Freedom of expression a British value? Really?

A poster which reads "Boycott the Movie: The Lady of Heaven, the Untold Story. Join us to show our discontent with a peaceful protests, Friday 3rd June 2022, 7pm, Cineworld Bradford, Vicar Lane BD1 5LD (up the road from Bradford Interchange, for out of town brothers). Bring signs and posters".
Poster for a protest against The Lady of Heaven.

This weekend it was revealed that Qari Asim, an imam who had worked with the government as some sort of anti-extremism consultant since 2019 when Theresa May was still PM, had been sacked for supporting protests against a film, Lady of Heaven, which promotes a baseless opinion popular among some extremist Shi’ites that the Prophet’s (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) daughter Fatima (radhi Allahu ‘anha) was murdered by other Companions that the Shi’a are fond of reviling and cursing. (This apparently isn’t a mainstream Shi’a view and some Shi’a leaders have condemned the film.) He was sent a letter from the department for “Levelling Up” (a Tory slogan now used as the title of a government department, unprecedented as far as I know), housing and communities accusing him of supporting a campaign to “restrict artistic expression” and “street protests that have fomented religious hatred”. The page-long letter concludes: “this country is proud of its democratic values and freedoms, which include tolerance, freedom of expression and community”.

As anyone with a passing familiarity with British law and constitution will know, freedom of expression in the UK runs as far as the law allows. There is no constitutional protection for free speech in the UK as there is in the USA: there are laws which do restrict free speech and parliament can change or increase them as it sees fit. People have been prosecuted and even imprisoned for writing things online which caused offence on pretty much any grounds; sometimes these were just tasteless, but caused no actual harm. These include people who insulted British soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, someone who published a picture of a body which had fallen from the burning Grenfell Tower, and a man who mocked Manchester United over the Munich plane crash which killed a number of its players in the 1950s. These laws only apply to things written online or said over the phone (laws originally designed to protect the sensitive ears of female telephone operators in the 1980s); the law does not apply to things said on stage or TV or in a newspaper. I complained once about jokes in a BBC comedy around the prospect of George Michael, who had just been imprisoned for a drug-driving offence, being raped in prison; I was told they had to cater for all tastes. Our libel laws, however, hugely restrict what anyone can say about anyone with money or power in those settings and our courts are favourites for oligarchs from around the world to sue people for revealing their misdeeds. Similar laws were struck down in the US as a violation of the First Amendment.

Was it street protests that caused the withdrawal of this film in British cinemas? My impression is that there just wasn’t the audience for a film that peddled an extremist narrative about the events in question. The cinemas may have been given the impression that it would attract a Muslim audience, or at least a Shi’a audience, but when Muslims started protesting, it became obvious that it was only of interest to an extreme, sectarian fringe. Protests might have put audiences off, but if they are only out on the street, how would they know what film anyone has come to see when Muslims go to see other films? The film will soon be on streaming platforms and how well it does there will give a better idea of how popular it really is.

It is hypocrisy to claim that free expression is some sort of British value when the law in fact restricts such expression for ordinary people, and the Tories have shown no desire to do away with these restrictions. We sometimes hear language such as “war on woke”, complaints that students try to restrict appearances by visiting speakers known for promoting discriminatory views, and this action fits with that agenda: free speech is for the powerful, those with established old-media and academic platforms, while those lower down in the hierarchy have to put up with both offensive speech targeted at us, and restrictions on our free speech. If they really are committed to freedom of expression, they should abolish these laws and reform the libel law, not punish Muslims for supporting small, peaceful protests, because the right to protest is also part of any democratic society.

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