Anti Muslim Bigotry,  Freedom of Expression

Conway and the anti-Islam posters: FOI request refused

Blogger Edgar Davidson filed a Freedom Of Information request earlier in the year in order to find out more about the precise nature of the posters which led to Darren Conway being given a twelve month jail sentence after he displayed them in the window of his Gainsborough home.

Before saying more about this latest development, I want to clarify a couple of points.  I am not defending Conway’s views or his posters. I sympathise with those who reported them – I’d probably have done the same thing myself if I saw them on display near me.  I don’t feel I have much in common with most other bloggers (including Edgar) who aren’t best pleased with the sentence handed out. However I did initially take particular issue with the way Michael Heath framed his judgement, especially this statement:

“The majority of the displayed posters and images were undoubtedly offensive to the Islamic faith.”

Islamophobia Watch linked to my post (and others) and asked:

They might ask themselves whether they would take this view if Conway had displayed posters with the slogan “Jews are the most hateful of them all” accompanied by pictures of mutilated bodies.

In fact, when I first wrote about this topic I did not know that the poster included the slogan ‘Muslims are the most hateful of them all’ or that pictures of mutilated bodies were involved.  (These were initially described as pictures of ‘mutilated Muslims’ although it seems more likely that they were being presented as victims of Islamist violence. )

In answer to Islamophobia Watch’s challenge, one might observe (as Edgar does) that such things are displayed or shouted at anti-Israel rallies fairly routinely.  The offensiveness of the posters isn’t in doubt – they seemed pretty threatening too, at least implicitly – but those points are compatible with a) thinking the sentence seems, on the face of it, excessive and b) wanting to know a bit more about exactly what was on the posters.

However the CPS, as Edgar reports, doesn’t agree – they think we should be prevented from finding out the full facts about this case:

I have now had a response from The Crown Prosecution Service. They have refused the request for information about the posters on the grounds that it is ‘not in the public interest’. Here is their justification:

There is a substantial public interest in many circumstances in protecting from disclosure information gathered for the purposes of a criminal case. The defendant in this case was prosecuted as he publically displayed the offensive posters referred to in your request. As displaying this material was proven to be a criminal offence in a criminal court, and the graphic and violent images depicted in these posters caused offence in the neighbourhood in which they were displayed, there is a very strong public interest in these articles not being distributed any further.

This is truly Machiaevellian. Because it was deemed to be criminal we are not allowed to know why even though that was the very reason for my request. I was not even asking for a copy of the posters. All I asked for was information about their content. If we are not allowed to know precisely what was ‘illegal’ about them, then how is that possibly in the ‘public interest’?

I completely agree that it would be in the public interest to have detailed information about these posters, and that this is a weaselly response.  It would be perfectly easy simply to describe the offensive images.  As for the text of the posters – we routinely hear or read about words or tweets which have landed people in trouble with the law.  The case of Bongani Masuku (and his threatening words against South Africa’s Jewish community only landed him with a hate speech charge, not even a day in prison) was reported in detail, without anyone suggesting that it was somehow compounding the offence, or not in the public interest, to let people know exactly what he had said so that they could make their own minds up.  No one, as far as I know, thought there was a problem in showing footage of a woman making racist comments on a train, even though the outburst got her jailed for 21 weeks.

Would there be any use, I wonder, simply in requesting a transcript of this case?  Would that yield further information?