Demonstrations by some members of the Sikh community close the theatric presentation of Behzti and raise issues of free speech

February 2005

Artists, Theatre, Live Concerts, Film, Television

A desire to stamp out religious, sexual and other hatred often clashes with the desire to retain a right of free speech for all members of a community. In our December 2004 Law Updates we briefly covered the story of Jamaican reggae star Sizzla Kalomji being barred from the UK by the then Home Secretary as police investigated claims that his lyrics were homophobic and anti-white. Of course the counter argument is that Sizzla Kalomi is an artist who should have the right to free expression (which is now provided for in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention for Human Rights). In a widely reported story, violent demonstrations by members of the Sikh community have caused the temporary closure of the play Behzti at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. The play included scenes of sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh Temple. Along with the Sizzla case it is quite possible that the play could fall foul of existing laws against stirring up racial hatred. Under the Public Order Act 1986 it is an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress (the Racially Aggravated offence provided for by way of S4 Public Order Act and S31 Crime and Disorder Act 1998) as well as Racially Aggravated Threatening Behaviour. Section 4A provides for an office triable either way. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides for the offences of Racial Aggravated Harassment causing fear of violence or harassment (S4 and S2) as either way offences with suggested custodial level entry points. The law also provides for the offence ‘Incitement to racial hatred’ and this will almost certainly become an offence under a proposed change to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. If enacted this would apply to religious hatred as well so it would be a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour to ‘stir up religious hatred’. In Australia, a Pakistani Christian has recently been found liable in a civil trial to have incited hatred against Muslims as the result of controversial remarks about Islam and mocking the religion without distinguishing between moderate and fanatical muslims. Nick Griffin, leader of the far right British political party the BNP, was recently arrested after a video tape of Griffin allegedly making extreme remarks about Islam was passed to the police in the UK. In 2001 Harry Hammond was convicted under the Public Order Act after standing in Bournemouth town centre holding a placard bearing the words ‘Stop Immorality: Stop Homosexuality; Stop Lesbianism’. The Magistrates Court found that this was insulting to homosexuals and lesbians; on appeal the Divisional Court found that the magistrates had the right to find this. But whilst one can understands the need for improved controls on racial (and other) hatred, and at the moment the proposed new laws would involve the consent of the Attorney General to bring an action, it does raise the issue of freedom of expression. A large number of the theatre and acting communities have come out in support of Behzti, alarmed at the prospect of religious demonstrations being used to suppress what might be valid criticism and free speech.

In a separate matter, OFCOM, the UK media regulator, passed on some 7,000 complaints about a television screening of Jerry Springer, the Opera, even before the programme, based on the award winning West End show which itself is a fictonalised version the popular TV show, was shown on BBC TV. Christian groups and broadcasting standards pressure group UK Mediawatch have made a concerted effort to have the transmission cancelled. Christian Voice posted the home telephone number and address of two senior BBC executives on their website although admitted later this was ‘naive’ after the pair were subjected to abusive phone calls. The BBC reported that it had received over 50,000 emails although suggested that a large number were identical or near identical (in the USA, the Parent’s Television Council used email templates and a direct submit to the Federal Complaints Commission to orchestrate complaints against the TV show Desperate Housewives).

The second half of the show portrays Springer confronted by both God and the Devil in the burning fires of hell. At one point Jesus appears in a nappy and declares that he is a ‘bit gay’. Press speculation was that up to 8,000 swear words were included in the show although writers say the true number is far less. The Observer newspaper set the number at 400 including numerous uses of the word ‘fuck’ and the scriptwriter estimated swear words at 300. The programme was broadcast at 10pm (22.00) on Saturday 6th January 2005 and 2.4 million viewers watched the broadcast. The previous record for complaints was 1,554 after The Last Temptation of Christ was shown in 1996. The BBC received 1,000 calls after the transmission of Jerry Springer, of which 400 were supportive. Christian groups plan a private prosecution of writer Stewart Lee, composer Richard Thomas, the BBC and the Cambridge Theatre (which is staging the play live in London) for blasphemy.

For an interesting article on this topic by John Scriven see his essay Hatred Is No Play On Words in the Times (T2) 28th December 2004.

Also see the article by David Pannick QC A Curb On Free Speech That Should Offend Us All, Whatever Our Religion, in the Times (T2 Law) 11th January 2005 –

For details of the law of Blasphemy see the article Beyond Redemption by Dan Tench in the Media Guardian, 17 January 2005.

See The Guardian 6th and 10th January 2005

And see the Observer 9th January 2005

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