LampedusaDoes the NUJ really want the STUC to commit itself to pressing for a change in the law to protect Katie Hopkins and the Editor of the Sun?

Anti-immigrant hysteria is the magic carpet that might fly British voters rightwards, where they need to be if bankers and corporate executives are to keep syphoning money from the poor to the rich.

Nigel Farage does a great job at piloting the carpet, so long as there are only far-right fan-boys on board. But his position as party leader has forced him into the more or less grown-up forum of the leadership debates, where the Greens and the SNP have flamed all his attempts to push Cameron and Miliband into bigotry-envy.

Last Tuesday,  Ed Miliband tweeted support for a renewal of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, to prevent migrants drowning. He’d very likely have done that even if human decency hadn’t already turned out to be a vote-winner in the leadership debates. He’d have to, if he didn’t want to take a place in history alongside East German leaders jailed for having authorised a shoot-to-kill policy to deter people from crossing the Berlin Wall to the West.

The wall stood from 1961 until 1989. According to official figures, 138 people were shot while attempting to cross the wall over this period, and a total of perhaps 260 people died as a result of the wall, if other causes of death are taken into account . The number of people killed in the whole of Germany – not just Berlin – while trying to travel from East to West in the period 1949-1989 appears to be in the region 1000-2000.

Deaths amongst migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean dwarf these figures, and are just as clearly a consequence of government policy.

This year alone, if the suspected death toll from the latest sinking is confirmed, 1600 migrants and refugees have died trying cross the Mediterranean. The total last year was over 3000.

The UK Government last year defended the scaling back of Mediterranean rescue operations with the claim that they were a “pull factor” for migrants. This year Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wants to focus on blaming “traffickers”. So the immigration issue is once again good to go, so long as someone can be found who is prepared to score political points off drowned people.

Enter Katie Hopkins. There’s nothing much to stop her, since she won’t have to try debating Nicola Sturgeon any time soon. She just needs a little help from her friends to get the word out.

First in line was the Sun, with a circulation of 2 million. Katie Hopkins is one of its regular columnists. In her Friday piece she compared migrants to cockroaches and said gunboats should be used to stop them.

Following along behind came a cluster of movers and shakers whose brains have been addled by the various think-tanks and pundits who insist that racism and anti-immigrant buffoonery are respectable positions that need to be accommodated by the media. LBC Radio – “leading Britain’s conversation” – invited Hopkins to host a two-hour show on Sunday.

A surprising number of people seem to think that the way to deal with Katie Hopkins is to ignore her, lest our attention goes to her head. That would be good advice if it were directed at commissioning editors and their bosses. Unfortunately, they’ve already made their choice and she is already a thing. If some people agree with Hopkins, and the rest of us ignore her, politicians and their spin-doctors will naturally conclude that they will gain by borrowing some of her clothes. Job done.

What to do?

We can refuse to buy the Sun, but I’m already doing that. Most people who might listen to me are probably doing the same.

Whatever else you do, according to political commentator Ian Dunt, “you don’t deal with Katie Hopkins by calling the police.”

Ian Dunt usually writes very well about immigration and asylum, and his latest article is no exception. He calls the treatment of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean “a crime against civilisation.” But he stands in a political tradition that is more libertarian than leftist. There is no particular reason why the rest of us should turn to him for guidance on how to deal with the far right. It’s disappointing that English Pen and Index on Censorship have both tweeted approval of his article.

There shouldn’t be any need for anyone to call the police. They can act against the publication of illegal material without receiving a complaint. They would almost certainly do so if a Muslim scholar wrote about people killed as a result of jihad in the terms that Katie Hopkins used.

Katie Hopkins doesn’t mention race anywhere in her article. But it would surely be difficult to deny that, in the language of the Public Order Act 1986, “having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up”.

Ian Dunt acknowledges that there is potentially a basis for Katie Hopkins and the Sun to be prosecuted under the Public Order Act for inciting racial hatred. The Sun’s lawyers must have read Katie Hopkins piece carefully, and have presumably advised differently. But whatever they have told their bosses, everyone knows that the real issue is that the police and the CPS will not act on this matter if they can help it.

Should we write to the police to remind them of their duties? “Absolutely not”, says Ian Dunt.

It isn’t that he thinks we’d be wasting our time. He just thinks that the law against inciting racial hatred is a bad law. He says:

“Incitement to violence is therefore a useful phrase, because it encapsulates how free speech does not extend to encouraging others to take away the freedom of others – in this case to live life without fear of attack. It’s also useful to have laws against harassment or abuse, which limit the freedom of the person the messages are intended for. And there are public safety and convenience tests as well, which is why you shouldn’t be able to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre if there isn’t one.

The crime of incitement to racial hatred sets the bar much lower, however. It does not claim that violence will result. It claims only that hatred will result.

This is not morally tolerable.”

He presumably thinks – though he does not explicitly say so – that the “racial hatred” section of the Public Order Act 1986 should be repealed or significantly amended.

Of course he’s right to argue that freedom of speech should not lightly be restricted. And of course the statutory protection against race hatred isn’t  perfect. It’s the outcome of progressive, anti-racist campaigning coupled with a state and corporate need to manage and contain the consequences of racist tendencies in society.

Race hate is special because racism has been part of the structure of European and American societies for several centuries, because it has been a key component of enormous crimes that include imperialist aggression, colonial robbery, slavery and genocide, and because it still has political and social force today.

It still has the capacity both to incite large-scale crime and to make it invisible. It is implicated in war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,  in the continuing state murder of refugees through the agency of traffickers and the sea, and in the detention of asylum-seekers who have committed no crime.

Because of all this history, and because of the daily facts of life in Britain, every expression of race hatred presses down on people of colour, exposes them to abuses that may be large or small, explicit or tacit, violent or non-violent. It creates systemic, collective harassment that is at least as destructive as the specific kinds of harassment that Ian Dunt believes should indeed be proscribed by law.

Calls for legislation against race hate to be weakened or repealed are not as offbeat as might be thought. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has tabled a motion at this year’s STUC Congress urging

“…all members to remain vigilant in monitoring any threats to freedom of expression, which may result from the provisions of current Scottish or UK law, with a view to seeking the repeal of any legislation which, without exceptional cause, limits the right of citizens freely to debate public issues, to express their views, and to campaign without fear of prosecution.”

The motion does not say what legislation it is directed against. The only background it provides is a reference to the “the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the subsequent debate on the limits of freedom of expression.” Presumably the motion has been tabled in anticipation of prosecutions over racial or religious hatred. It accepts that free speech may need to be limited where there is “exceptional cause”, but there is nothing exceptional about race hate.

Journalists’ freedom of expression is limited mainly by the business strategy and political outlook of their bosses, just like the freedom of workers in other industries. A motion urging support for media workers who refuse to handle hate material would be very welcome. Instead, the NUJ has put forward a motion whose main beneficiaries will be media moguls who wish to use racism to boost sales and help out their Tory friends, or other friends even further to the right. Journalists arguing for this kind of “freedom” are like building workers arguing for “freedom” from health and safety legislation.

The Society of Black Lawyers has today written to the Metropolitan Police urging them to investigate Katie Hopkins and the Editor of the Sun with a view to prosecution for incitement to racial hatred under the Public Order Act 1986.

Does the NUJ really want the STUC to commit itself to pressing for a change in the law to protect Katie Hopkins and the Editor of the Sun?

Photo: Migrants arriving at Lampedusa, by Sara Prestianni. Some rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Freedom of Speech or Freedom for Hate Speech?

  1. Thank you, Richard, for this article and raising this very important point. I am continuously amazed at the sheer lack of historical knowledge, not to mind lack of knowledge of contemporary realities, amongst people who advocate reducing what are, in any case, very tight laws on the prosecution of incitement. Hiding behind the idea of “exceptional cause” and stating that “of course there must be limits” are standard arguments that exempt people from the much more difficult job of staring group-based enmity in the face, admitting to the complexity of the situation and our complicity in it, and the responsibility of doing something to save the lives of people affected by the violence that these discourses legitimate. On a lighter note and to borrow an idea from Stanley Fish, isn’t it funny how journalists themselves seem to think words have no effect in the larger scheme of things?!

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