TV Joan faces jail for gay poem: [The officers of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, who is a leading evangelical Christian] disclosed this weekend that they may charge [Joan Bakewell, the TV presenter beloved of a generation as the 'thinking man's crumpet'] with blasphemous libel after she recited on TV part of an erotic poem about a Roman centurion's affection for Jesus. [...] If Bakewell is prosecuted, it will be a major test of Britain's controversial blasphemy laws which protect only Christians. They were introduced in the seven teenth century, when questioning the existence of the state religion was akin to treason. They have remained unamended ever since.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, would be an exhibit in the Museum of What's Bad About State Religions.
It will be interesting to see what happens. Societies are generally disinclined to get rid of 400-year-old laws, whether they're good or not, and this one is most decidedly not. Even if, by some miracle, the High Court says that this law is a relic and should be retired, the House of Lords is entirely likely to say, "We just don't THINK so," and restore it, because that's what they do. Usually, they have to be spanked by the Commons and the Prime Minister when they do that, and I'd imagine that both parties would feel strongly disinclined to wade into the middle of this particular mess.
To be sure, it's hard to disagree with the argument that the poem doesn't have "any outstanding literary merit." In fact, it's kind of vile, and made me feel all slimy by the time I was halfway through. (Follow that link at your peril, that's all I can say.) That's not the point. The point is, blasphemous though it may be, how on earth can you libel someone who's been dead two thousand years? (Or, if not precisely dead, at least not around in this earthly plane to get upset about the whole thing, never mind being physically in England.) The point is, shouldn't the party being libeled be the one to bring the suit? For that matter, how does libel wind up being a criminal, rather than a civil, charge?
There's also the discriminatory aspect, which is another feature of state religions. If someone were a member of, let's say, Jews for Jesus and felt offended by that poem, they have no standing in Britain to bring the suit. Technically, they aren't Christians. (In fact, I'd be rather startled if anyone not belonging to the Church of England could bring that lawsuit.) You can't blasphemously libel Mohammed in Britain. To be sure, I suspect that you can blasphemously libel Old Testament figures, which might just give Jews some standing ... but I suspect you have to be a C of E member to bring the suit in the first place.Posted by iain at March 04, 2002 11:45 AM