The Oxford Union Debating Society has voted two to one to go ahead and offer a platform to David Irving and Nick Griffin to debate free speech, and that will happen tonight. Those who voted in favour decided not to let concerns for groups who have been the objects of Irving’s and Griffin’s hatred for so many years trump their desire to hear from them on the subject of freedom of speech. I think they made the right decision.
David Irving famously lost the libel case he initiated against Deborah Irving – she had referred to him in her book Denying the Holocaust as a holocaust denier, he tried to legally oppose her free expression, lost and was confirmed by the judge as an antisemitic holocaust denier. Unremorseful, he attributed his defeat* to “having explained myself with insufficient clarity” in the face of people he identified as Jewish leaders with “bottomless pockets” who had decided to “destroy the bastard”. Consequently, maybe because he inadvertantly reminded Austria that he was in breach of their National Socialism Law, next time he was there he was apprehended, convicted and imprisoned under their Prohibition of National Socialism Act**.
Nick Griffin is the leader of the British National Party. In 2005, after among other things calling Islam a “wicked, vicious faith” he was arrested and charged under section 18 of the Public Order Act which outlaws incitement to racial hatred. He was eventually cleared, triggering a call for a review of the law by Government ministers. In 1998 he had received a two-year suspended sentence for the same crime, but relating to materials denying the Holocaust, which he has rubbished as an “orthodox opinion“. He’s a thug in a suit.
“Nothing which happens in Monday’s debate can possibly offset the boost you are giving to a couple of scoundrels who can put up with anything except being ignored.”
The concern is that fascists forfeit their legitimacy to speak publicly on any other subject because any invitation from polite society will be interpreted as a “boost” to their fascist views.
I don’t know if the Oxford Union members are being deliberately controversial or inadvertantly naive in inviting Irving and Griffin, but I think there is a case for doing so. My premises are:
- The debate about free speech in Britain is important.
- A high-calibre panel debating free speech should include pariahs who have first hand experience at the boundaries of what is lawful.
- It is wrong to give a platform to fascists which gives their fascist views credibility.
- Inviting a fascist to debate free speech does not in itself boost their views
1) is uncontroversial. It promises to be a very interesting debate. The criminalisation of Holocaust denial will almost inevitably come up, as will what constitutes inciting racial hatred or religious hatred, and the travesty of our libel laws where the defendant is so likely to lose that you only have to wave the prospect of a libel case to make its object retract and slink away. ‘No platform’ policies in universities will probably come up too.
2) is dicey and difficult to defend – I may be wrong about it. Firstly though, if it’s free speech pariahs we want then Irving and Griffin are exemplary. Trying to think of alternative panellists you begin to realise (though without being complacent) how much freedom of speech we actually have in this country and in the EU (the right to freedom of expression is ratified in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights). If we want to hear from a pariah I don’t think there’s much to choose between speakers who repesent the types of expression that are outlawed – incitement to terrorism, or religious or racial hatred. I don’t think anybody would argue that Abu Hamza al-Masri were any better, for example.
But – a related question – are Irving and Griffin, as pariahs, necessarily the best advocates for free speech? Wouldn’t vocal libertarians such as Brendan O’Neill, who are not themselves pariahs, be better? I don’t know – I’d be surprised if the embattled politician and historian weren’t able and articulate advocates for free speech and they will have a powerful and focussing immediacy. I don’t see why O’Neill should replace rather than accompany them on the panel (Evan Harris MP is one of the other panellists and I’m not sure who the fourth is – I hope it is O’Neill). The problem is that as far as I can tell nobody is dealing with the question of Irving’s and Griffin’s ability to speak on free speech – people are understandably preoccupied with their facism.
3) if Irving and Griffin had been invited to discuss, respectively, approaches to Holocaust education or multiculturalism, then an invitation would indeed dignify their views and either would be an appalling choice of panellist. A bit like Hesbollah’s Ibrahim Mousawi being invited to speak at the Stop the War Coalition’s “international peace conference” unchallenged (there couldn’t be an Israeli speaker because the Stop the War Coalition is boycotting Israel). But they weren’t – Oxford Union president Luke Tryl assures us they’re “not being given a platform to extol their views”, they’ll be debating freedom of speech with other panellists with opposing views.
4) Will David Irving or Nick Griffin, invited to speak not about their specialist subject, but about the restrictions on it, really be or feel ‘boosted’? Isn’t it clear that the invitation is a direct result of their having abused free speech? I don’t see that thi particular platform in any way edifies them.
I do have reservations. One is whether Irving and Griffin will exploit the subject of the debate to peddle the views they are known for. I don’t mean blurting things out like Dr Strangelove – I’m worried about insinuations and associations which are not unlawful themselves but contribute to a climate of hate or suspicion. I’m wondering whether the chair and the other panellists will have the perspicuity, inclination or presence of mind to flag and analyse these to stop Irving and Griffin subtlely hijacking their platform if they decide to.
A big anti-facist demonstration is planned for the evening of the debate and I salute everybody who turns up. It’s a very good response to fascists exercising their freedom of speech and private organisations exercising their freedom to host who they like in questionable ways. Speak louder and more persuasively until the fascists are ashamed or ground down and stop, or failing that, until normal people understand enough to be ashamed of them.
* The Institute for Historical Review on the end of that link is a Holocaust denial organisation.
** Austria is sluggish with their public prosecutions. Karl Pfeifer’s ordeal is harrowing to even read about, good outcome nothwithstanding.