Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Jerry Springs It

Today was a good day for freedom of expression. In a clearly-worded judgement dismissing Stephen Green's attempt to prosecute the BBC for blasphemy over their broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera almost 3 years ago, Lord Justice Hughes effectively scrapped the age-old law. This is the central paragraph:

There is therefore ample basis for the common ground before us that the gist of the crime of blasphemous libel is material relating to the Christian religion, or its figures or formularies, so scurrilous and offensive in manner that it undermines society generally, by endangering the peace, depraving public morality, shaking the fabric of society or tending to be a cause of civil strife. It was on this basis that the application was made to the Magistrate for the summonses in the present case. It should clearly be understood that this second element of the crime must not be watered down. What is necessary to make such material a crime is that the community (or society) generally should be threatened. This element will not be shown merely because some people of particular sensibility are, because deeply offended, moved to protest. It will be established if but only if what is done or said is such as to induce a reasonable reaction involving civil strife, damage to the fabric of society or their equivalent.

The days when society might be said to be in danger of civil strife as a result of insulting Christianity are long gone. Not so Islam, of course, or even (given the furore over the play Bezhti) Sikhism. These religions, however, are not protected under the law of blasphemy, and the offence of "inciting religious hatred", which the government finally managed to pass into law last year, includes clear exemptions for artistic works.

As a bonus, the learned judge considered the question of criminal libel. Under long-established English law, you can't libel the dead. But aren't Christians constantly telling us that Jesus Lives? Not legally, he doesn't:

The target of criminal defamation must be a living person and not an idea or a faith, nor can Christ be regarded as a living human being for these purposes, despite Christian belief in His resurrection, which is not as a presently living human being but rather to the realms of the Almighty.

The last successful prosecution for blasphemy was in 1979, when Mary Whitehouse brought an action against the publisher of Gay News over a homo-erotic poem about Jesus. The elements of the offence, stressed by milud Hughes in his judgement, haven't changed since then. Has Britain so much altered, then, that less than thirty years ago that Gay News threatened "damage to the fabric of society"? It's hard to believe that it has. Whatever the judge said today, it's clear that a Gay News trial would not succeed today, and should not have succeeded then.

Blasphemy is now effectively a dead letter. There is not even any need to scrap it, except for symbolic reasons. How ironic that the absurd Mr Green, whose stated aim is to defend Christianity and God from insult, has produced a result that campaigners for free speech have striven for, unsuccessfully, for decades.