Yesterday we published Part 1 of this article asking the question How Free is Britain? Today we publish:
Part 2 – The restraints of custom and ideology
But perhaps more potent than formal laws and treaties – for they are unlimited and cannot be challenged in the courts – are the restraints imposed by custom and ideology.
Although we have never had freedom of expression, for most of the past century and a half the range of permitted opinion has been broad and the restrictions on what might be said have had more of a social content than a political one. Fifty years ago bad language and mention of matters such as illegitimacy and homosexuality were considered to be impolite, but the idea that whole areas of political discourse should be ruled out of public discussion was alien to the British.
In the past half century the range of what is not acceptable in “polite” company has shifted very much to the political. Gradually what has become known as political correctness has restricted public discourse on a large swathe of centrally important political questions to very narrow limits. Most particularly, anyone in public life or in the public eye, knows that it is death to their careers if not worse, to fail to pay at least lip service to the credo of the unholy trinity of political correctness: race, gay rights and sexual equality. To this “Trinity” may be added the more minor non-PC sins such as not being “green”, opposing any attempt to make society “safer” by passing laws which are sinister in their effects and generally unenforceable, or the advocacy of any idea which is not ostensibly directed towards the end of an undefined general equality.
But it is not only those that have a degree of celebrity or enhanced status within the public realm who need fear. Political correctness is by its nature totalitarian – the only acceptable view on any pc subject being the pc one – and all must heed its demands. Hence, all public employees, no matter how humble, must not only endure the humiliation of race awareness courses and sexual equality seminars, but live in fear of demotion at best and dismissal at worst if they are deemed to have shown non-pc behaviour or displayed non-pc thoughts. What applies to public service is mimicked increasingly by private businesses, especially the larger ones.
It is not that a person need be racist, homophobic or misogynist in any meaningful sense known to past generations to incur the wrath of the pc police. The politically correct have reduced the definition of what it is to be racist, homophobic and misogynist to such a narrow condition that any human being is in danger of falling foul of those who would cry bigot in the enthusiastic manner of the competing sides in the Reformation who cried heretic. Express a preference for one culture or nation over another and the speaker is racist. Let a pub landlord dare to mention that he prefers to employ good-looking girls as barmaids, and he is sexist. Mention that the legal approval of sexual acts by Gays in public lavatories might not be in the public interest and wait to be called homophobic.
Ironically, many members of the “protected” groups see that such behaviour is not to their advantage because it is both unreasonable in itself and likely to inflame prejudice against them. However, they have great difficulty in speaking out because not only do they face the usual abuse directed at anyone who stands against political correctness, but also attack from the most fanatical of activists from within their own minority group for being in effect Uncle Toms.
Revolutions notoriously devour their own. Just as the religious in the time of the Reformation had to go to ever greater extremes to prove their orthodoxy, so do the practitioners of political correctness become ever more extreme, some from a desire to be the most advanced and others from a fear of having their “soundness” questioned if they remain behind the ideological leaders.
The “right” sort of discrimination
The obnoxious contraction of what is permitted has a further danger for the unwary. Although the dictates of political correctness are in theory universal in practice they are applied with vastly greater enthusiasm against certain groups than others. In 2001 the television presenter Anne Robinson made what was obviously a joke about the Welsh on a programme entitled Room 101. The idea of the programme was for those appearing to consign something or someone to Room 101, the place in George Orwell’s 1984 where “the most terrible thing in the world happens”. Anne Robinson consigned the Welsh with the comment “What are they for?”
A day or so after the programme she became the subject of a police investigation for inciting racial hatred and a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. Some weeks after it was quietly announced that she would not be prosecuted. .
Compare that eager police response with that which occurred after the current director-general of the BBC, Greg Dyke who in 2001 described a meeting of BBC managers as “hideously white”.
As the law stands, the statement is unambiguously racist because Mr Dyke is making a claim about a recognised racial group and the use of the word “hideously” is highly inflammatory. The extremely unpleasant nature of it can be seen by substituting black or Asian for white: “hideously black”, “hideously Asian”. Its effect can only be to incite racial hatred against whites. The severity of the offence is greatly magnified by Mr Dyke’s then position as the head of our state funded broadcaster.
To test the pc water I made a complaint to the Metropolitan police. They refused to act, despite the fact that Dyke’s comment was not a joke and his public position was a very important one.
Equally worrying is the attempt by certain police forces to give quasi-official approval of a law which does not exist. The Public Order Act 1986 covers so-called hate crimes, which the Metropolitan Police define as “abusing people because of their race, faith, religion or disability – or because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual” (Daily Telegraph 10 11 03). In fact, the Act does not include any crime which is committed for reasons other than racial hatred.
In 2005 prosecutions were brought against the BNP leader Nick Griffin and BNP member Mark Collett for inciting racial hatred with evidence provided by the BBC (this from an organisation which initially refused to hand over film of IRA killings of two British servicemen in Northern Ireland). The BBC secretly filmed a closed BNP meeting in which Islam was represented as a menace to British society. The attempts at prosecution (there were two trials after the first one resulted in a hung jury on three charges and acquittals on others), failed to convict, but sent out a clear message of the extent to which those with power in Britain are willing to suppress free expression. It is not necessary to have any sympathy with the BNP to see the dangers in allowing politicians (and it required a politician, the attorney-general, to sanction the prosecution) to initiate criminal prosecutions against members of other political parties.
Sometimes the police enthusiasm to be pc makes them the object of ridicule. In 2007 a Lancashire shopkeeper found himself threatened with a public order offence for displaying golliwogs in his shop window. The police seized the golliwogs (doubtless for interrogation)and the shop keeper had to endure the suspense of what would happen next. This turned out to be nothing because the police admitted no crime had been committed. Farcical as the circumstances of this episode were, it is typical of many of these police “investigations” into what they classify as hate crimes: the police investigated but no prosecution or caution resulted. The effect of this behaviour, whether intended or not, is to intimidate the native British who now commonly think they dare not say anything critical about any ethnic minority, nation other than England, women or gays for fear of feeling the heavy hand of the constabulary.
The opportunities for prosecutions based on racial hatred have been greatly widened to include not merely incitement to racial hatred but to punish more heavily any crime deemed to have a racial motive. As racism is defined ever more widely to include virtually any distinction between peoples, the courts and the police have a very great opportunity to include a racial motive in a prosecution. In addition, there are growing calls for laws to extend to the areas which the police , and especially the Metropolitan police, fondly fantasise are already covered.
Secrecy is the obverse of the censorship coin. To be actively prevented from knowing something is a form of censorship. Most particularly it eats away at democratic control. Unless an electorate has the right to know what the state is doing in any aspect of its work, unlimited mischief can be perpetrated. Justice can be perverted, crimes commissioned, treason committed, political policies subverted, elections manipulated and the lives of individuals maliciously ruined, all with little chance of discovery and next to no chance of prosecution even where the public does find out about the wrongdoing. The most enraging document I have ever read is the Hansard report of the Commons debate the day before war was declared in 1914 and Britain entered the most disastrous conflict in its and Europe’s history. It is clear from Hansard that the grave and novel dangers of entering into a war with modern technology were understood by many MPs. Worse, from the pathetic evasions of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, it is clear that Parliament and consequently the British people had been kept in the dark over secret agreements between the British and French Governments, which obligated Britain to go to war if France was attacked. So off Britain went to war, ostensibly because of an 1839 treaty Britain had signed guaranteeing Belgium’s sovereignty, but in reality because the British elite of the time had committed itself to the French elite without any Parliamentary oversight or agreement.
It is absolutely important to understand that free expression and a free media are an integral part of democracy, but they can formally exist and yet be restricted greatly if secrecy is practised by government. Democracy and openness of government go hand in hand. Take away openness and democracy is breached.
Tomorrow, we publish the Final Part – Democracy and freedom of expression