x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Recent UK events highlight the issue of free speech

Allowing free speech is not the same as permitting, for example, incitement to murder or racial hatred, argues Colin Randall

A man walks past flowers left outside Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. Tolga Akmen / AFP
A man walks past flowers left outside Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. Tolga Akmen / AFP

The despicable van attack outside London’s Finsbury Park mosque, which left one person dead and several injured, produced a hero for humanity. Indirectly, it also reactivated an important debate on the freedom of expression.

For the hero of the piece, look no further than Mohammed Mahmoud, the imam of a neighbouring mosque who stood between an understandably angry crowd and the driver, possibly saving him from serious harm.

Mr Mahmoud, Egyptian-born but a Londoner from infancy, knew the place for punishment of the suspect, if convicted, was a court of law, not a north London street. His actions are rightly much admired even if he dismisses talk of heroism.

The free speech issue was highlighted after the attack by the case of Tommy Robinson.

Undeserving of any admiration at all, this man runs one anti-Islam group, Pegida UK, and was co-founder of another, the English Defence League. Could there be a more unattractive figure to invoke when arguing that people should broadly be able to say what they think?

Mr Robinson’s appearance on British television angered those who consider no platform should be offered to such individuals. He insulted the Quran and Islam, claimed Islamophobia was not a real word and urged a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants entering Britain.

It adds up to an unsavoury diet of hatred, fear-mongering and disrespect. But banishing him from the airwaves is another matter.

Two men – coincidentally sharing the surname Garbutt – sprang to mind during my reflections on a question to which no easy answer exists.

Vin Garbutt, a gifted singer and raconteur who died from heart disease this month, endured difficulties in his career when certain folk club and festival organisers blacklisted him. His crime? His work included self-composed songs, notably Little Innocents and The Secret, that articulated his opposition to abortion. Whatever we think of his stance, this was a scandalous denial of a basic right; he quite properly refused contracts that expressly forbade him to perform those songs.

Nick Garbutt edited Northern Ireland’s main nationalist newspaper, The Irish News, in the early 1990s. He strongly opposed the ban on the republican leader Gerry Adams, inextricably linked to the terrorist IRA’s hierarchy, and like-minded characters being heard on radio or television.

Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s prime minister, wanted to deny terrorism’s apologists the ”oxygen of publicity”. Nick Garbutt, nowadays a successful public relations consultant, preferred to see them made to “wriggle” under intense questioning. Even disregarding the farcical nature of the ban – it could be, and was, sidestepped using actors’ voices to deliver the words – for him to be held to account by tough interviewers.

And so it was with Tommy Robinson. His interrogator, Piers Morgan, is a former tabloid editor, not everyone’s favourite broadcaster. He is, however, capable and strong.

“Show some damn respect for people’s religious beliefs,” he thundered. “You are sounding like a bigoted lunatic. You are stirring up hatred, abusing people’s faith … you are a complete disgrace.”

The words needed saying. Mr Robinson was duly made to wriggle, but that does not settle the debate. The “no platform” case merits respect and westerners should avoid lecturing others on how to set limits.

But allowing free speech is not the same as permitting, for example, incitement to murder or racial hatred, which would in any case constitute criminal conduct in most jurisdictions.

If Tommy Robinson crosses the line from repugnance to criminality, let his wriggling be transferred to the courts.

Until then, it seems preferable that he be challenged as he was by Mr Morgan and not granted the spurious martyrdom of imposed silence.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National