The comedian Rowan Atkinson joined an all-party group of peers today to protest about the controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which they fear will endanger freedom of speech.
The Blackadder and Mr Bean star told a news conference in the House of Lords that it was the “bloke in the pub” who would suffer if the Bill became law as it stands.
Opponents of the Bill, which begins its committee stage in the Lords next Tuesday, say that it will further limit freedom of expression through self censorship.
Journalists, commentators, actors and comedians fear the consequences of discussing matters involving minority religions.
The Labour peer, Lord Plant of Highfield, is supporting a cross party amendment which supporters hope would limit the scope of the Bill. It is expected to be voted on next week.
The move is also backed by Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury; the Conservative peer Lord Hunt of Wirral; and Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a Liberal Democrat.
Atkinson said today: “It is often asked why under present race hatred legislation, there haven’t been more high-profile prosecutions of comedians who are well known, over the more racist content of their comedy routines? And because that has not happened, then surely it would not happen under the Religious Hatred Bill and therefore I could tell as many dirty jokes as I liked and get away with it.
“I think the reason why there haven’t been those high profile prosecutions of people like Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning is because in the end the prosecuting authorities would just regard it as too much trouble…they don’t want high profile trials that might expose the weaknesses and vagaries of legislation.
“Much better to have an intimidating bit of legislation which results in no prosecutions whatsoever. It is the little person I fear for – I think it is highly unlikely that I personally would, at least under the present administration – that I would be pilloried for a religious joke.
“But I worry about the bloke in the pub, the bloke writing the thesis about Judaism. It is those people who are more likely to be got at.” […Full text…]
Lord Carey said that some people found jokes about their religion very offensive and he recalled the row over author Salman Rushdie and his book, the Satanic Verses.
He told the news conference: “We want to create a society where we are sensitive to those feelings. But in being sensitive, what we musn’t do is create a society in which certain stories are not told.
“In my early days as Archbishop I had the Muslim groups come to me. They were very offended by the Satanic Verses but I said you are living in a country and civilisation where we are quite used to this.
“They say, why as a Christian don’t you condemn the Life of Brian? I said, I love the film and I think it is good for religion to be knocked, to be criticised, to be challenged because we have done a lot of damage in the past.
“We know religion is a force for good … but I don’t want to control a writer not to criticise me, because I may need that criticism. The Church of England is a broad church we are used to being mocked. I do believe passionately in this.
“I wanted to assure Salman Rushdie that although many of his statements may have been in bad taste he had the right to say it as a lapsed Muslim.”
Lord Hunt said that the Labour Party had pledged in its election manifesto to legislate to give all faiths the same protection against incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion.
“Our amendment does just that,” he said, adding: “The present Bill creates a new criminal offence of causing offence. It establishes a right not to be offended and I think that is very dangerous ground indeed.”
Lord Hunt said that although the Government was saying that any prosecution would have to authorised by the Attorney-General, that decision would only be made after a police investigation.
“The idea of asking Salman Rushdie, Rowan Atkinson and others to go down to the police stations and make a statement and have a full investigation – that is something we in the House of Lords are not prepared to tolerate.
“We are saying to the Government: do not tamper with our fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of speech.”
Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Opposition in the Upper House, said the Bill was severely criticised during the second reading debate in the Lords earlier this month.
“Over 80 per cent of those who were involved in that debate criticised the Bill because of its fundamental breaking of traditional freedoms that we have enjoyed in this country,” he said.
“Over the last few years the House of Lords has become the traditional custodian of those fundamental freedoms and that is what we are defending and protecting today.”
Lord Strathclyde said that the all-party group hoped that the Government would accept the amendments as they were being offered in “a spirit of co-operation”. But if not, the issue would go to a vote. The Bill would then return to the Commons.