Blasphemy is dead! Long live blasphemy!

England’s dusty, archaic and unpopular blasphemy laws look set to be abolished, but Ofcom and others are keeping their censorious spirit alive.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

Now I know what tabloid journalists mean when they say: ‘You couldn’t make it up.’

Last week, secularists and rationalists around the UK raised a collective glass of champagne and let off some party poppers after the House of Lords agreed to add an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill abolishing the blasphemy laws. ‘It is disgraceful that such a relic of religious savagery has survived into the twenty-first century’, said Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society. Quite right, too. Good riddance to the ‘savage’ laws which, in erecting a forcefield of offence-detection around God, his baby Jesus and the people who worship them, were an affront to freedom of speech.

Yet this week, not seven days later, a tiny group of Christians – one might even call them a ‘sect of Christians’ – managed to get a series of adverts banned on the basis that it was offensive to Christianity.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 23 complaints about the TV promo for ghd hair products. The ads said that ghd – which makes gel, mousse, hairspray and the like – represents a new ‘religion for hair’, and featured beautiful women with ghd-enabled hairstyles praying, carrying candles, and wearing lingerie as they clasped rosary beads to their bosoms in a state of supplication. Most of the complaints were from Christians, including one from the Archdeacon of Liverpool, The Venerable (allegedly) Ricky Panter. The ASA upheld the complaints, denounced the ads as ‘offensive’, and decreed that they must never again be shown ‘in their current form’.

In summary? Blasphemy is dead! Long live blasphemy!

These recent bizarre events show that censorship is not being eradicated in Britain. Instead it’s having a bit of spit-and-polish applied and being rehabilitated as Brand New, Gleaming, Glistening, PC Censorship! Old forms of punishment and censure for people who ‘cross the line’ are being replaced with new forms of wrist-slapping for those who dare to speak, write or think offensively. Indeed, the blasphemy laws, very rarely used, have been abolished in practice for 20 years or more. Yet as secularists, and even the Lords (not previously known for their commitment to liberty or democracy), ‘bravely’ shadow-box with the ghost of blasphemy, they seem not to have noticed that new censorious protections for easily offended religionists – and non-religionists – are being institutionalised. Maybe it’s all that celebratory champagne they’ve prematurely been quaffing.

In many ways, the new anti-offence censorship is worse than the old blasphemy-busting laws. The Advertising Standards Authority, like its ugly cousin the Office of Communications (Ofcom), is based on the very modern notion that people have a right not to be offended. As I pointed out on spiked in January, when the ASA reprimanded Ryanair for its ad showing a scantily-clad schoolgirl promoting ‘HOTTEST back-to-school air fares’ (which a measly 13 people complained about), this means that infinitesimally small numbers of people can successfully get something censored on the basis that it hurt their feelings.

That’s because the ASA’s starting point is the PC notion that ‘words hurt’, and moreover that being ‘hurt by words’ is one of the worst things that can ever happen to a group of people or even just to one touchy individual sitting at home watching the box on a Saturday night. With its permanently switched-on Offensiveness Antennae, and its willingness to act on the complaints of two, three or 23 super-sensitive souls in order to protect everyone and anyone from ever seeing anything that might shock them, the ASA is even more hawk-like in its hunt for ‘outrageous’ material that must be censored than that old God Squadder and pursuer of blasphemy suits, Mary Whitehouse, ever was.

What’s more, the old blasphemy laws at least had the benefit – if that is the right word (and I know it isn’t) – of having a clearly defined object that had to be protected from ridicule and abuse. The laws made it illegal to blaspheme against God, which included denying His being or providence, reproaching Jesus Christ in a contumely manner, or scoffing at or ridiculing the Holy Scriptures. They outlawed any ‘contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible’. Where the blasphemy laws punished those who knowingly and purposefully insulted the Christian deity, the new censorship is entirely subjective: anyone can claim to have felt offence, and then demand censorship as the cure to their wounded feelings, even if the words were not intended to be offensive. As a result of its loose subjective nature, the new censorship is more far-reaching and ravenous in its devouring of offence-making heretics than the blasphemy laws were (at least in modern times).

Under the ASA’s and Ofcom’s regimes, every feeling of offence must be taken seriously. Thus a radio ad that played on the double meaning of the word ‘faggot’ (which can refer to a meat product or a homosexual) was banned by Ofcom after three people complained about it. The new censorship makes everything into a potential blasphemy – a blasphemy against the sacred self-esteem of fragile individuals. The ASA, Ofcom and others, with their elevation of subjective feelings of offence to the moral highground of public debate, have given rise to an entire nation of little Jesus Christs, all of whom can stake a claim to protection from contumely comments, or scoffing and ridicule against their being and personal providence. They have made tyrannical gods of us all.

Also, as its name suggests, the blasphemy laws were based in law. Any bishop, Bible-basher or blue-permed lady-who-lunches who wanted something banned would have to go through the courts and try to convince a judge and jury of their case. At the very least, this meant that a jury of 12 men and women – who so often are an oasis of reason in irrational times – would have the opportunity to do some scoffing of their own and potentially throw the case into the gutter where it belonged. Not so with the new censorship. The ASA and Ofcom are unelected, unrepresentative bodies that do not have open, properly legalistic debates about content; they are, as one of Ryanair’s directors put it, a ‘bunch of unelected, self-appointed dimwits’. Who needs blasphemy laws when you have the new Church of Inoffensiveness issuing papal-style decrees on what can and cannot be said, depicted, shown and insinuated in public broadcasting?

In some ways, the new censorship can be seen as springing from ill-thought through attacks on the blasphemy laws. In recent times, some rather intolerant atheists have argued against blasphemy on the basis that it privileges Christianity above other religions. What about protecting Islam and Hinduism and Sikhism, they ask? In effect, they have called for parity of protection – and now they’ve got it, in the shape of broader religious hatred legislation and new bodies that combat all forms of offensiveness. Too often, protests against the blasphemy laws have been driven by a narrow and snobbish disdain for Christian worshippers themselves, who are considered stupid and obtuse. This, too, nurtures its own kind of censoriousness: frequently today, Christians are banned for ‘blaspheming’ against homosexuals or other apparently sensitive minorities.

I will be delighted if and when the blasphemy laws are burnt at the stake. But let’s not kid ourselves – that dead law is being replaced by living, breathing, even more pernicious forms of censorship. Indeed, many Christians have given up on the idea of using the creaky, unpopular blasphemy laws to get their way, and instead have complained about things like Jerry Springer the Opera to Ofcom and about the ‘blasphemous’ ghd adverts to the ASA. These censorious organisations provide a perfect home for those Christian leaders who do want to circumscribe public debate about religion. If you believe in free speech, then forget about the already deceased blasphemy laws, and get to work on a far more pressing task: step forth and blaspheme in the most profane, obscene, scurrilous and ludicrous manner possible against the new tyranny of anti-offensiveness.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill revealed the prudishness of the Advertising Standards Authority and how advertising is a free-speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Nathalie Rothschild looked at London Underground’s ban on posters for the play Fat Christ. Duleep Allirajah criticised the media reaction to a football celebration that no one complained about. Or read more at
spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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