Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

Blaspheming against liberals

On July 8, Britain finally abolished its archaic blasphemy laws. It is no longer a criminal offence for we Brits to speak or publish any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous words relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible. Yet already a new system of blasphemy is filling the gap. Now, anybody who blasphemes against the god of liberal orthodoxy will find himself labelled a denier or a heretic and given not a real lashing, but certainly a metaphorical one.

Over the past two weeks, two stern rulings against broadcasters have made it clear that there are some things that Must Not Be Said. On July 21, the regulatory Office of Communications severely censured Channel 4 for showing Martin Durkin’s sceptical 90-minute documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle last year. Following a campaign by environmentalists, Ofcom decreed that the film was irresponsible in the way it treated its interviewees and in the way it distorted some of the facts about global warming. Channel 4 was forced to read out Ofcom’s ruling on air.

The censure of Durkin’s film shows how screechingly intolerant the environmentalist movement has become. In 2007 there were thousands of hours of TV programming on climate change in the UK, from news reports on the possible end of the world to lifestyle shows instructing us to “go green”. Yet environmentalists could not tolerate one single TV show that dared to suggest man is not the main cause of global warming and that global warming won’t be as bad as people think.

Whatever you think of those arguments is beside the point: surely there should be space for sceptical views that go against the grain? According to environmentalists, there should not be. Martin Durkin and others who express scepticism about the politics and science of climate change are labelled “deniers” (just like those individuals who once dared to “deny” the existence of God) and are made to feel distinctly unwelcome in the world of broadcasting and commentary. The Ofcom ruling could have a chilling effect on TV broadcasting in Britain, discouraging TV stations from commissioning anything too edgy — or perhaps “blasphemous” — on the issue of climate change.

More recently, this week Michael Palin was censured by his own broadcaster, the BBC. The former Monty Python star turned presenter of gentle travel documentaries made a series called New Europe in September last year, for which he visited 20 countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain. In one episode, titled War and Peace, he visited Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Albania. While there, he dared to suggest that the Serbs were not entirely responsible for the horrors of the civil war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, and that other groups contributed to the bloodshed, too.

Bad move. It is forbidden in Britain to challenge the liberal orthodoxy that the war in Bosnia was a Serbian-led, Nazi-style genocide against Muslims, and to a lesser extent against Croats. Following just one viewer complaint, the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee censured Palin for being partial and inaccurate — for simply saying in passing that the war in Bosnia was a bloody mess for which many groups should shoulder responsibility. According to reports, the complaining viewer said — hysterically, in my view — that Palin’s comments were “the equivalent to implying that the Nazis and the Jews were equally responsible for starting and acting out the Second World War”. And the BBC Trust, it seems, agreed, arguing that Palin “could have done more to have highlighted Serbia’s role in the conflict”.

Like Martin Durkin, Palin dared to sin against the liberal outlook. Liberal-left journalists in Britain (and America) were at the forefront of presenting the bloody civil war in Bosnia in super-simplistic, morally relativistic terms as a “new Holocaust” enacted by evil Serbs against pathetic Muslims. And to this day, 15 years later, anybody who questions their view of the war can be written off as partial, wicked or even a “Serbophile”.

Indeed, it is striking that those commentators and academics who challenge the prevailing view of the Bosnian war are frequently labelled as “genocide deniers”, just as Martin Durkin and others are branded “climate change deniers”. In keeping with the blasphemy theme, anyone who speaks out of turn is effectively denounced as a heretic, a denier of established Truths and Wisdoms. The label “denier” explicitly suggests that there is One Truth about climate change, Bosnia and other issues close to liberals’ hearts, and that anyone who offends against this One Truth is not just wrong or misguided but also morally suspect. You don’t have to be an Exxon-funded climate-change sceptic or supporter of the Serbs to see that this chilling denunciation of any critical thinking on key issues is an affront to free speech and open historical debate.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that the truth can only be established through free and rigorous public debate. “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right,” he said. The new liberal laws of blasphemy — a kind of illiberal liberalism — only denigrate the truth by creating “received wisdoms” that must never be interrogated. Who wants to join with me in blaspheming against this witch-hunting culture? Step forward.