14 February 2009

The balance of views

It's been a busy week for freedom of speech in the UK. Geert Wilders, a Dutch MP, has been banned from the UK for trying to show a film at the House of Lords. Clearly they are a tough crowd because the UK government feared his presence would constitute a threat to national security, public order or the safety of UK citizens. In my experience of watching what goes on in the upper house, I would have thought the only threat posed was to waking up some of the more senior members.

Although the ban clearly represents a blow to freedom of speech, it somehow seems rather charmingly naive - that somehow by keeping Mr Wilders off these islands, we can stop his nasty ideas from upsetting people. As if we can't all just go to YouTube and watch the film anyway, should it really be of interest (and you can bet it will now interest a lot more UK citizens than if Wilders had just come and gone quietly). You could argue that, if Mr Wilders work does constitute a threat to UK security, the associated publicity caused by the ban, and likely increase in people watching his film, has actually increased that risk.

The main blow struck has been against the credibility of the British government, who seem to have used a non-event as an excuse to win favour amongst British Muslims. The real reason for the ban was it represented a chance for the UK government to show 'balance' in dealing with peddlers of prejudice: Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi enjoys a following amongst certain Muslim audiences, but he is banned from entering the UK in order to "protect community cohesion". Now the government can show it is happy to ban extremists from both sides.

The irony is that Wilders would like to ban the Koran, which does somewhat damage his freedom of speech credentials. And amongst the debates that have raged this week, the Voltairean maxim of "I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it" has been repeatedly wheeled out. I'd prefer a less well-known quote from a now-forgotten American politician, Hubert Humphrey: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

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