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Friday, 1 July 2011

Harold Pinter's ice cream and free speech

I once sold an ice cream to Harold Pinter. Or, to be more accurate, to his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, who bought one each for herself and Harold during my time with the Royal Shakespeare Company. My notably undistinguished career at the RSC comprised two months as a Front of House Assistant, selling programmes and ice creams, tearing tickets and directing patrons to their seats. This was thousands of years ago, when I was aged eighteen and the RSC's London base was at the Barbican. Alright, it was 1989. One of the job's many best bits was "sitting in". The law required a member of the theatre's staff to be sat on each side of the auditorium near the front, watching each performance and doing who knows what (I certainly didn't - no-one ever told me) in the event of a fire. Whenever anyone debates free speech, the most tired cliche is: "We all know that free speech has to be restricted - after all, we don't allow people to suddenly shout "Fire!" in the middle of a performance in a crowded theatre", but I was being paid to potentially do precisely that.

Perhaps fortunately, I never had to test the limits of free speech (or the limits of fire safety) by shouting "Fire!"; indeed, I never actually shouted anything during any of the performances on which I sat in, which must have come as something of a relief to the company, including as it did a leading actor whose performance in The Tempest was amended, on one memorable occasion, to include the following: "Your father, Miranda, your father, the wrong-ed Duke of Milan was - I'M SORRY, BUT WILL YOU PLEASE STOP COUGHING!", it being the height of the October coughing season, with the audience including many fine practitioners of the art.

Free speech has been much in the news this week. I am not, in the remotest sense, a liberal purist on this issue. I have always believed that the Home Secretary should have the right to bar from the UK any extremist who is not conducive to the public good. We are not in the sixth form, and this country is not a school debating society. There are some people whose influence on public opinion is likely to be so poisonous and inflammatory as to damage community relations or be harmful to public order. Such individuals are rare, so not many people are barred from coming in, but I fully support the Home Secretary having the power to do this on the occasions when she deems it necessary.

To those who would say that they want to hear from everybody who might wish to speak in Britain, I would say that this is equivalent to wanting to see any film that anybody might wish to show in Britain - surely, as film-goers, we choose to watch those films that are most likely to be any good, rather than seeking to watch those that are likely to be rubbish? If I was organising a political meeting about conflict resolution and the relief of suffering, why would I invite a hate-filled extremist to speak at that meeting? Why would I invite an expert on lemons to give a speech about strawberries? That doesn't mean that everyone who speaks about lemons should be banned from doing so, but it does mean that I am likely to learn little about strawberries from any speech that they might give. 

I appreciate that we need to know what extremists are saying, as part of the process of confronting extremism. I appreciate also that broadcasters and electoral authorities sometimes have to give a platform to extremists as part of a legal process. That, however, is different from picking an extremist, hoisting him on one's shoulders, and saying: "Of all the people who have something to say about a troubled part of the world, this man is the most useful person from whom you could currently hear; if you want to hear how to improve things in that part of the world, then come to the meeting and hear this man speak." Why would you do that in the case of a man who has written an article falsely claiming that members of a particular community were warned to stay away from the site of a murderous terrorist attack? Warned so as to avoid being among the thousands that were killed, because (runs the conspiracy theory) that community's agents were behind the attack in question. When, in fact, hundreds, if not thousands, of members of that community were murdered in the attack in question, and the conspiracy theory concerned is obviously hate-filled drivel. And no, we don't always need to take such people on and defeat them in debate. We don't, in the name of free speech, go out of our way to organise public meetings at which people who encourage domestic violence are "taken on and defeated in debate". Flat Earthers are not banned, but nor are they positively invited to speak at all scientific conferences.

Even if you do not believe in such a person being banned, why would you choose to organise a public meeting to which such a person is invited to speak? Of all the people that you can choose as a speaker at your meeting, why go out of your way to choose that one? That is a rhetorical question, as is this one: what would be the reaction if Mike Guzovsky was invited to speak in London? Would anyone consider that such an invitation was a good idea, or defend it on free speech grounds? Would anyone say that, of all the people who could possibly be invited to speak, he was the best? I doubt they would, and if they did, I would tell them that they were wrong.

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