Freedom of Speech

– in the House of Lords at 3:12 pm on 9th February 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative 3:12 pm, 9th February 2006

rose to call attention to recent developments affecting freedom of speech; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, since history began and all throughout time, there have been declarations about the significance of free speech as a crucial part of a free society. In the first century AD, an emperor of Rome said,

"In a free state, there must be free speech".

The 16th, 17th and 18th centuries voiced agreement. In 1575, an MP in Parliament said,

"There is nothing so necessary for the preservation of the state as free speech".

Milton followed that a century later with,

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties".

Another hundred years on, a judge in the High Court said,

"Human laws ought not to interpose, nay cannot interpose, to prevent the communication of sentiments and opinions".

There is no shortage of similar quotes for the last two centuries either, but I want to get on. Let us acknowledge that freedom of speech is still, as it always has been, the main concomitant of a free society, and if the former goes, then the latter will, too. I believe that the Government support this view. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said in this House that we,

"need to protect our freedom of expression and freedom of speech".—[Hansard, 24/1/06; col. 1071.]

Indeed we do; it is vanishing before our eyes. This debate is about recognising this, and stopping it.

The emperor, the judge, the MP and Milton must be spinning in their graves today. Simply for reading out the names of dead soldiers during a peaceful demonstration near the Cenotaph, a young woman was arrested, charged and convicted, and she now has a criminal record. That cannot be right; she was not threatening, nor inciting anyone to murder, nor had plans to be a suicide bomber. She was simply reading out a list of names. For that she is listed as a criminal, and 20 more similar cases are pending. A woman taking part in a radio programme said she thought that two men should not be allowed to adopt a young boy—others might possibly agree. She was telephoned by the police and informed that her name had been recorded on a police register for what she had said. A 74 year-old black man was surrounded by police and ordered to remove a placard which he had hung round his neck. Was it urging people to riot, to behead infidels or to attack property? Not exactly; it read, "Jesus Christ is lord" and urged repentance. I cannot see why that should be an arrestable offence, but apparently it was.

I well remember the sandwich men, as they used to be called, wandering the London streets with similar notices in the past. There was one regular whose message read,

"Repent, for the end of the world is nigh".

It was not, but no one minded and no such bearers were ever stopped by police and threatened that, if they did not remove their placard, they would be arrested on a criminal charge. You were allowed to express your opinion then, and the world and his wife passed by, often with a pitying little smile at your eccentricity. All these cases I mention are recent, and all brought forth instant action by the police. No wonder there is a growing nervousness about speaking one's mind. Our laws are being interpreted differently for different religions, though I think they should be the same for everyone.

I believe that the Government want to protect freedom of expression; unfortunately, local government too often does not. A fearsome number of local councils judge political correctness to be more important than free speech. In some cities, you are not allowed to celebrate Christmas if you call it that. The C-word must not be used in public displays or decorations. The charming custom of schools staging nativity plays with pint-sized angels, kings and shepherds, is banned. One wonders what might happen if British Christians went to live in a Muslim country. Would there be pressure there for Muhammad's name not to be mentioned? I don't think so.

Schools have changed. Teachers and carers dare not give a small child who is crying a comforting cuddle, nor touch them at all—although often that is exactly what the little soul needs! Bang goes another freedom of expression. If a girl when under the age of consent becomes pregnant, a crime has been committed. Nothing much seems to be done to pursue that point, but the girl's teacher cannot tell the girl's parents, however loving and caring they may be, unless the child agrees. Yet in many cases, if the parents did know, they would rally round, support and help the girl, whatever she decided.

All that has happened in the past few years. Christmas has always been named and celebrated and Christianity supported. It is after all our national, established Church, and there should be nothing wrong in supporting it. Good teachers have always provided sympathy and comfort for unhappy little children—and parents with the heavy responsibilities they bear, have the right to know of their children's problems. Freedom of speech has been sacrosanct until now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, commented about the Salman Rushdie case that it is,

"an essential part of our democratic system that people who act within the law should be able to express their opinions freely".

Exactly—within the law.

The man who has taken up residence in Parliament Square, opposite the main gates of the House of Commons, has a perfect right to voice his opinions, whatever they may be. But what gives him the right permanently to deface one of the most prestigious pieces of public land in Britain with his filthy flags and tatty signs? That is not free speech—it is blatant vandalism. And I put the proposition that there really is a fundamental difference between allowing people to say what they think and allowing them to incite violence.

It is offensive to Muslims that Muhammad should be portrayed with a bomb in his turban; that is perfectly understandable. It is just as offensive to Christians that Jesus Christ should be blasphemed against and ridiculed, but I have never heard of Christians taking to the streets to demand that those who have blasphemed or ridiculed should be beheaded. If they had, I should certainly condemn them. Throughout history, famous people—clerics, kings, politicians and even deities—have been ridiculed in cartoons published in Britain; but no one has suggested banning the practice or stamping on press freedom until now. That worries me.

Theatres can and do produce plays which are grossly offensive to Christians. There may be a few protests, but nothing happens—the play goes ahead. But if they plan a show which is offensive to Muslims, they are bullied and there are riots and threats and harassment until the play is withdrawn; and it always is. Sensible Muslims—and there are plenty of them—certainly do not advocate or support special treatment for Muslims; but to many observers that seems to be happening, and that, too, is very dangerous for society. Peaceable and law-abiding indigenous members of society are arrested for reciting names, for trying to get signatures on a petition, or merely for giving their opinions or carrying a placard naming Jesus, or even being rough-handled for heckling at a political meeting. There is instant action against those people.

But for years the police knew that one Muslim was actively inciting extreme violence, training suicide bombers, hoarding weapons and dishing out false passports. Yet they did not arrest him, because the Crown Prosecution Service, or somebody or other—there is some dispute about who exactly said it—said no. So they did not. But thank God the police finally did arrest him—and thank God he now faces a prison sentence. It is not a very long one, it is true, and he could be out in about three years; but at least he is in prison now. But when one recalls that one of his students very nearly blew up a whole planeload of people with explosions hidden in his shoe, one cannot fail to note that that very late judgment by the police actually threatened many lives.

If that man with the explosives in his shoe had not been discovered by very vigilant security men, a whole planeload of people could have died, because of that one man who was left for so long free to do that. Whether the late decision was caused by loosely worded laws, the CPS or MI5, the police or political correctness, I do not know, and I do not think that anybody else knows. Perhaps it was a bit of all five put together; I do not know. However, I hope and trust that the Minister can assure us, first, that free speech will not be further curtailed. I should make it clear that I do not seek to attack the Government here; I do not think that they are at all in favour of what has been happening. I merely hope that when we receive the Minister's reply, we shall learn that such further curtailment will not happen.

Secondly, can the Minister assure us that whatever laws exist in this land, they must be applied equally and fairly to everyone? The British people are slow to anger and very tolerant, but they can be pushed too far. Any further diminution in equal justice and free speech could do that. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 3:24 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, for raising this important issue and giving us the chance to debate it. I would like to address it under two headings. First, what should be the limits of free speech, if any? Secondly, what limits are there on the protests about how others exercise their rights to free speech? Both those issues were reflected in the speech of the noble Baroness and are the subject of much newspaper speculation and discussion.

We all know that this is a difficult issue. The recent discussion about the Danish cartoons has made us all realise that it is simply not straightforward. Meanwhile, I find the recent BNP court decision to be, at the very least, almost impossible to understand. However, free speech is not just about the right of the majority. It is an even more fundamental protection for minorities. We only have to look at other countries where there is no free speech to see how minorities are victimised and unable to exercise their right of expression. I would say to all minorities in Britain, "This important right protects you more than it does the majority in this country".

Perhaps I should declare an interest as a former member of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, and for a time its chairman. We were, of course, not censoring television or radio; we dealt with complaints against their content if it breached the code. Some complaints were on the sort of issues raised by the noble Baroness in her speech. Post 9/11, the Broadcasting Standards Commission was asked to meet representatives of the Muslim community who were concerned about the way that their community was being portrayed on television and radio. We had two long afternoon meetings with broadcasters, regulators and those community representatives. The outcome was that we were able to assure the Muslim community that, in the main, the existing codes which determined practice by broadcasters and regulators provided it with a fair measure of protection, but that there was also the opportunity to move the codes forward—and the broadcasters agreed to do that.

More recently, there have been many protests by Christians about "Jerry SpringerThe Opera", but I can perhaps speak with rather more experience about "The Last Temptation of Christ", which provoked a similar set of complaints from Churches. I remember that we at the Broadcasting Standards Commission received petitions from Churches and protests that the film should not be shown. We had no powers over that, but in the event we did not uphold the complaints that we received. My point is that, in talking to a number of people about television programmes and the harm from television, I spoke to a young student who was a devout Christian. I said to him, "Last night, Channel 4 showed 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. Did you see it?". "Yes", he said. "Are you aware of the numerous complaints by Churches against that particular film being shown?". That devout Christian man said, in words that I shall never forget, "I have no problem with that film. Jesus can look after himself".

Despite his comments, I am sure that some Christians have been deeply offended by some of what appears on television. Yet, as a society, we also accept that many films about which there are complaints are serious works and that we have the right to see them. I would add that people in a free society cannot be protected from feeling irritated, insulted or even offended. That is part of freedom of speech; we may all be offended by certain things and must accept that freedom of speech operates in that way. Yet, as I shall say in a minute or two, violence or threats of violence are surely much worse than being offended or irritated by what one sees or reads. Everyone who believes in free speech should also exercise that right with care, for it includes respect for others and a sense of responsibility.

This is an appropriate moment to turn to the Danish cartoons. Yes, the papers there had the right to publish them. Were they wise to do so? I think not, and I am relieved that British newspapers had the sense not to publish them. After the initial publication of the cartoons, there was no particularly good case for republishing them time and time again. The British media made a wise judgment.

However, the noble Baroness referred to Salman Rushdie's book. The attempt to suppress that book was a much more serious attack on free speech than the cartoons in Denmark. More recently, there was the case of the Sikh play "Beshti" in Birmingham. An angry mob stopped that play being performed and I am as dismayed by that as I am by the fact that it has been forgotten. We have not bothered about it, and yet all we need is another angry mob to stop any other play being shown. That is a disgrace, because it has imposed a constraint on authors and playwrights.

If free speech is exercised lawfully and there are some constraints such as incitement to racial hatred and other criminal matters, the question is how we protest about how to exercise that free speech if we are not happy. It is unacceptable to threaten violence and murder because one does not like something that has been published. I welcome the fact that the great majority of moderate Muslims protested about the violence at the demonstrations last Saturday.

We must accept that the right to protest peacefully is an important function of our society. I agree that these issues are difficult, but surely we need courage, tempered by responsibility and respect for the views of others.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Spokesperson in the Lords (Communities & Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 3:31 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, for initiating this debate on such a current issue. The past few weeks have not been happy for secular-minded people. They have resulted in loss of life far beyond our shores and have weakened international relations between the West and the Muslim world. They have also shown that a common European foreign policy has some way to go. I, for one, regret the lack of solidarity with Denmark and Norway by the EU, when all tenets of international law were breached in the ransacking of those countries' missions in Syria and Lebanon. The EU could and should have been more vigorous in its condemnation of those acts.

My more immediate concern is with community relations between western Muslims, in particular, our situation here in Britain, and broader questions of freedom of speech. As the only Muslim speaking in this debate, I will not dwell on theological arguments about how offensive these cartoons are. That they are, is indisputable, and we find ourselves in a situation where large numbers of our fellow citizens feel deeply offended by the publication and republication of those cartoons. Newspapers are going out of their way to republish the cartoons and that is turning legitimate debate into gratuitous offence. It does not help anything other than to provide succour to "fundamentalists" on each side. Is that the agenda of those defending free speech? I would hope not.

Turning to "fundamentalists" on the Muslim side—namely those protesting in London last weekend—many of us can understand that those demonstrating had high feelings. What we cannot understand or condone are the implicit and explicit incitements to terrorism and murder. I, and countless others like me, have just one thing to say to them—"Not in my name". What is also troubling about recent events is the role of certain clerics who appear to have said one thing for their western audiences, and said other far more radical things to Muslim audiences. I would urge religious leaders to be moderate and consistent. Violence and loss of life are not in the interests of any group on any side.

It is also difficult to understand how the Metropolitan Police arrived at its decision to do nothing about the offensive placards. There are also allegations by some of the protestors, repeated on BBC's "Newsnight" on Monday, that the Met had "cleared" the placards as being acceptable. If that is so, it is very grave. I appreciate that the police are independent of ministerial control, but hope that in due course the Metropolitan Police Authority will seek the truth of those allegations. I also hope that, unlike the Abu Hamza case, the police do not hold back from arresting those advocating violence in such protests. It does no community good if the police interpret the same laws differently across different communities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, has detailed.

Moving to broader questions of freedom of expression, let me say from the outset that I am clearly in the camp that seeks to uphold that right, recognising that at times offence is indeed caused and deeply felt. Does this mean that we should be more careful in the exercising that right? My answer would be "yes," but I prefer self-censorship to state censorship, hence my opposition over the past years to the many provisions restricting free speech that this Government have tried to legislate for in recent Bills. I prefer a situation where we recognise that there is a thin dividing line between free speech on the one hand and tolerance on the other. I would, therefore, urge the Government to oppose calls from the newly formed Muslim Action Committee yesterday, which seeks to outlaw the publication of cartoons in the UK by strengthening the Press Complaints Commission's code. I would say to them that the Muslim cause is well served under current legislation. Enlarging the scope of the law may well result in casting the net so wide that the very first people caught by it are Muslims themselves.

There are also wider questions for us western Muslims. If we choose to live in the West, should we not make an attempt to understand western history and the meaning of the Enlightenment? I found the tone of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, interesting, particularly in her portrayal of Christian tolerance and harmony. Might I go so far as to remind the noble Baroness, most respectfully, that the Enlightenment followed the Inquisition when, of course, many people were burned at the stake as heretics?

Turning to ourselves, as Muslims, I would say that we should go beyond understanding, to empathise with the richness of western culture. While we can take just pride in our own, should we also not embrace western freedoms, such as those of dissent and protest in democracies? I would say to my co-religionists that we have some way to go in moderating our excessively emotional behaviour, and in understanding how to protest and voice dissent in a responsible manner. I do not refer only to western Muslims here, but to the loss of life across the Muslim world. Getting angry in the abstract should not lead to the violence we have witnessed recently. Islam stands above all this. We need to learn that respect for our belief cannot be forcibly extracted. By our behaviour it is earned, and by our behaviour diminishes us all. Such are the laws of unintended consequences.

In concluding, it would be tempting to reflect on these last days and hope that it will all blow over. While I would deeply hope that that may be the case, I suspect that much bridge building needs to follow. One aspect of that bridge building is the Government's Commission on Integration, announced by the Prime Minister last August. This is needed now more than ever and I urge the Government to get it under way by setting it up and seeking support from across the political spectrum—and beyond—in that endeavour. We all need to work together to move beyond these troubled times.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 3:38 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, for the opportunity to address some urgent issues. I think it would be a mistake to confine our attention today to the Danish cartoons and their aftermath, regrettable though all that is, or indeed to the recent court cases. These fall within a larger moral and social landscape. We are faced with moral climate change, which is comparable to other forms of climate change and equally dangerous.

The 1960s swept away the old moral certainties, but getting rid of them has not made us happier or safer. Hence, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric; the increasingly shrill language of rights; the glorification of victimhood, which enables anyone with hurt feelings to claim high moral ground; and the invention of various "identities," which demand not only protection, but immunity from all critique. It was this messy but potent combination of neo-moralities that generated the religious hatred legislation, of which your noble Lordships, rightly in my opinion, took a dim view recently.

It is not just the invention of new moralities that should concern us; it is the attempt to enforce them—to enforce, that is, newly invented standards that, in some cases, are the exact opposite of the old ones. How else can we explain the attempted ejection of protestors, whether from a party conference or even, yes, from Parliament Square? How else can we explain the anxiety not only of religious leaders but also of comedians when faced with the proposed religious hatred legislation? How else can we explain the police investigation of religious leaders, such as my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester or the chair of the Muslim Council of Britain for making moderate and considered statements about homosexual practice? As the crimes in question have to do not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime. People in my diocese have told me that they are now frightened to express their opinions down at the pub on matters of considerable public interest today for fear of being reported, investigated and perhaps even charged. I did not think that I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. The word for it is tyranny—sudden moral climate change enforced by thought police.

The answer cannot be simply to repeat the old 18th century slogans of "tolerance" or "freedom of speech", as if they were straightforward concepts that would commend themselves and restore everything to sanity very easily. They are not. The Enlightenment modernism, where those concepts find their natural home, is busy crumbling under the post-modern critique. Let us not fool ourselves—that is where we are culturally. In that climate, tolerance and freedom are reduced to mere licence and then are quietly redefined so that we will not any longer tolerate dissent from the new party lines that emerge. Intolerant tolerance is one of the greatest obstacles to genuine freedom of speech.

Whose freedom are we talking about anyway? Notoriously, the freedom of my fist ends where the freedom of your nose begins. Similarly, the freedom of my speech has always been curtailed by the freedom of your honour, as the laws of slander and libel have always recognised. Part of the problem of freedom of speech is that it is often the media that are most in favour of it, although they themselves often cheerfully censor information that cuts against editorial policy.

Freedom of speech is useless if it is only selectively enjoyed and if it is not combined with appropriate responsibility. It needs to be set within a larger context of social and cultural wisdom. We have to find a way through the post-modern morass, not to go back to the Enlightenment modernism—we cannot do that—but in order to go out the other side into the construction of a new world of civility and mature public discourse. For that, freedom of speech has to be reciprocal. It needs the disciplines of interaction, of patient listening and attention.

To that end, we must take the religious dimension seriously as part of the whole and not wave it away as dangerous or irrelevant, as some these days are inclined to do. The increasingly shrill attempts to banish religion from public life are, I believe, self-defeating. Rather, we in the Church are committed as a matter of urgency to working on public issues with the other great households of faith. I mention particularly the new Christian-Muslim Forum, launched just last week, to stand alongside the Council for Christians and Jews, the Three Faiths Forum and similar bodies.

In these initiatives, tolerance is not the point. I can tolerate someone standing on the other side of the street; I do not need to engage with them. Tolerance all too easily supposes that all religions are basically the same and that they can all be discounted for purposes of public life. Thanks to the 18th century, that is what many people still believe. But tolerance is a parody of something deeper, richer and more costly for which we must work—a genuine and reciprocal freedom. It is a freedom properly contextualised within a wise responsibility. It is freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive—I totally agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said about that—especially to those who are already in danger on the margins of society, but freedom to speak the truth as we see it while simultaneously paying great attention to listening to the truth as others see and speak it and to work forwards together from there. That is so in matters of religion; it is so in matters of public policy; it is so in matters of sexual morality; and it is so in areas where all those issues and others rightly overlap and interlock. It is precisely that sort of wise, responsible freedom that is at risk if honestly held beliefs, clearly and respectfully expressed, are likely to get you into trouble with the law. We must learn fresh wisdom before the moral climate changes irreversibly and the sea rises to engulf the moral lowlands where we presently live.

Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 3:45 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, for initiating this debate. We get only six minutes each to perform; I am not sure that I would define that as freedom of speech, but nevertheless the noble Baroness has an immaculate sense of timing.

In the light of the massive furore in the world about the aforementioned Danish cartoons, and while accepting what the right reverend Prelate said about having to fiddle with it in a larger context, I should like to pursue the implications of that event. One of the things that this global encounter shows is the extraordinary nature of the new global age in which we live. It is driven not by the marketplace but by telecommunications. When the cartoons were re-published, there was an immediate explosion of reaction in so many different countries ranging from Pakistan, Indonesia, the Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, to, in a milder version, here in London.

There is another side to it which I think is worth considering: check the Internet. We see all these dramatic and violent events, but there is unbelievable debate taking place on the Internet with an enormous diversity of positions being expressed around the world. There is a kind of electronic cosmopolitan debate under way about what seems to many in the West as a rather limited set of cartoons.

In the wake of 9/11, a French newspaper—I think it was Le Monde—said:

"We are all Americans now".

That attitude did not last for too long. But a number of newspapers have subsequently published headlines saying, "We are all Danes now". A Danish newspaper stood up for freedom of speech, so we should stand up for it. I therefore ask: are we all Danes now?

I have a couple of brief comments about freedom of speech which touch on some remarks that have already been made. Many people assert the idea of freedom of speech as though it were an absolute value, but obviously it is not an absolute value. It is an instrument to produce a more effective and liberal society, and it is always surrounded by conventions.

The comedian Lenny Bruce said that he had to say the "F" word in public, which was well before it was ever said on television or in any other public setting. He had to say, "'F' the government". Many on the Opposition Benches may want to say, "'F' the government", but fortunately they do not say it in your Lordships' House. It is right and proper that they do not say it. There are always conventions that restrict what we say in a variety of contexts.

We have to distinguish between freedom of speech and a free society because the two are not the same. Freedom of speech is the necessary condition for a free society, but it is by no means a sufficient condition. It has to be hedged by attention to the sensibilities of others and the damage that speech can sometimes do, and by attention to the other values that we hold. As has been mentioned, freedom of speech is always limited in law in all democratic countries in respect of libel, slander, obscenity, sex exploitation of children and many other offences. That is right and proper.

Europe is the home of freedom of speech, but I remind noble Lords that Europe is also the home of the Holocaust. In Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, you can be imprisoned for making public remarks about the Holocaust. You can be imprisoned for Holocaust denial—someone is on the point of being imprisoned for that—and for making various kinds of anti-Semitic remarks. These, in a sense, are our sensitivities. They are a part of our sacred values in a European context.

Are we all Danes now? I will give three answers within my six minutes. Yes, we are all Danes now if that means that we must stand up against the use of violence to stop us doing something that is part of the conditions of life in democratic society. Many people who run abortion clinics in the United States live in fear of Christian activists who have bombed such clinics and attacked and murdered people in them. Dr David Gunn was murdered outside an abortion clinic in the United States in 1993. In case noble Lords think that it cannot happen here, the Christian activist movement says that it will and that we must prepare for a war over the issue. We must stand up to the use of violence to deny free speech.

Are we all Danes now? Yes, in the sense that we must stand up to religious fundamentalism. We must deny the right of fundamentalists to speak for the wider spectrum of religion, whether Christian or Muslim. I found it heartening, after an Islamic group had invaded a Christian quarter in the Lebanon and rampaged around, that Christians and Muslims got together and staged a joint march. That is exactly what we should do in the face of such assaults.

Are we all Danes now? No, in the sense that the cartoons should not have been published. They were not published primarily in terms of the two principles I have just enunciated—at least, that is certainly not clear. They were published in an increasingly xenophobic society, which is increasingly hostile to some expressions of Islamic religiosity and religious culture. They were published in the knowledge that they would have dangerous consequences in Denmark, though I do not think the editor realised that it would be a global explosion. However, we must pay attention to the sensitivity of the sacred values of others. We live in an essentially secular society, but sacred values have particular purchase, which must be respected.

In conclusion—I have got to seven minutes—there is a battle going on across the world. It is not a battle between Islam and the rest or between Islam and the West, because it is going on within the West. It is a battle between fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism, and we must ensure that the cosmopolitans win.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 3:52 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving us this opportunity. I am also grateful to the Minister, because I cannot think that it was anyone else who, having listened to all the excellent arguments in this House, persuaded the Prime Minister to miss that vote the other day. In particular, I remember the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, pointing out that there was no difference between a religion and its adherents, and that if you insult a religion you hurt its adherents. That has been perfectly demonstrated by this episode of the Danish cartoons.

Islam has suffered no damage at all from the publication of those cartoons; the hurt in the Muslim community has been immense. That is the nature of these things, and why we are so well rid of the Bill as it was originally drafted. We must be extremely careful to guard our freedom of speech. It is a difficult thing to do. I was immensely inspired by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. It was well thought out, and I shall read it again because I am sure that I have not absorbed all its wisdom on first hearing. I thought that its summary was that this is the perfect place to discuss free speech, because the House of Lords gets it right; the way that we conduct ourselves is the way that everyone else should. You do come to believe that after a while here, so I shall not disagree with him on that.

It went deeper, however. Before I turn to where I agree with the right reverend Prelate, I will say that two parts of our society have come out of this latest episode extremely well. The first is the Muslim community in general. The way that it has reacted to this—responsibly, as part of our British community—has given me enormous comfort after all the difficulties and tribulations we have been through over the past few years. There will always be elements who try to disrupt things, but that is not the image which sticks in my mind.

The British press have also come out of this episode well. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, the cartoons are tasteless and insulting. They are of no value in themselves. To reprint them would be an act of sheer gratuitous insult. In the majority community, we have to get used to accepting insult. We do not wish to curtail people's rights to publish cartoons about George Bush, the Prime Minister or whoever. When we are in that sort of position of power, these are ordinary parts of daily life, and so they should be. But we have to be conscious that when a community is in a minority and finds itself somewhat embattled, then to hurt them is to hurt them excessively. We have to be extremely careful and judge well when we take an action that might do that. The press have judged that extremely finely. I take great comfort from that because the press has been growing up during the past 20 years and it has gained enormous power. This is a sign that it is learning to use it responsibly.

The group which has not come out well from this episode—and from many previous episodes, as noble Lords have said—is the Government. It is the Government's responsibility to set the tone for the defence of the freedom of speech. It will not be Ministers who react in each instance. It is their servants and their acolytes who will react in the way they perceive their masters as wishing them to act. The tone that this Government have set over the years has been one of denial of freedom of speech.

The police's reaction to the demonstration outside the Danish embassy and their allowing that sort of threat to go unpunished are an enormous suppression of freedom of speech. If that sort of frightening activity was allowed to go on there, as it was allowed also in Birmingham, and if police act in that way when faced with mob violence, then those who are the likely target of that mob violence feel threatened and their free speech is suppressed. It is important that the Government enforce the boundaries. I think we can all agree, at least in their gross aspect, on what is a reasonable reaction and what is a reasonable expression of freedom speech. Carrying placards suggesting that people be murdered or indulging in violence which results in the closure of a play both clearly go over the mark, and neither was properly dealt with by the police, because they felt that there would be no support from the Government if they had taken the sort of action that they should have taken.

This is a Government who, through a succession of Bills of which the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was only the most recent example, have been seen to care little for freedom of speech. Even the little examples confirm that impression, such as that of the lady who was arrested and charged for reading out the names of the dead opposite the Cenotaph. Whether the police arrest her or stand by her quietly and say, "Right, you've done your bit. Go on", is a matter on which they exercise their discretion. They exercise that discretion in the understanding of what their political masters wish them to do. The climate is set by the Government, and the Government are setting it against freedom of speech. I really hope that all this cumulative distress will result at some stage in the Government changing their attitude, or to us to changing the Government.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 3:59 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, for initiating this debate, coming as it does in the context of the imminent enactment of recent legislation to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred.

This House has repeatedly asserted its belief that freedom of expression and its corollary, the right of access to information, is a vital individual right. I would go so far as to say that it is the cornerstone of democracy, since without information and the freedom to use it to secure other rights, governments quickly become unaccountable, and tyranny can and often does follow. History is replete with examples of how censorship is not only a function of the slide from democracy, but also a cause of it. That is why one has to be vigilant about any curtailment of freedom of expression. Yet it is argued, by some of the more popular press in particular, that hate speech should not be allowed. I think we have to go back to first principles and the laws that govern the difficult area of where the line should be drawn between the expression of emotionally strong views and dangerous incitement, and by whom. Here I declare an interest as a former director of Article 19, an anti-censorship organisation.

It is the context that determines whether speech is likely to cause criminal action. The famous case of falsely crying "Fire!" in a crowded theatre as compared to shouting from a street corner is still relevant. The argument is that in the former case it is reasonable to expect that injury will occur and that in the latter injury would be unlikely. The key feature of the latter example is that there is the opportunity to avoid both the speech and its effects. That landmark US Supreme Court case has been followed by many others that have helped to build jurisprudence that defines hateful or offensive or insulting speech by its effect on the target and the extent to which the intended victim of such verbal assault is able to avoid it. Thus, rather simplistically, almost anything can be said or written if there is a clear choice about hearing or reading it. If one can walk away from Hyde Park Corner, close the book, not buy the theatre or cinema tickets, then why should speech be censored?

The exception to this rule occurs when speech, or any other form of expression, occurs within a highly charged context where the speech could itself whip up such strong feeling that damaging action is likely to occur and where those who become emotionally charged have the access and the wherewithal to cause criminal harm. The terrible example of our time is the Rwanda genocide of 1994 where the highly popular local radio orchestrated the mass killing by the Hutus of their more moderate kinsmen and of the Tutsis, a massacre that had been planned for some months previously and that took place in an extremely tense context in which tribal violence, if not common, was certainly within everyone's living memory.

The furore about the offensive cartoons first published in Denmark last year is alarming but presents an interesting example of the limits of our tolerance. The demonstrations in central London by angry Muslims were indeed offensive to many. The placards were extraordinary, calling for the murder of those who insult Islam. But should they be banned, or should the more extreme demonstrators be charged? No one was obliged to attend the demonstration. We may argue that it should not have taken place, but it did, and as far as one can tell it was not an occasion to prepare further criminal action. It was an expression of hurt and anger. Who is to say that that should be suppressed, with possibly far worse consequences?

The Abu Hamza case is quite different. Here, young and impressionable men were obliged by tradition to go to the mosque every week and thus to hear outpourings of hate against specific targets in British society. We now learn that Abu Hamza had the wherewithal to provide these young men with the means, either through training abroad or weapons, to carry out criminal actions. That is not free speech; it is criminal incitement and has rightly been judged as such.

Alien speech is uncomfortable for all of us, as is the expression of violent emotions, but I believe that it is precisely in such moments of heightened feeling that we must remember the basic right to free speech and look carefully at the context in which it occurs. Above all, by permitting these kinds of demonstrations to take place, Britain is encouraging potential political discourse and solutions in place of violence.

Photo of Lord Plant of Highfield Lord Plant of Highfield Labour 4:04 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, this is an important debate. There is no doubt that freedom of speech and liberal democracy more generally are under attack from various kinds of fundamentalisms in the modern world. In that context, we need to be clear about the moral basis for liberal democracy and the place of freedom of speech in it. In the view of some critics of liberal democracy, that immediately puts liberalism on the back foot because, in their view, there are no deep values acting as the foundations of liberal society. Let me cite one sophisticated example of this critique from the Muslim philosopher and theologian, Professor Akhtar. His argument is that at the basis of liberalism there is, paradoxically, a type of fundamentalism; what he calls the fundamentalism of doubt. Liberals are fundamentalists. Their fundamental principle is to doubt everything. That is his view.

So why do liberals, in his view, value free speech and other democratic values? The answer, in his account, is that liberals are in fact sceptics and relativists. They do not know what the truth is, so they need free speech and other liberal values to cope with the basic axiom of liberalism that all beliefs are up for grabs. If that is so, liberalism can have no fundamental moral beliefs of its own. It is, rather, simply a coping mechanism—a way of coping with doubt and scepticism. This puts liberal values on the defensive when confronted with a world view such as fundamentalist Islam, which claims to know what the truth is and has a mission to see that its conception of truth prevails. In his view, the fundamentalism of faith will overcome the fundamentalism of doubt.

I do not think that that is a true account of liberal values such as freedom of speech, but we need to be clear about the basic values of liberalism and the considerations on which a defence of free speech rests. The first is the idea that so far as an understanding of the empirical world is concerned—an understanding which we acquire through sciences of all kinds—advances in knowledge require an openness of debate and dialogue to provide the context for what Karl Popper called the process of conjecture and refutation. If an open society is necessary for the advancement of empirical inquiry, we cannot easily constrain the exercise of free speech purely to this sort of area.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in the sphere of morality, we have to acknowledge that there are many important values, such as liberty, equality, justice, mercy, charity, friendship, loyalty, respect for individuals and the claims of community, which are all real and genuine values. Liberals are not sceptical or relativist about the centrality and importance of such values in human life. Nevertheless, it remains true, as Isaiah Berlin constantly argued, that there is no uniquely compelling way of linking these values together in some kind of monolithic or ordered framework. We always need the freedom to debate the relative weight of such values in changing situations. Indeed, we are doing precisely that at the moment.

The weight given to particular values depends on openness to dialogue and not on assertion and will. It is vital in a diverse society within which people differ on the ways in which various goods should be weighted, that debate contributes to what the American philosopher John Rawls calls "public reason"; that is, a public culture of rational debate about values and principles and what sorts of reasons count in favour of one way of looking at values rather than another. These cannot be settled for society at large by religious or ideological authority, and freedom of speech is an essential part of public reason.

So should free speech be limited? Usually liberal thinkers have invoked the harm principle; that free speech can be limited when it causes harm to others. Critics of free speech will major on this and argue that feeling insulted and offended is a form of harm, and therefore there should be no freedom of speech to insult and offend. I think that this is a mistake. We need to distinguish between civility and law, and so far as the law is concerned, I believe that this would make limitations on freedom of speech far too subjective.

If there are to be legally enforceable limitations on free speech, they should be as capable of as much objectivity as possible. This has led liberals to espouse two conceptions of harm: harm to physical security, and the prevention of another person being able to follow his or her own conception of the good. It is argued that most people, whatever their beliefs, would regard undermining their physical security and restricting their ability to follow their most fundamental beliefs as the basic forms of harm. If this is so, the restriction on free speech could be justified by citing either or both of those considerations, and unlike insults and offended sensibilities, they are capable of objective establishment and adjudication.

It has been said in the past few days that free speech should be exercised responsibly. On the view that I have outlined, if its exercise does not cause harm, then it is exercised responsibly. However, those who make that point about responsibility argue that it should be exercised in a way that respects the belief of others. That argument seems to neglect two aspects of respect: first, that respect should be seen as a reciprocal relationship, and, secondly, that respect must be earned. It seems to me at least that many who demand respect for their beliefs have very little, if any, respect for the beliefs of others and how they live their lives. Respect is a two-way street, and I do not see why I should be expected to respect the beliefs of others when, in the articulation of their beliefs, they show little or no respect for other members of society.

On the point about respect being earned, I argue that, in a democratic society, beliefs earn respect if adherents to those beliefs accept that it is reasonable for other people to disagree with them; that is to say, they earn respect if they hold their beliefs in a reasonable way, recognising the right of others to disagree. As the right reverend Prelate said, it is fashionable in these post-modern times to decry the values of the Enlightenment and say that there can be no foundations for the democratic values endorsed by that movement. I hope that I have suggested, at least, that that is not the case. We need to be clear about democratic values and their defence. Abandoning the Enlightenment leads us to endarkenment, and nobody wants that.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative 4:11 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, like other speakers, I thank my noble friend Lady Knight for introducing this important and timely debate. If it would not have been greedy to speak twice this afternoon, I would have liked to put on record my concern about, and abhorrence of, the current excesses in Iran.

I declare an interest as chairman of the Cumbrian Newspaper group, which owns seven regional paid-for titles, a number of free titles and magazines, and a number of radio stations.

Other speakers have already emphasised how freedom of speech is central to our society, how it is one of its defining characteristics, and that it is axiomatic that all freedoms must be exercised in a manner so as not to deny that freedom to others. In that context, it operates at two slightly different levels: first, at a public level, where the state intervenes to stop racial hatred, civil disobedience and even domestic insurrection and so on; and, secondly, at a private level, through the law of tort, particularly defamation law.

Although we live in an essentially plural and secular society, we should all recognise that, in the case of religious belief, some forms of expression not only may be offensive in human terms but are more than that because they attack things that are sacramental and universally sacred. I speak as a practising Anglican, but one, I am afraid, who is no textbook example; rather, I suspect, for the benefit of the right reverend Prelate, I am an example of the "Wrong Sort". However, a society where, quite rightly, there is a distinction between Church and state, we must be clear how we deal with this phenomenon. Like the interlocutor of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I believe that in the last resort God and the eternal verities can look after themselves. I need them a lot more than they need me.

One of the most important questions is how our law transfers these general principles into actual action or lack of it in any circumstance. The problem is that, as anyone who has ever held elected office knows, there is always somebody somewhere out there who objects to everything. That being the case, some test of reasonableness must be introduced into the assessment of the facts—just as in defamation cases in which it is the jury's job to determine. How else, otherwise, can we in a plural society deal with widely varying susceptibilities and beliefs? Interestingly, as the noble Lord, Lord Plant, said, it often seems that it is those who are most insensitive towards others and most intolerant who become most sensitive in respect of their own susceptibilities.

The approach that I have outlined may be a bit rough and ready but it seems to have one universal merit: while it may be rough justice, it is actual justice.

If, like me, you have stood for elected office as a Conservative in a strong Labour area, the fact that you happen to be an old Etonian, a hereditary Peer, educated at Oxbridge, a barrister, a farmer and a landowner, is inevitably gratuitously handing over to one's opponents a number of metaphorical rotten tomatoes free, gratis and for nothing, to be hurled straight back in your face. It may be unfair, but that is life. That is the world we are in and it cannot be any other way.

The world is a place of rough and tumble, just as much in the world of words and ideas as of commerce and business. Expressing ideas that others find distasteful in a manner that does not incite or attempt to incite must be a legitimate form of expression. Clearly in that context motive can be a part in defining incitement. Equally, a subsequent publication or issuing of a statement of something already said may have a different characteristic from that of its first publication.

History shows us a series of ideas that have become discredited by virtue of public debate: the divine right of kings; slavery; witchcraft; or, perhaps more recently, the concept of hereditary membership of Parliament.

There is a further and most important consideration, which anyone considering expressing a view or reporting a story should consider, particularly one that may hurt or upset someone else, even though it may be perfectly lawful to do what is being proposed. That is whether it is in the public interest and responsible to do so. Journalists, it is often said, honour that axiom more in the breach than in the observance. It is certainly an unfortunate perception; and, if true, is evidence of irresponsibility. The wider freedom that freedom of speech encompasses and is a part of, involves responsibility towards others.

In the case of the so-called Danish cartoons there should be no law forbidding their publication; but in all the circumstances it is on balance an abnegation of one's responsibilities to do so. I make no apology for explaining that I asked the Library staff if they could produce the cartoons for me. I have a somewhat old-fashioned view that it is on the whole better to inform oneself before forming a view and expressing it; especially in your Lordships' Chamber. They did: they obtained them from the net, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, poses a number of interesting problems. What struck me—as other speakers have mentioned—is that I did not think they were high-class or helpful cartoons.

However, my point of view, which may be considered excessively libertarian by some, is that if, as I do, one believes that freedom matters a great deal, it must mean that when the push comes to the shove it takes precedence over injured amour propre or hurt feelings.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench 4:17 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, barely 48 hours ago I arrived back from India where, incidentally, for part of the time my wife and I were guests of a Muslim family with whom we have been friends for almost 50 years; so not until yesterday did I realise that this debate was taking place today. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, not only on her speech but on her immaculate timing. The Motion speaks of the recent developments affecting freedom of speech. I shall confine my remarks, given the time constraints, to the spoken word.

It is true that matters have grown much worse recently under this Government. However, it must be said that the rot started to set in over four decades ago. I was lucky enough to grow up in an era when traditional British freedom of speech was by and large a reality. The same applies to my contemporary, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who is not in his place at the moment; although he may interpret matters differently—we shall soon know. Of course, that was offset by tighter restrictions on other forms of expression: the theatre was still under the absurd and anachronistic thumb of the Lord Chamberlain; films were more heavily censored than today, albeit largely in line with public opinion at that time; and books were sometimes censored, notably Lady Chatterley's Lover, although in practice it was not difficult to find ways and means of getting around the bans.

Provided that they did not shout obscenities in public or encourage others to cause physical harm to persons or property, people could say pretty much what they liked in private homes, pubs, clubs, the workplace or on a soapbox. During my teens, my parents lived not far from Marble Arch, and I used to enjoy going to Speaker's Corner. One heard every sort of rant: communist, Trotskyite, Mosleyite and religious zealotry of every hue. There was plenty of heckling, both witty—the most effective kind—and angry, but no one tried to stop the other person saying his piece. People argued and argued fiercely with their opponents, but they did not try to gag them; and rightly the police stayed well away. Even during the understandable mass demonstrations over the Suez misadventure, neither demonstrators nor counter-demonstrators tried to silence the other.

Then came the 1960s. By that, I do not mean the physical decade starting on 1 January 1960 but the cultural and sociological phenomenon that ran from mid-1962, I would say, until the end of 1974—although Philip Larkin famously put the start date six months later. Ostensibly, it was a time of glorious liberation, and in some respects that was true. However, unfortunately, nonconformity soon became the new conformity, as far as the younger generation was concerned. Opponents of the Zeitgeist were barely tolerated. Above all, political opponents were no longer to be engaged in intelligent argument but to be silenced altogether, in true Maoist style.

It first became apparent during the demonstrations over the Cuban missile crisis and reached its peak during the Vietnam war. "Uncle" Ho Chi Min was virtually worshipped by most students and by what we now call the chattering classes. Of the well known commentators, only Bernard Levin and Kingsley Amis had the courage to stick up for the South Vietnamese anti-communists, many of whom were later to become the boat people. When the anti-communists booked Kensington town hall to put their case—calmly, to an invited audience—they were besieged by a mob of screaming fanatics and forced to flee.

Next came the Californian eccentricity of political correctness, which, before long, spread throughout the English speaking world—including Australia, of all unlikely places—and which further constrained free speech. So far, the Government cannot be directly blamed for all this, except perhaps for enthusiastically endorsing excesses of political correctness. However, recently we have seen some extraordinary developments—for example, as has been mentioned, the law that severely restricts protests within one kilometre of Parliament, despite the fact that no corresponding restrictions apply to protests outside the White House in Washington, as I have observed. This law caught a woman who was doing nothing worse than reciting the names of the war dead.

Next, the Prime Minister himself, no less, was investigated by the police for remarking, in private, that the Welsh were a pain in the backside. Actually, he used much stronger language that cannot be repeated in the House. The police were similarly diverted from their rightful tasks of chasing burglars and car thieves into investigating, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, moderate criticisms of homosexual practices made by, among others, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, the author Lynette Burrows and Dr Iqbal Sacranie, a prominent Muslim—even though the comments were entirely legal.

One cannot help suspecting that senior police officers fear that their chances of appointment and promotion will be lessened unless they pursue new Labour's PC agenda with the utmost zeal, whether or not the law actually dictates it. That is an unsatisfactory, and even dangerous, state of affairs.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 4:23 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing the debate, although I suspect that the agenda might have moved on a little from what she had in mind when she originally tabled the Motion.

I do not share her rather dismal view of the present situation or that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, not least because freedom of expression flows deep in all types of British veins—we ought to be proud of that—and also because I have seen many arguments over individual issues come and go. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, will recall that when she was a Member of the then government party in the House of Commons and I was on the Opposition Benches, she strongly defended the banning of Sinn Fein from appearing on any radio or TV station anywhere. That was the first time that we had banned the elected representatives of a political party from appearing in the press.

I remember the miners being summoned and arrested for selling copies of the Miner for precisely the same reason, incidentally, as the lady in Downing Street—because there were rules about getting police permission before doing so. I have reservations about that, but that was done for that reason. I simply say—I shall give way to the noble Baroness, if she wishes me to—that such issues come and go, and we can and do deal with them in both Houses of Parliament. That is not the fundamental problem that is challenging us today. That is what I should like to move on to, but I happily give way.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, were the noble Baroness to intervene now, there would be no time for her to say anything at the end of the debate.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

I thought I was going to get injury time, my Lords.

Religious leaders are leaning over backwards to try to build bridges, but something very important has happened over the past 10 or 15 years. I do not accept the idea of a change of climate so much as a radical shift from a clash between political ideologies—communism on one side, led by China and the USSR, as it was, and on the other western Europe and the United States—to a clash between religious belief systems. These ideologies—they are both forms of ideology to me as a non-religious person—produce an intense belief that people are prepared to fight for and die for. Religious wars are no better than political wars if you get into that ideological struggle. It has been one of my arguments for some time that, when a political ideology declines, a religious ideology often emerges to replace it, and vice versa. There is a lot of evidence for that in various parts of the world at various times.

In the present climate—my noble friend Lord Dubs was right about this—we have to defend freedom of speech very powerfully. That does not mean that you exercise it without thought and consideration for other people. I have the freedom to make faces at my neighbour; I do not do it—it would not be sensible to do it. Similarly, if you are going to exercise freedom of speech, you have to ask yourself about the way in which it will impact on the people who may suffer from its consequences.

I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said. He is absolutely right: there were many examples of slight erosions, as they were regarded, of freedom of speech many years ago. That is why I say that it is not new, aside from the ideological clash. In the 1940s particularly, a real problem with freedom of speech was that, if you were from an ethnic minority, you had to suffer abuse—real abuse. The noble Lord talked about being politically correct, but the laws were introduced to protect a minority. Of course, you can define a democracy as the majority will, but if you ignore the rights of the minority, you have a very poor democracy, and I think that that is part of the equation.

If I am right about the clash of religions, it is important that we in the West understand that the argument is largely within Islam. It has to be within Islam. We can talk about what we would like, but in a real sense there is a struggle within Islam, a struggle over modernisation. My strong belief is that the modernisers will win. The vast bulk of Muslim opinion is strongly in favour of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of belief, democracy and the rest. If we recognise that, we recognise something important.

The other part of the problem has to do with two events in the past week or so that have made the noble Baroness's debate so important. On one hand, there was the provocation by a group of extremist Islamists carrying placards urging the killing of other people and so on. On the other hand, Nick Griffin of the BNP walked out of court saying that Britain was like Bosnia. Britain will be like Bosnia only if the extremists of that Islamic group or of the BNP actually win. It is our job—our duty—to make sure that they do not.

The police probably did the right thing in not arresting the people carrying placards last week, but I very much hope that they follow this up. There is profound danger if we allow things like that, which provoke the rest of the population and open up the divide on race and religion again. That is what produces real danger for all of us and poses a real danger to freedom of speech, not some of the lesser issues that we can deal with in the normal course of events.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Shadow Lord Chancellor, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs), Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, for introducing this important debate. I agree with much of what she said, although some of her examples concerned rather silly, self-imposed political correctness, rather than any actual restrictions on freedom of speech. However, I hope that she will excuse me if, like my noble friend Lady Falkner, who made a brave and impressive speech, I concentrate mainly on the issue that has dominated the media throughout the past couple of weeks—the Danish cartoons. The issue is topical, it is important, and it raises and illustrates many of the threats and problems of freedom of speech.

As the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, said, the great American judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the right to freedom of speech did not include the right,

"falsely to shout fire in a crowded theatre".

The question is whether Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the now notorious cartoons, shouted "fire" in the theatre. It is widely known that pictorial images of the Prophet Muhammad are offensive to most Muslims, whatever the nature of the pictures. The cartoons clearly went beyond mere images because some of them carried messages linking the prophet to terrorism. Publishing the cartoons was misguided, irresponsible and possibly also hypocritical because apparently, three years ago, Jyllands-Posten refused to publish cartoons of Jesus Christ on the grounds that that would offend its readers.

It was a wise decision of the United Kingdom media not to republish the cartoons. It would have been grossly irresponsible to do so at a time when thousands of British troops are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But should the publication be illegal? In my view—I think that most speakers have agreed with me—the answer is "No". I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, that freedom of speech is one of the basic pillars of a democratic society. Indeed, its special importance is recognised in Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Of course, it is not an absolute right, but under that Act restrictions must be strictly limited. To prohibit the publication of matter that is offensive to a section of the community is to give that section a veto over the freedom of speech of the rest of the community. In principle, that is unacceptable.

Should it be the rule, then, that we can say things that cause offence to other sections of the community, only if we say them in some serious or responsible way? I do not think that that is much better. It is difficult to distinguish between arguments carried on in the voice of what we used to call the broadsheets and arguments carried on in the voice of the tabloids, so I do not believe that speech should be banned simply because some people who hear it will be offended or because those who speak it are behaving irresponsibly. Freedom of speech is a freedom for satire, lampoons, bad-taste jokes and not just for serious and responsible argument.

To return to Oliver Wendell Holmes, when are we shouting "Fire"? Let us look at the metaphor. Shouting "Fire" when there is not one is wrong because it may lead to panic or stampedes in which people might die or be hurt. In this context, the test is: are the words or, in this case, the pictures intended to encourage violence against another section of the community or provoke hatred of that section? On that test, the cartoons do not seem to me to be shouting "Fire". They are not likely to increase hatred of Muslims or violence against them. They will appeal only to those who already hold hostile views. But there is a more difficult question. If violence is the test, should it be illegal to publish material that is not so much intended to encourage violence against those who are the targets of that material, as to provoke violence by the targets in order to ratchet up the divisions in the community? That was the effect—to some extent, perhaps, the intention—of the publication of the cartoons by Jyllands-Posten. That is the strongest case that can be made against that newspaper.

It is not an altogether easy question to answer. As I said, it is obvious that you cannot give any section of the community a veto, simply because it says that it will riot if you criticise it in particular ways. Yet I can imagine circumstances, in times of intercommunal violence, when a government might find it necessary to ban the publication of material intended to provoke violence by people of the opposite viewpoint. That would be permissible under Article 10.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights as being necessary for the prevention of disorder or crime. Any ban would have to be temporary, exceptional and spelled out in law in order to come within Article 12. I do not think that the circumstances now exist that would justify such legislation.

We should also look at the reverse of the picture: what about the rights of the demonstrators against the cartoons to express their views? The demonstrators who were carrying placards calling for the beheading or massacre of those responsible for the cartoons were, plainly, inciting murder. They are plainly shouting "Fire" in Justice Holmes's theatre. Whether it is right to prosecute them is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and I would not be critical of the restraint shown by the police at the demonstration last weekend. Some of the demonstrators may have been deliberately provoking arrest in the hope of stirring up over-reaction by the police and getting the sympathy of moderate Muslims. It should and must be the objective of the police in the future to prevent the display of placards inciting murder. On this issue only am I not in entire agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza. The BBC's "Today" programme also made an error of judgment in giving airtime to the repulsive views of Omar Bakri Mohammed.

The debate is extremely important, as it shows the importance of freedom of speech and the difficulty of deciding where it stops. I agree with many of those who have spoken. I have some difficulty with some of them and am not in agreement with the views of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who rather reflected the viewpoint attributed to Professor Akbar in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Plant. This does not give sufficient attention to the position of those who, like myself, do not have religious faith. Perhaps I have misunderstood it—the right reverend Prelate is indicating that I have—and I will certainly look at it again.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that this is not such a clear case as that of the Satanic Verses, where the reaction of some fundamentalist Muslim groups was a reaction of bigotry and not one of faith. Jyllands-Posten was knowingly offensive to Muslims. It was at best irresponsible and may possibly have been deliberately provocative. The same is true of newspapers in other countries that have reprinted those cartoons. Yet I believe that the law should not prevent the publication of material that is offensive to some on religious grounds. The right to freedom of speech is a vital defence for all in a multicultural society. In very recent times, the Government have, in the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and the Terrorism Bill, made unjustified attacks on the right to freedom of speech.

The right to freedom of speech is a vital defence for all in a multicultural society; all groups must be able to explain and, when challenged, justify their points of view. All of us will be weakened is freedom of speech is restrained.

Photo of Lord Kingsland Lord Kingsland Shadow Lord Chancellor, Constitutional Affairs, Shadow Lord Chancellor, Parliament 4:40 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, like so many of your Lordships, I add my thanks and congratulations to my noble friend Lady Knight of Collingtree on her incisive and perspicacious speech. We are fortunate, too, that it has taken place at a time when many of the issues that she intended to include in her speech have been given even greater relevance by current events.

I entirely agree with everything that has been said by those of your Lordships who addressed the principles that lie behind the doctrine of freedom of speech. I was particularly interested, as I am sure that all your Lordships were, in the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield. Freedom of speech is fundamental to the principle of minority rights; and as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, that is particularly important when a society has minorities that espouse different, deeply held, religious beliefs. But it is equally important to note that a majority government benefits from freedom of speech—because, if minorities have the right to express their views, they have the consolation that even if the majority takes the different view, at least those minorities have had an opportunity to influence majority thinking. So both minority rights and majority rule are enmeshed by the principle of freedom of speech.

As many of your Lordships have observed, particularly my noble friend Lord Inglewood, freedom of speech is not a comfortable constitutional doctrine to live with. People who are at the wrong end of observations of other members of society are often the subject of some very critical and sometimes distasteful remarks—even abusive and insulting ones. Yet those are essential ingredients to the doctrine of freedom of speech. A society, to incorporate successfully freedom of speech, has to have a very well developed sense of humour; and the cartoon, in my submission, is a vital component of freedom of speech, because, if the cartoonist is good, the reaction of the reader initially is one of humour. Is the cartoon is good, the cartoonist is seeking to ridicule people in power—the most damaging weapon that can be used against a sitting government.

But I agree with all your Lordships that the cartoons that appeared in the Danish press totally failed to meet those vital principles; it was, indeed, unwise to publish them—though I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and other noble Lords, that legally they certainly could be published.

The second difficulty with the principle of freedom of speech is that it is not an absolute principle. You only have to look at Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rights to see that the doctrine is qualified by other important social objectives, such as public security and public safety. So, in any given set of circumstances, the police, and other authorities that have power over the ability to express freedom of speech, must engage in a balancing act to reach a decision.

Indeed, with some of our most important laws, that balancing operation is inherent in construing what the law means. For example, the law of peaceful public assembly states that the continued legality of that assembly depends, in part, upon the reaction of those who are present for an initially peaceful reason. Quite often, because of the reaction of others around those engaged in peaceful assembly, something that was originally not a crime may become one. Once again, those in authority have to make a fine judgment about whether to bring a prosecution.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, had an extremely pertinent question when he asked upon what we should focus. Should it be on the incitement by the banners of those manifesting, or on the reaction of those who observe that manifestation? Was the intention to incite violence, or to provoke others to violence? Those are all crucial questions, which the police have to take into account before they decide how to react.

Another factor, aside from the circumstances of a particular case, is the circumstances of the nation. The approach of the authorities to freedom of speech in the 1930s was very different from that of the authorities in the course of the Second World War, when the nation was under threat. What you might or might not say about fascism or national socialism in the 1930s you could not say in the 1940s, and for good reason. The balancing act came out with a different solution, because of the overriding importance of public security. That is one reason why we have particular difficulty in making that balance today; for we live in a world of international terrorism. We have no idea when we will next be hit by a terrorist act. Are we in a state of war or of peace? In a sense, the problem that the authorities face today is much more difficult than that which they faced in the 1940s.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, said, when we come to pull the strands of these issues together it is absolutely vital that those who have the authority to prosecute act in a totally even-handed manner. That is, across not just particular activities but across all ethnic groups. Indeed, if they do not we will lose confidence in them.

My noble friend Lady Knight placed particular emphasis on the growing disease of political correctness, and rightly so. The right reverend Prelate also had a number of extremely pertinent observations to make on that. Frankly, I am outraged at some of the investigations that the police have made into perfectly legal observations made by members of different ethnic groups about matters where they were, in any case, only responding to questions asked by interviewers.

I am also extremely disappointed in the way that the police have operated Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. What was originally intended to protect Parliament is now being used to protect the executive offices in Whitehall as well. Some of the arrests that have been made have, frankly, done much more to discredit the police than they have to enhance public security.

Different views have been expressed by your Lordships about whether arrests ought to have been made in the course of the demonstration in front of the Danish embassy. It is difficult for those of us who were not there to take a final view on that; as with the jury in a court, you can only come to a correct conclusion if you have heard all the evidence in court and have been influenced by no other. In those circumstances, one must always allow the police a margin of appreciation. However, having seen some of the banner texts, had I been there—given that I am making these observations at a distance in both space and time—my inclination would have been to make some arrests. The key is for the police to be even-handed. That is the issue on which I am most interested to hear the Minister as he gets up to respond to the debate.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 4:50 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, my first duty is to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, on obtaining an important and timely debate. As a noble Lord observed, she could hardly have thought that the debate would have taken off in the way that it has, given events over the past week or two, which are continuing to unfold. The noble Baroness caught some of the mood and flavour of that in her exposure of some of the contradictions, as she saw them, in the expression of opinions and the detail of "political correctness", as she described it.

I congratulate all other noble Lords who have taken part in this good and vigorous debate. I have listened carefully to it and I intend to read it carefully. I have listened in particular to the previous two speeches, which along with all the others, will require close reading and in which points were well made.

I was intrigued by some comments. The observations of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about a change in the moral climate were interesting, although clearly provocative to some. I found myself easily agreeing with my noble friend Lord Dubs when he rightly said that freedom of speech was a guarantor of the protection of minorities; that view was echoed by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. The noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, reminded us that we should revisit first principles. She was right to do that and, indeed, some speeches took us back to those principles.

I could not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that this Government had been irresponsible regarding freedom of speech issues and had been chipping away at it. However, I did agree when he said that the press had perhaps become more responsible over the past couple of decades. However, an interesting article by Roy Greenslade in the Daily Telegraph this week questioned the basis of that new responsibility, suggesting that trusting markets was a bigger explanation than most.

I certainly agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, when he said that there was an ongoing battle between fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism. I side with him in looking for the victor.

I was amused on hearing the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. It was the first time that I have heard someone claiming that there was a disadvantage to his life in being an old Etonian. The noble Lord should visit the kitchen Cabinet of Mr Cameron, who may put him right on that.

I could barely disagree with my noble friend Lord Soley's correct assessment that while these are important issues now, they are issues that come and go. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, took us back to the days of the Suez conflict and reminded us how the Lady Chatterley's Lover court case had been variously interpreted at the time as an attack on freedom of speech and expression. The echoes regarding a consistent application of the law were a theme picked up neatly by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and came through in the debate.

Freedom of speech is central to the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy and of a free society. I doubt whether anyone in your Lordships' House would disagree with that. This Government are committed to upholding the right of freedom of speech and they have done a great deal to protect that freedom since taking office, particularly through the Human Rights Act 1998, which ensured that the right of free speech, contained in Article 10, along with other rights, of the European Convention on Human Rights, is brought directly into effect in our law, and that the courts must interpret the law compatibly with those rights.

We must all recognise that there are limitations on what can acceptably be said. Freedom of speech is not an absolute. The debate reflected that; the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart, Lord Giddens and Lord Kingsland, made it very clear that that was very much how they saw the matter. There are, as there must be, consequences when people go beyond those limits. There have always been restrictions to the freedom of speech; the European Convention on Human Rights itself states:

"The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety; for the prevention of disorder or crime; for the protection of health or morals; for the protection of reputation or rights of others; for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence; or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary".

For example, if we use racist language, if we encourage child abuse, or if what we say is intended to incite hatred or provoke violence, we accept that there should be consequences, and that such things should legitimately be caught by the law.

It is right that there should be thorough and lively debate whenever the boundaries of free speech are tested. We have heard a lot of such debate in recent months; today's debate is part of that. Before responding to some of the specific points raised, I would like to cover some issues more generally. First, I would like to say a few words about the cartoons, to which everybody has referred, that have caused so much controversy over the past week. As the Home Secretary said on Monday:

"In Britain, the response to the publication of the Danish cartoons has, in general, been respectful and restrained".

This is the best tradition of British tolerance and understanding and we welcome that. We and our EU partners stand in full solidarity with the Danish government in resisting the violence that has arisen. Nothing can justify the violence aimed at European embassies, or in Denmark. We understand the offence caused by the cartoons depicting the prophet, and regret that this has happened. Freedom of expression must be exercised with respect for the views of others, including their religious beliefs. Such attacks as we have seen on the citizens of Denmark and other European countries are completely unacceptable.

For this reason, we must ensure that the law is properly formulated to deal with the kinds of situations that arise. We accept that there will be debate on each occasion when it is proposed that the law is changed, but we do not apologise for seeking change when it is required. By way of example, perhaps I could briefly turn to the Terrorism Bill. I do not wish to say too much about this, because I have little doubt that it will return to your Lordships' House. I do not believe that the Bill imposes undue restrictions on free speech. The Bill creates new offences of encouragement to terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications. These offences can only be committed if the person concerned intends by his actions to incite acts of terrorism, or is subjectively reckless in that regard. I am sure I do not need to rehearse all the arguments we have had on this matter, but that, plainly, is our view. Any restriction on what may be said or done is, on some level, regrettable. However, as we have heard today, free speech can never be absolute. No one has a right to express publicly sentiments designed to provoke others to commit terrorist atrocities.

While we are in this field, it is only right that I say something, too, about the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. The Government believe that, as originally drafted, the Bill did not impact upon anyone's ability to joke, discuss, debate or to speak in any number of ways about religion or belief. The original Bill struck the right balance between catching those who seek to stir up hatred and the right to criticise and ridicule religion. However—and the Government must accept that this was the case—there was widespread support in the other place for the amendments voted in by this House. The Bill, as passed by Parliament on 31 January, therefore now contains a comprehensive freedom of speech clause, specifically stating that matters such as discussion, debate, criticism, expression of antipathy, abuse, insult, ridicule or attempt to convert people from one faith—or lack of faith—to another faith will not be covered by the Bill's provisions.

We believe that this gives the reassurance many have sought. An artistic performance that dealt with an issue of religion or belief in a controversial way could therefore proceed in the knowledge that it would not be unlawful. For example, much has been made of the production of "Jerry SpringerThe Opera". As I said, the Government uphold freedom of expression, provided that it does not stir up hatred or violence. Theatres make their own decisions on which productions to mount. The BBC took the decision to show "Jerry Springer—The Opera" independently of government. Although it is clear that its production and screening has caused offence, there is no evidence that it has stirred up hatred against any religious group and it would not be caught by the proposed incitement to religious hatred offence. It would not have been caught by the Bill in our preferred form.

Similarly, although it was already an offence to stir up hatred against Sikhs under the current incitement to racial hatred offences, whether because of their race or religion, the police decided that there were no grounds for action against the play "Behzti", which some Sikhs felt targeted their community. That was right, although the police faced a difficult task in policing the demonstrations against it, and in the end the theatre withdrew the play.

Much has also been made in the press recently of examples of how religious freedoms are under threat. In particular, there is a view that the Christian faith is under attack, that councils will no longer support Christmas, and that Christian preaching and Christian symbols are frowned upon. I make it clear that the Government do not seek to prevent local authorities or, for that matter, anyone else being involved in carol services or any other religious celebrations or activities where they feel that it is right to be involved. What is right is that public authorities treat people of all faiths and none fairly.

Part 2 of the Equality Bill, which outlaws religious discrimination by public authorities, in the provision of goods, facilities and services and in education, and which was recently before your Lordships' House, does not make it unlawful for public bodies to celebrate Christmas, and it will not require the removal of Bibles from hospitals or the banning of Christian symbols. It is not in anyone's interests for councils to ban such events, and I do not believe that people from minority faiths want to see such things stopped.

However, it is also crucial that the Government work together with all faith communities to improve their capacity to fight extremism and distortion of their faiths and so protect our young people from recruitment to violence. We are determined to work in partnership with the Muslim community to root out extremism and tackle the causes of radicalisation among a minority of our young people. To that end, we are meeting individuals and organisations from across the Muslim communities to discuss where the Government can support them in taking forward recommendations from the Preventing Extremism Together report, as well as other initiatives.

The issue of when free speech should be curtailed in the interests of the protection of individuals or society is clearly highly sensitive. The Government are committed to maintaining free speech in this country and the proud tradition of tolerance that we have inherited. To do that, we need to adapt to the new challenges that arise, to work out the boundaries that have to be applied, and to work with all our communities to ensure that both tolerance and free speech are as real for our children as they have been for us. To that end, such matters will always, I hope, be the subject of profound and thorough debate in this place whenever they arise, as they have today.

Important points were raised in the debate, and I shall try to run through them as I come to a close. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, rightly asked why Abu Hamza was not prosecuted earlier—a question very much in the public eye. As the Crown Prosecution Service and the police made clear in a recent public statement, despite information being submitted to the CPS on two occasions prior to 2003, at that stage it was felt by those authorities that there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr Hamza with any offence. I draw the noble Baroness's attention to an important letter in today's Daily Telegraph on that point from Ken McDonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions. It sets out from a prosecutory perception, and the CPS's view, how the prosecutions of Mr Hamza and Mr Griffin took the time that they did. He states clearly in the letter that there was evidence of a parity of approach, and we have to take that at face value.

The noble Baroness also referred to the Maya Evans arrest and made reference, as did others, to Parliament Square. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, raised the question about the use of the provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Provisions from that legislation have been enforced since 1 August last year. The majority of organisers have applied for authorisation to demonstrate, and I am advised that some 66 demonstrations have taken place with an authorisation. However, some groups have tested the legislation, perhaps provocatively, and there have been 23 arrests for taking part in unauthorised demonstrations. In all those cases, the organisers had not properly applied to the Metropolitan Police for an authorisation.

It is a longstanding tradition in this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, rightly argued, that people are free to gather together and demonstrate their views, provided that they do so within the law. Equally, access to Parliament must be maintained, and those living and working in and around the building should be able to do so in safety and free from harassment. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said, there has to be a balance between the rights of those working around Parliament and the rights of protesters. The noble Lord was right to say that difficult and fine judgments have to be made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, asked a question, on which she had given advance notice, about the commission on faiths. I am conscious that the noble Baroness wants that to be set up soon, and I share that sense of urgency. Consultation with faith leaders and what are described as wider stakeholders working towards the development of the commission, were sent out in the autumn. The Home Secretary is now considering what the consultation means and how it will affect the scope and work of the commission. We are all hopeful that those considerations will be completed so that progress can be made. It is an important body and, as the noble Baroness argued, it is probably more important now than when it was first considered.

The noble Baroness also drew attention to what has been described as the police under-reaction to the recent protests, as did the noble Lord, Lord Soley. The Metropolitan Police have set up a post-event investigation to review evidence gathered by the specialist officers who attended the demonstration last weekend, which includes video and sound recording, CCTV and officers' written records. I am advised that the police will pass evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service to make a proper judgment on whether an offence has been committed. That has to be right. It is the professional body, which is independent of politics and the Executive. I can see the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, nodding because he made the point that it is for the CPS to make the decision on whether it is proportionate and right to proceed.

This has been a useful debate. I have certainly learnt something from it. The contributions have been powerful and the debate needs to continue. We in government believe in freedom of speech and in people's right to protest. It is fair and proportionate that there should be a measured response. Of course we need to be vigilant at all times. Again, I congratulate the noble Baroness. She has done a first-rate job in bringing the debate forward, and I hope that it is not the last time that we have the opportunity to reflect and consider the important issues that she has raised in her perspicacious way and with such thoroughness and great articulation. I congratulate all the others who have added to the sense that it is a debate for now and also one for the future.

Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative 5:08 pm, 9th February 2006

My Lords, I am grateful for the timely and wise advice I received from the government Front Bench. In commenting gently on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I suggest that it is as serious to curtail free speech on the basis of political correctness as it is to curtail it on any other basis.

On the remarks of my noble friend Lord Soley, my objection to giving Sinn Fein air time was that it was killing not only British soldiers at the time, but innocent British citizens, and urging others to join them in murdering and wounding. I made it clear that that kind of action could not be under the heading of free speech.

I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have been kind enough to take part in this debate, and to give such thought and care to what they have said this afternoon. It is worth thinking about the point that, perhaps 200 years from now, people in this House may quote, from the everlasting Hansard of 9 February 2006, some of the comments on free speech made here. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.