusing ministers of reneging on a previous pledge to consult opposition parties over the Bill. But he offered talks to seek a compromise before its return to the Lords next month, saying a redrawn Bill with narrower powers would still allow Labour to meet a manifesto pledge for such legislation.

Lord Hunt led the attack on the measure on behalf of a cross-party coalition that included Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for the Liberal Democrats, the Labour peer Lord Plant of Highfield, and Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Their amendments struck out original proposals to extend the new offence to words, behaviour or material that were abusive or insulting and likely to stir up religious hatred, and instead restricted it to things that were judged threatening.

They required that the prosecution must prove in each case that the defendant acted with criminal intent, going further than the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred, and added a broadly defined protection of freedom of expression that defended the right to ridicule, insult or abuse religions or their adherents, and specifically allowed proselytising.

The new clauses fundamentally alter the structure of the Bill. Instead of amending the Public Order Act 1986, as ministers proposed and which was used to outlaw incitement to racial hatred, peers voted for an entirely new schedule setting out the new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

Lord Hunt, opening the debate during the Bill’s committee stage, said: You cannot promote tolerance by limiting freedom of expression. Tolerance and freedom of expression buttress one another. They are inseparable siblings. This Bill just goes too far, far too far.

Lord Lester accused the Government of trying to introduce sweeping new speech crimes to deal with what ministers admitted was a minute gap in existing public order powers. He claimed ministers were “playing politics with religion” and using the Bill to try to persuade Muslims to vote Labour.

 

25th October   Ripe for ridicule

Editorial from The Times

Ripe for ridicule: The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill must be amended

The Prime Minister’s ill-conceived attempt to criminalise incitement to “religious hatred” has received a lifeline that he would be well advised to grasp. A series of amendments to be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow could yet rescue the Bill from some of its inherent flaws. If ministers refuse to accept them, however, they will be responsible for ushering in some of the most serious curbs on free speech since the prosecution of Gay News under the blasphemy laws some 40 years ago.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is not yet the talk of locals in the public bar of The Dog and Duck, or of parents on the school run. But it will become just that if it is railroaded through without any changes. It was designed to extend to Muslims the kind of protections from insults and abuse that they had failed to get when they sought to prosecute Salman Rushdie for blasphemous libel in 1991, Choudhury’s case. Ancient blasphemy laws cover Christianity. Jews and Sikhs are regarded as distinct races and are therefore protected by laws prohibiting racial hatred. Muslims, fearful of a public backlash in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, were anxious to be accorded similar protections from any anti-Islamic backlash. There would undoubtedly be symbolic value to such a new law, if it could be introduced in a way that did not undermine civil liberties.

But the drafting of the Bill has produced not just a mess, but a proposed law that would severely threaten free speech. No one can choose their race, but they can, and do, choose their religious or political beliefs. Criticism of these beliefs is the very essence of a healthy democracy.

The Bill is also defective because it lacks “legal certainty”. There is no adequate definition of “hatred”, or what would amount to “insulting or abusive behaviour”. The Bill would therefore attempt to outlaw something it cannot define. Such inattention to detail has produced four broad concerns.

First, the effects will be far wider than intended. In ascending order of seriousness, Moonies and Scientologists could waste valuable police time getting officers to stop or investigate concerned Christians leafleting against these sects; comedians, newspaper columnists or members of the public could find themselves facing criminal charges for poking fun at the leaders or beliefs of any religion; Salman Rushdie could find himself prosecuted for The Satanic Verses; and the Bill could actually drive a wedge between Muslim communities and the rest of the country. Religious groups may seek to silence critics by demanding criminal investigations rather than winning their case in the court of public opinion with reasoned argument.

The Lords amendments, tabled by a cross-party group of peers, seek to clarify the important distinction between laws against racism and those that seek to protect the religious from persecution. They specifically spell out that ridicule, criticism and antipathy expressed towards a religion — an important measure of a healthy liberal democracy — would be protected.

As the comedian Rowan Atkinson has put it, the Government is proposing a law that would allow people to ridicule ideas as long as they were not religious ideas. That cannot be right. If allowed to stand, a Government that often offers the impression of being indifferent towards civil liberties will have strengthened that perception.

 

24th October   As a man of faith, I cannot support the religious hatred Bill

From The Telegraph by James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is now before Parliament, and is threatening to change the legal, religious and cultural landscape of England and Wales.

Franklin Roosevelt was given sobering advice from one of his Supreme Court Justices: "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

It's a fitting commentary on the Government's Bill, which it has hastily rushed back to Parliament without the full consultation it promised.

I do not doubt the goodness of the Government's intentions. I want what it wants - good and harmonious relationships between faith communities. The stability of our country depends on it. It is not an exaggeration to hold that the future of the world itself depends on different religions sharing this planet in harmony.

The Government is right to put our own country's house in order and to build up good relations, especially with the Muslim community. It would do well to take a leaf out of the Prince of Wales's book: quietly, over the past 25 years, he has worked at extending the hand of friendship and building up trust.

Neighbourliness between religions is the soil in which our society can grow into the future. One sign of hope is that the wise and mature leadership of the ageing members of the Muslim community is being passed on to a new generation of able, thoughtful, younger men and women.

The Government is right to want all this. But it is wrong to want this Bill. Ministers are "well-meaning but without understanding" of what it will do to relationships between the faith communities, and how it will erode our liberty, corrode democracy and encroach on religious freedom.

The birth of Christianity was marked by clashes between the faithful and the state. At the end of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul, imprisoned in Rome because of his beliefs, teaches "about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance".

The words used come from classical Greek, and mean "unfettered freedom of speech". This philosophical and religious outspokenness is the cornerstone of our civilisation and democracy, and to compromise it would begin to change the character of our culture.

When introducing the Bill to the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor admitted that it was controversial, and kept emphasising that it was addressing only a "small gap in the criminal law". Lord Lester and Lady Kennedy, however, argued that the gap was a figment of the Government's imagination, and that all the hypothesised cases could be dealt with by other legislation.

In a significant and conciliatory concession, the Lord Chancellor created a small space for a U-turn. He said he hoped that the debate would show "whether we have succeeded in doing it in a way that does not have unintended and unacceptable consequences".

Sadly, you cannot prove consequences until it is too late. And there is a growing body of opinion among friends of the Government that the probable consequences of this Bill will be not only unintended but also unacceptable.

For all the faults of Western society, one of its cherished ideals is the freedom of religious expression. This is a feature that distinguished us from countries of the Communist bloc, and differentiates us now from Islamic states that rigidly inhibit religions other than Islam.

The possibility of religious tracts being referred to the Attorney General will introduce to our culture a new climate of fear. It is not good enough to say that prosecutions will require the consent of the Attorney General. Just the headline "Bishop's sermon on ritual slaughter is referred to the Attorney General" would create an atmosphere of fear and to inhibit freedom of speech.

It is also no good saying, as the Lord Chancellor does, that it will be up to the courts to define the indefinable, such as "religious beliefs" and "religious hatred". Simply bringing a person before the courts for their beliefs, however odious or innocuous, introduces to our society an element hitherto foreign and starts to shape our culture differently.

It makes people hesitant to express convictions which explicitly or implicitly criticise another faith. It begins to stifle and silence serious and robust debate about religion in a modern, pluralist and democratic culture.

Democracy depends on freedom of expression. As the former attorney general of India has said, "We need not more repressive laws but more free speech to combat bigotry and to promote tolerance."

Sometimes religion needs to be criticised. This is where religious leaders have been less than frank in this debate; we have to admit that religion holds sway over people. Religious power is as corrosive as its political version: it must not be allowed to escape the scrutiny of public comment and criticism.

By trying to close a putative "small gap in the law", the Government will be opening a chasm into which the vulnerable, not least women and children, will fall and languish, because people will be hesitant to criticise either the specifics or the generalities of a faith for fear of being prosecuted under this new Bill. Is this what the Government really wants?

I put this point about the vulnerability of women and children to a government minister in a private discussion. The thoughtful silence showed the deep-down doubt about the wisdom of this legislation. Why is the Government so publicly impervious to persuasion?

Some think that it was a deal done at the last election to recover the Muslim vote wiped out by mythical weapons of mass destruction. It would be good to prove the cynics wrong by making a U-turn on this Bill.

Faith communities who find themselves in a minority, locally or nationally, can feel under threat, and it is to the Government's credit that it is reaching out to them through regeneration schemes and educational programmes.

It is this patient investment that will sow the seeds of integrated diversity in Britain, rather than a quick-fix Bill that will stir up a bitter sediment of frustration.

 

24th October   The Government's Not So Cunning Plan

Rowan Atkinson speech on hate Bill

From the BBC

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Those of us who have opposed this measure since its introduction in 2001 have never had a problem with its alleged intent, viz. to counter the expression of racial hatred under the disguise of religious hatred. Rather, our problem was always the legislation’s breathtaking scope and reach far beyond that intent.

The prime motivating energy for the Bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda. Those who have sought, from the very day of the publication in 1989 of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, to immunise religions against criticism and ridicule – or at least to promote legislation that is so sinister and intimidating, it can provide that immunity without even the need to prosecute anyone. In other words, to impose self-censorship.

The starting point for my objections to this Bill is to argue with its supposedly inarguable premise: the ‘ooh Yes Religious Hatred, that sounds like a bad thing, let’s have a law against that’. As hatred is defined as intense dislike, what is wrong with inciting intense dislike of a religion, if the activities or teachings of that religion are so outrageous, irrational or abusive of human rights that they deserve to be intensely disliked?

The Government has often spoken of how under existing legislation, Jews and Sikhs are protected from religious hatred on the basis of their race and that this Bill seeks merely to extend that protection to others. The problem that that ignores is that race and religion are fundamentally different concepts – you cannot choose your race, you can choose your religion – and even if for many the line dividing their race from their religion is blurred in the eyes of the law. A sharp line can and should be drawn.

If Jews and Sikhs are protected from criticism of their religious beliefs or religious activities, then that is a wrong and the idea of extending that to other religions is also a wrong. To criticise people for their race is manifestly irrational but to criticise their religion, that is a right.

The freedom to criticise or ridicule ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is a fundamental freedom and a law which says that you can ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very odd law indeed. It promotes the idea that there should be a right not to be offended, when I think that the right to offend is far more important than a right not to be offended.

The only moderating influence on this legislation will be the Attorney General, who can veto prosecutions. Yet how can the Office of the Attorney General, an instrument of government, be expected to take only a judicial view of cases brought before him and not be influenced by the political ambitions of his employer?

The ease with which one religious group or another could be favoured or disfavoured is clear. You many not know that there is an Anti-Vilification law in a state in Australia, where a Witch successfully brought a prosecution against a Christian pastor for vilification of her religion. Now the government has assured us that our Attorney General would veto such a frivolous prosecution.

However, you can imagine that if, one day, electoral research by the party in government revealed that there were a surprising number of witches living in a number of marginal constituencies whose votes could be of considerable benefit to the party at the next general election, then such a prosecution might suddenly seem a more attractive and less frivolous idea to the Attorney General than it had previously. The potential for abuse is manifest.

It is time for the Government to listen. It has made no attempt to address any of these concerns – other than to deflect the criticism with the most anodyne rebuttals.

The Government says you will continue to be able to criticise or ridicule religion. Where in the Bill does it say that? Where is the clause that even implies that kind of freedom of expression? How can such bland reassurances carry any authority when there is no wording in the bill to support them and the chief promoters and supporters of this legislation, in consultation with whom the thing was drafted, have always taken the opposite view. They don’t think that religions should be ridiculed. They don’t think that religions should be criticised or insulted. That is why they have lobbied for this legislation for so many years and unlike the government are not blind to its potential to achieve those aims.

The problem with this Bill is its imbalance. It represents the relentless pursuit of the interests of a tiny minority of the population with, so far, no consideration or quarter being given to the concerns of the baffled majority. This is not to belittle the concerns of the minority which can be and should be accommodated but good government is also about doing everything in your power to accommodate the concerns of those most affected by your legislative ambitions. And this is simply not happening.

That is what these amendments are about. They do not affect the essence of the Bill – they seek only to provide reassurance and above all to protect freedom of speech, from which not just a minority will benefit, nor just a majority, but every single one of us.

 

24th October   The Government's Not So Cunning Plan

Rowan Atkinson speech on hate Bill

From the BBC

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Those of us who have opposed this measure since its introduction in 2001 have never had a problem with its alleged intent, viz. to counter the expression of racial hatred under the disguise of religious hatred. Rather, our problem was always the legislation’s breathtaking scope and reach far beyond that intent.

The prime motivating energy for the Bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda. Those who have sought, from the very day of the publication in 1989 of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, to immunise religions against criticism and ridicule – or at least to promote legislation that is so sinister and intimidating, it can provide that immunity without even the need to prosecute anyone. In other words, to impose self-censorship.

The starting point for my objections to this Bill is to argue with its supposedly inarguable premise: the ‘ooh Yes Religious Hatred, that sounds like a bad thing, let’s have a law against that’. As hatred is defined as intense dislike, what is wrong with inciting intense dislike of a religion, if the activities or teachings of that religion are so outrageous, irrational or abusive of human rights that they deserve to be intensely disliked?

The Government has often spoken of how under existing legislation, Jews and Sikhs are protected from religious hatred on the basis of their race and that this Bill seeks merely to extend that protection to others. The problem that that ignores is that race and religion are fundamentally different concepts – you cannot choose your race, you can choose your religion – and even if for many the line dividing their race from their religion is blurred in the eyes of the law. A sharp line can and should be drawn.

If Jews and Sikhs are protected from criticism of their religious beliefs or religious activities, then that is a wrong and the idea of extending that to other religions is also a wrong. To criticise people for their race is manifestly irrational but to criticise their religion, that is a right.

The freedom to criticise or ridicule ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is a fundamental freedom and a law which says that you can ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very odd law indeed. It promotes the idea that there should be a right not to be offended, when I think that the right to offend is far more important than a right not to be offended.

The only moderating influence on this legislation will be the Attorney General, who can veto prosecutions. Yet how can the Office of the Attorney General, an instrument of government, be expected to take only a judicial view of cases brought before him and not be influenced by the political ambitions of his employer?

The ease with which one religious group or another could be favoured or disfavoured is clear. You many not know that there is an Anti-Vilification law in a state in Australia, where a Witch successfully brought a prosecution against a Christian pastor for vilification of her religion. Now the government has assured us that our Attorney General would veto such a frivolous prosecution.

However, you can imagine that if, one day, electoral research by the party in government revealed that there were a surprising number of witches living in a number of marginal constituencies whose votes could be of considerable benefit to the party at the next general election, then such a prosecution might suddenly seem a more attractive and less frivolous idea to the Attorney General than it had previously. The potential for abuse is manifest.

It is time for the Government to listen. It has made no attempt to address any of these concerns – other than to deflect the criticism with the most anodyne rebuttals.

The Government says you will continue to be able to criticise or ridicule religion. Where in the Bill does it say that? Where is the clause that even implies that kind of freedom of expression? How can such bland reassurances carry any authority when there is no wording in the bill to support them and the chief promoters and supporters of this legislation, in consultation with whom the thing was drafted, have always taken the opposite view. They don’t think that religions should be ridiculed. They don’t think that religions should be criticised or insulted. That is why they have lobbied for this legislation for so many years and unlike the government are not blind to its potential to achieve those aims.

The problem with this Bill is its imbalance. It represents the relentless pursuit of the interests of a tiny minority of the population with, so far, no consideration or quarter being given to the concerns of the baffled majority. This is not to belittle the concerns of the minority which can be and should be accommodated but good government is also about doing everything in your power to accommodate the concerns of those most affected by your legislative ambitions. And this is simply not happening.

That is what these amendments are about. They do not affect the essence of the Bill – they seek only to provide reassurance and above all to protect freedom of speech, from which not just a minority will benefit, nor just a majority, but every single one of us.

 

21st October   Government Inciting Hatred of the Law

From the BBC

Campaigners against new religious hatred laws have unveiled a compromise plan designed to ensure people can still ridicule and criticise religion.  Comic actor Rowan Atkinson and former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey joined forces with a cross-party group of peers to propose new safeguards. They say the government will not scrap the planned legislation and so are demanding changes.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill faces detailed scrutiny when it has its committee stage in the House of Lords next week. Opponents of the bill argue that people can choose their religion, unlike their race and so should not be protected against offence or criticism.

On Thursday, the alliance of writers, comedians, bishops and peers unveiled a series of amendments they want added to the bill. They want three safeguards would ensure the bill protects people, rather than beliefs:

  • Nobody can be found guilty of new religious hate crimes unless it is proved they intended to stir up hatred
  • Only threatening words should be banned by the bill, not those which are only abusive or insulting
  • There should be a specific part of the bill saying the law should not restrict discussion, criticism of expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or beliefs.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester said: The purpose of these amendments is to take the rot out of a rotten bill. He said ministers were unlikely now to scrap a bill which they had promised both in Labour's manifesto and in a pre-election letter to every mosque. We think it would be a mistake to wreck the bill and then give the government the excuse that the unelected upper house was somehow thwarted the will of the elected representatives," he said.

Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson said campaigners against the law backed the government's alleged intentions. But he warned: The prime motivating energy for the bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but more from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda.

George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said the changes were designed to help the government protect people from religious minorities while keeping free speech:
It is good for religions to be knocked, to be challenged because we have done a lot of damage in the past.

Carey also said that the blasphemy laws should be axed and he believed the Church of England would not seriously oppose such a move. Carey said he would back an amendment tabled by Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat peer, to scrap the existing blasphemy law. I don't think within the Church of England there will be much opposition. It seems to be that the time has come to look at it very critically and say it's redundant. Then we even out the playing field. It needs to be removed and maybe if it had been then we would have had a better bill before us now.

A Home Office spokesman said:
We have seen and will consider the proposals and respond to them in due course.

 

17th October   A Sad Reflection of the Times

Editorial from The Times

A rotten bill

Freedom of speech, as Franklin D Roosevelt observed, is the first of the four essential human freedoms. It is perhaps more fragile than his desire for freedom from want, fear and for religious expression. In times of war on terror, the risk is that free speech will be the first casualty. The tension between free speech and the safety of the population is a genuine one. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, has just modified part of the Terrorism Bill which dealt with “glorifying” terrorism. Imams and others will now be prosecuted only if their remarks are seen as as inducements to further terrorist acts. Most people will have little problem with such a law. The fact that certain people, mainly radical Muslims, have abused our tolerance to incite acts of terror has rightly provoked anger.

Where there is a problem, however, is with another government assault on free speech that has no direct connection with terrorism — the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. If it becomes law, anybody who publishes or says anything “likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred” will be committing an offence that could make them liable to a seven-year prison term.

This bill has so far attracted most attention because of the efforts of comedians such as Rowan Atkinson. They have argued that it would prevent them poking even gentle fun at any religion. It also featured during the election campaign when Mr Clarke — billing himself as “Labour’s home secretary” — wrote to every mosque in the country highlighting Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition to the proposals. There was a clear implication that the government was trying to secure the Muslim vote.

However, the issue goes beyond the freedom of comedians to tell jokes and it should concern us all. This misguided and unnecessary bill has already passed through the House of Commons, winning a third reading in July by 301 votes to 229. Not for the first time, the task of preserving our ancient freedoms falls to the House of Lords.

The bill, according to one lord, “is the most illiberal measure that has been brought before your lordships in the 18 years I have been privileged to serve here . . . It is also irrational in that it is neither directed at, nor will it solve, the problems that gave rise to it. What it does is reduce freedom of expression — there is no doubt about that at all”. The author of those comments was Lord Peston of Mile End, one of Labour’s peers.

If that does not make the government pause for thought, other objections should. Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat peer and a noted expert on free speech and human rights, points out that the powers in the bill are “sweepingly broad”, they apply to words spoken in private as well as in public, and unlike most other serious offences they require no specific criminal intent. Lord Hunt of Wirral points out that similar proposals were rejected by parliament in 1936, 1965 and 1981 and that no generation of politicians has the right to play fast and loose with our fundamental freedoms.

Most devastatingly of all, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the former lord chancellor, notes that the bill carries with it the worst of unintended consequences. It could, he argues, mean that anybody criticising radical imams for poisoning the minds of impressionable young men could find themselves subject to prosecution. The Terrorism Bill and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill are pulling in opposite directions.

Overseeing all this in the House of Lords is Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s former flatmate. As lord chancellor he has shown a sloppy disregard for ancient traditions and freedoms. This bill will achieve nothing that cannot be done under existing laws while represe
nting a dangerous attack on free speech. It is opposed by most religious leaders. It must be stopped.

 

16th October   Hated Legislation Hated in the Lords

From National Secular Society

As expected, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill received a less than enthusiastic reception in the House of Lords this week. The Second Reading of the Bill took place on Tuesday and was accompanied outside on Parliament Green by a rowdy demonstration of hysterical fundamentalist Christians – and a rather more restrained and rational one from the National Secular Society.

Attention was drawn by several peers during the debate to the fact that the NSS was “standing outside, shoulder-to-shoulder” with evangelical Christians – a prime illustration of the breadth of opposition to the proposals.

Commenting on the demo, Terry Sanderson, the vice president of the National Secular Society, said: It was something of a surreal experience to find ourselves surrounded by hymn-singing, tambourine-playing, speaking-in-tongues Christians, but it was necessary in order to show the parliamentarians the diversity of the people who think this Bill is a very bad, dangerous and unnecessary idea.

During the Lords debate, the Bill was roundly attacked from all sides, with even the bishops warning the government that it threatened civil liberties. The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, gave a particularly strong speech against, saying that while admiring the government’s aim of ending hatred and strengthening social cohesion, he was: troubled by the Bill before us and feel it would weaken the social fabric of our society. It has the potential to drive a wedge between Muslim communities and the rest of us.

After identifying herself as a member of the National Secular Society, Baroness Turner of Camden quoted from an NSS briefing paper when she said The Government have, in my view, failed to identify any activity which would be illegal under the Bill and is not already illegal under existing law. It is also draconian: the maximum penalty is seven years in prison, with prosecution thresholds very low. Most importantly, it could severely limit freedom of expression – both directly and through self-censorship, as people become increasingly worried about speaking their minds. She feared that women’s rights could be set back if the Bill resulted in the suppression of open debate on religious grounds.

Keith Porteous Wood has been lobbying peers for the last few weeks and spent most of the day of the debate in Parliament. He told Newsline: Conservative and LibDem front bench spokespersons had NSS briefings, as did Honorary Associates and other supportive peers, Christian peers, and even a bishop. It was gratifying to see them take so many of our points up. The Government is now under huge pressure to radically amend the Bill.

The Bill now goes to committee for more detailed examination.

On Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons, Tony Blair defended the measure. He was challenged by Conservative MP John Baron to define the term “religion” and provide an example of an act which could be caught by the new law but not by existing legislation. Blair said that while incitement to racial hatred is already a crime, a victim can sometimes be abused on the grounds of their religion without any protection from the law. So if, for example, hatred is incited against Muslims it may not be against their ethnic grouping but against their religious grouping,” he said. John Baron said afterwards he was disappointed that the prime minister had been “unable to either define religion or provide an example.

I do believe this dangerous legislation is unnecessary, will stifle freedom of speech and can only harm community relations, Baron said.

Another argument raised this week came from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who is a former Chancellor. He told the Today programme on Tuesday that the proposed law may end up providing legal protection to the very type of extremist sentiment the government was most concerned about at present. Mackay, a senior lawyer, noted that Blair blamed the July 7 bombings by Muslim terrorists on “a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam.”

But, he asserted, that perversion of Islam which Blair had referred to was as much a religion, of course, as Islam itself. The proposed law would provide legal protection to what the government regards as one of the most dangerous threats to our security and peace at the present time, Mackay said.

 

14th October   A Red Rag to a Nutter

From Index on Censorship

By passing an act to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, the British government will create a quasi-legal forum for extremists ready to use one law while breaking others – to silence critics of their faith and punish apostates.

“If you build it, they will come…” Novelist W.P. Kinsella’s fictional Iowa farmer Ray built a makeshift baseball diamond to bring the faithful to him. Britain’s government is orchestrating a plan to build a different kind of playground to attract the spiritually driven.

But this is no Field of Dreams – more a place of nightmares. It’s the quasi-legal gladiator pit for religious extremists that will be created by the government’s Racial & Religious Hatred bill.

This is the bill that is supposed to protect the country’s religious faithful from hateful words. More specifically it’s supposed to win back Muslim votes lost since the Labour government began its war in Iraq, by granting imans the same medieval defence against blasphemy allowed Christian bishops.

The government thinks this trade off is a good deal, as it also provides a legal tool to use against radical Islamists preaching hate from the country’s mosques.

It also thinks it comes cheap. The Home Office expects to see fewer than two or three cases of incitement to religious hatred brought before the courts a year. Only 67 people have been tried, and 44 convicted, under 19-year-old legislation banning incitement of racial hatred in Britain. The government expects a sister law covering religious hate to be equally lightly applied.

But this calculation underestimates the religiously driven in Britain, their organisation, the focus for protest provided by the court option and the political fallout from a refusal to prosecute, let alone a failure to convict defendants in high profile cases.

Calls to prosecute the blasphemous will become rallying cries. Religious extremists will lead, fired not by fear of violence or threat of crime, but by the desire to bring their apostates and critics to court to be punished and silenced.

It's a known condition. Former Indian Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee SC cites the experience of his own country and warns that criminal laws prohibiting hate speech and expression encourages intolerance, divisiveness and unreasonable interference with freedom of expression: Fundamentalist Christians, religious Muslims and devout Hindus would then seek to invoke the criminal machinery against each other’s religion, tenets or practices. That is what is increasingly happening today in India. We need not more repressive laws but more free speech to combat bigotry and to promote tolerance.”

To stave off confrontations a new addition to the bill opened for a second reading by the House of Lords on 11 October explicitly prohibits citizen's arrest under the proposed legislation. There had been fears that critics of a particular faith would monitor gatherings and then seek to ‘arrest’ the speaker.

In fact as the government official empowered to approve prosecutions under the proposed law and the new arbiter of legally permitted religious free expression in Britain, that will be the choice of Attorney General Lord Goldsmith QC.

But though he may have to start spending time perusing Bollywood films for slights against Sikhs and paintings for offences against Greek Orthodox sensibilities, Goldsmith won’t be allowed to take his role as Britain’s new cultural commissar lightly.

The government says that the proposed act could not be used to silence or prosecute Salman Rushdie, or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, author of a play about moral corruption in a Sikh gurdwara, or the BBC producers of a TV showing of Jerry Springer – The Opera, supposedly blasphemous to Christians.

It won’t stop their enemies trying though. Rushdie lived under a death sentence for years; Kaur’s play was pulled after a Sikh mob attacked the Birmingham theatre that put it on; BBC executives’ families came under threat from angry Christians who hadn’t even seen the musical.

There are thousands ready to make the case for religious offence, marshalled by religious leaders from the pulpit, or nowadays, via the internet. Nearly 50,000 people were rallied against the BBC in this way to protest Jerry Springer – The Opera.

Goldsmith will become ringmaster of a medieval circus that the government wants nothing to do with, but is facilitating anyway for its own political advantage.

But if they build it they will come. The damage to inter-faith relations – and the safety and free speech rights of those artists and thinkers who offend the extremists - will be done. And it will happen regardless of whether Goldsmith lets a judge and jury rule on the substance of their allegations at the end of their campaigns.

The furore surrounding Goldsmith’s 2003 legal opinion on the legality of the war on Iraq, allegedly under government pressure, tarnished his independence. More of that – accusations of partiality, no doubt some couched in anti-semitic abuse - will follow when Goldsmith issues his first refusal to prosecute under the act.

Or whatever decision he makes, in whatever circumstance. For Goldsmith will have to rule on allegations raised by people not known for their tolerance.

 

13th October   No Aide Memoir

From The Guardian

Whitehall is investigating new rules to stop senior civil servants and Downing Street special advisers making money out of selling their memoirs, Sir Gus O'Donnell, the new cabinet secretary, told MPs yesterday. His announcement follows the controversy over the publication of the former No 10 press officer Lance Price's memoirs, which both Sir Gus and his predecessor, Sir Andrew Turnbull, unsuccessfully tried to censor.

One of the most recent controversial memoirs came from the Downing Street adviser Derek Scott, who revealed the rows between Blair and Gordon Brown over running the economy and Brown's anger over his failure to get the leadership.

Price, a former Downing Street spin doctor, caused a furore by suggesting that Blair relished the Iraq war and made up policy on the hoof before going into press conferences. He was said to have made £150,000 after the memoir's serialisation in the Daily Mail.

Sir Gus's disclosure and comments came as he was being questioned by Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle, during his first appearance as cabinet secretary before the Commons public administration committee. He told Prentice he had asked officials to explore whether writing up private conversations in memoirs should be covered by crown copyright - in effect meaning that the state rather than the author would get the cash and blocking the opportunity for former civil servants and special advisers to make money from them.

Sir Gus made clear to MPs his distaste for advisers who indulged in such exercises. He said: I have been lucky enough to have worked in No 10, the Treasury and now the Cabinet Office and would never have thought of writing up private conversations ... Making money out of private conversations is wrong.

He was asked specifically by Prentice about the failure of the vetting process over Price's book, where civil servants succeeded in getting some parts of the book changed only to find the original version appearing alongside the vetted version in papers such as the Daily Mail and the Guardian.

He admitted the process had broken down. He also said that preventing some details from being published meant the value of a book often rose, because it encouraged people to believe they were reading accounts that had been banned. But he added:
I still feel that memoirs should be submitted, if only to ensure that matters affecting national security are not breached.

 

12th October   Qur'an Incites to Religious Hatred

Religion has thousands of years of experience of inciting hatred of others and has many times proven itself to be worthy of hatred.

From The Guardian

A Protestant evangelical pressure group has warned that it will try to use the government's racial and religious hatred law to prosecute bookshops selling the Qur'an for inciting religious hatred.

Christian Voice, a fringe fundamentalist group which first came to public prominence this year when it campaigned against the BBC's broadcasting of Jerry Springer The Opera, was among the evangelical organisations taking part in a 1,000-strong demonstration against the bill outside parliament yesterday as the House of Lords held a second reading debate on the measure.

Its director, Stephen Green, said the organisation would consider taking out prosecutions against shops selling the Islamic holy book. He told the Guardian: If the Qur'an is not hate speech, I don't know what is. We will report staff who sell it. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that unbelievers must be killed.

The sectarian organisation's tactics have regularly appalled other Christian groups. Its website proclaims its right to protect its own freedom of speech in attacking other religious groups: MPs have no right to try to stifle our freedom to preach the gospel. It is not just Islam which is the problem. If a preacher is explaining the horrors of Hinduism ... a charge of stirring up religious hatred would be almost inevitable. Preaching against sin in general, or adultery or homosexuality in particular, may also land a preacher in court.

The bill has seen a wide range of Christian groups making common cause with secularists. Yesterday the Catholic church, while welcoming the measure in principle, expressed doubts about the drafting of the legislation, as have Church of England bishops. A Church of England spokesman said: We regard the test of stirring up hatred to be a strong one which would be unlikely to penalise preachers or comedians going about their normal business. However, we wish to be reassured that the formulation of the offence will distinguish clearly between words and actions which incite hatred and expressions of opinion which are merely controversial or offensive.

During yesterday's Lords debate the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey said that it threatens civil liberties. I am troubled by the bill before us and feel that rather than strengthening the social fabric of our society it would weaken it. It has the potential to drive a wedge between the Muslim community and the rest of us.

He was joined in opposing the measure by the Bishop of Winchester and the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, who questioned its failure to define religious belief.

 

12th October   Government Set the Stage for Religious Conflict

From The Stage

Peers in the House of Lords are being urged by the National Campaign for the Arts to block the government’s controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Bill when it receives its second reading in the House this week.

NCA director Victoria Todd has become the latest figure in the arts industry to oppose the Government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, warning it will infringe an artist’s right to challenge, to stimulate and to provoke. The organisation has been lobbying members of the House of Lords and has sent them a briefing paper, explaining why it believes the legislation should be scrapped.

Todd commented: This bill must not be allowed to proceed in its current form. We have serious worries that protest groups and troublemakers will use it as a justification for infringing an artist’s right to challenge, to stimulate and to provoke. The NCA will lobby hard to ensure that freedom of speech remains inviolable by this and future governments.

The document sent out by the campaigning group claims that censorship will be an “unintended consequence” of the proposed legislation, that the bill is unclear and will be open to abuse by religious pressure groups such as those that tried to stop the national tour of Jerry Springer - the Opera. It continues: NCA members feel that this bill sets a dangerous precedent, enshrining legislation that could be misinterpreted or re-interpreted by a less liberal government.

The move follows recent attempts by Arts Council England to obtain clarification from the Home Office that artistic freedom will be protected under any new legislation. At the time, a spokesperson for ACE warned of a “climate of anxiety” and said that the arts council was seeking assurances that artists would not be at risk of prosecution under the proposed act.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain has also expressed its opposition to the bill. At the recent Trade Union Congress, Lydia Rivlin, chair of the union’s newly established anti-censorship committee, attacked the bill as “a Frankenstein monster of legislation”.

She added:
Gurpreet Bhatti wrote a play [Behzti] which observed that sometimes men in religious authority abuse the trust of their congregants. A mob of Sikh militants decided to take violent exception to this and, in the atmosphere being created by discussions about the current legislation, I think they probably had half an idea they would get away with riot and death threats

Nine months after the riot there have been no arrests, no charges and Gurpreet is still in hiding for fear of her life. So, we have a playwright in this country who has been incarcerated for what she has written. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is already being applied, by proxy.

 

12th October   Free Speech Necessary to Keep Religion in Check

From the Margaret Howard Memorial Lecture by David Pannick QC. 19 May 2005

It is bad enough that the blasphemy law survives in this country. The Government is proposing to amend
the law to introduce a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. That would make matters worse by adding to the restrictions on freedom of expression in relation to religious sensibilities and by encouraging religious
communities to believe that it is the function of the legal system to protect them against offence to their religious feelings.

Mindful, no doubt, of Jonathan Swift's aphorism that "we have just enough religion to make us hate, but
not enough to make us love one another"19, the Government asked Parliament earlier this year to make it a criminal offence to provoke religious hatred.

Offending religious convictions is no basis for imposing criminal convictions.

The Government will seek to amend the Public Order Act 1986 which already makes incitement to racial hatred a criminal offence. The Government want to apply the same scheme to hatred against persons on religious grounds. So it would be a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour if you "intend to stir up religious hatred", or if your conduct is "likely to stir up" religious hatred. Prosecutions could only be brought by the Attorney-General. A convicted person would face up to seven years in prison.

The proposal starts from the false premiss that race and religion should be treated in the same way. But there are important differences. To make hostile comments about my race is to criticise me for what I am, for innate characteristics that I have not chosen and which say nothing (other than to the racist) about how I act. Because such comments insult my common humanity and cannot be justified, it is right and proper that the law should impose limits on your freedom of speech when it insults my race.

But to comment on my religion is to criticise the conduct of an organisation to which I choose to belong. And religions, unlike racial groups, usually make claims about how society should be organised. By reference to those views, religions seek to attract new members. Religious beliefs have a significant impact on the way its adherents treat each other and strongly influence how society is organised. Critical comments on religious beliefs may serve a valuable function in identifying and remedying abuse of power. It may be difficult to draw a distinction between criticism of those beliefs and criticism of the people who propagate those beliefs. Such criticism is not reduced in value by the tendency of the religious to react with extreme sensitivity when their beliefs are subjected to analysis.

If the Government's proposal were to be enacted, novelists, playwrights, and comedians would need to seek legal advice before strongly criticising members of the Catholic Church for failing to take adequate steps against paedophile priests; or Jews for Judaism's treatment of women (and their children) whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce; or Moslems for Islam's intolerance of "infidels" and its discrimination against women and homosexuals. The Bill offers no definition of "religion", so an author may be inviting prosecution by making harsh comments about the Reverend Moon or the Satanist beliefs recognised last year by the Royal Navy.

Irreverently critical comment on religious topics, particularly by a comedian or a novelist, might well be regarded as "abusive or insulting". Even if the author's intention is to provoke debate on an issue of public importance, prosecutors might be able to establish that "hatred" (the quality and quantity of which is not specified in the legislation) is likely to be "stirred up" (an inelegant phrase that should lead to prosecution of the Parliamentary draftsman). Indeed, the more powerful the work, the greater the risk of legal action. That you may have good reason for making insulting comments which provoke hatred of a particular religious doctrine would be no defence. Nor would it be a defence that you did not intend to stir up hatred. Because of the uncertainty inherent in so vague a criminal law, it would inevitably have a chilling effect on freedom of expression about religious beliefs and practices. At a time when religion is becoming both more powerful a force in our society and more intolerant of criticism, the law should be protecting those who wish to speak out on such matters, not threatening to impose further penalties.

The very existence of such a law on the statute book would serve to inflame religious passions, encouraging religious groups to believe that the law will provide a remedy when a novelist or a film director creates a work which criticises their religion or their prophet.

Religions already have strong protection both spiritual (blasphemers will, no doubt, spend much longer than 7 years paying the price of eternal damnation) and temporal. The law punishes (and rightly so) breaches of the peace, harassment and assault. In 2001, Parliament created new offences of religiously aggravated assaults, criminal damage, harassment and public order crimes, where the defendant acts out of hostility towards a person's religion. Discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in employment is unlawful.

The Government's defence of its proposal is that a new law is needed because the existing laws on incitement to race hatred cover offences against Sikhs and Jews, as they are each regarded as a race, but the race hatred laws do not protect Moslems. There are two answers.

The first is that if the current law offers inadequate protection, a narrow amendment to redefine race hatred laws would suffice. The objection to the proposed new law is the breadth of the interference with freedom of speech on religious matters which it would introduce. A much more tolerable solution is that proposed by the Liberal Democrats earlier this year: race hatred would be redefined to include hatred against a person's membership, or presumed membership, of a religious group as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred. Such a law would not inhibit freedom of expression on religious beliefs and practices.

The second answer to the Government's concern is that it is very doubtful that existing law fails to offer sufficient protection. At the end of 2001, Mark Norwood, a Regional Organiser for the British National Party, displayed in the window of his flat in Shropshire, a large poster with a photograph of New York's Twin Towers
in flames on September 11, 2001, with the slogan "Islam out of Britain – Protect the British People". He was prosecuted under section 5 of the Public Order Act for displaying a poster which was threatening, abusive or insulting, and likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, in circumstances where his offence was aggravated by being motivated by hostility towards a racial or religious group. He was convicted and fined. The Divisional Court dismissed his appeal. The European Court of Human Rights rejected his complaint that this was a breach of his right to freedom of expression. There is no evidence of a need for a new law to provide broader restrictions on freedom of expression.

The Government's proposal to amend the law to impose further restrictions on freedom of speech which offends religious feelings offends the strong secular beliefs of many of us that such additional restrictions are
wrong in principle. On this occasion, the devil is not in the detail. Intolerant religious groups pose one of the gravest threats to freedom of expression in our tolerant society.

The laws against race hatred are based on a principle of common humanity. But if all men and women are created equal, their religions are not always a force for equal good. Religious doctrines and religious practices may be foolish, dangerous or sometimes evil. Because adherents may believe such doctrines and practices to be required by divine will, rational debate is in any event difficult to promote. The law should be encouraging freedom of expression in relation to such powerful forces.

No one would seriously suggest that the law should penalise words or behaviour which have the intention or effect of stirring up hatred of a political group. Such a law would be objectionable because critical comment on matters of public interest should not be further inhibited. Religion is as powerful a force (indeed, often much more powerful) than political affiliations.

Sometimes, the law has to recognise that it cannot sensibly resolve religious disputes.

 

11th October   Recognising the SubStandards at Trading Standards

Strange that the Government seem to think that Trading Standards help the people. Trading Standards seem to me to be simply a jobsworth branch of the police putting the Government's priorities above those of the people.

From The Telegraph

The Government is planning to take control of policing big companies, ending years of local authority responsibility for the inspection and enforcement of trading standards.

It wants to be the first port of call for members of the public who feel they are being ripped off by businesses, large or small. The Government plans to use this information to ramp up its efforts to identify scams and better co-ordinate raids.

The dramatic centralisation of trading standards powers is detailed in the Department of Trade and Industry's consultation on the creation of the new Consumer and Trading Standards Agency, which closes tomorrow.

The Institute of Directors has labelled the plans "a classic Yes Minister move". Philip Hampton, chairman of J Sainsbury's, recommended that the new body be set up after his review of how government regulations are inspected and enforced, which he presented to the Treasury in March.  One of his conclusions was that local authority-run trading standards were inconsistent and uncoordinated.

But IoD director general Miles Templeman fears the deregulatory thrust of the Hampton Review has been "diverted" into the creation of a "major new bureaucracy". Far from being the business community's regulation-busting friend, the new body now threatens to be the worst kind of busy-body inspectorate, he said.

The Government favours the creation of a standalone agency, possibly based outside London and bringing together the company regulatory role of the DTI with the existing consumer protection responsibilities of the Office of Fair Trading. It was also open to alternatives, like simply expanding the existing consumer team at the OFT. Both the IoD and the OFT favour this latter option.

It would set the Trading Standards Service's strategy, performance targets and priorities, ironing out the mishmash of strategies that the DTI sees as preventing the Trading Standards Service from being as consistently effective as it might be. It would have the power to over-rule local authority enforcement actions if it believed the local authority was "failing in its duty".

Large companies will no longer have their chains of shops and premises inspected by the local authority where their head office is based. Instead the Government wants the CTSA to take charge, either employing their own inspectors or sub-contracting with local authority teams as and when required.

 

11th October   Lawyers Hate the Hatred Legislation

From The Guardian

An organisation representing nearly 2,000 lawyers will demonstrate outside parliament today in protest against the government's racial and religious hatred bill.

Members of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship claim that the bill, which is due to be debated in the Lords today, is in contravention of the European convention on human rights.

If the bill is passed, it is likely to have the opposite effect to that intended by setting one faith community against another in court, spokesperson Andrea Williams said. It would seriously affect the rights of religions to criticise each other.

 

11th October   Talking of Censorship

From The Guardian

Internet companies are being urged by the Home Office to make so-called suicide websites and chatrooms more difficult to access. The move comes after two strangers forged Britain's first internet suicide pact, dying side by side two days after making contact for the first time on a chatroom dedicated to discussions about suicide.

Following a spate of online suicide pacts in Japan and elsewhere, psychiatrists are warning that Britain may be about to witness a disturbing new trend, with young people in particular using the chatrooms to make contact with other depressed individuals.

Ministers have considered outlawing sites which appears to encourage suicide, but were warned that new legislation could also criminalise fictional depictions of suicide and hinder academics and counsellors writing about the subject.

Talks are taking place with a number of service providers, including Yahoo! and AOL, and search engine companies, in an attempt to reprioritise the results that are thrown up during a trawl on the internet. When somebody keys in 'suicide' and 'UK', we would like them to be offered a link to the Samaritans long before they find a website showing them what they can do with a car exhaust and a hosepipe, one official said.

The drive for internet reform was given extra impetus by the deaths of Christopher Aston, 25, and Maria Williams,42, who killed themselves in a shopping centre car park near the Millenium Dome in south-east London. They used a method which is highly unusual in the UK, but which is frequently discussed in suicide chatrooms.

All they had in common, before making contact on one of the most frequently-visited suicide chatrooms, was their interest in computers, and their history of depression. They had had very little contact before their deaths, police told the inquest, but an examination of their computers showed how they had made contact, and revealed that both had been reading internet suicide websites.

Writing in the British Medical Journal before the deaths of Aston and Williams, Sundararajan Rajagopal, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital in London, warned that the internet could fuel a rise in such pacts. He said the Japanese experience might herald a new disturbing trend in suicide pacts, with more such incidents, involving strangers meeting over the internet, becoming increasingly common.

The Home Office says it considered amending the 1961 Suicide Act, which prohibits the aiding and abetting of suicide, but which could rarely be used to prosecute people posting chatroom messages. Eventually, a spokesman says, ministers and officials concluded that:
we can't erase them from existence using legislation.

The 1961 Suicide Act made it a crime to aid, abet, counsel or procure another to kill themselves or to try. The Home Office says people making postings to suicide chatrooms are not breaking the law unless they know that a suicide is being planned, and there is a direct link between their posting and the subsequent death.

In Australia, the federal authorities have drawn up legislation which will impose heavy fines on individuals or companies involved in the online promotion of suicide.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the voices in defence of suicide chatrooms yesterday was that of a close relative of Williams, who believes that parental control may be needed, but not legislation. The web is there as a source of information for all of us, and it's better that these discussions aren't driven underground, he said. Building high-rise blocks didn't increase the suicide rate, and I don't think the internet will either.

The Samaritans can be contacted at www.samaritans.org.uk or by telephoning 08457 909090

 

9th October   Christian Hatred of Hated Legislation

From Christian Today

The Evangelical Alliance along with the Christian Lawyers Fellowship as well as numerous other Christian organisations gathered recently in Hyde Park's Speakers' Corner in a prayer rally against the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred legislation.

The event drew speakers and prayers from various organisations. Each lead the large crowd gathered, in prayer and praise, calling for the legislation to be rejected by the House of Lords next week.

The Alliances have also urged their members to take time off work this coming week as part of the protest, and are calling for huge numbers of people to gather outside the Houses of Parliament on 11 October, the date that the Bill’s first full debate is scheduled to take place at the House of Lords.

More than 100 Christian groups, churches and denominations started a full weekend of prayer and protests against the legislation today, which has been seen by many critics as a threat to freedom of speech as well as a threat to evangelism for religious groups.

There will be a day of prayer in local churches throughout the nation on Sunday, concluding with a mass protest rally on Tuesday (11th October) in Parliament Square, commencing at 1pm and concluding at 4pm.

The Chief Executive Officer of the ACEA, Rev Katei Kirby said, The impact of the proposed legislation will form part of the legacy that we will leave for our children and our children’s children. This is an opportunity for the Church to unite with one voice in prayer and protest to make a difference.

The Evangelical Alliance is in unity with many other faith organisations and groups, as well as entertainers and secularists, that fear the proposed legislation will greatly restrict the right to freedom of speech in Britain.

Despite large protests, the legislation has already passed through the House of Commons, and now it just remains for the House of Lords to approve the Bill for it to come into effect as law in Britain.

The General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, Rev Joel Edwards said, We continue to oppose this Bill as a matter of principle because it affects the freedom of speech of every UK citizen. We are committed to defending religious liberty and precious freedoms like free speech. This protest is about pulling people together to be a united voice in opposition to this proposed law.

Backing this view, Don Horrocks, the Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance stated,
Many observers believe the Government is so committed to getting the measures through Parliament that the Bill will inevitably pass into statute law. However, opposition to the Bill, even at this late stage, is not futile. It is quite possible that the Lords may press for amendments that the Government will feel obliged to accept and which could make the Bill less destructive. I therefore urge everyone who believes in the principles of free speech to do everything they can to join the thousands of Christians and others at the rally in Parliament Square on Tuesday.

 

15th September   Clarke Trampling Rights to an Enjoyable Life

When asking the Brits to go along with Clarke's schedule to dismantle our rights it would be nice to think there is tolerance and freedom left worth defending. The Government certainly don't seem to be doing much to help people enjoy life. They seem to be devoting 100% of their time to ensuring that the authorities can lock people up on a whim. 

From The Register

A concerned Register reader from Norwich has got in touch with some disturbing news from the constituency of liberty-eating Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Despite Clarke's best efforts a fetish club is shortly to open in the East Anglian town. The Trample Fetish Club offers the citizens of Norwich, and beyond, the chance to be trodden on, sat upon or given a general beating by a variety of lovely hostesses. The local council granted planning permission despite objections from Clarke, the local MP, and 31 other people.

The club, due to open soon, has a Trample room, a Crush room and a Smoothing room - that's having a lady sit on your face for those not up to speed with Norfolk's sexual mores. The Trample Scene website claims, probably correctly, to be The only Trample Fetish Club in a 100 mile radius of Norwich.

The final part of the club is the dungeon which sounds more like somewhere Clarke would like to send terrorist suspects for interrogation than a fun night out: The website promises: Not for the fainthearted'!! - Our hostesses will whip you, kick you, stamp on you, punch you, walk all over you, chain you up and humiliate you. Will you survive our dungeon experience!!

Roy Singfield, the owner of the club, told the Reg: We'll be opening on the 26th, with a bit of luck - the boys are still working hard to get it ready. He said around 150 people have already applied for membership.

Many thanks to Register reader Jason Dagless who tipped us off. He said:
All the current hooha from Mr Clarke and his ideas for reducing our freedoms to stop terrorism. Well he is my local MP and recently a business man has asked to set up a "Fetish Trample Club" in the street opposite where I live (Prince of Wales Rd, Norwich). Many residents objected and even Clarke apparently made his objections most clear. However, the local council ignored him and the club is to go ahead.

 

30th August   Grievous Bodily Harm to Human Rights

My heart sinks on this story. Yet more innocent people to be persecuted like Braintree and the victims of Operation Ore where innocent people were jailed for child porn after lies from US police.

And again the Government is blaming individuals for its own failings to implement practical and tolerant laws allowing adult entertainment. This is the same Government that has done its upmost to prevent people watching harmless and consensual adult porn. It then gets all vindictive when this results in people seeking porn from less reputable avenues.

On the first read, the use of the term "serious violence that would normally result in a prosecution for grievous bodily harm" sounds half way reasonable but then one notices the word depict. This suggests that all sorts of faked ordinary dramatic scenes can get one locked up for 4 years.

From The Telegraph

A ban on possessing extreme pornography will be announced by the Government today in an effort to curb access to websites that glamorise necrophilia, female strangulation and torture.

Under proposals to be published by the Home Office, it will be an offence punishable by up to three years in jail to have images of serious sexual violence and other obscene material.

Britain has tried for more than 40 years to control access to pornography by closing off the source through the Obscene Publication Act, under which it is illegal to publish material "likely to corrupt or deprave". But the internet has rendered the law almost redundant because the images can be viewed easily from abroad without penalty.

Ministers hope that the creation of a new offence of possession of violent and abusive pornography - unique in any western jurisdiction - will make it easier to combat and reduce demand for it. A similar law already exists for child pornography and has led to numerous prosecutions.

Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, said last night: The intention is to send a message that it has no place in our society. We are not referring to what might be called mainstream pornography or to the kind of material classified for sale in licensed sex shops. By extreme, we mean material which is violent and abusive, featuring activities which are illegal in themselves and where, in some cases, the participants may have been the victims of criminal offences.

A consultation paper published today acknowledges that the source of the offensive material cannot be closed off because of the internet. The best that can be done is to use the risk of sanction to discourage interest in it.

The paper also accepts that no definitive evidence exists about the long-term impact of such material either generally or on those predisposed to aberrant sexual behaviour.

The proposed offence would apply to pornographic material depicting bestiality, necrophilia or serious violence that would normally result in a prosecution for grievous bodily harm. The consultation document says there are hundreds of internet sites offering a wide range of material featuring the torture of (mostly female) victims.It is not the intention to penalise people who stumble across the material, have it sent to them without their consent or have a legitimate reason - such as law enforcement - for dealing with it."

The offence would also apply in Scotland, where the Executive is involved in the consultation, due to last four months. But framing the law will not be easy, and there are human rights considerations about what people are allowed to view in the privacy of their own homes under Article 8 (right to a private life) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European human rights convention.

 

28th August   Cosy club of hacks and cops and politicians

From The Guardian

At first sight, the Blairs' holiday in Barbados and the killing of a Brazilian electrician on the London underground have little in common. Yet the farcical attempts by No. 10 to impose a media blackout on the PM's holiday destination and joint efforts by police and the IPCC to withhold CCTV footage of the Stockwell Tube incident until Christmas betray a very British game of collusion and cover-ups.

It is a game played by the forces of the establishment - in this case, government, police, and media - in which elite speaks unto elite, closing ranks and keeping the public in the dark.

This system relies on the old boys' act rather than any law. Whenever the government feels the need to keep some piece of information secret, they send a note to editors asking for their co-operation in what is inevitably presented as a matter of national security. Editors comply, their journalists follow suit.

This sheds an unflattering light on all the players involved - from the government and police force that are equally obsessed with secrecy and obfuscation to a supine media pathetically grateful for any crumb of information tossed its way and any chance of being included at top table.

But who protects whom, in this game of secrecy? When Dave Hill, Blair's press spokesman, asked editors to keep the whereabouts of the Prime Minister secret 'for security reasons', he was clearly alluding to a potential terrorist attack. Yet George Bush could rely on no such pact of secrecy. Not only did every American (and jihadist) know that the Prezz was holidaying at the family ranch in Texas, anti-war protesters were allowed to gather within a Molotov cocktail's throw of the gates. Americans' democratic mindset requires everyone to be accountable - even when on a break.

When the Washington Post published an article this month entitled 'Where is Tony Blair?', poking fun at the Prime Minister's spurious invisibility (photographs of the 'first family' aboard a yacht filled whole pages in the tabloids), one Washington media man asked whether it was fitting that Blair on a yacht in Barbados should be accorded special protection while ordinary members of the public commuting to work were not.

Equally questionable is the reasoning that allows the Met and the IPCC to withhold the CCTV footage of police shooting Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July. The authorities argue that crucial evidence should not be made public until December because it might prejudice the inquiry. Again, the British way means that the authorities' wish is the media's command: the Fourth Estate has no legal recourse to challenge this directive.

Another much-used defence in gagging the media has been the authorities' fear of the 'potentially incendiary' nature of the information the media wants to release. It's a line of argument that gained credence in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, which erupted when footage was broadcast showing white police beating Rodney King, a black youth.

Britain's draconian libel laws account for a great deal of the hacks' wariness when it comes to printing allegations about any individual. But the unspoken gagging order is particularly striking because it is so highly selective, as scores of celebrities have experienced: Naomi Campbell's visits to Narcotics Anonymous, for instance, or Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's trip to a rehab centre in Arizona, were not accorded the same privilege (though Campbell did sue the Mirror for its report, and won).

The  complicity of Britain's cosy club of hacks and cops and politicians was summed up by Guy Birenbaum in Our Inside Dealers, his 2003 exposé of the French establishment, as the attitude of an arrogant clique that believes 'We sort out what is good for you and what you need to know.'

 

23rd August   Blunkett Seeking Asylum Behind Injunctions

From The Independent

First came David Blunkett: The Musical, a low-budget extravaganza in a Yorkshire pub. Then the play Who's the Daddy? had the former home secretary leaping about the stage in a Spiderman outfit.

Now, yet another dramatisation of Blunkett's doomed affair with the American Kimberly Quinn is to hit our screens courtesy of Channel 4.

Blunkett is not happy. He has threatened to slap an injunction on the comic drama, A Very Social Secretary. Apparently, he went so far as to brand the person at the channel who scheduled the show as "weird".

With an all-star cast - Robert Lindsay plays Tony Blair, Doon Mackichan is Cherie Blair, Bernard Hill is Blunkett and Victoria Hamilton is his lover - the show is already creating a buzz. This is fuelled by the pedigree of its author, Alistair Beaton, whose satirical play about New Labour politics, Feelgood, was a West End success in 2001.

A clearly rattled Blunkett apparently argued that the drama, to go out on Channel 4's new digital channel More 4, could affect the welfare of his two-year-old son with Kimberly Quinn, William.

The one-and-a-half hour romp will recount the events that led to Blunkett's resignation after he was alleged to have fast-tracked a visa application for Quinn's nanny.

The controversy over the television drama follows a play by Toby Young about sex scandals at The Spectator, involving its publisher, Quinn, and its editor, Boris Johnson, entitled Who's the Daddy? Blunkett did not block the play, but his lawyers made it clear that they would be monitoring it very carefully.

Channel 4's chief executive, Andy Duncan, would not confirm whether the broadcaster had been threatened with an injunction, but said that Blunkett had written to him and that they had spoken on the telephone about the matter.

Blunkett has not seen the drama, but Channel 4 chiefs said there was nothing in the film that would impinge on the welfare of MQuinn's child, who is only a minor element in the dramatisation.

 

23rd August   Violent Assault on Our Freedoms

From Out-Law

The Government has said it will announce plans to strengthen laws applicable to violent internet pornography in the next few weeks. Such material is generally illegal to publish but legal to view in the UK under the current regime.

Extreme adult websites, those depicting bestiality, necrophilia, rape or torture, can fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act in the UK. This Act dates from 1959 and makes it an offence to publish any article whose effect likely to "deprave and corrupt" those who see it.

The Act can be used to force ISPs in the UK to remove such websites; but obscenity laws differ in other countries, where extreme adult sites are often hosted And while publishing such material is illegal in the UK, visiting it or possessing such images is not. This differs from the regulation of child pornography where both publication and downloading of the material are banned.

Home Office spokesman Brendan O'Grady told OUT-LAW today, We're looking at ways in which the current law on violent pornographic sites might be strengthened and we hope to make an announcement shortly.

He added that the Government has made a lot of progress on dealing with child pornography and it will look at lessons it can learn from that. The Home Office is also liaising with other governments with a view to international cooperation and looking at possible ways of blocking access to violent porn.

The Home Office is unwilling to confirm at this time that the law will make illegal the access of violent internet porn. O'Grady also declined to comment on a report in The Herald newspaper last week which suggested that the plans will include changes to the UK's Data Protection Act.

The Herald suggested that the changes might allow credit card firms to pass on information about individuals who use their cards to pay for access to such material hosted elsewhere.

The Jane Longhurst Campaign Against Violent Internet Pornography calls upon the Government and ISPs to take action to block access to such sites; for an overhaul of the Obscene Publications Act to make it a criminal offence to possess such images; for better international cooperation to close down sites hosted abroad; and for internet images in the UK to be included in the remit of OFCOM. According to the BBC, the campaign has received 32,000 signatures so far.

 

8th August   Treason

From Index on Censorship

The British government is proposing powerful new controls on freedom of expression as part of its current strategy to ward off fresh terror attacks on the country – up to and including charging the worst offenders with treason and rewriting British human rights laws to make it all possible. Rohan Jayasekera reports.

Within 24 hours of announcing plans for a raft of tough new restrictions on free expression as part of the British government’s domestic war on terror, the first of its targets were named.

The country’s Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) met 7 August to discuss their options under law to silence a trio of widely reported 'hate preachers': Omar Bakri Mohammed, London-based spiritual leader of the al-Muhajiroun faction, Abu Izzadeen, spokesman for al-Ghurabaa (The Strangers) and Abu Uzair of the Saviour Sect, a splinter group born out al-Muhajiroun.

The targeting of the trio – all credited with overt support for Islamist terror attacks from 9/11 to the 7 August attacks on London – followed Prime Minister Tony Blair's call for tough powers to silence extremist Islamists, to expel, jail or restrain offenders and close their bases in mosques and community centres.

The planned controls are now subject to a month’s review. Nearly all involve unprecedented restrictions on the free speech rights of groups & individuals deemed guilty of supporting terrorism – its objectives and methods.

Foreigners who ran websites, published material or misused public trust while working as teachers or youth leaders could be deported if they incited, justified or glorified terrorism, or advocated violence in support of their beliefs.

Once the new grounds take effect, there will be a list drawn up of specific extremist websites, bookshops, centres, networks and particular organisations of concern, Blair said. Active engagement with any of these will be a trigger for the home secretary to consider the deportation of any foreign national.

The proposals have already raised concern. Many of Britain’s larger mosques are used by law-abiding people as freely as do the criminals. The closure of bookshops would be controversial and in the age of the internet, ineffective.

Some extremist websites, especially those with active discussion pages, are frequented by people with no involvement in terrorism. Supporters of repressive regimes such as Tunisia have tried to tar websites and the exiled political figures behind them as pro-terror.

New anti-terrorism legislation could be drafted to make it illegal to condone or glorify terrorism anywhere, not just in the UK. British born offenders could be subject to control orders restricting their movements and strictly limiting their ability to communicate with others outside their family.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun islamist organisations now active in the UK could be added to the government’s existing list of prohibited terror groups. A censor board made up of government and British Muslim figures could draw up a blacklist of Islamic radicals banned from speaking in Britain. And the government seeks power to close places of worship where extremists are allowed to preach or organise activities.

The trio targeted on 7 August, Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Izzadeen and Abu Uzair, could face charges including treason and incitement to treason, and solicitation to murder, which carries a possible life sentence.

They have all been widely reported – and condemned for their comments in the wake of Islamist terror attacks. Omar Bakri Mohammed reportedly said he would support hostage-taking at British schools if the cause was appropriate; Abu Izzadeen reportedly spoke out in support of the 9/11 hijackers; Izzadeen reportedly said the suicide bombers of 7 August were 'completely praiseworthy'.

The Guardian reported that Blair is also ready to seek an amend the Human Rights Act "in respect of interpretation" of article three of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture or “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

 

24th July   Human Rights Reserved for Politicians

So how come human rights  don't apply to unjustified censorship as inflicted by Ofcon.

From
The Guardian

In the old days, when public figures sought redress against their critics in the media, they claimed their precious reputation was under threat and issued libel writs. Libel, however is not what it was. Nowadays, these people are more likely to complain that their privacy (or that of their loved ones) is under threat.

Such, indeed, has been the response of David Blunkett, who is currently being portrayed on the London stage in Who's the Daddy?, based on Blunkett's disastrous romance with the publisher of the Spectator, Kimberly Quinn, and the subsequent birth of a son.

Lawyers acting for Blunkett have threatened to stop the play, not because it defames the former Home Secretary, now Secretary of State for Pensions, but because 'it breaches the right to privacy of Blunkett's child and infringes his right to a family life under the 1998 Human Rights Act'.

When politicians resort to law, it is traditional for them to claim that it is not their own well-being that concerns them but that of their wives or children. What is unusual is that you should seek to protect a child from something of which he will be quite unaware. It might make for an amusing court case, however, which, in turn, could be made into another play, assuming, that is, the lawyers manage to uphold our human rights to make fun of the likes of David Blunkett in any way we possibly can.

 

24th July
  New Labour, Old Censorship Attitude

From The Guardian

A former Labour spin doctor is planning his revenge on government censors who have blocked his diaries by instead publishing a novel based on the inner workings of Downing Street.

The book by Lance Price includes characters who bear a striking resemblance to the four key members of the original new Labour project — Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.

The parallels range from a troublesome chancellor eager to take the top job, to a bullying spin doctor and the taking of a decision to go to war based on false intelligence.

Last week it emerged that Price, who from 1998 to 2000 worked as deputy to Campbell, then Blair’s communications chief, had been prevented from publishing memoirs of his time at Downing Street. Sir Andrew Turnbull, the cabinet secretary, branded the book “completely unacceptable”, even though the events described happened five years ago. It is believed to be the first time the government has tried to impose a ban on such a book.

The ban came as Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations in the run-up to the Iraq war, was told by the Foreign Office to cut some passages from his forthcoming book about the diplomatic manoeuvrings that preceded the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Price is not the first former press officer to take revenge on his former Whitehall masters through fiction. Martin Sixsmith published his novel Spin, a satire based on his work as a spin doctor under Stephen Byers, then transport secretary, before Sixsmith was forced out of his job in 2002.

Price’s novel, Time and Fate, to be published later this year, is being billed as combining “an intimate insider’s view of life at No 10 with a mixture of satire and humour”. It features Paul Sinclair, a prime minister constantly needled by his troublesome chancellor.

Sinclair has a worrying teenage son — a reminder of Blair’s son Euan and his brushes with alcohol. The spin doctor in the novel barks instructions at his “master”. Like Campbell, he is a former tabloid newspaper journalist.

At one point he advises the prime minister that rumours of an extra-marital affair may not be bad news because it might do wonders for your poll ratings, especially among working-class men.  In the book, ministers also have to cope with a terrorist attack on the London Underground, although this parallel is coincidental — the book was written before the recent bombings.

The novel is set a few years in the future and the characters are not full replicas of Downing Street’s famous names — but the detailed descriptions of meetings could cause some cringing among aides past and present.

The finale may inspire thoughts about Blair’s eventual departure from high office.

The fictional Sinclair leaves Downing Street after deciding that he can no longer cope with the pressure. He calmly walks out of No 10 and disappears without telling anyone where he is going.

 

18th July
  War Censorship

From The Guardian

Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, is blocking passages from a fly-on-the-wall account by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former ambassador to the UN, on the run-up to the war in Iraq. Downing Street disowned any involvement in the censoring of the book yesterday after reports in the Observer and the Mail on Sunday that Tony Blair had wanted to block publication.

No 10 put the responsibility on the Foreign Office and Whitehall procedures to vet civil servants' memoirs for the removal of parts of the book, The Cost of War.

Sir Jeremy, who was also Blair's special envoy to Iraq for a year, has been known to be a critic of the politicians' handling of the war.

The Observer said yesterday that some of the removed passages were highly critical of the US. In one, Sir Jeremy calls America's decision to go to war "politically illegitimate" and says that negotiations in the United Nations never rose above the level of awkward diversion for the US administration.

The book is understood to reveal embarrassing conversations between him, Blair and the foreign secretary during the UN negotiations. The exchanges are said to show neither politician in a flattering light.

Sir Jeremy is also critical of the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her role in the run-up to the crisis. The book is highly critical of the running of Iraq in the aftermath of the war, of which he had first hand experience.

He is said to accuse the interim administration of throwing away opportunities. Plans were dissipated in poor policy analysis and narrow- minded execution. The book would be a devastating critique of government policy - being published at a time when terrorist attacks in Iraq have reached a peak, despite assurances from government ministers that the country is still on course to becoming a democracy.

Yet the decision to demand changes is surprising given the number of critical books that have been published about the Iraq war, including an extremely critical account from Clare Short, the former international development secretary, who was scathing about the role of some of her political colleagues.

A forthcoming book by Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission and British ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003, will reveal the inner workings of Britain's lobbying in the run-up to the war, but it does not appear to have been censored. Like Sir Jeremy, he has negotiated a newspaper serialisation deal and his book is due out this autumn.

Reports that Downing Street was blocking another book by a former press officer, Lance Price, were also denied by Number 10 yesterday. A spokesman said he had never heard of the proposed book and knew nothing about any censorship.

In a statement on Sir Jeremy's book, the Foreign Office said:
Civil Service regulations which apply to all members of the diplomatic service require that any retired official must obtain clearances in respect of any publication relating to their service. Sir Jeremy Greenstock's proposed book is being dealt with this under this procedure.

 

12th July   Hated Law

Well nothing about this bill reassures this particular opponent. Religion is just a set of ideas dreamt up by man. Such ideas can be good, bad, benign or corrosive. Anyways, they should be open to debate, challenge and ridicule. After all an awful lot of religious ideas over the course of history have been proven to be worthy of hatred.

From The Guardian

The government moved to reassure opponents of its controversial bill against inciting religious hatred last night by ensuring that faith groups will not be able to place their critics under citizen's arrest. It tabled an amendment to prevent "malicious" attempts by religious organisations to use the law to stop criticism if the police declined to step in.

But hundreds of Christians demonstrated against the bill outside parliament, arguing that it would prevent them from criticising other religions.

The bill was due to pass through its final stages in the Commons yesterday - as it has done twice before - but faces a stormy passage in the Lords. The government has said it will use the Parliament Act to introduce the manifesto pledge if necessary.

The amendment echoed one proposed by the shadow attorney general, Dominic Grieve. But he warned that the law would still prevent the robust discourse which had created freedom and tolerance. The government says the law will protect the followers of faiths, not the faiths themselves. The attorney general would have to approve any prosecution.

A Home Office spokesman said it hoped the amendment would allay concerns that the law might be used maliciously. The government will give careful consideration to any amendment designed to achieve our aim of protecting individuals from incited religious hatred, he said.

But opponents complain that the bill is loosely drafted and that freedom of speech should not depend on the good sense of ministers, the police or the judiciary.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats were defeated at the second reading when they tabled an amendment banning reference to a religion or belief or to a person's membership or presumed membership of a religious group as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred.

 

5th July   Local Authorities Stay in Charge of Cinemas

From Mediawatch-UK

In 1997 we sought clarification from the Home Office about local authority powers with regard to cinemas and the public exhibition of films classified by the BBFC. We were told that under the Cinema’s Act 1985 local authorities do have the statutory power to determine whether particular films may be shown in cinemas in their area, to impose restrictions on who may see them, and require cuts in the film. Local authorities, if they so resolved to do so, could overrule a film’s classification certificate issued by the BBFC.

The Licensing Act 2003, which replaces the Cinema’s Act, comes into force later this year and we have been advised by the Department of Culture Media and Sport that these powers will be retained by local authorities.

 

27th June   Cover Up

From the Periodical Publishers Association

The Government has given an assurance that it would never intervene in what magazines choose to publish, following a spate of recent stories about retailer decisions to obscure the front covers of popular men's titles.

The new Minister for Creative Industries James Purnell gave the assurance in the House of Commons in response to a question from Mike Hancock (Lib Dem) who asked what discussions had taken place with (a) the Advertising Standards Authority, (b) the Press Complaints Commission and (c) others about guidelines or legislation to ensure that explicit covers on men's lifestyle magazines are kept out of the reach of children; and if she will make a statement.

Replying on behalf of Department of Media, Culture and Sport Minister Tessa Jowell said Purnell: None. The Government believe that a free press is vital in a democracy and we would not, therefore, seek to intervene in what a magazine chooses to publish. The Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the Indecent Displays Act 1981, are designed to protect children and others from exposure to inappropriate material. Furthermore, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents operates a voluntary code of practice for the display of pornographic magazines; 'lifestyle' magazines are displayed at newsagents' discretion, and customers can seek to influence how that discretion is exercised."

 

18th June   Unreported Child Porn

I believe the Home Office were totally irresponsible increasing the child age to 18. If I was a company boss, I for one wouldn't want anyone sniffing around for child porn. I could imagine all sorts of innocent people may get in massive trouble for images of 16 & 17 year olds. It is pretty near impossible to distinguish pictures of 17 & 18 year olds and surely it cannot be considered paedophilic to like to look at pictures of people above the age of consent anyway.

From CNET News

Internet service providers should be reporting incidents of online child abuse to the police and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a Home Office minister said today. Speaking at an IWF event, Paul Goggins, the Under Secretary of State for Policing, said companies selling internet services should report suspected paedophilic activity. They should be. They will have a relationship with the IWF and should know what to do. Wherever we are in this system we should report it as soon as we see it.

But no ISPs are currently doing this, the IWF said. Although BT and a handful of other ISPs are blocking child abuse websites as recommended by the IWF, none are reporting the downloading of illegal images to the police.

Chief executive of the IWF Peter Robbins said: There is a problem with the reporting of suspects. At the moment [ISPs] don't have an easy reporting mechanism. They aren't policing what people do but when they find criminality, they will behave responsibly. My thinking is that the majority of the customers want them to do this.

Robbins added he thought data protection laws should not prevent ISPs from reporting suspected paedophiles.

As part of its research, the IWF found that 74 per cent of companies surveyed (out of 200) would not report employees caught downloading photos of child abuse.

As a result of its findings, last month the organisation launched a campaign to make business owners aware of a new law, the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which can help businesses to report suspects without the company being held liable.

 

17th June   Gagging For Repression

From The Scotsman

Plans by an Edinburgh cinema to show the famed Deep Throat have sparked protests in the Scottish Parliament.

The Cameo Cinema in Tollcross is planning to stage two late-night screenings of the film this weekend and the documentary, Inside Deep Throat, will be shown in the cinema for a full week from Saturday.

A parliamentary motion has now condemned the documentary claiming it serves to undermine the role of women in society.

Shameful Shiona Baird, Green Party MSP for North East Scotland, said:
This documentary of a film which is widely held to have no cultural or artistic merit is no more than an attempt to legitimise pornography and condone the abuse and degradation of women. The motion was raised in opposition to the city council allowing this documentary to be shown. We need a society where there is freedom of expression without sexual violence towards women. Unfortunately, there is not a lot we can do now - this motion was our last chance. The film will be shown but at least we have raised awareness of the topic.

 

23rd March   Hated Law Likely to be Dumped

From The Guardian

Home Office ministers are resigned to losing their proposal to outlaw incitement to religious hatred so that they can get the new serious and organised crime agency operational.

Ministers are to offer the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives a guarantee that the legislation will not constrain freedom of speech. But they do not expect this will be enough to prevent opposition peers voting down the measure on April 5 - the day Tony Blair is expected to announce the date of the general election.

The government is expected to abandon the section on incitement and push through the rest of the bill so that the new agency can start work. Home Office sources confirmed that yesterday, despite Blair's insistence that the measure would not be ditched, as it was in 2001 to get emergency anti-terror laws on to the statute book.

In an interview with the Muslim News published today but carried out three weeks ago, he said the circumstances were different. There was a very urgent need to get the terrorism legislation through.

Opposition to measure was misguided, he added.
This is about people who are inciting religious hatred which can spill out into violence in society. It's nothing to do with stopping comedians or artists making jokes and performing art.

 

14th March

  It will still be OK to ridicule religion

But will it be OK to hate religion? The fundamental problem is that some aspects of religion are deserving  of hatred. Some of the things that people do in the name of religion can be truly abhorrent.

From The Guardian by Fiona Mactaggart the Home Office minister for race equality and community cohesion

Our law is not about extending blasphemy - it's about protecting communities from hatred

We've heard a lot from the Lords recently about protecting our country's traditions of justice and fairness. Today, as the Lords debate the government's proposals on incitement to religious hatred, I want to challenge them to deliver justice and fairness to members of minority faiths.
It might surprise some that this is not the first time protections for people on the basis of their faith have been sought. I know that until recently some of the architects of the 1965 Race Relations Act believed that it would be an appropriate next step to protect people of faith communities.

An amendment to that effect was tabled by the then SDP during the passage of the existing racial incitement offence in 1986, but it was rejected on the grounds that there wasn't a mischief to address at that time. Now that there is clear evidence of mischief, the Liberal Democrats have voted against the provisions at every stage in the House of Commons. In 1994 the Bishop of Oxford, in a report by the Runnymede Trust, called for the creation of a law on incitement to religious hatred. Again no action was taken.

In 2001, shortly after September 11 and the disturbances in Bradford and Burnley, we tried to legislate to prevent this behaviour in the anti-terrorism, crime and security bill. The excuse then was that the provisions should not be included in an anti-terrorism bill. But Lord Dholakia said at that time: "The minister would have our full support if legislation that was separate from the anti-terrorism bill was involved."

And yet now, when the legislation we intend to introduce is almost identical to that proposed in 2001 and is not included in a terror bill, and when there is evidence of religious hatred having a corrosive effect on our communities, the excuse is that the "climate" is wrong and that it might have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. It looks to me as if any excuse will do for people who profess to support protections but never actually step up to the mark.

The offence we propose will not prevent people from debating or ridiculing religions and beliefs as robustly as happens today. Evangelical Christians will still be free to preach the gospel and warn of the evils they perceive in other religions. We are not banning critical and offensive remarks or extending the law of blasphemy. The bill focuses on something very specific, namely the conduct of those who try to propagate hatred of people and communities because of their religion or belief. Surely we can all accept that this is not what we want to happen in our society.

In the late 70s a young Sikh boy, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths outside a cinema in Southall. Kingsley Read, the leader of the National party, a splinter from the National Front, joked: One down, 1 million to go. It wasn't funny and it was designed to encourage those who hate and would do violence to others on the basis of their race, but it was ruled not to be illegal. In the words of the judge: In this England of ours, we are allowed to have our own view still, thank goodness, and long may it last. Like some of today's advocates of free expression, he missed the point: the law does not proscribe opinions but prevents using them to create hatred of others.

What reasonable person would want Read's comment to be acceptable now? It's a hallmark of civilised society that persecuting people on the basis of their race is illegal. The "chilling" effect of that law has helped to stop people behaving like this.

So why do we appear happy to allow hatred against a person because of their faith? Advocates of this view would argue that race and religion are different. That race is fundamentally about someone's common humanity and something that they can't change, unlike religion.

Yes, people can in principle change their religion. But for many in our society, religion is not a choice. Even if they later change their beliefs or do not fully practise their religion, for many, severing ties with their faith would involve severing ties with their whole community and on many occasions even their immediate family. And our proposed law does not protect the belief - it protects people.

Children cannot choose their religion. They have no control over the faith of their family or community, and yet they can be made to live in fear because of those who seek to destroy their way of life. Existing laws protect them against direct harassment and assault, but do not address the hate propaganda that can cause or exacerbate such offences. We know religious hatred underpins much law-breaking. The CPS recorded 49 religiously aggravated offences in 2003-04.

Today is a crucial test of the society we want to create. By supporting the government's proposals, the Lords would send a clear message to stop people who are currently beyond reach of the law from promoting hatred of others because of their faith. This behaviour has no place in modern Britain, and there can be no more excuses for not taking action.

 

7th February   Inciting Hatred of Legislation

If I was to write a scathing article about a particular religious leader who initiated stoning for minor adultery then surely it could be considered incitement to (justified) hatred on religious grounds.

This will surely become bad law. The fundamental problem is that some aspects of religion are worthy of hatred. Some of the things that people do in the name of religion can be truely abhorrent.

Based on an article from The Times

Performers and writers, including Rowan Atkinson and Salman Rushdie, have helped to force a minor government climbdown over new legislation which bans incitement to religious hatred.

The Government is to rename the offence “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds” to make clear that it is not religious jokes, beliefs or ideas that are being targeted. Fiona Mactaggart, a Home Office minister, conceded that even under its new name the offence would place new boundaries around freedom of speech. It is right and the State has a right to put some boundaries on free speech, she said.

Opponents of the legislation dismissed the change as no more than a “slight improvement”, alleging that it would still imperil the country’s tradition of free speech.

The legislation, part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, goes through its report stage and will receive its final reading in the House of Commons today before entering the House of Lords, where it is expected to take a month before becoming law. The new incitement offence will carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

The provisions will make it an offence for a person to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention or likelihood that they will stir up hatred against a group of people based on their religious beliefs.

The Government’s retreat comes two weeks after Ms Mactaggart had a private meeting at the Home Office with Atkinson, Rushdie and Geoffrey Robertson, QC, a leading human rights barrister. The trio also put their names to a letter to the House of Lords, which was also signed by the authors Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith, and hundreds of members of PEN, the writers’ organisation.

PEN, which has run a campaign opposing the legislation, claimed that Ms Mactaggart had sought to reassure the delegation that legitimate criticism of religion or humour would not be targeted and that prosecutions would take place only at the discretion of the Attorney-General.

But the delegation responded that it was not reassured, because laws outlive the government that brought them in. Robertson told Ms Mactaggart that the law was unnecessary and clumsily framed yet carries a very serious sentence. He said that the Public Order Act already included the offence of incitement to religous hatred and was perfectly adequate.

Rowan Atkinson said that comedians had told him that similar legislation had gone badly wrong in Australia.

In the letter to the House of Lords, English PEN said that the proposed legislation would gravely undermine both freedom of speech and [Britain’s] long-standing climate of tolerance.

Mactaggart said: The Government has put down an amendment which is changing the title in order to clarify something that I think has created some anxiety. It is hatred against people rather than hatred of ideas that we are trying to prohibit. The name of the offence has helped to create a context in which some of this confusion has flourished.

The Government believes that the new religious hatred offence will have a symbolic impact, particularly in reassuring Muslim communities that have felt vulnerable since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

 

17th January   Rushdie on Rushed Legislation

I think it is the religious nutters that have most to fear from this new law. Their own actions and intolerance are the most likely things to incite hatred of their own religion.

From The Guardian

The Home Office has given in to pressure from some of Britain's leading writers to hold a meeting with them to discuss their fears that the proposed new law on inciting religious hatred will stifle artistic liberty, it emerged last night.

Salman Rushdie and more than 200 writers of various faiths signed a letter from the writers' group English Pen which was sent to the home secretary, Charles Clarke, earlier this month seeking an "urgent" meeting with him.

English Pen said Rushdie had received a response from home office minister Fiona Mactaggart and that they hoped the meeting would take place within the next week. Rushdie, who is a vice president of the group, and other representatives of Pen will attend.

The writers, who include Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, William Boyd, Lady Antonia Fraser and Hanif Kureishi, are anxious that the legislation, which is planned to be incorporated into the Serious Organised Crime Bill, will damage freedom of expression.

Their concerns have been fuelled by the recent demonstrations over the play Bezhti, by a Sikh writer, which was cancelled at a Birmingham theatre after a riot by Sikh protesters and by the demonstrations prompted by the showing of Jerry Springer the Opera on BBC2 at the weekend. Christian groups attacked the show as "blasphemous" and it drew around 50,000 complaints.

In the letter to Clarke, the writers said that the legislation would make it illegal to express what some might consider to be provocative views on religion. It could, they say, serve as a sanction for censorship of a kind which would constrain writers and impoverish cultural life.

A Home Office spokesman said: Both Fiona Mactaggart and the home secretary understand the concerns some groups feel about this legislation and are happy to have meetings to discuss these and reassure them.

In a letter to the Guardian published on January 6, Mr Rushdie wrote: The continuing collapse of liberal, democratic, secular and humanist principles in the face of the increasingly strident demands of organised religions is perhaps the most worrying aspect of life in contemporary Britain.

In response, Ms Mactaggart wrote a letter to the Guardian in which she said:
Free speech is a crucial right for everyone, faith groups as well as artists. For many years the law has established that free speech rights do not licence people to stir up hatred of others on the basis of their race.

Now we are seeking to offer the same protection to people targeted because of their faith. This is not religious appeasement, but a responsible reaction to the tactics of those, especially from the extreme right, who would foster community tension by stirring up hatred of members of a faith group.

 

16th January   Free to Offend

Tessa Jowell puts her case in The Observer

One evening, 70 years ago, Joseph Stalin went to the opera. He was appalled by what he saw - the premiere of the Shostakovich opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Shortly afterwards Pravda published an anonymous review in which the critic (Stalin himself) not only disapproved of a 'muddled' musical style but complained that the composer 'missed the demands of Soviet culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life'. It was, for Stalin, quite obvious that he, as the nation's leader, should also be the arbiter of what constituted good music.

The controversies the arts has provoked over the years is endless. Recently, a huge amount has been written about the rights of Christians and Sikhs not to see their faith ridiculed or blasphemed. As a Christian, I understand the hurt that can cause. Yet the question is not whether people are right to be offended, but whether they are ever right to want government or police action to enforce censorship.

The politics of behaviour in various forms has occupied a central place in British political life for some years now. The issues of smoking in public places, healthy eating and, in the recent past, seatbelts in cars, have each unleashed accusations and counter-accusations about the 'nanny-state'. Every time I read a columnist complaining about the nanny state, I'm tempted to reach for a revolver. Invariably, they see attempts to help people make informed choices about their lives as 'political correctness gone mad'.

But the central questions that a society has to face with regard to artistic freedom of expression are qualitatively different from these behaviour issues. The latter deal with when it is right to safeguard people from their own or others' behaviour; the former when it is right to protect public or private sensibilities.

The Reagan administration's attack on the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts was an example of the Mtsensk theme: art corroding a society's moral code. In 1987, an NEA-funded group awarded a grant to the New York artist Andres Serrano, who titled his photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine 'Piss Christ'. Despite having toured the country without controversy, Serrano became a whipping boy for the right and the NEA suffered an avalanche of abuse for funding his work. Both examples tell the same story - when a government decides it has the duty to interpret what art is good or wholesome, and what is not, the result is bad art, bad politics and repression.

That is not to say artists have no duties and audiences no rights. There is a framework of regulation that gives opponents of a piece of art a voice. Through the powers of Ofcom, or the charter of the BBC, or through the laws of incitement, obscenity or blasphemy, society imposes a broad definition of what is acceptable. Definitions are necessarily fuzzy, but they exist; there has never been pure laissez faire in culture.

My argument is that this framework is enough. To restrict artistic freedom further, whatever the motivation, is unnecessary and dangerous. And, most important, the job of applying these standards rests with independent broadcasting regulators and the courts, not with ministers.

Some freedoms are divisible: the freedom to smoke is a good example. There is a world of difference between making tobacco illegal and making it illegal to smoke in public places. The former would infringe the right of an individual to go to hell in a handcart if they wish. The latter prevents people from causing illness and death in others.

Other freedoms are indivisible; the most important is the freedom to think. So, in the middle of all the anger and genuine hurt over recent examples of artists using their freedom of expression, we have all to take a deep breath.

Because the choice we have is simple: we can bring back the Lord Chamberlain in one form or another and say that censorship is for the public good and acceptable. In doing that we would have to accept that censorship would be a subjective activity and that politicians would have a say in exercising censorship.

We have another choice. We can accept that artistic freedom of expression is so intrinsic to our national life that we can never tamper with it, just as with press freedom. That as long as artists remain within the law, they are free to shock, disturb and to offend any group without fear or favour.

There is simply no third way here. You either censor or you don't. Once you've censored one thing, you set a precedent to use again and again.

I saw Jerry Springer: The Opera when it was first shown at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002. I disliked it heartily, but so what? I had no say in Battersea Art Centre's decision to commission it, or the National Theatre's decision to give it a wider audience. It certainly never occurred to the BBC to ask my opinion before they commissioned it for television.

And that is exactly as it should be. My personal likes, or those of the most benign head of some new 'Oftaste', are neither here nor there. I may be Culture Secretary, but God help us all if I, or any successor, ever became a commissar of the arts.

I have been involved in many of the debates around the new politics of behaviour in the past seven years. With smoking, drinking and gambling there are arguments for and against the widening of choice and the wisdom of the state giving people choices. But there will always be issues where the role of the state is simply to defend the freedom of expression of others even if that is uncomfortable, unpopular and unwelcome.

When it comes to the rights of the artist, there is a stark choice: you side with Stalin or you don't.

 

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