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No laughing matter

Laws against religious hate won't put comedians in jail - but they will make all of us bite our tongues.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Rowan Atkinson, the UK comic actor better known as Mr Bean, is apparently leading a satirists’ revolt against the government. Writing in The Times (London) on 17 October about home secretary David Blunkett’s proposal to extend the law on hate crimes to cover ‘incitement to religious hatred’, Atkinson said: ‘I am aghast at the notion that it could, in effect, be made illegal to imply ridicule of a religion or to lampoon religious figures.’ (1)

Atkinson’s comments were subsequently supported by others from the funny-world, including Sir John Mortimer, who criticised the proposals as ‘typical of a government which is fast losing respect for civil rights and which has a soft spot for censorship’ (2), and satirist Rory Bremner, who said: ‘I think if there is a God it is very important He has a sense of humour.’ (3)

Within hours, the government had rushed in to reassure comedians across the UK that the proposed measures were not in the slightest intended to be used against comics. ‘I think we are able to tell the difference between comic sketches and comedy and people who are trying to whip up and incite religious hatred’, said one Downing Street wit (4). Blunkett himself responded two days later in The Times, reassuring Atkinson that the new anti-terrorism bill ‘in no way threatens the freedom of satirists, mimics or joke-tellers’ and, furthermore, that ‘free speech, including parody, will not be touched in any way – only the type of poisonous rhetoric that, if left unchecked, can undermine community relations’ (5).

As I have argued previously, there are many dangers within the proposed new laws designed to make religious hate a crime – primarily, the way this endorses the notion of thought crime. You are punished not for what you do, but for what you think while doing what you do. And given that civil liberties groups have been historically reticent on these kind of laws, Atkinson’s objections are welcome. But are comics really likely to be jailed? And why does the government find it so hard to take a joker?

Atkinson wonders if the makers of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Not The Nine O’Clock News could find themselves prosecuted under new religious hate crime laws. Unlikely. The kind of jokes cited by Atkinson, that were ‘extremely funny’ in period and in context – like the one ‘showing worshippers in a mosque simultaneously bowing to the ground with the voiceover: “And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini’s contact lens”’ – just don’t seem funny today.

Comedians don’t make jokes like this now – partly because they know that, in multicultural, pluralist, tolerant Britain, they are less likely to be rewarded with laughter than they are to be met with lips pursed with disapproval. One of the great ironies about Blunkett’s proposals for a law against religious hatred is that there is barely any religious prejudice today – or if there is, it is a prejudice that dare not be admitted through comedy. Not The Nine O’Clock News would not be made in 2001 – which is presumably why, in searching for an example of the way comics could be banged up for religious hatred, Atkinson uses such a dated example.

Yet even if Not The Nine O’Clock News was made today, it is unlikely that the government could really bring itself to use its new laws. Our experience so far shows that, for New Labour, the importance of hate crime laws is not their usefulness on the ground, but the broader culture they create.

Blunkett’s proposals for a law against inciting religious hatred came as part of a broader package of new anti-terrorism measures, including the proposal to force businesses to hold email and internet usage records for 12 months. Ironically, it was the government’s own Red Tape tsar, Lord Haskins, who put the strongest case against these proposals.

Warning the government not to overreact to the 11 September attacks by introducing expensive and heavy-handed new laws, the head of the government’s Better Regulation Taskforce pointed to a failure to enforce existing laws and regulations in areas such as BSE and foot-and-mouth (6). The government, he said, should check the enforcement of existing laws before introducing new ones.

No doubt Lord Haskins has administration, not liberty, at the forefront of his mind. But it is true that this government, while so enthusiastic in inventing new and draconian laws, seems to be much less busy in enforcing them. From racial hate laws to anti-social behaviour orders, from the stalking law to the Terrorism Act, the letter of the new laws we have today makes such a broad spectrum of behaviour or activity illegal that you would expect the jails to be overflowing with otherwise-innocent people putting one foot wrong. Why isn’t this the case?

It seems that this government’s main use of the law is not for the practical purposes of keeping order, but for a more self-consciously moral purpose. The government is aware that there is less of a consensus than ever in society about what is right or wrong, or good or bad. It is aware, too, that it finds it harder than ever to shape that consensus. So when our insecure government ministers want to draw the line today between right and wrong – and show they really mean it – the first thing they often do is to make a law. It is not enough to say that racism is bad: it has to be illegal. The same goes for religious hate.

The trouble is, of course, that such laws are hard to enforce. The incitement laws, for example, have always been a very murky area: to prove that something that one person said had a direct impact upon the actions of another individual, causing them to commit a crime, is a very difficult thing to do. The incitement laws are complicated further by the fact that, in the field of race relations, it is also a crime to incite somebody to do something that is perfectly lawful – namely, to hate other people on account of their race. To expand these already confused laws to cover religious hate would make a grey situation even greyer – and more of a legal and administrative nightmare.

But as things go, today’s government does not need to enforce a law for it to have the desired effect. By marking out a series of – fairly arbitrary – forms of behaviour as being so bad they are illegal, the government enforces a more general climate of self-censorship, or ‘you can’t say that’.

Comedians might not want to make too many good jokes about religion in the first place; but if they – or their production company – even suspects that they could fall foul of the law, they are more likely to hold their tongues. Christians might have enough sense of the current etiquette to prevent themselves from voicing their disagreements with Islam, but the possibility – however remote – of legal retribution can only increase their reticence. And this is no less of a problem for the rest of us. We might not want to hear religious jokes or even religious views – but if people believe them, and if speech is to be free, these jokes and views should be aired.

It is nonsense for David Blunkett to argue that ‘free speech will not be touched in any way’ (except for whatever speech the government currently finds most upsetting). That just means that there will be no free speech. And as John Mortimer put it, the alternative to free speech is that ‘we must all think alike, or if we don’t, we must tiptoe around doing our best not to irritate other people by disagreeing with their opinions’ (7). We already have this situation – with or without seeing comedians in jail.

Read on:

Defend liberty – especially now, by Jennie Bristow

‘Religious hate’ should not be a crime, by Jennie Bristow

‘We can never be safe – but at least we can be free’, by Jennie Bristow

Terrorising liberty, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issues: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Free speech


(1) Religion as a fit subject for comedy, The Times (London) 17 October 2001

(2) ‘Oh Lord save us from the joke police’, John Mortimer, Daily Mail, 18 October 2001

(3) Downing Street reassures comics, BBC News Online 17 October 2001

(4) Downing Street reassures comics, BBC News Online 17 October 2001

(5) Humour and law on religious hatred, The Times (London), 19 October 2001

(6) Regulation advisor warns on new anti-terror regulations, epolitix press review, 17 October 2001

(7) ‘Oh Lord save us from the joke police’, John Mortimer, Daily Mail, 18 October 2001

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

Topics Politics

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