An Observer of the public’s ‘speech crimes’
Why did one of Britain’s oldest liberal papers collude with the state in the arrest of a man for expressing an idea?
Something very odd happened at the weekend. A 40-year-old member of the far-right British National Party (BNP) was arrested for burning a copy of the Koran in his own back garden. Yes, it is apparently now a crime to express your disdain for a certain religious faith in the privacy of your own home. But that’s not the end of it. What makes this case especially odd is that the man in question – Sion Owens – was reported to the police by a broadsheet newspaper that claims to be liberal: the Observer. Since when has it been the job of the respectable, left-leaning press to grass people up to the cops for alleged speech crimes?
When spiked looked into this strange story, we discovered that there are some major disagreements at the Observer in relation to it. The crime correspondent defended the Observer’s actions, but one of the paper’s top columnists questioned the wisdom of reporting a private expression of ideas to the authorities.
Owens, a senior member of the BNP who lives in south Wales, does seem to be an odd individual. Going into his garden, placing a Koran in a metal Quality Street box, dousing it with flammable liquid and then setting it alight while a colleague filmed him – it was a stupid and childish act. However, it was done in a private garden. So regardless of the fact that it was videoed, this was a form of private expression, and therefore none of the state’s business.
The Observer clearly didn’t think so. When the film of the Koran-burning incident was leaked to the paper, it decided to inform the police ‘immediately’; it sent them the offending video. It also got the Home Office to chide Owens. ‘The government absolutely condemns the burning of the Koran. It is fundamentally offensive to the values of our pluralist and tolerant society’, a Home Office spokesman said. The Observer seems almost boastful about its actions. ‘A video clip of the act, leaked to the Observer and passed immediately to South Wales police, provoked fierce criticism from the government’, it said in Sunday’s paper.
Owens, the paper proudly informs us, was ‘arrested following an investigation by the Observer’. The Crown Prosecution Service is now withdrawing the case against Owens, thankfully, but the chief prosecutor says an investigation is ongoing and ‘almost certainly other proceedings will ensue’.
So why did the Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper and a proud upholder of liberal values, collude with the state in the arrest of a man for expressing his thoughts in his own garden? Such behaviour seems to contradict the views of CP Scott, a former editor of the Guardian, the sister paper of the Observer, after whom the trust that currently owns the Guardian Media Group is named. ‘Comment is free’, said Scott, and ‘the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard’. What would he think of his successors effectively policing their opponents’ private speech?
Mark Townsend, the crime, defence and legal affairs correspondent at the Observer, who penned Sunday’s piece about the Koran incident, told spiked that he stands by the paper’s decision to inform the police. ‘On top of the free speech debate, this is clearly a security issue that had to be dealt with sensitively’, he says. ‘The issue isn’t just one of freedom of expression as there could be very serious violent repercussions.’
But this view isn’t shared by all at the paper. Henry Porter, a long-time columnist for the Observer and well-known commentator on civil liberties, told spiked: ‘I am not in the loop on the thinking that went into this decision: there may be all sorts of concerns about which I am unaware. On the face of it, though, it would seem a doubtful decision because handing over the video, which appears to have been made for private use and was in a sense a private expression of this individual’s views, is likely to inflame feelings more than if the matter was simply ignored. That is the practical aspect.’
‘The second worrying part’, he continues, ‘is that this does indeed seem to sanction an invasion of the private sphere, in which, of course, all manner of reprehensible thoughts and actions are concealed’.
However, he says, ‘If there is evidence that the individual was about to publish the video, then I think there is perhaps cause for police action because of what happened a few days ago in Afghanistan where several people lost their lives. It is a delicate issue and by no means clear cut. However, it is the case that prohibition of an act, whether in public or private, often makes that act more likely to occur. That is why I am against the ban on the burqa in France.’
Unlike Porter, I believe that Sion Owens should also have had the freedom to release the film into the public domain, if he so chose. Freedom of speech, the cornerstone of all our freedoms, is too often compromised on the grounds that people might be harmed as a result of it. But people should be trusted to make up their own minds about whether to act upon footage of some idiot burning the Koran, rather than prevented by the state from seeing such footage in case it drives them crazy. To censor is to treat the public as a pogrom-in-waiting, whose eyes must be protected from offensive words and imagery. It is an updated, perhaps slightly more PC version of the same patronising assumptions that were exposed in the Lady Chatterley Trial: ‘Would you let your wife or servant read it?’ The question some are implicitly asking in relation to the BNP Koran video is: ‘Would you let the white working classes watch it?’ or ‘Would you let angry Muslims watch it?’. Perhaps that is what Townsend was getting at when he said the video could have ‘serious violent repercussions’.
The denigration of free speech through the idea that sections of the public are volatile and unpredictable is captured in the way that, in recent years, the category of ‘incitement’ has been replaced by the looser term ‘stirring up hatred’. As spiked has previously observed: ‘There was a time when, in legal terms, to incite meant to be in a close relationship with another person or group of people and to try to convince them or cajole them, face-to-face and intensively, to commit a crime. Today the term “incitement” is used far more promiscuously so that everything from a speech at a rally to a Jamaican dancehall song playing at a disco to a placard saying “I hate Islam and you should hate it too” can be said to incite hatred or violence.’ The treatment of all sorts of words and images as forms of ‘incitement’ speaks to a new degraded view of people as fundamentally incapable of enjoying full freedom of speech.
To my mind, the Observer/BNP affair could have some potentially quite Orwellian consequences. It seems that even within journalism – the fourth estate – some no longer understand how crucially important freedom of speech is. Some even seem to think it acceptable to play a part in having someone arrested for the ‘crime’ of expressing his views in a private arena. It will be a very sad day when people are not at liberty to give voice to their inner feelings without the threat of criminal charges. That would be bad for us all – for the public, for freedom, and for journalism.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.