The list of things that could persuade me to take a fine springtime Monday off of work, is about the size of the yellow pages and crammed full of trivialities. The list of things that could persuade me to willingly spend that same work-free and temperate Monday navigating Southern Rail’s incompetent shitshow to travel into the bustling, crowded heart of our country’s capital, is virtually non-existent. It’d need to be something I view as essential or otherwise impossibly tempting. Something like a protest against the governmental erosion of our most important fundamental principle, maybe. Or beer. Beer will do it too.
These compelling variables presented themselves last Monday, when I took part in a march from Leicester Square to Whitehall in defence of free speech, and managed to work in a couple of post-protest pints with my favourite blasphemous checker of spelling, who filmed much of the event and has extensive footage of it on his You Tube channel.
This march was arranged in support of another prominent You Tuber, “Count Dankula” aka 30 year old Scotsman Mark Meechan, who was at the time awaiting sentencing after a faintly amusing montage of him training his girlfriend’s dog to perform Nazi salutes in response to the command “gas the Jews”, resulted in a decidedly less amusing criminal conviction for “gross offense”. Meechan had been facing the unwelcome prospect of jail time for what he maintains was a joke, and just as I was making my way up the steps of Leicester Square tube station, the news broke that the judge, Sheriff Derek O’Carroll, had decided instead to order him to pay a monetary fine of £800.
Whilst the lack of a term At Her Majesty’s Pleasure was a welcome relief, the fact that the judge hadn’t simply thrown the case out of court and berated the prosecution for wasting everyone’s fucking time, meant that the principle of free speech had still been infringed, and the march went ahead as planned.
Meanwhile, as Meechan was leaving Airdrie Sheriff Court in Scotland, Sky News journalist James Matthews confronted him on the courthouse steps, immediately scolding him for his use of the phrase “gas the Jews” and demanding to know what was funny about his Nazi dog joke. Meechan confidently replied without missing a beat:
“The context of it. It’s the juxtaposition of having an adorable animal react to something vulgar. That was the entire point of the joke. You’ve just said the same thing (“gas the Jews”) a couple of seconds ago. Why should I consider your context if you’re not considering mine?”
Back in London the speeches in Whitehall had begun. First up was Ben Brown of the Liberalists UK who delivered a thoroughly respectable and appropriately outraged speech attacking this increasing trend in British society to “enable the suppression of those who discuss and promote controversial ideas, (in order) to protect the feelings of those who are incapable of co-existing with people they disagree with”. Brown also took aim at Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, the statute which Dankula was convicted of breaching, for using highly subjective and undefined terms as the basis of a criminal legislation.
Next was a speech by Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad) who was responsible for organising the demonstration in conjunction with Liberalists UK, but had seemingly turned up with a speech written for a different event. For a protest centred on free expression, the content of his speech felt strangely out of place, being that much of it focused on identity, Islam, and whether or not Enoch Powell was right. Things eventually veered more towards the pertinent when he began to speak of an apparent “British creed” whose unwritten rules state that “all beliefs are permissible, and it is harm that is punishable. And that harm can only be done by action, not by words.”
This was followed by a very good speech courtesy of Mark Houghton (Liberalists UK), and another by lawyer and Spectator columnist Helen Dale in which she recounted her brilliant response to a friend’s voiced concern that speaking in defence of Meechan would render her guilty of associating with Tommy Robinson:
“I’m sorry, ideas don’t become wrong because of who believes in them.”
Much had been made of the support given to Meechan by ostensibly “right-wing” or “far-right” personalities such as Tommy Robinson, the afore mentioned Carl Benjamin, and Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, and this guilt by association was being offered by some as an excuse for their own shameful failure to defend free expression, or as a reason to instead attack the victim of this disgraceful legal overreach. Many were claiming that “the right” had stolen the principle of free speech, hijacking it for their own nefarious purposes. The truth however, is not that the right have stolen this principle from the left, but that the left have willingly abandoned it, seemingly objecting to its application to people they find politically distasteful.
As if to demonstrate this point, the two most vocal opponents of Meechan’s right to make jokes without fear of prosecution, were Graham Linehan and Omid Djalili; two people whose very livelihoods depend on the right to make jokes without fear of prosecution, in their capacities as a comedy writer and a stand-up comic respectively.
Upon news of Meechan’s arrest, Djalili and Linehan both set about engaging in a concerted attempt to turn creepy, baffling, abusive, threatening, hypocritical tweeting into some kind of performance art.
Whilst Djalili was announcing that Freedom of Speech can go fuck itself, and berating anyone supportive of Dankula’s right to it as being supportive of the far-right, Linehan was taking shots at fellow comedian Tom Walker (aka Jonathan Pie) for supporting Dankula, verbally abusing anyone with the temerity to point out Linehan’s own history of “offensive” jokes, and according to Meechan, privately contacting other comedians requesting that they withdraw their support of him.
Linehan and Djalili are oblivious to the notion that one need neither agree with the speech, nor endorse the speaker, to defend these rights. In fact, defending free speech should invariably make you feel uncomfortable, because most of your time will be spent defending speech you find abhorrent. But it’s nothing compared to how uncomfortable not defending free speech should make you feel.
Luckily, free speech is not predicated on the approval of obnoxious left wing comics. Unluckily though, it does appear to be predicated on the approval of her majesty’s constabulary. And one speaker who had spent much of the day enthusiastically antagonising the police officers who were tasked with patrolling and monitoring the activities of the assembled protestors, used part of his speech to solicit “grossly offensive” jokes from the audience, practically daring the police to arrest him for doing so. One protestor obliged by offering the following gag:
Q: What’s the best thing about fucking twenty-two year olds?
A: There are twenty of them.
As expected the police took no action. But according to the ludicrous precedent set by Sheriff Derek O’Carroll in the Mark Meechan case, they would have been well within their rights to do so.
The rest of the speeches were confident and articulate for the most part, save perhaps for an instance during the open floor section wherein a flustered impromptu speaker from the audience stepped up to the podium and satisfied the curiosity of anyone who’d ever wondered what a panic attack sounds like through a megaphone.
I’d never heard of Mark Meechan before he was needlessly dragged through the courts over a joke, and to this day, the only video I’ve ever seen of his is the one that landed him in this farcical situation in the first place. My exposure to this video didn’t take place accidentally during a spot of late night You Tube Roulette. Nor was I oblivious, whilst viewing it, that I was in fact watching a crime unfold. On the contrary; I purposefully watched Dankula’s Nazi Pug video as a direct result of his arrest.
I suspect a similar story could be told by many. In fact the video was recently broadcast in its entirety to a packed house at a London comedy club to much laughter and applause. And so this prosecution has not only had the unintended consequence of ensuring a dramatic increase in the number of people who have been exposed to Meechan’s “grossly offensive” words, but it has also created a public backlash in which people who refuse to be told what they can and can’t read, watch, or listen to, have taken to the streets and expressed their vocal opposition to this authoritarian policing of free expression. It has simultaneously turned what was an obscure and inconsequential video into an amateur blockbuster and a large scale public event in one fell swoop.
And this remains the ultimate irony which plagues censorship of all kinds. Attempting to limit exposure to “offensive” material will invariably have the opposite effect. People will simply refuse to be treated like children, incapable of discerning jokes from legitimate calls for violence, or of making their own decisions as to what entertainment they consume. And it is for this reason that censorious tactics have repeatedly backfired any time they’ve been attempted. Whether it be the hysterical campaign in the 1950’s against horror comics, the moral panic over Video Nasties, or the efforts to ban Gangsta Rap in the 1980’s, the creation of taboos only increases the desire to break them.
And so this clash between the British state’s dictatorial attitudes, and everyone else’s desire to live life as autonomous agents expressing themselves as they damn well please, has resulted in a thoroughly confusing climate in which NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton can be nominated for an Academy Award, whilst a woman posting indistinguishable rap lyrics on Instagram can be prosecuted for hate speech.
A climate where highbrow hypocrites like Djalili and Linehan reserve the right to joke about whatever they so desire, whilst feeling no shame in championing the denial of that same right to others.
A climate where, to quote Twitter user Re-Enlightenment, the battle for free speech is left to people “for whom these freedoms are not obscure academic concepts but real, valuable things.”
And a climate in which an occasional blogger who would have enjoyed his Monday off of work doing any number of banal things, instead joined hundreds of other similarly pissed-off people to let the British Government know that we are fully prepared to fight this concerted and sinister attack on our most fundamental of liberties.