Examination of Witnesses (Questions 207-219)|
THURSDAY 18 JULY 2002
207. Good afternoon. This is a public meeting
and is being televised. I wonder whether you would briefly introduce
yourselves. We have a CV from all of you but, for the transcript,
I think it would be a good idea.
(Mr Pollock) I am David Pollock. I am
a member of the Executive Committee of the British Humanist Association
and incidentally a member of the board of the Rationalist Press
Association. I have been active in the humanist movement in a
voluntary capacity for about 40 years.
(Ms Stinson) I am Hanne Stinson. I am the executive
director of the British Humanist Association, since December last
year. I have been a humanist all my life but not involved in the
organisation before then.
(Mr Wood) I have been an atheist all my life and I
have been the executive director of the National Secular Society
for six years. I have done a fair amount of campaigning in both
the European Parliament and the Royal Commission for the reform
of the House of Lords, for example.
(Dr Nash) I am Dr David Nash, a senior lecturer in
history at Oxford Brooks University. I am also author of a book
and a number of articles on the history of blasphemy in Britain.
208. Some of you have already sent written evidence
in, for which we thank you very much. We know that Mr Pollock
has been listening to our deliberations on previous occasions.
Could I ask one preliminary question? Last Thursday at St Martin's,
there was an event. I have had correspondence about it and I think
it would be only fair to ask you whether you have any comments
on what happened. If you have not, we will accept that but if
you have any comments we would be very pleased to hear them.
(Ms Stinson) As we are informed that a tape of that
event may well be going to the CPS, it would not be appropriate
for us to comment.
209. That is what I heard and that is why I
put the question in the way that I did.
(Mr Wood) The objective was to draw attention to what
we saw as being the absurdity of the blasphemy law.
210. I am not going to pursue the matter any
further. We are equally interested in the views of both organisations,
so you can take it in turns but certainly we want to hear everybody
on all these subjects. Blasphemy can take many forms but is generally
believed to be the only criminal offence where the Church of England
is the perceived victim. Should the law be amended so as to provide
protection for other Christian groups and other faiths? If so,
how? Should it be repealed? If not, why not?
(Dr Nash) The common law of blasphemous libel should
be repealed without delay. It is an antiquated piece of legislation
211. Forgive me: it is not legislation; it is
(Dr Nash) Indeed. It was intended to preserve the
peace and national security of the realm and has in the past been
used against those critical of religion and those on the fringes
of the Christian religion itself. The situation that this law
originally addressed no longer applies and has not applied in
Britain for the best part of a century. Those who now fall foul
of the law are writers and artists rather than religious radicals.
They generally tend to not intend the crime of which they are
accused. This indicates that blasphemy is a peculiar species of
libel, where the offence is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
This is emphasised in the last case law, the famous Gay News
case, which removed the decency test which had operated since
1883. This case also established that the law was not related
to breach of the peace and the prosecution henceforth has merely
to prove the fact of publication. Thus, in a society which has
largely become tolerant of religious difference, the law in this
instance has become more draconian. It is often said that the
law is a dead letter because we live in an increasingly secular
society and the Home Office has tended to believe this for some
70 years. The very existence of this Committee indicates that
religion is becoming more important and is taking a greater share
of public space in modern society. It would be sensible to say
that the offence of blasphemy encourages feelings of offence incompatible
with the state's desire to be theologically even handed. In short,
it is a dangerous tool that would be reached for by the litigious
and the unscrupulous. Also, its current status as a unique species
of protection for one branch of Christianity is indefensible in
the modern, pluralist world.
212. That is a strict answer to the question
but it does not answer the other part of what we have asked. Granted
that it has all those defects, is there anything else that you
think ought to be done about this area of law?
(Dr Nash) Clearly if the law is bankrupt, there are
two options. There is either the option of extension or abolition.
We certainly believe that the issue should be one of abolition.
Extension is something that the Home Office has looked at on a
number of occasions, once 70 years ago and again in 1985. On both
occasions, the problems were considered to be insuperable. Extending
the law was considered to be unwise, unworkable and counter productive.
Clearly one of the most important problems in this area is the
issue of the definition of religion and precisely how this is
to be addressed.
(Mr Wood) I would like to draw the Committee's attention
to just how rare blasphemy is in usage in western democracies.
Norway, Spain, Sweden and the US no longer make blasphemy an insult
to religious belief. In five other countries, Belgium, Denmark,
France, Germany and the Netherlands, laws prohibiting insult to
religion have in recent years been narrowly interpreted and rarely
applied. I have taken that information from an Austrian case,
the Otto Preminger case. Neither are we aware, from having
made extensive inquiries, of any attempt to privilege more than
one religion in a western democracy as blasphemy. I believe that
that is totally impractical.
213. Have you looked at all at the laws in Commonwealth
countries which have an English origin, because you will find
that that situation does not apply in Canada, Australia and many
other Commonwealth countries which have used mainly the Australian
expedientto some extent, the Indian expedientand
(Mr Wood) I have not.
214. You might like to do so because it may
be that you will be able to enlighten us on whether you disagree
with the way they have done it as well.
(Mr Wood) Indeed.
(Ms Stinson) We feel particularly that the blasphemy
law is a fundamental question of freedom of speech. We also notice
that the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights see the law as
potentially in breach of Article 10 on freedom of expression,
of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Law Commission
have also pointed out that almost every offence that might be
covered by the blasphemy laws is an offence under another law.
The only exception to that would seem to be the publication of
material without its public display and/or without that material
being likely to cause a breach of the peace. That seems to be
the only area that is exclusively within the blasphemy law. We
agree completely with everything that has been said about extending
to other religions. That is unworkable because of the difficulty
in defining religion. We recognise that a number of people may
be apprehensive about the effect of a repeal because they feel
it might precipitate a flood of blasphemy and an assault on their
beliefs. We do not think that is right. We think the effect of
the law in that sense is marginal, even if it is sporadic and
unpredictable, and the fears of the minority should not influence
the law in this way. Any effect that it may have in that way is
bound to be transitory and probably very brief.
(Mr Pollock) The Law Commission in their 1985 report,
paragraph 244, rejected the argument from the apprehensive minority.
Chairman: We have now received the supplementary
paper that you sent us about section two of the Ecclesiastical
Courts Jurisdiction Act. I am not going to ask you any questions
about that but we have it and it is very much a matter that we
are proposing to consider. Thank you for your views on that.
215. Can the witnesses say anything about the
right to bring private proceedings? I was under the impression
that after the Whitehouse episode, either under the Prosecution
of Offences Act or in some other way, it was no longer possible
for an individual like Mrs Whitehouse to bring proceedings. I
am told I am wrong about that and I would like to obtain your
views, whether you think somebody such as Mrs Whitehouse could
still take the sort of action that she did.
(Mr Pollock) I do not know what the state of the law
is. So long as blasphemy survives as an offence, private prosecutions
should not be brought because it is an open invitation to people
with eccentric views to create a great deal of difficulty for
people who are comparatively in the mainstream.
216. Do you think anything has changed since
the Gay News case?
(Mr Pollock) As to the facts of the matter, I cannot
Baroness Massey of Darwen
217. What other harm do you think the law of
blasphemy does? You have all mentioned various aspects of this
but fundamentally what harm is done by it?
(Mr Pollock) The harm it does is that it does to a
small extent inhibit freedom of speech, as for example the European
Court of Human Rights upholding the British Board of Film Classification's
ban on that video on vicious practices. More important, it is
a political minefield. There are very few mines in it but who
knows when one is going to go off when you tread incautiously?
(Mr Wood) I do not think we should regard the fact
that the last person prosecuted did not happen to go to prison
to be in itself an indication that the effects of people being
convicted are entirely benign, because I have heard on several
occasions that the editor of Gay News, as a result of all
the strain of the trial and trying to keep the magazine going
at the time that this expensive process went through, had his
life curtailed as a result of that. Some of my predecessors in
the free thought movement, G W Foote and others, where admittedly
there was hard labour as well involved in their imprisonment,
had their lives ruined and the length of their lives was curtailed
as a result of the punishment they received.
Bishop of Portsmouth
218. I have a great deal of sympathy with the
line you have taken about the blasphemy law. That is quite similar
to the paper that we are receiving from the Church of England.
I appreciate also this whole debate is about freedom. I was an
atheist about sport as a child because of eyesight and physical
coordination but I have been turned into an agnostic about it
by having spawned a brilliant cricket playing son. If I had not
spawned him, I might still be an atheist about sport and therefore
regard as a total waste of time what goes on in many cases on
Saturdays and the need for laws to protect the public, to ensure
that sport goes on. On that basis, is there not a caseI
am not sure in my own mind whether it should be abolition or extensionfor
saying that even if one rejects what religious activity means,
but I would still want to have the theoretical protection of a
humanist funeral, if one wants to keep hold of freedom, is there
not a case for saying that even if one rejects what religious
activity is about in the same way that I might say that playing
football means nothing, there ought to be some means of protecting
that kind of activity? I am trying to argue the case for the sake
(Mr Wood) As far as the humanist funeral is concerned
or any other, we will come back to that perhaps in the context
of the Ecclesiastical Courts' Jurisdiction. Clearly, we do not
want to see any kind of funeral interrupted and I do not think
the existence or not of the blasphemy law has any direct bearing
on that. As far as the blasphemy law is concerned, taking your
analogy, we are going to have to come to the point when we move
on to religious incitement that in a multicultural society there
are so many different views that people have, so many different
things that they hold important. Some of these are mutually exclusive.
Therefore, it is not the way it was when blasphemy started, where
the vast majority of the population all subscribed to the doctrines
of the established church. One of the effects of that is that
we are going to have to realise, as a society, that there are
things going on that non-religious people find offensive that
religious people do and vice versa, and we are going to
have to realise that as long as there is no danger involved we
have to say, "No, that is not for me. I am going to go away
and leave it", unless there is an issue for public order
or people are being physically threatened. It is a sign of our
maturity as a society that we have to say, "No, we cannot
go down the route of trying to pretend that nobody is going to
be offended." Where do we stop? How many religions are we
going to try and protect in this way? Are we going to have the
courts involved in trying to establish the theological niceties
of these hundreds of religions and the sects within the religions
that disagree? It is a Pandora's box and we cannot go down that
route. Freedom of speech and expression must mean that that route
is absolutely inappropriate.
Baroness Richardson of Calow
219. If I heard you right what you said was
anybody has a right to say anything because everybody has a right
not to listen.
(Mr Wood) I did give some qualifications.