Monday, 28 January 2013

Free speech, the Internet and the legacy of 1689

Could the internet be the way that both traditional Christianity and rigorous investigative journalism can be preserved for the British public in the future?
asks Rev Julian Mann


Both British Christians and secular journalists have good reason to celebrate 1689. It was the year Parliament passed the Act of Toleration which removed the restrictions on non-conformist Protestants holding church meetings. It was also the year Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, effectively allowing a free press in England, which then extended to Great Britain following the 1707 Acts of Union.

But now 1689 is being put into reverse by the coalition government. If same-sex marriage is passed into law, the Equality Act of 2010 could well make it illegal for a Christian teacher to declare his or her belief that same-sex marriage is wrong or even that it is not on a moral par with heterosexual marriage. Christians in the public sector will be the new nonconformists officially persecuted by the State.

The suppression of a free press in the UK is likely to be a more slow-burning process than the squeeze on Christian freedom of expression. But the Leveson enquiry demonstrated that there is a powerful and wealthy lobby of celebrities who want the British government to stop journalists criticising their moral behaviour, particularly their sexual conduct. That narcissistic celebrity mentality is surely the same as that driving the politically influential gay lobby, who want to stop Christians expressing the Bible's moral teaching in the public square.

If anyone is inclined to doubt that Christians and journalists are in the same boat in the threat they face from repressive political correctness dressed up as an 'equality' crusade, then they need look no further than the recent reaction of a government minister over an article in a national newspaper criticising transsexuals. Former equalities minister Lynne Featherstone demanded that The Observer 'sack' Julie Birchill, one of its freelance writers. It is an intervention worthy of a Carolingian prelate against a non-conformist pamphleteer before 1689.

Thankfully, the advent of the internet makes it difficult for modern governments to suppress freedom of speech, whether Christian or secular. Such sites may have to locate off-shore in the future but it would be hard for the government to stop British people from reading them.

Should the UK press get muzzled, it is important that internet sites do employ proper investigative journalists. Politically correct repression of free speech has a pretext when journalists are cavalier with the truth, are unscrupulous or are professionally incompetent. If the internet is the way of holding the UK executive to account, then that responsibility cannot be left to amateurs.

It may well be that internet users will have to pay for the cost of employing properly trained, professional journalists. But surely the exposure of evil abd the clear and open declaration of the truth is worth the price. It is only powerful mountebanks who will benefit from the suppression of both Christianity and a free press.

Christians know from their New Testament that the powerful religio-political establishment of 1st century Judea was desperate to stop Jesus speaking his mind. At the end of one argument, during which Jesus famously said 'if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8v36), his enemies tried to stone him to death.

For the sake of preserving the spiritual and temporal legacy of 1689, Christian communicators and investigative journalists must not make their excuses and leave the UK public to the ravages of powerful liars.

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire -