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Article in The Freethinker


The Freethinker Vol 98 No 1

Jan 1978

pdf version of document Doc. No. 1978.NFB.003


Page 1-2

Farewell to the Blasphemy Laws


Impressive Support for Statement against Blasphemy Law,


Actress Glenda Jackson, writer J. B. Priestley, film director Jack Gold, novelist Margaret Drabble, theologian Professor G. W. H. Lampe and concert pianist Peter Katin are among the signatories to ‘A Statement Against Blasphemy Law’. The statement was published by the Committee Against Blasphemy Law on 8 January 1978. The signatories deplore the trial for blasphemous libel of the editor and publishers of Gay News, oppose any extension of blasphemy law and urge that a Bill is introduced into the House of Commons to prevent future prosecution for blasphemy or blasphemous libel.


Over 20 members of both Houses of Parliament have signed. They include Lord Gardiner, a former Lord Chancellor, and Lord Willis, who is known to favour the introduction of a short Bill to end blasphemy law. Members of the House of Commons who have signed include Brian Sedgemore MP (Labour, Luton West), who declared immediately after the conviction of Gay News that he would be prepared to sponsor a Bill to end blasphemy law. Mr Sedgemore had warned, at a public meeting organised by the National Secular Society earlier in the year, that the prosecution against Gay News was part of the ‘illiberal, authoritarian mood of our age’, and that ‘We may see more of it before the decade is out.’


A group of prominent Christian writers and lay people, who have also signed the statement, include George W. Target, author of many books on religious affairs, Dr Una Kroll, a deaconess well known for her stand over the importance of women in the churches, Christopher Driver and A. E. Dyson. Clerics who have signed are the Rt Rev Alfred Jowett, Dean of Manchester and Dr John A. T. Robinson. There can be no doubt that moderate Christian opinion favours a change in the law.


Quite distinct interests have come together in making the statement, as is seen by the signatures of Canon John Hester, Vicar of Brighton and Professor James H. Sang, President of the Brighton and Hove Humanist Group. ‘This statement and these signatures show how many people of moderate opinion support the complete abolition of blasphemy law’, commented Nicolas WaIter, Editor of New Humanist and author of the pamphlet Blasphemy in Britain. He said that the statement was important not only because it pressed for the abolition of blasphemy law but also because it opposed any extension of the blasphemy law, for which there has been some demand.


The Hon Secretary of the Committee Against Blasphemy Law, W. McIlroy, who wrote the statement and solicited support for it, has said that he is pleased, but not surprised, that such a variety of individuals have signed it. ‘The publication of the statement’, he said ‘will, I hope, help to stimulate the campaign to abolish blasphemy law. Its supporters cover a surprisingly wide spectrum of opinion. It is significant that people like A. E. Dyson and Michael Duane, Francis Bennion and Peter Hain, and Brigid Brophy and the Dean of Manchester, should join forces on this important issue’.


Full Statement and Signatories


The full statement and list of signatories reads as follows:


‘We deplore the recent trial and conviction of the editor and publishers of Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel. This was the first successful. prosecution for the “crime” of blasphemy in over 50 years, and it demonstrated that the common law can be a device by which censorious elements can, by using the courts, impose their standards on all. The common law offence of blasphemy is clearly a threat to freedom of expression in religious, literary and artistic matters. So long as it is possible for litigious persons to initiate legal proceedings for blasphemy or blasphemous libel, the threat of prosecution, often resulting in crippling financial outlay and even the danger of imprisonment, will hang over artists, writers, journalists, publishers and commentators. This is intolerable in a free society. For three centuries the blasphemy laws were a blot on the Statute Book, and their removal with the passing of the 1967 Criminal Act and the 1969 Statute Law (Repeals) Act was welcomed by freethinkers and libertarians. At that time some reformers did not believe that the common law offence merited attention, but the Gay News case has highlighted the urgent necessity to deal with this anachronism.


‘We are concerned that attempts may be made to extend blasphemy law to protect other forms of religion in addition to Christianity. Such a proposal may appear to be just and reasonable, but whereas the protection of Christianity alone has, to date, been the raison d’etre of blasphemy law, its extension would encourage zealots of other religious faiths to exploit this obsolete law.

‘The result would be to increase the divisions between the religious and radical groups within the community. A more satisfactory solution would be to recognise the pluralist nature of our society and to abolish the offence of blasphemy altogether.

‘We urge that a Bill is introduced into Parliament to prevent future prosecutions for blasphemy or blasphemous libel. The passing of such a Bill would be welcomed both by traditional opponents of blasphemy laws and by those perceptive Christians who recognise that such laws are discriminatory and absurd.’


John Allegro, Lindsay Anderson, Professor Sir Alfred Ayer, Joan Bakewell, Lord Beaumont, David Benedictus, Francis Bennion, Humphry Berkeley, Benedict Birnberg, H. J. B1ackham, Oswell Blakeston, Edward Blishen, Louis Blom-Cooper, QC, Anthony Blond, Edward Bond, Melvyn Bragg, Colin Brewer, Alan Brien, Lord Brockway, Professor Hugh Brogan, Brigid Brophy, Alan Brownjohn, Humphrey Burton, John Calder, David Caute, Lord Chorley QC, Richard Clements, Peter Cotes, Professor Bernard Crick, Tom Cullen, Don Cupitt, Reginald Davis-Poynter, Margaret Drabble, Kay Dick, Christopher Driver, Michael Duane, Maureen Duffy, A. E. Dyson, Geoffrey Edge, MP, Professor Richard Ellmann, Gavin Ewart, Martin Flannery, MP, Lord Foot, Michael Frayn, Julian Friedmann, Lord Gardiner, Jack Gold, Geoffrey Gorer, Phyllis Graham, Peter Hain, Willis Hall, Dr James Hemming, Jim Herrick, Canon John Hester, Vicar of Brighton, Dr Richard Hoggart, Michael Holroyd, Lord Houghton, Robin Houston, Glenda Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Hugh Jenkins MP, Mervyn Jones, The Rt Rev Alfred Jowett, Dean of Manchester, Miriam Karlin, Peter Katin, Ludovic Kennedy, Professor Frank Kermode, Margaret Knight, Dr Una M. Kroll, Keith Kyle, The Rev Professor G. W. H. Lampe, Rodney Legg, Denis Lemon, Michael Levey, Jack Lindsay, The Earl of Listowel, Christopher Logue, Professor Norbert Lynton, Christopher Macy, Bryan Magee, MP, Frank Marcus, Joan Maynard, MP, William McIlroy, lan McKellen, George Melly, David Mercer, Joan Miller, Adrian Mitchell, Naomi Mitchison, Sheridan Morley, Lord Norwich, Charles Osborne, Peter Owen, John Parker, MP, Dr Colin Phipps MP, Giles Playfair, Christopher Price MP, J. B. Priestley OM, Lord Raglan, F. A. Ridley, Dr John A. T. Robinson, Annie Ross, Paul Rotha, Dr Edward Royle, Michael Rubinstein, Dora Russell, The Earl Russell, Jeremy Sandford, Professor James H. Sang, Michael Schofield, Brian Sedgemore, MP, Renee Short, MP, Jon Silkin, Barbara Smoker, Colin Spencer, George W. Target, Maurice Temple Smith, Philip Toynbee, Lorna Tracy, John Trevelyan, David Tribe, Jill Tweedie, Kenneth Tynan, Nicolas WaIter, Colin Ward, Irving Wardle, Ben Whitaker, Audrey Williamson, Lord Willis, Angus Wilson, Colin Wilson, Enid Wistrich, Baroness Wootton and David Yallop.


The following have also signed but arrived too late for classification above: Alan Coren, John Lehmann, Olivia Manning, Harold Pinter, Professor Sir Fred Hoyle.


Copies of the statement and a Newsletter from the Committee Against Blasphemy Law are obtainable from W. McIlroy, 32 Over Street, Brighton Sussex.






Sunday, 22 January, 5.00 pm Marlborough Hotel, Pavilion Street (off Old Steine), BRIGHTON


FRANCIS BENNlON, Writer, Barrister and member of the Executive Committee of the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society

MlCHAEL MASON, News Editor of GayNews

NlCOLAS W ALTER, Editor of New Humanist. Author of Blasphemy in Britain


[Page 24.]



The present campaign is probably the final stage in the fight against blasphemy laws that has been going on for nearly 200 years.’ This was the claim of Bill McIlroy, Hon Secretary of the Committee Against Blasphemy Law, when he introduced a public meeting on ‘Blasphemy Law and the Gay News Case.’ The meeting took place at the Marlborough Hotel, Brighton, on Sunday 22 January 1978, and was organised by the Committee Against Blasphemy Law. The speakers were Nicolas Waiter, Editor of ‘New Humanist’, Michael Mason, News Editor of ‘Gay News’, and Francis Bennion, barrister and Executive Committee Member of the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society.


Mr McIlroy also said: ‘There are elements in the Director of Public Prosecutions' and the Attorney General's departments who support censorship and repression. And it was evident to those who attended the Gay News trial last July that Mary Whitehouse has friends not only in high places, but in the highest places.


‘Mrs Whitehouse believes that God is on her side. But she doesn't need supernatural assistance so long as she can depend on bewigged Establishment puppets to do her dirty work for her.’


Nicolas WaIter said that the case was significant not only because of its connection with the gay community and blasphemy law, but also for the wider principle of free speech. Religion, he said, was a taboo subject, like sex and the state. The law about what you can say in these areas has always been unclear. No-one has ever been certain what blasphemy is, and its use in the law courts has always been peculiar and unexpected; so it was impossible to predict whether a piece of writing was blasphemous or not. The Appeal judges were likely to show themselves just as confused about the state of blasphemy law as anyone else.


In the case of James Kirkup's poem, it was clearly the explicit homosexual aspect which had disturbed people, since the poem was the reverse of being anti-religious. It had just the right mixture of sex and religion to cause confusion. A straight attack on religion in, say The Freethinker, would not be prosecuted.


He concluded by stressing the importance of the poem remaining available. ‘Mrs Whitehouse must be shown that she cannot stop the poem being read.’ However, freedom does not come from public meetings and lobbying MPs. It has to be taken, not asked for. This should be done by circulating the poem.


Michael Mason referred to himself as someone who had been in the firing line at the time of the trial since he worked for Gay News. While mentioning his own enthusiasm for football, he commented: ‘If only Mary Whitehouse had the good manners of your average football hooligan. Her team discredited her side by their action.’


It is very dangerous to protect people from being offended. We must expect to give and take a little offence in social intercourse. There could be no possibility of legislating for belief.


The case had placed Christians in a dilemma, for the poem accepted basic Christian ideas such as Jesus as the son of God, resurrection, and the doctrine of atonement. ‘The Authorized Version of Christ that emerged from the Old Bailey was the well-behaved Jesus of the Tupperware party, promising to save his flock from nothing more serious than income tax.’ Gay News was caught in the cross-fire of evangelical politics, in the conflict between the tambourine wavers and the ‘over-liberal’ churchmen. Gay Christians, he said, had come out worst from the trial. The opportunity to get rid of the law should now be taken. It was very important for those who might fall foul of the law in the future.


Francis Bennion, speaking as a lawyer, commented on the legal aspects of blasphemy law as it had been used in the past and in the Gay News case. No-one would enact such a law now. A disturbing feature of the case was the way the normal committal proceedings were by-passed. Another strange aspect of the trial was that expert evidence was not allowed.


A change in the law was important, said Francis Bennion, and a relevant Bill was being introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Willis in the near future. Extracts of the poem were read by Mr Bennion on the grounds that people had a right to know what the poem was about. ‘This antique law’ he said, ‘is an unwarrantable interference with free speech and communication.’