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Freedom has curious champions

Posted by Helen Sunday, March 26, 2006

Photo courtesy of - i.e., swiped from - Samizdata

The only story that has been circulating about the Freedom of Expression rally in Trafgalgar Square yesterday and has popped up in such widely differing publications as the Jerusalem Post, the Gulf Daily News and the Washington Post comes from AP and puts the number of attendees (as it was not a march, they are not demonstrators) at 200.

It is always difficult to work out who is an attendee, who has strolled up casually to listen to the speeches and who is a tourist intent on feeding pigeons, but I would put the numbers at 1,000 or just over at its height. So that is the good news: a rally for free expression, organized by two people, publicized through the internet and financed by supporters, could still attract 1,000 people on a grey Saturday afternoon.

The coverage in Britain has been thin and misleading. The BBC has used the headline to write about the anti-march organized by Muslims in Birmingham, who are not against freedom of speech, honest, but will not tolerate those pesky cartoons or anything else they do not like.

The Guardian used it to prosecute its interminable war with its sister paper the Observer and its coverage of the anti-war rally the previous week-end (also somewhat sparsely attended though better than the Freedom of Expression one). Why it should be news that Tony Benn or Hizonner the Mayor addressed another anti-American rally is hard to fathom but the Guardian thinks so. Freedom of expression it does not think is important.

And one from our readerAs it happens, one of the organizers, Peter Risden, had been interviewed on the World at One on Friday, so there had been some pre-publicity in the MSM. Unfortunately, he was mostly interviewed about the instruction that went out not to bring those cartoons to the rally, though, of course, nobody would be stopped if they did so. The purpose of that rather odd decision was, as usual, to attract moderate Muslims. But, of course, if they really are moderate in the sense of understanding freedom, they would not mind the cartoons. Banning them is surrendering to the extremists.

Mr Risden has since been accused by correspondents on the March for Freedom of Expression blog of grovelling to the deeply unpleasant Muslim Action Committee.

The row about the cartoons, summed up the problems with the rally and, probably, contributed to the low attendance. Another reason may well have been the fact that there were seven speakers scheduled. In the event, all of them or the ones I heard, spoke far too long. When I looked at the final list, my heart sank and I seriously thought of not going. Duty as a blogger prevailed.

The organizers’ ambivalent attitude to the Danish cartoons and, therefore, the sequence of events that made it necessary to have yesterday’s rally spread to the participants.

Most of them turned up with carefully and uniformly printed placards, made, I believe, at a “workshop” last week-end, which carried very sober and well researched quotations about freedom. I am glad to say some people turned up with home-made posters, some with the cartoons, some merely expressing solidarity with Denmark.

I suppose the weather didn’t help but the fun and pleasure that came across in the photographs of the demonstration outside the Danish embassy in Washington DC was absent. Possibly because there were not Danish pastries.

What there was a great deal of is talk about all sorts of attempts to control freedom of speech and expression, so it would not seem to be an anti-Islamist rally.

There were several passionate calls for the right to publish cartoons and to broadcast “Jerry Springer - The Opera” on the BBC. Two problems with that. One is that the BBC is financed by the taxpayer, so the decision to broadcast something should be addressed with that in mind.

Secondly, I believe the opera was broadcast whereas the cartoons were not published in any newspaper in Britain. So, errm, where is the equivalence?

There are, of course, only so many ways you can say that you do not agree with all the speakers at the rally (in particular with Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance and Mark Wallace of the Freedom Association, these two not being on the Left of the political spectrum) but everyone should have the right to say what they want.

I wandered over as Evan Harris, a Lib-Dim spokesman held forth at length about the government’s attempts to abolish freedom in this country (true) and his own courage in standing up to it. As his party is absolutely in favour of further integration into the European project and the European constitution, some doubts on the subject might be held.

At least, I had missed the first speaker, Maryam Namazie, billed as a Human Rights activist, but actually an Iranian Communist, active in that party in the West. It is hard to see why Communists are ever allowed at these gatherings while anyone labelled neo-Nazi (the BNP, naturally) are not. The former are not known as supporters of free expression or free speech whenever they happen to be anywhere near power.

How much free expression would there have been in Iran if, instead of the Ayatollah, it had been the Workers’ Party (i.e. the Communists) who had come to power as it had been confidently expected at the time by the Western media. About the same as there is under the various Ayatollahs, though another ideology would have been pushed down everybody’s throat.

Ms Namazie was responsible for one little bit of entertainment, between two speeches when she informed us through the organizers that the police had taken aside and talked to one of her friends as someone had complained about their “banner” – a cardboard lid, actually – with the cartoons on it.

She then rather hysterically demanded that we all hold the banner in turn as they cannot arrest all of us. I have to say the police, who looked stolidly on as they have always done with demonstrations, did not appear to be about to arrest anyone but you can never tell.

I think Ms Namazie must have become confused and thought about police in Communist countries.

In his account Perry de Havilland of Samizdata says he saw some police taking photographs. I did not but that does not mean he is wrong. It may have happened after I had left or become semi-comatose with boredom. If they did, one would like to know the purpose.

But then, Mr de Havilland seems to imply that the presence of a largish police contingent at a rally in Trafalgar Square is somehow unusual or a new development. I wonder what makes him think that.

I did see one police officer talking earnestly to a group of Asian youths, who subsequently dispersed. Another person there wrote to me this morning to say that she had noticed a group of angry young Muslims in headscarves and fatigues being taken away as they tried to disrupt the proceedings just before Peter Tatchell spoke.

That, I imagine, was not about the cartoons but the general Islamist hatred for Tatchell and his campaign for the rights of homosexuals around the world. In fact, much of his speech was fascinating and horrifying.

According to him, he and his colleagues have been receiving death threats and worse for years from Islamists and the police has done nothing about it, not wishing to upset the Muslim community. (That I can well believe.)

Equally, according to him, nothing has been done about death threats to Iraqi and Iranian refugees who had been threatened. (I wonder if that is true.)

Tatchell called on the police to affirm the right of every individual to protection as long as they did not threaten others. It is easy to blame all this on Plod Blair but as the campaign of hatred seems to have been going on for years, perhaps that “copper’s copper” Sir John Stevens, now Lord Stevens, would like to explain the policy.

If only Peter Tatchell had stopped with his calls for freedom of speech for all, even the Islamists who abuse him (as long as there are no direct threats). Unfortunately, he had to go further and tell us of the things that we must not have: racism, Islamophobia and anti-semitism of the kind the BNP produces. The audience was left in some doubt as to whether he believed in freedom of speech for them as well or whether he thought that the likes of Nick Griffin should be imprisoned.

The trouble is that when speakers start equating matters, they run into difficulty. Tatchell, for instance, passionately called for the right to criticize the Iraqi war (not sanctioned internationally – by the UN, one presumes) and Guantánamo. I haven’t noticed that anyone has been banned from doing all of this. In fact, it is hard to open a newspaper without reading bleatings about Gitmo.

Freedom meant criticizing, if needs be, the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is stopping him?). Someone in the audience shouted: “and the Prophet” but Mr Tatchell ignored that.

On the other hand, there were ideas that were beyond the pale: nazism, homophobia, racism, misogyny and creationism (somewhat random, that last one). The same person from the audience shouted: “Islamism” but again Mr Tatchell passed. And, of course, one must not mention the “C” word or the Iranian activist lady might get upset.

The next speaker was Keith Porteous Wood from the National Secular Society, who told us at length and with much repetition that the problem was with religion, any religion.
At that point I decided that he was entitled to his views but I was entitled to my right not to listen. As journalists used to say: I made my excuses and left. Luckily, the National Gallery was within a few steps.

This means that I missed Dr Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance announcing that everyone is allowed free speech, even David Irving, Nick Griffin, Abu Hamza and Frank Ellis (I’ve read his press release).

Dr Gabb seems to think that he is the only one to say all of this and he probably was yesterday. But, actually, there have been many people (this blog included) who said that Irving ought not to be imprisoned for his falsifications.

Nick Griffin was found not guilty by a jury on two counts and there was no decision on two more. The re-trial is likely to come up with similar results and, again, many people have said that the trial was wrong.

The Danish cartoonists, meanwhile, are in hiding, as are Muslim politicians in the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.

The trouble with defending Abu Hamza is that you are venturing well beyond free speech or free expression into the realms of incitement of violence and attacks on a person. That this has never been allowed in this country, even when our newspapers were a lot more free to insult anyone they liked, is shown by the fact that six of the eight charges on which he was found guilty come under legislation of 1861.

As I wandered round the National Gallery I could not help asking myself who of all those people would stand with this blog, should Dr Waheed’s threats be repeated and, indeed, become more definite.

Of the speakers, Peter Tatchell probably and Mark Wallace, whom I also missed, certainly. I know enough of the Freedom Association to believe that. The others? Hmmm.

The Communist lady is unlikely to support us, given the rude things we have said about her creed. The Lib-Dims are not going to be anywhere near a eurosceptic blog. The other organizations seem little interested in anything but themselves.

Of those who attended, I have to discard all the ones who came with the carefully created identical posters. No stepping out of line for them. But I expect the lady with the Danish flag that bore the legend: “Londoners stand with you” will be on our side.

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