Radio roundup: the blasphemy edition

This is another archival repost, from jan 2008

Many people in Britain have been campaigning for a repeal of the blasphemy laws, which have had a bit of bad PR since they were used in an attempt to censor Jerry Springer: The Opera a few years ago, and since we saw how other countries use their blasphemy laws. The issue has come to the fore this morning because it will be discussed in parliament today and may be included in the current criminal justice bill. On Today (go to Weds 07:53), Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance attempted to argue against the repeal of these laws:

We shouldn’t be doing it at this time and this place … everybody knows that it will never be successfully used again … setting new legislation or repealing existing legislation sends out a signal to society about what is important … [this has been] part of the culture and the history of our country for many hundreds of years.

Oh yes. The culture and history card. I’m not aware of anybody — certainly no atheist or secularist — arguing for a ban on the innocuous features of our history and culture; indeed, you’ll find plenty of atheists admiring religious art or singing Christmas carols. But culture and history are not a good enough argument alone. Tuberculosis , capital punishment and death in childbirth are very much part of history and, thanks to Dickens and the heritage industry, our culture. That executing people for rebelling against the Church of England is part of history and culture does not convince me that it is something worth preserving. Horrocks went on to play the “Jesus is a very real friend to many people” card.

How about the claim that repealing the blasphemy laws would send out a signal to society about what we consider to be important values in Britain today? I hope so. It would say that British people value freedom of speech and put individuals before religious authorities. It would set a precedent which says that imaginary invisible friends do not have greater rights than real living people. The signal would say that organisations can not consolidate their power by intimidating dissenters into silence: a signal that seems rather timely, given the current trend of Western governments to restrict freedoms, and of Islamicist movements to intimidate individuals.

But what of the claim that this law itself is harmless? Horrocks claims (unless I have misunderstood him) that the last successful prosecution of the law was in 1922, but so far as I can tell, that is wrong. On Monday evening (Jan 6), Tom Robinson presented a brief history of the British gay liberation movement, in The Sex Lives Of Us, and talked about one of the few invocations of the law which have made it to court since the previous successful prosecution in 1921. Mary Whitehouse sued the Gay Times for “vilifying” Christ by publishing a poem about a gay and promiscuous Jesus. This was a case that was raised more than fifty years after the previous successful prosecution and long after Lord Denning had described the law as a “dead letter” that would never be successfully used again. It was a case which had nothing to do with defending a “very real friend” and everything to do with prejudice and homophobia. And that is the threat that this law poses today: the court may have rejected the case brought against Jerry Springer: The Opera, but the time and money that was lost means that it will be difficult for artists to fund even remotely controversial productions in future. The blasphemy law is a license to intimidate and discriminate, whether it can be prosecuted or not.

Fortunately, this law is in its last days. I have no doubt that only a tiny minority in this country are even remotely opposed to its repeal, and a lot more are in favour. Parliament seems to like modernising things when government gives it the chance, just so long as it remembers that it is not the US congress and does not need to pander to the extremists. You can read more about this at MediaWatch.

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