Irish police have dropped an investigation into whether Stephen Fry made blasphemous remarks on a TV show in 2015. Had he been convicted, Fry could have been hit with a fine of up to £22,000. Could something similar ever happen in the UK?
“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?” This was how Mr Fry told a TV host he would address God at the gates of heaven. “It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
Little did he know his comments would reignite a fierce debate on blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy? What does that actually mean?
Video: RTÉ / The Meaning of Life
Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity. Essentially, it means insulting God. And in some countries, including the Republic of Ireland, it’s a criminal offence.
The Garda Síochána’s investigation into Fry, which kicked off after a viewer complained about Fry’s comments on a programme called The Meaning of Life, was carried out under legislation that was introduced in 2009 to replace a previous law that only applied to Christianity. The law, contained in the Defamation Act 2009, makes it an offence to publish or say anything that is “grossly abusive or insulting” to matters sacred to any religion. In order for it to actually be an offence, the prosecutor has to show that the words said or spoken have intentionally caused, “outrage among a substantial number of adherents to that religion”.
And that’s where the case against Fry came a cropper. Only one viewer had complained and the Garda were unable to find evidence that Fry’s comments had caused outrage to a “substantial number” of people.
While the investigation has closed, the argument remains wide open. The case has led to considerable debate about the role of blasphemy laws in modern society. Are they an affront to our human right of free expression?
And what about the laws over here, then?
So, could Stephen Fry have faced a similar fate if he’d made the comments over here? In short, no.
Britain used to have laws covering blasphemy, dating all the way to the 16th century. Even by the early 20th century, though, those laws were rarely used. There were just five prosecutions between 1883 and 1922, and one unsuccessful private prosecution in 1971. The last time anyone was successfully prosecuted for blasphemy in Britain was in 1977.
However, the issue rocketed back into the public view in 2005, after the BBC decided to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera. They received more than 63,000 complaints and a Christian group attempted to launch a private prosecution for blasphemy. However, the charges were rejected by both the Magistrates’ Court and by the High Court. Moreover, the case led to a growing campaign, backed by likes of Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins, to get rid of the UK’s blasphemy laws.
The campaign relied heavily on people’s freedom of expression, as protected by Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention. And, ultimately, it was successful. In 2008, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished. That isn’t to say, however, that people are free to discriminate against others on the grounds of their religion. Article 9 of the Convention protects the right to practice religion freely and Article 14 covers the right not to be discriminated against.
Free speech is at the heart of a free and fair society. But so is respect for others. Human rights laws help us to safeguard both, and to ensure that we protect everyone’s right to express themselves honestly, without fear of discrimination or prosecution.
Want to know more about this kind of stuff?
- Read our piece on why democracy needs free speech and protests
- Take a look at our infographic on our freedom of expression