Talking Offence

 * Talking Offence saw Lisa Appignanesi, Hari Kunzru, Howard Jacobson, Philip Hensher and Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris discuss the implications of the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill for freedom of speech. Lisa Appignanesi opened the discussion by noting that many PEN members had gathered a year ago as Salman Rushdie spoke about the need to defend free expression. The No Offence campaign against the government’s proposed bill had come a long way since then but society’s freedoms were increasingly coming under threat. 

Howard Jacobson spoke about the importance of preserving the right to offend and the exhilaration of breaking boundaries, arguing that people need to live in a world where they are tested by truths and lies. Philip Hensher argued that the law would be crossing a dangerous line and that to protect religion from criticism was essentially protecting beliefs from any line of questioning in a culture that was feeling less and less confident about expressing opinion. Hensher wanted to support irresponsibility, highlighting the case of Jerry Springer: The Opera and the pressure on its writers to defend the play as a serious production. Hensher also raised the issue of Britain’s relationship to other countries as a model of Western democracy, concluding “If we let the law go through it will have catastrophic consequences beyond our borders.”

Evan Harris spoke about the alliances that had formed in government, regardless of party and religion, over the issue of the Incitement to Religious Hatred bill, saying that a key ingredient of the campaign against the bill had been the voice of writers and commentators, with figures such as Rowan Atkinson speaking on the subject with more eloquence than many politicians. Harris argued that the line to be drawn against racial and religious offences was already well covered by existing laws and that incitement to violence, direct abuse and harrassment were already offences, adding that the government didn’t seem to understand the chilling effect that the bill would have on free speech and cultural criticism. The issue of governmental hypocrasy was also raised as it was pointed out that many MPs supporting amendments to the bill were also in favour of the blasphemy law.

Hari Kunzru felt that Britain was on the cusp of great fluidity and saw the bill’s impulse as plain – a sop thrown to the Muslim community in order to win back votes lost over the last few years – highlighting the fundamental hypocrasy of a bill that had the veneer of courtesy but in fact concealed underlying anger.

As the discussion was opened up to questions one member of the audience asked whether Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses would have been affected if the proposed law had existed at the time of its release. Lisa Appignanesi answered that the book would probably not have been published. Evan Harris added that the Incitement of Religious Hatred bill would feed on a culture of repressed speech and would stir aggravation and violence in the developing conflict between the religious and secular.

Thank you to all our speakers for their contributions to an absorbing and thought-provoking discussion.

Report by Alice O’Hanlon

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