kenny hodgart

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Maybe Britain needs a First Amendment, too

This article was published at Spiked

Last week it emerged that the Metropolitan Police are investigating the Spectator magazine following complaints from a Muslim group about comments made on a blog entry on its website by the Daily Mail journalist Melanie Phillips. Writing about the massacre, in the West Bank, of a three-month-old Jewish girl, her two brothers and her parents as they slept in their beds, Phillips referred to the murderers as ‘savages’ and to the ‘moral depravity of the Arabs’.

Phillips is not generally noted for even-handedness when it comes to writing about the Middle East. She is often polemical, some might even say tendentious, in her support of Israel. She is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, and perhaps you would include yourself in that. Perhaps you feel that she comes too close to smearing all Arabs. Perhaps you even think hers are the sort of views that should be investigated by the police. But then again, perhaps you don’t read her blogs and form your views of the rights and wrongs of faraway bloodshed from other sources. Perhaps you wonder what all the fuss is about.

There are echoes here of the case of another Daily Mail journalist, Jan Moir, who in 2009 upset a lot of people by appearing to attribute the death of the singer Stephen Gately to his lifestyle. Gately was gay. The Crown Prosecution Service eventually decided, about a year ago, not to prosecute Moir, but the whole episode conjured up bizarre images of crown officials poring over words and phrases in a newspaper opinion column for evidence of illegality.

And then there was the case, less well-publicised, involving Douglas Murray, another journalist. He was investigated by the Press Complaints Commission and the police merely for suggesting that the prosecution of an English councillor for telling a joke about an Irishman being a bit dim was ludicrous. And last year, too, a Liberal Democrat councillor was convicted under the 2006 Public Order Act for using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words, with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress’. Shirley Brown, who is black, had called a female Asian councillor, Jay Jethwa, a ‘coconut’, a colloquial term used to denote a person who is ‘brown on the outside and white on the inside’ – someone who has, in other words, betrayed his or her cultural roots by pandering to ‘white’ opinion.

But it’s not merely in print and in the debating chamber that solecisms can have repercussions: cyberspace also has its victims. Think of Paul Chambers, who was fined £3,000 and lost his job for tweeting, in jest, words to the effect that he would blow up an airport if its closure due to bad weather disrupted his travel plans. Or of Gareth Compton, the Tory councillor who was arrested in November when – after hearing the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argue on a radio programme that the West had no moral authority to condemn the practice of stoning women in the Muslim world – he asked his Twitter followers ‘Can someone please stone [her] to death?’, adding ‘I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.’

That some users of social media are discovering, to their detriment, that the online environment does not in fact mirror the domain of the private conversation down the pub was perhaps inevitable. But then, as the Sky Sports commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys – who lost their jobs for making off-colour remarks when they thought they were not being recorded – recently found out, even private conversation is no longer safe from censure.

What is going on? How did we arrive at a situation where giving offence is automatically sackable or worse? Surely the freedom to disagree with a comment or to ignore it is enough. When it is suggested that certain points of view or ways of expressing them might be or should be illegal – or that intolerance should not be tolerated, to purloin the common malapropism – a notion that should chill anyone who holds the principles of liberal democracy dear is given life: the notion of thought crime. Freedom of speech was hard-won in the West; the freedom only to speak inoffensively is no freedom at all.

If UK prime minister David Cameron seemed to grasp this when he spoke of the merits of ‘muscular liberalism’ earlier this year, it is a pity that his government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill – an Act which has been making its way through parliament since last summer and which it is intended will extend freedom of information, turn back the tide of state intrusion into our lives and repeal unnecessary criminal laws – makes no attempt to return free speech to its rightful place at the altar of democracy.

The Lib-Con coalition government may well be less authoritarian than the Labour one that preceded it, but in a way we are still suffering the hangover from New Labour and the ideals it pressed into service when it ditched socialism: diversity, equality, respect. Among the 4,300 new offences put into statute under Labour were those governing ‘hate speech’, or the giving and taking of offence. First came legislation on racial and religious hatred; later, protection was extended to gay, transgender and disabled people. Doubtless heightened sensitivity about Islam in the wake of 9/11 played its part: the Religious Hatred Act of 2006, for instance, extended outdated blasphemy laws to afford people of all faiths, including Jedis, recourse against things they don’t like hearing said or seeing written.

One of the results has been a new culture of fastidious censoriousness in every public body, human-resource department and media organisation in the land. Furthermore, the giving of offence need not be intentional, nor the words (or cartoons) themselves possessed of the propensity to give it in order for it to be taken. Never mind the freedom to speak offensively: people have been invited to believe there is such a thing as the right not to be offended. Never mind that ‘incitement to hatred’ is a grey, disputable thing, and a different thing to incitement to violence, which was already a criminal offence. Never mind that most ideas are capable of giving offence, and that Socrates, Galileo and Darwin were all considered beyond the pale in their time. And never mind that in the marketplace of ideas, ‘hate speech’ can be challenged, debated or ignored. What we now have is moderated free speech at best.

That distinction between incitement to hatred and incitement to violence is a crucial one for Peter Tatchell, one of this country’s most tireless and principled human rights campaigners. When I spoke to him last year he had recently been in the news for defending the rights of Christian preachers hounded by the law over homophobic hate-speech crimes. One American Baptist evangelist, Shawn Holes, was fined £1,000 for telling shoppers in Glasgow city centre that homosexuals were bound for hell; Tatchell, who is gay himself and renowned for his campaigning on behalf of gay rights, called it ‘an attack on free speech and a heavy-handed, excessive response to homophobia’. He had also spoken up for the five Islamists convicted of showering abuse at British soldiers at a ‘homecoming’ march in Luton, but had elsewhere called for sanctions on extremists who incite violence – including Abu Usamah, who was shown in a Channel 4 undercover documentary advocating the killing of gays and Muslims who leave their faith. But there was no contradiction, he insisted. ‘If someone says “I want to encourage people to plant bombs in Princes Street in Edinburgh”, then that’s pretty clear incitement to violence’, he told me. ‘Saying “I sympathise with al-Qaeda” is not, on the other hand.’

While that view may not be likely to find favour with mainstream political opinion, muscular liberal or otherwise, it makes sense from a First Amendment perspective, if you’re talking American. Britain doesn’t have a First Amendment, of course, but it did produce John Stuart Mill, who wrote in 1859 that ‘there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered’. The limits of such liberty should be defined by the ‘harm principle’, he said, not by social offence. In other words, dealing with offence is part of being a grown-up in a grown-up society.

Liberals nowadays seem to have lost the stomach for such principles, however. The word ‘liberal’ itself has come to denote a much narrower set of ideas: vaguely leftish, environmentalist, irreproachably PC, pro-European, pro-Palestine, pro-Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Technology, meanwhile, may have helped to create a more informed and engaged citizenry, but it has also given a leg up to the power of mob rule. Online forums and message boards foster a culture of outrage, indignation and recrimination; they manufacture and mobilise offence.

The Lib-Cons’ Protection of Freedoms Act will flush away ID cards, biometric passports and the ContactPoint database of children in England. It includes provisions to restrict and regulate the use of surveillance powers, CCTV and the storage of internet and email records and it will restore rights to freedom of assembly, non-violent protest and trial by jury. It may prove to be a watershed moment for liberty in Britain. It could have been a much greater one. It is time to weigh again the value, as opposed to the price, of free speech.


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Shouting the odds

This article appeared in The Herald

Those rather tiresome people who spend their lives extolling the virtues of the internet will tell you that one of its advantages over older media is its interactivity. It’s all very well saying this, of course, but in reality there are few devices more interactive than the telephone. And, though it may be a depressing truth it is one nevertheless that interacting with the television, by shouting it, is among the greatest joys modern life affords.

I myself cannot recall when I started shouting at the television. I do remember, however, taking particular exception to the children’s presenter Andi Peters, whose inane chatter and lisp and daft spelling of his first name made him the most annoying man conceivable. Now, I note, most people on television are like Peters: shouty, noisome and in a permanent state of excitement.

Earlier this month a pensioner named Martin Soloman was sent down for 14 months by Gloucestershire crown court for persistently violating his neighbours’ peace with noisy, foul-mouthed rants at programmes that irritated him. One has sympathy with the neighbours, of course, but we should not be too quick to pass judgment on Mr Soloman, who is, after all, an old sailor, chrissakes.

First of all, the programme makers must shoulder some of the blame for making such knowingly irritating programmes. And secondly it should be noted that the old chap reserved his worst rages for Question Time – which is understandable alone for the way its studio audiences can always be relied on to applaud the most fatuous of points.

Mr Soloman’s case is an extreme one, but shouting at the box is on the whole a rewarding exercise. Like a magnet it draws out the urge to despair at one’s fellow man, leaving only slight feelings of guilt and the resolve to try to be nicer to him.

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Poetry, war and bicycles

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It is the first Sunday in April, 2009, and my train has chuntered out of Brussels, bound for East Flanders. Ghent, famed for its immaculately-preserved medieval architecture, is less than an hour to the north, but my destination is the lesser-known hilly area to the south of the region – the Flemish Ardennes – home to the “hellingen” which provide the dramatic setting for the cobbled classic cycle races run in Flanders each Spring.

In professional cycling, cobbles are to these “Classics” what the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps are to the Tour de France. It is on these sections of the course that the ambitions of the few are realised, the hopes of many are crushed and, in such short, steep climbs as the famous Koppenberg, near the town of Oudenaarde, that thousands fervently line the route to experience the thrill of the race as it hurtles past.

Where the colour, celebrity and scale of the Tour de France lend it a glorious, epic glamour, the grittiness of the so-called “northern” Classics has a fascination all of its own. The Paris-Roubaix race – run over an unrelenting series of punishing cobbled farm tracks in northern France – is considered the “Queen of the Classics”, but is preceded in late March and early April each year by the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish cycling week).

This festival of racing includes the Classic Ghent-Wevelgem, which features the ascent and terrifying descent of the famous Kemmelberg climb, and the “Three Days of De Panne” stage race in West Flanders. But the highlight, and the race which brings all of Flanders to a standstill, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

“You can either ride the cobbles or you can’t”, says Barry Hoban, an Englishman whose successes in the 1960s and 70s endeared him to Flandrians to such an extent that he became known as The Gent of Ghent. “Some guys are terrified of them. You have to ride them hard and fast and take whatever the weather throws at you. I’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix in snowstorms and I’ve ridden it in a heatwave. And when it’s hot and dry it’s worse because the dust gets up and your eyes are red for about three days afterwards.”

As someone who “hit the north” as an outsider, Hoban – whose results included victory in Gent-Wevelgem, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the Ronde – is well-placed to comment on what distinguishes the culture of cycling there. “As a young man, I left West Yorkshire – a hard-grafting, coal-mining area – and moved to northern France and lived among hard-grafting, coal-mining people there,” recalls the 71-year-old.

“The only difference was the language and the fact that they loved cycling, because the people were exactly the same. I lived first in Bethune (in France) and later in Ghent, and at that time there were very few English-speaking riders. But I didn’t feel out of place. I learned French and Flemish and just immersed myself in it. People took me to their hearts as one of their own.”

Hoban describes his Ghent-Wevelgem win in 1974 as being as special as his Tour de France stage wins. “In that race I beat everyone, all of the guys from that great generation of Belgian cyclists: Eddy Merckx was second, Roger de Vlaeminck was third. [Walter] Godefroot, Freddy Maertens were both there. I beat them all, I beat the hierarchy of Belgium. It was good.”

He also remembers losing out against Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist of all time, when they hit the “muur” together in the 1969 Ronde. Muur means “wall” in Dutch, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its half-kilometre cobbled section, scaling upwards at a gradient of up to 20% to the iconic Chapel of Our Lady at its summit, often proves the decisive battleground at the head of the race. The latter half of the Ronde features more than a dozen similar hellingen, but because the Muur comes after 250km of racing – only 17km from the finish in Ninove – those not reaching the chapel with the leaders have no chance of contesting the win.

My train into Geraardsbergen – one of the oldest “cities” in Europe, but now a modestly-sized municipality – is not busy. Few, it seems, travel from metropolitan, cosmopolitan Brussels to watch this race. But as I reach the main street leading up to the town square, I realise the party is already in full swing. It is a bright, sunny day, warm for April, and old and young mingle together in the square’s packed bars and restaurants.

The race passes through the square and it is just before it that the Muur begins in earnest, albeit the cobbled section isn’t for another half kilometre. Past the square the road swings upwards and left, and several thousand fans are packed in along the wide boulevard.

The riders are still more than 40 minutes away, but already a decisive break has formed. The biggest name in Belgian cycling, and two-time winner of the race, Tom Boonen, has missed it, but last year’s winner, the Flandrian Stijn Devolder, is present. There are black and yellow Lion of Flanders flags everywhere.

I head further on up the hill. At the end of Oudebergstraate a cobbled lane narrows and steepens, making its way up through a wooded section and round a hairpin bend which kicks up again to the Chapel at the top. This is the heart of the Muur, where the toughest riders create the fractional gaps that can quickly lengthen into decisive ten or 20 second leads. All the way up, on both sides of the road, people are tucked into the embankment, holding on to the branches of trees to stop themselves falling on to the road. Some have been there for hours, waiting like snipers for a Boonen, Devolder or Lief Hoste to pass by inches in front of them. Waiting, I discover, to unleash their noise on the Ronde.

Among the crowd the orange of visiting Dutch fans is visible; a few English voices can be heard; and a fan club of Italians is vocalising its support for the young up-and-coming Italian rider Marco Bandiera. But though the appeal of the race is international, its identity is distinctly Flandrian: the majority of the spectators are behind the local riders and chants of “Sti -jn – Devolder” ring out.

“When you’re a kid and you take up cycling you dream of making it to the Muur van Geraardsbergen in first place,” is how Boonen, a native Flandrian, explains the passion and frenzy. “Belgians grow up with cycling in their hearts. It’s ingrained in our culture like football in Italy or skiing in Austria. [The Ronde] has always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid and would watch the race on television. It’s my country’s race and it’s where I had my first great victory in a Classic [in 2005]. It was an unforgettable moment. When I crossed the finish line in front of thousands of supporters screaming my name it was like living a dream.”

As I squeeze into a spot just below the chapel, the scene is a flurry of nervous activity. Some have radios pressed to their ears and I catch the names Devolder, Boonen, Gilbert and Chavanel at various intervals. A man, fuelled by strong beer and sensing a captive audience, decides to break the tension by performing a dance with his trousers at his ankles, much to the delight of his peers.

And then the television helicopter is sighted overhead. A new expectation fills the air: the race is near, the distant roar of crowds further down the road can be heard, and as the volume increases men, women, children, even dogs strain their eyes on the road. People know Devolder and the Frenchman Chavanel are up there, and they know that Boonen hasn’t made it. A flash of colour is sighted through a chicane in the road, and the crowd slowly recognises it is one rider on his own. It is Devolder.

An ecstasy fills the air. Men roar and women shriek as he rounds the bend at the top of the Muur in a flash, sweat glistening over his muscles in the sunlight, a grimace of pain etched on his face. And his effort is not in vain: he crests the summit with a gap of some ten seconds on his pursuers and by the time he reaches Ninove it is almost a minute.

I eventually make my way back to the square, where a full-scale celebration is underway. Assuming it to be a Flandrian beer, I order an Orval, and am chided for it by a local man, who explains to me that it is, in fact, from the French-speaking Walloonian south. And maybe he is right to chide: maybe the passion and parochiality of Vlaamse Wielerweek is what gives it its distinctiveness, its enduring appeal in a world in which sport is becoming ever-more globalised and commercialised. “It’s poetry and war at the same time,” Boonen tells me. “This sport is like religion to us.”