Monday, April 26, 2010

FREEDOM OF SPEECH and the Pope's Visit to Britain

Recently the Daily Telegraph published a document leaked from the Foreign Office concerning the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI in September this year.  The subsequent furore means many will be aware of the situation.  The document suggested Britain should mark the visit by asking the Pope to open an abortion clinic, bless a gay marriage and launch a range of condoms. Subsequently the Foreign Office issued an apology for the memo, describing the suggestions as "ill-judged, naive and disrespectful". The ideas were included in a brain-storming paper from a small group of three or four junior staff in a team who were working on the papal visit. The paper entitled "The ideal visit would see..." was distributed to officials in Whitehall and Downing Street preparing for the visit. Many of the proposals seemed to ridicule the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality and the difficulties it is experiencing over cases of child abuse.

Whilst many cannot support that Church’s stance on such issues and are appalled by cases of child-abuse, nonetheless this document seemed to indicate how a great Office of State has sunk to a new low. The fact that one of the individuals responsible had simply been “transferred to other duties” rather than sacked shows the level of seriousness with which the incident was viewed and suggests that some in the Ministry owe their approach to diplomacy more to ‘Mock the Week’ than maturity.

Subsequently John Humphries on ‘Today’ (Radio 4) suggested this was a question of freedom of speech. Whilst such a freedom is essential it is, surely, not absolute.  Issues of national security, for example, may curtail free speech and laws of libel and slander prove that no one can say just anything without a consequence.  There are also important arguments against such a freedom when it concerns possible harm to third parties.  Most of us, too, still believe in showing respect to others even if we may disagree with them.  I may want to call someone a fool but is it wise to express my opinion?  The mocking tone of these young men says something about us all that we should ponder: those who serve in public office are not speaking simply for themselves when they make utterances.

Whilst I do not believe that religion should be exempt from the laws of freedom of speech and all have the right to condemn, criticize and satirize religion – all religions – nonetheless maturity surely demands that we take the measure of our words.  Being an Office of State, the Foreign Office is not just a collection of individuals who can freely exercise every human right at whim. We expect more from such people whose very name – Civil Servants – show they are firstly our servants.

Religious groups have often initiated censorship or colluded with it and must rightly face scrutiny for their actions. Whilst most of us would want to uphold the principle of free speech as the bedrock to a civilised society we would also want to help those who may be less mature to think before they speak. ‘Mock the Week’, like many popular shows, begs the question whether ridicule rather than respect has the upper hand. The fact that ridicule stalks the corridors of power should be a concern for us all.

No comments: