Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Last week, we came close to involuntarily watching a snuff movie.
The attack on writer Salman Rushdie in New York State appears to stem from a three-decades-old edict from a long-dead Moslem cleric in Iran. Like James Bond’s tomorrow, a murder-inciting fatwa also never dies.
Footage of this particular knife crime and its immediate aftermath went viral, causing global shock. Sir Salman is reportedly recovering from his injuries.
One consolation must be the renewed interest in his work. Right now, The Satanic Verses is hovering just outside Amazon’s top ten best sellers. It has become a late summer must-buy – if not necessarily a must-read – for those who believe in freedom of expression. Many reviewers make clear their support for the author. One quotes him: “Religion, like all other ideas, deserves criticism, satire and yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa in 1989, the tail-end of the Cold War era. Book-burning demonstrations began in Bradford and spread to unlikely Middle England locations such as Reading.
For some, protestors’ accusations of blasphemy seemed simply burning-at-the-stake medieval, jarringly at odds with Britain’s ever-increasing secularisation. For others, consigning The Satanic Verses to the flames conjured up images of Nazi Germany in 1933.
Few would have imagined, 30 years ago, that the intolerance and rejection of free expression on show back then would become a blueprint for today’s Britain.
The plight of the Booker Prize winner is the opportunity to reflect. In the past decade, accusations of hate speech, together with Non-Crime Hate Incidents (NCHIs), have become handy gags to stifle debate.
In December, the Law Commission published its review, Hate Crime Law: Final Report. It stated, “Hate crime laws are related to, but distinct from, hate speech laws”. Indeed. Hate speech laws are their sinister, insidious little cousins.
In 2019, Harry Miller, the co-founder of campaign group Fair Cop, was told that his tweets were being recorded by Humberside police as one of the 120,000 NCHIs since 2014. The College of Policing’s definition of an NCHI was “any non-crime incident which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice against a person”.
Tough on thought crime, tough on the causes of thought crime. With Orwell’s 1984 becoming the basis for Conservative governments’ law and order strategy, let’s look to The Road to Wigan Pier for Red Wall-related policy initiatives.
Despite the College of Policing being forced to revise its guidance last month following a Court of Appeal ruling, a week later an Army veteran was arrested by Hampshire Police who claimed his tweet of Progress Pride flags shaped like a swastika “caused anxiety”.
Donna Jones, the local Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, who clearly has more robust common sense than all the justice and home secretaries since 2014 put together, took Hampshire Constabulary to task, reminding them that they should serve the public as the majority of people would expect. “It appears on this occasion this has not happened.”
The public does not expect Big Brother, nor the thought police. It wants police officers on the streets deterring crime and disorder, not trawling through Twitter, overreacting to vexatious offence-taking and subjective accusations of hatred. The 120,000 NCHIs have wasted time and resources which could have been better spent, not least on combatting cyber-fraud.
Recognised on the basis of the five protected characteristics of its victim – race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity – if successfully prosecuted, a hate crime attracts a heavier “aggravated” penalty. The sentence for common assault, for example, as laid down in the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, rises from six months to two years.
Although hate crime seems all-pervasive, the Crime Survey of England and Wales suggests it accounts for about three per cent of all recorded crime, with about 190,000 incidents each year between 2017 to 2021. In England and Wales, successful prosecutions for hate crime declined from 14,196 in 2010/11 to 10,679 in 2020/21, according to Commons’ Hate Crime Statistics.
The Law Commission received almost 2,500 representations during its inquiry into hate crime. Many called for the repeal of all hate-related law. The Free Speech Union argued that the law was “socially divisive”; Civitas stated that “hate crime legislation ends equality before the law”. One anonymous member of the public was quoted: “A crime is a crime – it shouldn’t make any difference if it was motivated by homophobia, racism or whatever. The seriousness of the crime should be the issue.”
In 2019, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime asked How Do We Build Community Cohesion When Hate Crime is on the Rise?. Perhaps it should ask whether the probably well-intentioned legislation relating to hate is actually an impediment to that community cohesion. Instead of eliminating social division, it is being fostered by ensuring people are seen not as individuals but are confined in their protected groups. Automatically victims, they become part of a “hierarchy of hate”.
If the law expresses our values, hate-related law can be seen as an unofficial annex to the infamous Cabinet Office Nudge Unit, ushering us into an ad-land utopia, a sort of United Colours of Britain set in a world singing in perfect Coke-drinking harmony.
That country exists, and can be best seen at big national events – the Olympics, royal weddings, the Commonwealth Games. Most of us don’t notice it because we’re engrossed in social media, that impossible-to-tax and impossible-to-regulate addictive pit of paranoia and puppies, viciousness and cat videos.
“Hate” – far more emotive than old-school prejudice or bias – is often literally in hand, via our mobile phones; it’s our choice to engage with it, or not.
Many books are banned in Britain’s universities, where no-platforming has become routine. The Satanic Verses was published long before the advent of social media. In an attempt to control the monster they have created, global tech giants cancel anyone who offends their arbitrary guidelines, including a democratically-elected former President of the United States. So much for criticism, satire and fearless disrespect.
Hours after Rushdie was attacked, Jerry Sadowitz’s show at the Edinburgh Fringe was pulled after one performance. The Scottish Conservatives reportedly branded the show “abhorrent”, not least for its alleged racism and sexism. A spokesman stated: “We respect everyone’s right to freedom of speech but… this is straying into hate crime territory and that will be why his show has been cancelled.”