NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
After the bombings on the London transport system last summer, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged tough new anti-terrorism laws. Last fall, he introduced a controversial proposal that would've allowed authorities to hold prisoners without charge for 90 days, more than triple what the current law allows. It would also have made the glorification of terrorism a crime. Britain's Upper House, The Lords, objected, saying the term glorification of terrorism wasn't necessary. Yesterday, a modified version of the proposal was back before the House of Commons for more debate. Here's Prime Minister Blair urging the inclusion of the glorification clause:
Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): I'm afraid Honorable Members are going to have to understand that when we take out any reference to glorification in this statute today, people outside will infer, I'm afraid, that we have decided to dilute our law at the very moment when we should be strengthening it and sending a united signal that we're not going to tolerate those who glorify terrorism in our country.
CONAN: Speaking for the opposition Conservatives, William Hague disagreed with the prime minister's reasoning:
Mr. WILLIAM HAGUE (Conservative, Richmond, Yorks): What kind of message does it send when someone like Abu Hamsa that libertied to encourage murder and racial hatred for years on end as happened under this government? What kind of message does it send when he wants to send signals when people are on the streets two weeks ago, inciting violence and murder, and no one has yet been arrested? So, the, the government has let Abu Hamsa preach hatred for seven years but arrest people who heckle the foreign secretary at the Labor Party conference?
There are old powers that he won't use and there are new powers that we have seen abused. And it is the opinion of all decent lawyers, he should ask one, he's probably got one at home...that the, say that the House of Lords amendment, the amendment that we support, covers more than written statements and that should be able to put his mind at rest. Isn't it the case that the proper enforcement of existing laws and the careful consideration of new ones would be better than this brand of ineffective authoritarianism?
CONAN: The prime minister rejected Mr. Hague's reasoning and said the language in the amendment supported by the opposition Conservatives covers only listeners and not images or placards and written statements. The amendment, he said, would weaken the government's ability to prosecute terrorists.
Prime Minister BLAIR: If we take out the words glorification, we are sending a massive, counterproductive signal...it, it is a word that I think that members of the public readily know and understand and juries would understand. It is in the United Nations resolution and it is to send completely the wrong signal to take it out.
CONAN: And in the end, the House of Commons voted to support the prime minister's proposal. If you have questions about this law, what it means, or how it might be interpreted, give us a call. 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Email us: email@example.com. Joining us now to tell us more about the bill is NPR's London correspondent, Rob Gifford. Hi, Rob.
ROB GIFFORD, reporting:
Hi, Neal, good to be with you.
CONAN: So, what was involved with this vote?
GIFFORD: Well, the vote, as you said, it focused on this phrase of glorification because what happened last November when it was first put to the House of Commons was that the proposal to have a 90-day period without charge, that people could be detained for that long was defeated. I think the government accepted that that was not going to get through again, so they concentrated on this glorification part, and in the end, they got it through by more votes than I think they had hoped, 30-something, 38 votes, I think, got it through in the face of this opposition that you've just heard.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And we should also point out that eventually there was a compromise reached on the amount of time someone could be held without charge. Basically the time was doubled from the current 14 days to 28 days.
GIFFORD: That's right, that's right. And this, this was actually the biggest issue back in November and the government, as I say, they realized they couldn't get that through. So, we're into the sort of semantics here is what a lot of people, like William Hague of the Tories, you just heard him, we're into semantics. How do you define glorification? We're into the wording, and how does a lawyer say this guy glorified terrorism when he was a supporter, maybe of the Palestinian cause, or people suggesting, you know, we've got the 90th anniversary of the Easter uprising in Ireland coming up. I mean, if you say something about that, does that mean you support the Irish Republican Army?
You know, it's all about definitions now, and that's what the opponents were concerned about.
CONAN: And, as you suggest, its definition is not just of the word glorification, but of terrorism. You still have murals all over Belfast that celebrate either the Ulster Volunteer Force on one side, or the Provisional IRA on the other.
GIFFORD: Absolutely. And I mean, this is something, of course, often said by people in the Middle-East, it's said by people here: what exactly is the definition of terrorism? As you know, the Palestinian side, they accuse the Israeli government of state terrorism. So, who's defining what terrorism is?
And so, it's really going to be very, very difficult I think in the months and years ahead for the government to really enact this law effectively.
CONAN: And what's the process now? It has been approved by the House of Commons. Does it go back to the House of Lords?
GIFFORD: It does. It does. And they have to, they were the ones who cut out the glorification clause, they will now look at it. Just talking to people here, the sense is that the government got it through, as they say, by about 38 votes, I think.
If it had been two or three votes, I think the Lords may have thought that they could persist with trying to stop glorification being included. I think the sense is now that they will approve it, and this will be put into law.
CONAN: And, quickly, before we go to our next case, and explore more about this question about glorification of terrorism, two big votes for Tony Blair this week; the National ID Card bill that we were talking about earlier, and this terrorism bill. As early as last week, people were writing Tony Blair's political obituary, wondering when he was going to leave office.
GIFFORD: I think that's right, and I think people see, in these two victories on Monday and Wednesday of this week, Tony Blair really reasserting himself. They were talking about the end-game and the hand-over to Gordon Brown, the heir apparent. I think that has really now been put off for some time.
And we'll still hear a little bit of it, but it'll be drawn out, the time frame will be a little bit longer now.
CONAN: Rob Gifford, thanks very much.
GIFFORD: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Rob Gifford, NPR's correspondent in London.
Joining us now on the phone, also from London, is Geoffrey Bindman, a lawyer and Chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights. And it's very good of you to take the time to speak with us this evening.
Mr. GEOFFREY BINDMAN (Chairman, British Institute of Human Rights): It's a pleasure.
CONAN: In British term, in British law, is the word glorification used?
Mr. BINDMAN: No, it isn't. It is now, because it's in this bill. But it, there's no precedent for using the word glorification as a legal term.
CONAN: And is there any, therefore, there can't be much agreement on what it means?
Mr. BINDMAN: There's no satisfactory definition. Dictionary definitions don't really help. Some of the dictionary definitions are religious, others are secular. Glorification means adding to someone's glory, I mean, you know, so you don't get a great deal of help. But I think we have to understand, this is really a political question, and not a legal question. The difference in meaning between what is, in the government's own wording, and the amendment made by the House of Lords, is marginal.
And, of course, the other point which is being made by many lawyers, including myself, is that we already have existing laws which enable prosecutions to take place for exactly the same things that the government is now seeking to introduce this new law to challenge.
CONAN: If you'd like to get in on this conversation, give us a call at 800-989-8255, or zap us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's go to Kevin, and he's calling from Fall River, in Massachusetts.
KEVIN (Caller): Hello, yes, I was thinking if glorification incites someone to acts of terrorism, I can see that, at least in my understanding, that it would already be illegal. And if the glorification is of such a nature that it doesn't incite an act of terrorism, then it shouldn't be illegal. Though that, the idea that, you know, incitement in and of itself is sufficient in glorification.
Mr. BINDMAN: That is exactly my position. I'm glad to hear your speaker to say that, because that's exactly the way I feel.
CONAN: So, given that, talk a little bit to us, Geoffrey Bindman, about the distinction you see between incitement and glorification.
Mr. BINDMAN: Well, I think that incitement is everything, is all that is necessary to deal with the problems. And, incitement can be widely understood; it can certainly apply not just to statements, but it can apply to placards, behavior, and so on.
If you get beyond incitement and use a word like glorification, the danger is that that can be used to undermine freedom of expression by penalizing opinions which do not necessarily encourage or incite violence, and which ought to be legitimate expressions of opinion, however offensive they may be to some people.
CONAN: Well, wouldn't the distinction go from, incitement means there's some call to action, let's go do whatever it is. Glorification could be, as I think Prime Minister Blair mentioned in the debate yesterday in the House of Commons, he said there were people at a demonstration in London the previous week holding up posters or placards that celebrated the bombings in the transport system last summer, and he said, they could have been charged under this law.
Mr. BINDMAN: There are a number of ways in which those people could have been charged anyway, and may still be charged under the previous law. We recently had a successful prosecution of Abu Hamsa, a priest, a cleric, who made seriously inflammatory statements inciting murder, and so on, over a number of years. And he was prosecuted under laws dating back to 1861.
So, the laws are there already to deal with incitement to any form of crime, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to religious hatred, and short of incitement, there is a serious risk, if you penalize something less than incitement, that you prevent the expression of perfectly proper opinions.
KEVIN: Yeah. Well, at least my understanding, incitement would imply that the differentiation between incitement and glorification, glorification could be in a certain context where it would be innocuous, and in another context, it could be dangerous. And incitement, I think, it ties in more closely the idea that, not the speech in and of itself, but the possible repercussions of that speech. And that brings in the idea of context. And, you know, when you would prosecute, the jury would have to take into consideration the context in which that speech was used.
Mr. BINDMAN: And I think, in practice, that will happen, anyway. I think that if a case gets to court, there won't be a conviction if there's anything short of incitement.
CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much for the call.
KEVIN: Thank you. Enjoy your program.
CONAN: Thank you. We're talking today about a new bill being discussed in Britain, which would make glorification of terrorism a crime.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Ed, Ed's calling from Tucson, Arizona.
ED (Caller): Hi, and thanks for taking my call.
ED: If, as your commentator from Britain earlier had said, we need to be careful about the definitions of glorification and terrorism.
For example, the person who is currently in custody, who reportedly blew up abortion clinics in the south was probably, could probably be considered a terrorist. And if he did it in the name of God, define your God, then what is to prevent the glorification, prohibition of glorification of terrorism, what's to prevent people from being in charge of their doing it if they're minister or their priest or their rabbi...
CONAN: Religiously motivated?
CONAN: I believe that person you're talking about in the south is a confessed abortion clinic bomber. But anyway, to get back to your point, Geoffrey Bindman?
Mr. BINDMAN: Well, this is one of the dangers, that the wider the phrase, the more things are swept up in the net. And the greater the danger that people will be prosecuted for actions which do not incite terrorism, do not cause the risk of physical harm to members of the public, and are therefore ought to be considered to be free expression.
We have another problem in Britain, which is that we are signatories to the European Human Rights Convention, which protects freedom of expression. It's quite possible that this glorification provision will result in challenges under the European convention. So, at the end of the day, it may not remain part of our law, anyway.
CONAN: Ed, thanks for the call.
ED: You're welcome. Thank you, bye.
CONAN: And let's turn to Rob. Rob calling from Allendale, in Michigan.
ROB (Caller): Yeah, thanks for taking my call. Again, same thing, interpretation of the word glorification.
It seems to me, most terrorists are trying to get attention, publicity or media attention. Say they had another recurrence on the subway there, and perhaps the media jumped on the story and ran with it a little more than they should have...
CONAN: Or maybe broadcast, I think I know where you're going Rob. If they broadcast a taped message by one of the bombers, or something like that?
ROB: Well, even if they just, you know, they covered the story a little more than the government liked, you know, maybe made the current administration or the security forces look poor in that country, their performance. And they could cite the press, the media itself, for saying, hey look, you're giving these guys what they want, you're giving them glory.
CONAN: Geoffrey Bindman, there are parts of this terrorism law that speak to bookstores and other agencies that distribute information on terrorism, but go ahead.
ROB: Well, basically, and I'm saying that you're...
CONAN: Yeah, Rob, we're trying to get it from Geoffrey Bindman. Go ahead.
Mr. BINDMAN: I'm so sorry. That is absolutely right. I mean, what has just been said. And, I mean, there is a serious danger, here, that we may inhibit normal freedom of speech; something which could not happen in the United States.
We, of course, do not have a written constitution. We don't have the First Amendment. What we have, as I mentioned before, we have the European Human Rights Convention, which in some ways protects freedom of expression, in the way that the First Amendment does. So, the government, our government here, and our legislature is stretching the law in ways which, in the U.S., would probably infringe the First Amendment, and in Europe, would infringe the Human Rights Convention.
ROB: Well, it seems to me the Blair Administration, as well as the Bush Administration, like to write, or at least use, laws that have very wide interpretations so that they are able to interpret things in ways that please them, so that they can use them to their best advantage.
CONAN: Rob, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And Geoffrey Bindman, we thank you for taking the time, on your evening there, to speak with us.
Mr. BINDMAN: It was a pleasure. I've enjoyed it. Thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Geoffrey Bindman, a lawyer and Chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights, joined us on the phone from his home in London, in England.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.