OFFENCE Campaign Update: Rushdie et al meet with Fiona MacTaggart

On 25th January 2005, a delegation from English PEN – Salman Rushdie, Geoffey Robertson QC and Lisa Appignanesi – along with Rowan Atkinson – met with Home Office Minister Fiona MacTaggart to voice their protest against the ‘incitement to religious hatred’ clause in the Bill which will be making its way through the Commons in a fortnight. English PEN represents some 900 leading writers in all fields who fear that the Government’s bill will radically restrict free expression in the UK.

Fiona MacTaggart sought to reassure the delegation by stating that the clause had a narrow remit: It was there to plug a loophole; to give Muslims the protection other faiths, such as Sikhs, already had. It would not target legitimate criticism of religion, or humour, but specifically that hate speech which is a precursor to violent action. Prosecutions would only take place at the discretion of the Attorney General.

The PEN delegation pointed out that they were in no way reassured by the Minister’s words. Lisa Appignanesi, Chair of the PEN Offence Campaign, pointed out that laws outlived the government which brought them in. And this was misguided law which would send a signal of approval to religions who choose to defend themselves by unacceptable means, turn faiths against each other, as well as create a climate of self-censorship in the creative industries.

As Salman Rushdie wryly said, Good Intentions had paved the way to hell before this. The law would be interpreted by faith groups as championing their right to be offended. The religious were notoriously quick to take offence. The Government’s intended narrow remit would inevitably have to be broadened when the religious groups the government already had in their sights protested that the legislation wasn’t broad enough, not what they had expected. Then, too, if events – a terrorist attack – took over, the law could be interpreted in a far more draconian way.

In a free society, he argued, you could not legislate for people not to hate each other. In democracies people argue. Fiona MacTaggart agreed and said the law was not intended to protect ideologies, but to protect people.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, a leading Human Rights Lawyer, pointed out that it was hard to separate out beliefs from believers in this area. The law was unnecessary and clumsily framed – yet it carried a very serious sentence. The Public Order Act had already been used to include incitement to ‘religious hatred’ and was perfectly adequate to the Government’s concerns, without new legislation so broadly based that it will affect all forms of communication. Publishers, the media, will all have to take expensive legal advice which will inevitably err on the side of caution. The Attorney General’s discretion. The government would do better to get rid of the Blasphemy law if it wants to give equality to all faiths in the UK, not encourage them to riot in front of theatres. Robertson noted that Muslim Groups had attempted to have Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses banned throughout the years of the Fatwa: under the new legislation they would inevitably try again.

Rowan Atkinson championed the cause of comics who would be targeted by the bill, since hatred has amongst its definitions ‘ridicule and contempt’ which are part and parcel of the stand-up’s satirical armoury. He wasn’t worried about himself. He could afford expensive lawyers. But a stand-up in a small town could be locked up, have his house searched, his life ruined while waiting for the Attorney General’s discretion. The incitement to religious hatred law had gone so badly in Australia that now the very people who had wanted it introduced were calling for it to be repealed.

The delegation reiterated its wish that the Government withdraw this misguided bill and not alienate so many of the very people who had voted it in.

English PEN’s Free Expression is No OFFENCE campaign is now lobbying the Lords – see Letter to Members of the House of Lords for more information.

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