On freedom of speech, Britain has become the laughing stock of the Western world. People actually laugh at us. I recently gave a talk in Brazil on political correctness and I told the audience about the arrest and conviction of a Scottish man for publishing a video of his girlfriend’s pug doing a Nazi salute for a joke and they laughed. Loudly. Some of them refused to believed it was true. I found the news report on my iPhone and showed them. They laughed again. Brazilians, inhabitants of a nation not that long out of military dictatorship, are shocked at how illiberal Britain has become.
As we should be, too. Censorship in this country is out of control. Yesterday, that ‘Nazi pug’ man, Martin Meechan, often referred to by his YouTuber name Count Dankula, received his sentence for making a joke in a video: an £800 fine. A criminal record and a fine for taking the piss out of a pug. Or as the law defines it, in the 2003 Communications Act Mr Meechan was charged under, for being ‘grossly offensive’. The British state now punishes citizens for offensive humour, for tasteless jokes. Let’s hope no cop ever overhears the off-colour joke you might make in the pub or you could be had up for jokecrimes, too. We should be as alarmed about this as my Brazilian audience was.
Miserable case follows miserable case. Last week, a teenager from Liverpool was found guilty of ‘sending an offensive message’ after she quoted lyrics by the rapper Snap Dogg on her Instagram page in tribute to a 13-year-old boy who had died in a road accident. You can now be dragged to court and made into a criminal for quoting from a song. These are the lyrics she quoted:
‘Off a whole gram of molly, and my bitch think I’m trippin’ / Now I’m clutchin’ on my forty, all I can think about is drillin’ / I hate fuck shit, slap a bitch nigga, kill a snitch nigga, rob a rich nigga.’
Maybe I’ll now be arrested for repeating this rap that is freely available in the public domain?
Chelsea Russell was hit with an eight-week community order and had to pay legal costs of £500. Surely Snap Dogg will stump up the money, in solidarity with this young woman perversely reduced to a criminal for citing his lyrics? The Russell trial seems to have featured the evidence of just one person, a Merseyside police officer called Dominique Walker, who said she found the lyrics quoted on Instagram offensive to her ‘as a black woman’. Is this really the kind of society we want to live in, where if one person takes offence at your songs or your jokes or your commentary you could find yourself in the dock?
We now live under a bizarre tyranny of self-esteem, where hurt feelings can lead to court cases, and where the easily offended can marshal the state to crush those who dared to offend them. An unholy marriage between our wimpish offence-taking culture and a state desperate to be seen as caring and purposeful has nurtured an insidious new censorship that targets everything from comedy and rap to criticism of Islam or strongly stated political views.
So it is that in recent years a Scottish man was jailed for singing the offensive anti-Catholic song ‘The Billy Boys’ (under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, a law that is now thankfully being struck out); a Christian preacher was arrested and put in a jail cell for 19 hours for telling gay teenagers that homosexual sex is a sin; a man was given a community sentence for saying on Facebook that ‘all [British] soldiers should die and go to hell’; a mum-of-four was questioned by police for stinging things she said on Twitter about transgender surgery; a 19-year-old man was arrested for making a tasteless joke about the Glasgow Christmas bin-lorry disaster that killed six people.
And on it goes. Arrest after arrest for speech. One report says the police are arresting around nine people a day over trolling. The examples above cover everything from religious belief to dark humour to moral convictions about trans thinking or the British Army. We might agree that many or even all of them are offensive ideas, but to criminalise them is a far greater offence. It is an offence against freedom and the open society and the right of everyone to say what they think and everyone else to decide for themselves if that person’s speech is valuable or ridiculous. Censorship chills and infantilises and strangles the public sphere so that we end up in a situation where the state tells us what we may say, and by extension what we may think. We are sleep-walking into a thought-policing state.
All this in the nation that gave the world John Milton and Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill, among history’s greatest articulators of the centrality of freedom of thought and speech to a fair, civilised society. Britain is forgetting its radical liberal history. A nation that puts people on trial for telling jokes or singing songs or being in some way grossly offensive has no claim to be a free society. We have to challenge this dark new censorship every time it emerges. The world might be laughing at us, but this is no joke.