Belfast Telegraph

Not changing law would have added insult to injury

By Paul Connolly

Have at thee! The mighty Lord Blackadder has vanquished his enemies, put them to the sword and generally scattered the varlets all over the battlefield.

I’m talking about Rowan Atkinson here.

Readers may remember my column of October 26, urging everyone to get behind the comedian and his campaign to amend legislation outlawing “insulting words or behaviour”.

It wasn’t just his campaign, of course, but he was a leading figure in it. And certainly the most famous and influential.

The problem had been Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which decrees a person is guilty of an offence if he uses “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour”.

As Atkinson pointed out, the problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as an insult.

This could include criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, or even merely stating an alternative point of view.

No matter how a thing is intended to be viewed, the danger with that wording is that it is too easy for someone to claim they were “insulted” and that the person issuing the “insult” should be prosecuted.

Which, of course, is a dagger to the heart of freedom of expression. The law has been badly enforced, used to prosecute, among others, Christian preachers, gay rights campaigners and student pranksters.

Well, I’m glad to say the Government has listened to the Reform Section 5 campaign and will remove the words “insulting words or behaviour”.

Home Secretary Theresa May said the word “insulting” would be removed as part of the Crime and Courts Bill.

Looking at past cases, she said, the DPP in England and Wales had concluded that he could not identify any where the behaviour leading to a conviction could not be described as “abusive” as well as “insulting” and that the word could be removed without undermining the ability to bring genuine prosecutions.

So abuse is unlawful, but insult is not illegal any more. An outbreak of common sense.

A few errors to correct. The Vickers 610 Viking involved in the Belfast Nutts Corner disaster under-shot the runway, rather than over-shooting it, as stated on January 5. Nutts Corner was briefly a military airfield before converting to a civilian airport.

A caption on January 3, purporting to show a lifeboat pulling away from “the stricken Princess Victoria” was actually a lifeboat pulling towards the oil tanker Pass of Drumochter.

And it was Dr John Crosslé who was awarded the MBE in the New Year Honours and not Dr John Crosby. Thanks to Trevor Moffat, Ernie Cromie, William Tennis and Ian Wylie for pointing those out in an unfailingly polite and creative manner.

Belfast Telegraph


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