Is Nothing Sacred?
o commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the successful prosecution of James Kirkup's blasphemous poem, 'The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name' a group of secularists recently arranged for a public recitation of it on the steps of St Martin's in the Field church in central London. Advanced notice of the event was announced in the press: "Celebrities will be challenging Britain's blasphemy laws …". The "celebrities" included the accomplished jazz singer George Melly, agony aunt Claire Rayner, Brian Sedgemore MP and Jonathan Meades, feature writer for 'The Times'. These four, with others, are listed as Honorary Associates of the National Secular Society and Ms Rayner has the further distinction of being the Vice President of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.
The summer 2002 edition of the 'Gay and Lesbian Humanist' is a special issue devoting half of its pages to the trial in 1977 with articles attacking the judge, his judgement and the law against blasphemy. The editor of this magazine invited me to write an article to balance contributions from others. I was hesitant but agreed on the understanding that Kirkup's poem would not be published again. When I received the magazine I was really taken aback by the vehemence of the ill feeling that persists towards Mary Whitehouse so many years after her court action upholding the law. It is evident from this magazine that gay and lesbian humanists, for seemingly obscure reasons, perceive the law on blasphemy to be an obstacle to their endeavours.
Described by some as a "homoerotic fantasy", the obscene poem is even being used by secular activists for purposes disapproved of by the author. Kirkup has said: "They are using it for political ends … The whole thing is ridiculous … Let the law wither away". In November last year the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said in the House of Commons: "Its my own view that there will come a time when it will be appropriate for the blasphemy law to find its place in history" but there should be an offence of "incitement to religious hatred." Mr Blunkett went on: "We believe people of all faiths have the right to live and practice their faith in peace." Everyone would agree with this although it should surely be a complementary offence rather than an alternative.
The European Convention on Human Rights (Article 9) provides that everyone has the right to manifest his religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance. By necessary implication this article imposes a duty on all of us to refrain from insulting or outraging the religious feelings of others. The Convention also provides for freedom of expression but this is not absolute and carries with it duties and responsibilities aimed at preventing, among other things, outraging peoples' religious feelings. Rather than show respect for these "feelings" those who have an irrational and spiteful desire to insult others in this way suggest that God does not need us to protect Him and so blasphemy laws are an anachronism and should be swept away.
n recent years film, radio and especially television, have been responsible for considerable - and continuing - offence by the inclusion, as expletives, of holy names, Jesus and/or Christ, on their own or in combination with obscenities. Whilst this would not necessarily be regarded as criminally blasphemous, within the meaning of the law, it nevertheless offends and hurts those who love our Lord and Saviour. Such abusive language in the media has become commonplace and is almost entirely unnecessary, without dramatic integrity or purpose or justifiable in any context. It demonstrates a careless lack of imagination and poor command of the English language. Given that the modern means of social communication are so pervasive any offence is likely to be caused simultaneously to millions of people.
It is coincidental that a House of Lords Select Committee, chaired by Lord Avebury, is currently considering and will be reporting on the law relating to religious offences. This committee has called for evidence on two main issues: whether existing religious offences (notably blasphemy) be amended or abolished (but not maintained!) and whether a new criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred is created.
In our short submission mediawatch-uk said: "A primary objective of the law should be to secure against widespread offence by the powerful mass media". We acknowledged that the Government's draft Communications Bill, currently progressing through Parliament, provides, rather inconsistently, for safeguards against religious bigotry but we said that this needed to be buttressed by effective law. The fact that the existing law has been invoked so rarely is a sure sign of its efficacy! We believe that this objective, perhaps more than any other, would win broad public support and would promote respect, civility and generally advance human progress.
We also stated that casual profanity in the media is a form of gratuitous discrimination that is unacceptable in plural society and, indeed, disregards the human rights of Christian believers and sympathisers not to suffer offence and insult. Accordingly, the current law on this matter should be retained.
At the conclusion of the Court of Appeal hearing in 1978 Lord Justice Scarman said: "I do not subscribe to the view that the Common Law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law. On the contrary, I think there is a case for legislation extending it to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians. The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the Kingdom. In an increasingly plural society, such as modern Britain, it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt …"
We must hope that the Select Committee will pay attention to these noble words and those in the creative media will look afresh at what Lord Scarman said. As a society we have given in to the demands of the pornographers to saturate our culture with sexually explicit imagery, we have given in to film and TV producers who demand the right to assault our senses with ever more brutal violence, we have given in to scriptwriters who demand the freedom to fill our ears with obscenities. If we give way to a vociferous group of fundamentalist atheists it will take no time at all for us to be hit by an unremitting wave of intolerant abuse. Nothing, indeed, will any longer be sacred.
This article first appeared in 'The Catholic Herald' 9 August 2002
Click here for 'The Blatant Blasphemy Corporation'
Click here for submission to the Select Committee on Religious Offences
Click here for Jerry Springer The Opera
Click here for Joining Form
n the 29 April 2003 David Cowan, lecturer at Westfield House, Cambridge, had an article published in 'The Times' legal section (page 8) on a House of Lords Select Committee which is about to report on laws on blasphemy and religious hatred. He said: "These are issues the committee may not wish to raise and we can expect reference to letting sleeping dogs lie, despite pressure to bring in the vet". The article said that the last successful prosecution was R v Gott in 1922. He went on:
"The committee, which held a private meeting on 10 April to consider a draft report, may well support the status quo … Whatever the outcome of the committee's deliberations, two things are certain. First, we are reminded that religion remains a force of social import. Second, there is a need to understand our religious heritage and the role of the established church in our society. Neither of these is likely to be resolved by the creation of new offences."
The Director of mediawatch-uk, John Beyer, sent the letter below to 'The Times' on 1 May 2003:
Sir, David Cowan (Law 29 April page 8) is not correct in stating that there were "no successful prosecutions" after RV Gott (1922) for blasphemy. In 1977 Gay News Ltd was successfully prosecuted for publishing a blasphemous libel. The Court of Appeal, the House of Lords and the European Court at Strasbourg dismissed appeals against the guilty verdict.
We hope that the Select Committee on Religious Offences will recommend a strengthening of the criminal law so that adherents of all religions will in future be protected from vilification, scurrilous attack and intolerant abuse. It is a matter of natural justice in our multi-faith society that discrimination of this sort should be outlawed.
After seeing the above Mr Cowan sent us the following letter, which we are pleased to publish, on 15 July 2003:
Dear Mr. Beyer,
I note that you have posted a letter to The Times on your website, and I wanted to respond to you directly.
I was aware of the Gay News case, and included reference to this in the article I submitted to The Times. Unfortunately, the paragraph discussing that case was excised during the sub-editing process to fit the page, which then rendered the article incorrect in this respect. The article as it stands was correct I believe, however, in respect to the outcome of the Committee's report, and I suspect that the report will now get lost in the labyrinth of Parliament. This is somewhat unfortunate, since there is a major public debate to be had on both issues and I am disappointed that there was not more media coverage of the publication. Perhaps the parliamentary debate will allow the issue to resurface, but I do not hold out much hope.
I hope this communication clarifies and is useful.