Decency on trial

Three cheers for the UK judges who defended our right to view dismembered fetuses.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Three cheers for the UK appeal court judges who ruled yesterday that the Prolife Alliance should have been able to show images of dismembered fetuses in its 2001 party election broadcast (1).

The BBC had refused to show the full broadcast before the election, claiming a duty to protect viewers from ‘material that offends against good taste and decency’. This, declared Lord Justice Laws, amounted to ‘censorship of political speech’.

The Prolife Alliance election broadcast was certainly not tasteful – ‘tiny limbs, bloodied and dismembered, a separated head’ is how one judge described it. It was not decent, nor did it have the public interest at heart – a woman’s right to abortion is a fundamental part of civilised society, that we limit at our peril.

But that the broadcast was disturbing and wrong doesn’t mean it should not have been shown. As Lord Justice Laws said, ‘if we are to take political speech seriously’ such matters ‘cannot begin to justify…censorship’.

It is only in hard cases that the right to free speech is won or lost. Views that are deemed sensible and tasteful by the majority of the population do not get censored.

The British public should have unimpeded access to the full spectrum of political opinion. As adults who went to the polls in 2001 to decide who should govern the country, we should have been trusted to make our own minds up about what is right and wrong. The whole point of an election is that we decide what it is our best interest – we do not require the paternalistic protection of the BBC, or any other priests of our taste and decency.

But, even in yesterday’s judgement, it seems that the judges could not resist straying into the territory of deciding what was and wasn’t in our interests. ‘Was there a pressing social need to ban this broadcast?’, asked Lord Justice Simon Brown, concluding that there was not, as the images represented ‘the reality, the actuality, of what is involved in the abortion process’.

It should not matter what the images represented; it should not matter whether the issue of abortion is socially pressing or not. Refusing to show them was censorship – and that’s all there is to it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) BBC found guilty of abortion censorship, Guardian, 15 March 2002

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Topics Politics


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