Russell Howard and the UK Free Speech discussion

Written by on February 11, 2019

I can’t help but be confused by Russell Howard and comments on his recent show involving a segment on free speech. The former BBC now Sky One show involves Howard reporting on the news highlights of the week and delivering these in a comedic way. Now, the video itself is not what I am focused on here.  Am sure that there are many videos that will make replies point by point to what was said on YouTube and I advise you to seek them out. I am aware that the argument presented is in the form of a Stand Up performance and as such can’t be taken seriously, that would be ridiculous.

That being said there is a general theme in the piece that sums up the argument for freedom of speech, namely that a lot of the people making it don’t seem to know where they live. The Americanisation of the world through the medium of TV and film, made even more apparent by the use of social media and streaming services seems to have led people to believe that they live in the United States, which is the only country to have freedom of speech enshrined in law.

Russell Howard points out correctly that freedom of speech means that people have the right to say whatever they like back to you. I agree with this. I would also argue that the reason freedom of speech is important is that it allows me to make judgements about a person and their views and will save me from wasting my time with them if I don’t like what they are saying as there is less of a chance that they will avoid saying things for legal reasons.

This is the big issue. In the UK, there are legal consequences for the way that what you say is interpreted. You can be locked up for a noise that comes out of a hole in your face. I have previously argued about the need for censorship on the grounds of avoiding offence with the example of a comedian, which is another reason that I used Russell Howard as a jumping off point. If I tell a joke in a room half of the people laugh and half of the people don’t, was the joke funny or not? The discussion is then between intention and interpretation. I may have said something that I find funny and that I wanted to present to someone as a joke, but they chose to interpret that as a direct insult and be offended.

This discussion might hold more water in other countries, it used to here but times change. As another quick thought experiment, I want you to say the phrase ‘You Look Nice’ out loud, and say it in as many different tones as you can, genuine, questioning, sarcastic, snarky etc. If you understand that this can be done you can understand that context matters as well as how the phrase was presented. That you can say one thing and mean another. That no longer applies in the UK.

The current standard of Hate Speech laws mean that there is only the interpretation of the ‘victim’ taken into account. This has been seen in recent times with the police questioning people and recording incidents as ‘hate incidents’ even when no crime has occurred. Given the already low bar for public order offences (words that could cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ for example swearing) this is quite staggering.

Up until 2013 you could be arrested in the UK for using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ even if there was no identifiable victim. Since 2013 the insult can only be prosecuted if there is an identifiable victim, still not good but better by one of the smallest margins, or so you might think.

The current society is full of people waiting to be victimised and ready and able to scream about any slight they can find. High profile cases in the UK include the convictions of YouTube user ‘Count Dankula’ and Liverpool woman Chelsea Russell. Count Dankula, real name Markus Meechan was convicted of a hate crime as a result of a comedic YouTube video in which he decided to ‘turn his girlfirend’s cute pug into the worst thing imaginable’ and trained it to raise its paw when hearing the phrase ‘gas the Jews’. Bear in mind here that the context of the video is that Meechan thinks supporting the beliefs of Nazi’s is ‘the worst thing imaginable’. During the trial Meechan attempted to present the context of the clip but was told that ‘context does not matter’ and that what he did would be considered grossly offensive under any circumstance.

The context argument was presented, as well as defeated, shortly after when Meechan was interviewed outside of the court after being convicted. A journalist asked him if he thought ‘saying gas the Jews was ever acceptable’. Meechan simply informed the journalist that he had been told context didn’t matter so the journalist could now be prosecuted for the exact same offence he had been. Flippant and entirely correct, yet for some reason the journalist was not despite the video of the exchange being uploaded to YouTube as well as the offending video.

Chelsea Russell was convicted of a hate crime for posting rap lyrics to her Instagram account. There was no victim presented, even though as part of the conviction there was a ‘victim surcharge’ of £85, the case was brought solely by a member of the local police’s hate crime unit, who expressed that the words expressed should be deemed offensive ‘to her as a black woman and to the general community’. All claims such as these should surely be sent on a postcard to a Mr Snap Dogg surely? The same police woman also stated during the case that the words quoted online would just as offensive no matter who had said them, regardless of race, background etc.

At the time of writing it is still possible to play rap music through Spotify in the UK, but surely all future sales and touring must be about to grind to a halt. After all there is now legal precedent that some of the words in these songs are illegal in this country, no matter who says them.

I am troubled as a rap fan, but also as a human capable of making sounds with my food hole. Section 127 of the 2003 communications act, which was used to prosecute both parties, says that a person can be said to have committed an offence if he or she ‘sends by means of a public electronic communication network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.

Although not prosecuted there are further high profile incidents that have resulted in police attention for the expression of an opinion online. 74 –year-old Margaret Nelson was contacted by police this month regarding a blog post that she had made. She was told that the post had ‘upset people’ and she was told to ‘tone things down.’ The post in question was one discussing the fact that ‘death doesn’t mis-gender’ that the sex of a corpse when investigated will show the sex at birth rather than what the person identified as in life. Suffolk Police apologised for this once the incident became public, one wonders what the response would have been if the press were not involved.

In January Harry Miller was investigated by police simply for ‘liking’ a ‘trans-sceptical’ limerick that someone else had posted on Twitter.

With this we return to Russell Howard. The overall assertion to what he was saying was that you could not expect to say anything you like without any push back, that people would be able to react however they wanted to what you said. He is of course correct with this and social consequences would ensue, loss of friends etc. However, this is not and has never been the issue. The legal issues that exist in this country are the issue, as well as how they are applied. We live in a world where simply quoting someone who may have said something naughty could land you with a criminal conviction for a hate crime, good luck getting employed after that. In fact, I think I should correct the previous sentence – we live in a world where simply quoting someone, and another person finding the quote offensive, could land you with a criminal conviction.

Frankly I find the whole thing grossly offensive, perhaps I should press charges.



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