Call Clegg review: “You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other”

A very croaky Nick was back in the hot seat for Call Clegg this morning. Gone was his usual jacket and tie-less shirt combo for a more relaxed pullover look, and he seems to have new glasses too.

Yesterday’s attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was uppermost in everyone’s minds, with three questions on this. The first two were variations on the theme of “Is enough being done to stop this happening here?” The third provoked exactly the angry response you would expect from the leader of a liberal party. The questioner implied that the magazine’s content was the staw that broke the camel’s back for Muslims after the US being complicit in torture and the invasion of Iraq. I was quite shocked at his line of questioning and very proud of the way that Nick dealt with him.

The Indpendent has helpfully transcribed the whole thing so I don’t have to:

Omar: By purely just saying based on the cartoons this incident happened isn’t it treating it quite superficially? The cartoons, you could look at it, were the straw that broke the camel’s back. When ministers etc. start talking about what’s happened there, why do they never talk about everything else that’s going on? And then this happens at the end of it.

Omar: I’m sure when you look into these people, they claim to be defending the honour of the prophet… was their lifestyle commensurate with people who the love of the prophet, peace be on him? You’ll find it wasn’t. It’s not just the love of the prophet which caused this action. It’s a lot more. This is always taken out of the discussion and they just focus on the cartoons and it’s just doing a disservice to the reality of how 1.4bn Muslims around the world feel.

Clegg: I’m sorry, Omar, I’ve got to interrupt. I think if I understand you correctly, I cannot express to you how strongly I disagree with you. There can be no excuse, no reason, no explanation… They have killed cartoonists who have done nothing more than drawings which they so happen to find offensive.

Clegg: Here’s the bottom line Omar, at the end of the day in a free society people have to be free to offend each other. You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other. We have no right not to be offended. That fundamental principle of being free to offend people – and not saying somehow that you have a right not be offended in a democratic, open, society such as ours is exactly what was under threat by these murderous barbarians. To even suggest, Omar, that there is a rationale, an explanation, a motive that somehow absolves them or sheds greater light on such a horrific, cold hearted, cowardly act, I find out.

Omar: You’re absolutely right… But why is the rest of discussion not brought in? If they [the attackers] feel that look, America, they were complicit in torture globally. It’s all of these things together, Iraq being invaded.

Clegg: Omar for heaven’s sake don’t mix things [up]… Of course it is utterly wrong the way in which it now appears that the American intelligence agencies and others according to that report were doing things which are totally unacceptable in a law abiding society. But to somehow mix that in any way with the perverted things that must have been going on in the heads of these individuals? To go into a newspaper office and shoot cartoonists, I mean, that you’re even drawing the link I find so inexplicable. There is no link which can in anyway seek to explain such a random, such a cruel, such a cowardly act as what we saw in Paris yesterday.

He was also pretty robust in response to a question on immigration, saying that the NHS would collapse overnight if we pulled up the drawbridge and saying our economy was stronger because of people being able to come to this country to work or set up businesses. He said that it had taken him ages, but the sensible, practical measures he’d been wanting to see for years, like making sure we knew who were entering and leaving the country, were now starting to happen.

Nick got those things so very right so I found it disappointing that he almost choked on his own waffle over the issue of whether Ched Evans should be signed by Oldham Athletic. He’s been very clear in the past that he didn’t want Sheffield United to sign the remorseless rapist and he said that his overall view of the situation hadn’t changed but it was up to Oldham Athletic what they did. What on earth would have been wrong with saying “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t sign him.” He could have taken some lessons from former Sheffield Utd patron Charlie Webster’s excellent recent interview on Channel 4 News. 

After such serious issues, some levity was provided by Ferrari trying to wind Nick up by asking him exactly what he meant when he told Molly from Sherlock that Miriam was “truly Spanish”. Ever the diplomat he got out of it by saying that Spanish people were very forthright and expressed their feelings with emotion.

It was his 48th birthday yesterday (see here for the 48 good things he’s done). Apparently he went to Wagamama with the family before he and Miriam went to see The Theory of Everything. By way of Public Service Announcement, I feel obliged to tell you that Wagamama has a new dessert – banana fried in breadcrumbs served with salted caramel ice cream. I had some on Monday and it was utterly adorably delicious.

You can watch the whole programme here:

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • jedibeeftrix 8th Jan '15 - 2:57pm

    Good for clegg, he’s not wrong, shame he doesn’t realise we destroyed that norm when we moved beyond banning incitement to violence. We can have free speech once we scrap all the incitement to ‘x’ hatred laws.

    Not before.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 8th Jan '15 - 3:10pm

    That’s where we disagree. There comes a point when hateful speech threatens people’s safety and exposes them to harm. I think the balance of our law at the moment is just about right.

  • Anti-blasphemy laws are still on the books in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  • jedibeeftrix 8th Jan '15 - 3:39pm

    We can agree to disagree.

    After all, who wants anyone inciting racial hatred!

    I’d argue that the law is very poor at managing subjective judgement; which in its lack of certainty is applied with a zealousness that stifles free speech and erodes the very norm that this should be the case.

    You might feel the benefits outweigh the problems…

  • Caron

    “I think the balance of our law at the moment is just about right”

    That sentence can only really be answered by quoting John McEnrow.

    Just Google: “Police investigate” “comment on Twitter”
    If the balance of law was right the response from the police would just be “we have free speech in this country” to most stories and a few prosecutions for inciting violence.

    As David-1 points out there is still anti-blasphemy laws on the statute books.

    David Allen Green wrote a while back on how basically the HRA is not relied upon to protect free speech in the UK basically we lack real legal protections. He cites a case where free speech had been upheld:
    “It is sensible and liberal, even if the speech act in question being defended is disgusting.”
    “But it is also the sort of judicial dictum which shows what is perhaps wrong about how free speech is protected (or not protected) in the law of England and Wales.”
    “If you read through the judgment carefully you will notice something which is not there. There is no mention – at all – of what legal basis that liberal and sensible sentiment rests on. There is no mention of the Human Rights Act 1998 or of the European Convention on Human Rights; nor mention of any authority or leading case”

    There is not free speech accessible to normal citizens, due to lack of proper legal protection.

    For those LibDems so keen to quote the preamble to the LibDem constitution there is even less in the from of “freedom from conformity” where people expressing views that are a form of frustration at one problem or other are branded as racist in the media rather than engaged with and persuaded. A phenomenon that I think is a key driver to the rise of the likes of UKIP.

    I agree that Nick Clegg’s response was appropriate one, but complacency about how little free speech really exists in this country is dangerous. We have allowed a drift in to self-censorship (see the first comment in the FT yesterday) that only pushes some views in to the private sphere and does not allow them to be openly discussed and those holding them persuaded out of them.

    And lets not forget the LibDems support the censorship by the back door of the Levenson review. Based upon a dislike of the views of the “right wing press” trumping principal.

    Caron you need to look around and think. I imagine my views are not far from yours on many topics and as a result I don’t feel the pressure of censorship (official or self) but the difference appears to be that I notice that others do feel that pressure.

    If yesterday tells us anything it is that free speech is precious and fragile and we have to be constantly vigilant to our loss of it. Now is not a time for complacency.

  • I think there should be no limits on free-speech other than advocating that people do/encourage some actual act that is illegal,

    I think America have it right on free speech. The American limits on free speech, are, I believe, right.

  • “We can have free speech once we scrap all the incitement to ‘x’ hatred laws.” – I kind off agree. Hatred is just a thought, should we have thought crime?

  • Alex Sabine 9th Jan '15 - 2:24am

    Full marks to Nick Clegg for a robust defence of freedom of speech, decency and liberal values in the wake of the atrocity in Paris.

    That said, I do share the concerns of jedi and Psi about the excessive incursions British governments have already made into free expression in deference to this dangerous notion of not giving offence. The wide scope of ‘hatred’ laws in effect curbs free expression well beyond the traditional liberal threshold of incitement to specific violent acts against specific individuals.

    Remember that the test of any serious commitment to free speech is not whether we permit people to express views we approve of or find acceptable, but those we find objectionable and repugnant. There is a crucial distinction between permitting such views, which I would argue a free society must, and endorsing them or allowing them to go unchallenged.

    In the case of Charlie Hebdo no such uncomfortable distinction arises, since their satire against fundamentlists of all stripes was not only perfectly lawful but highly apposite and fully justified, as subsequent events have tragically demonstrated.

    It is notable that, by and large, it is secular societies that offer the greatest degree of religious freedom. But the tail must not wag the dog: no religious doctrine or icon can be inviolate or trump the principle of free speech for those of all religions and none. We must be wary of eroding this cornerstone of a free society in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to accommodate religious sensitivities.

  • Alex Sabine 9th Jan '15 - 2:53am

    Excellent point, Joe, about the distorted prism through which some people view these things.

    More broadly, if we surrender freedom in response to the (very real) terrorist threat we will be halfway to doing the terrorists’ jobs for them.

    That may sound glib and simplistic, but ultimately that is what this existential struggle boils down to. (“It ain’t easy but it is simple”, as Ronald Reagan said about the need for “peace through strength” in the Cold War context.)

  • Joe

    I have yet to meet anyone who believes in a totally purist view, I don’t and people on here have accused me of being a “liberal fundamentalist” before so I think we can all accept that total purity is not on the cards (hence everyone seems to accept not allowing incitement to violence).

    On the principle side
    There is a significant difference between the criminal conspiracy and the “incitement to” laws. If you engage in a criminal conspiracy you are intending to cause actions that are criminal, if you incite (for example) hatred you are looking to change an opinion.

    Often in criminal conspiracy information expressed becomes a crime depending on the nature of the expression. If you are aware of a weakness in the back wall of a bank vault and publish a public document saying so you aren’t going to get prosecuted, said bank will just reinforce the wall. If you were to collect a group of bank robbers together and inform them to help concoct a robbery then you will get prosecuted.

    On a practical level
    The “incitement to” laws have lead to a rather farcical cat and mouse game between certain “hate preachers” and the authorities where there is a constant dance back and forward on how certain things are expressed. It isn’t really an effective way to deal with these people.

    I think the point that Nick correctly makes about not conflating the murders and world events could equally be applied to the belief where we should ban “inciting hatred” on the basis that it will lead to murders. Often what is being expressed is unpleasant views that should be in the open where they can be challenged.

  • Joe

    The important point is that we lack real free speech in the UK. There are significant limits to the legal protection citizens enjoy which this government should have done more to address (though recognising small victories have been made).

    In addition to this enhanced legal protection of free speech should give an opportunity to a cultural change in attitude and reduce the level of self-censorship and organisational censorship (the BBC with its monopolistic domination of the media market is particularly bad at this). Which would allow more of the view, which are expressed in a frustrated tone in private by a significant number of people, to be aired and challenged in a way that would better inform everyone.

    Looking at other countries in their response to this tragedy reflects very poorly on our culture and institutions by comparison.

    As liberals we should all want to address that.

  • @Joe Otten: Conspiracy is not “just thought,” in fact, it’s quite the reverse; a conspiracy requires more than one person, communicating and planning to act together. Private thought and solitary plans cannot be conspiracy.

  • Neil Sandison 9th Jan '15 - 3:21pm

    Only in a Liberal Democracy could Omar express his comments without being thought of as an enemy of the state .More so that he could express his comments to the deputy prime minister of that country in an uncensored way on a live radio interveiw shows the strength and tolerance of our democracy and why we need to be vigilant in protecting it from intolence be it religious or political or state sponsored.

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