Today, Home Secretary Theresa May announced new plans to deal with “extremism”. The concept of extremism has become rather like fascism: a catchall term for things we don’t like.
That is not to say it does not exist: but the important question is how one defines extremism. The Prime Minister has said he intends that the new powers to tackle extremism to go beyond existing laws on incitement to hatred and incitement to violence. This is where things get difficult – all we really have as a guideline is a know-it-when-we-see-it gut reaction. In other words, would a statement cause a reasonable person to think: “that’s a bit much”? This is far too vague a basis for new the powers of censorship proposed by May, who also used her speech to resurrect the Government’s obsession with greater powers for online surveillance.
The Home Secretary’s stated ambition of “working with Ofcom to deal with extremist broadcasts” has obvious resonance in the banning from the airwaves of the voices of representatives of Northern Irish paramilitary groups in the late 80s and early 90s. That particular prohibition led to the ridiculous scenario where Gerry Adams and other republican representatives had their statements dubbed by actors before interviews were broadcast, as if it were not their words but their very voices that might attract sympathy for terrorism. The only definite gain that ban brought about was for a handful of Belfast actors who made decent pocket money from the voiceover work.
But the direct comparison with that ban does not quite work: that ban was, if not desirable, then at least plausible, in that it targeted specific organisations rather than ideas. It was crucial for IRA and Sinn Féin spokespeople to be identified as coming from IRA and Sinn Féin – the claim to descendance from the original IRA of revolutionary Ireland being all important. But modern terror movements rarely operate as structured, coherent groups with internal rules and regulations.
What is being discussed now is not a ban on specific members of specific organisations, but a ban on ideologies and people who may seek to convince others to follow them.
If we’re to follow the Troubles example, in effect, that means banning Ian Paisley from the airwaves as well as Gerry Adams.
Paisley, like many of the preachers and demagogues of today who trouble the Home Secretary so, knew how to take his rhetoric right to the edge without tumbling into criminality.
In fact, under these proposals, the late Dr Paisley’s own church, with its forthright views on everything from alcohol to homosexuality to the Pope in Rome, could find itself not just banned from the evening news, but completely proscribed.
How many organisations exist that would fall foul of May’s proposed civil powers to prohibit “extremist groups that fall short of the existing laws relating to terrorism”?
If the basis for banning orders on organisations is a reasonable belief that they intend to incite religious or racial hatred or “threaten democracy”, then a whole spectrum of thought, from anarchism to fundamentalist religion, could be proscribed.
The law should be about preventing specific harm to the public, not deciding whose ideas are acceptable and whose aren’t.
In her speech, Theresa May laid claim to free speech and respect for minorities as British (and by implication Conservative) values, and said of the British people that “we cherish our freedom to lead our lives as we choose”. Quite so. These are ideas that every nation should aspire to.
They are not concepts we should allow to be relegated to mere throat clearing as the Home Secretary announces plans for new powers to restrict speech and civil liberties.
source: Daily Telegraph