Media team up with Lords to fight religious hatred bill

The national media’s in-house departments have teamed up with an all-party group of peers in an attempt to force amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which they believe prohibits the right to freedom of expression.

The Times’ Alastair Brett, secretary to the Fleet Street Lawyers’ Society, is leading the fight on behalf of the media together with Conservative peer Lord Hunt of Wirral, Liberal Democrat Lord Lester QC, Labour Lord Plant and Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the opposition in the House of Lords.

Lord Hunt, who recently stepped down as senior partner of Beachcroft Wans-broughs, told The Lawyer: “The press is beginning to wake up to what a serious restriction this would be. This is beyond the party. It is about rights to freedom.”

The amendments propose three central safeguards. First, they place the burden on the prosecution to prove a criminal intent. Second, that only threatening words, as distinctive from abusive or insulting ones, give rise to criminal misconduct. Third, the lords want essential safeguards of free expression which the Government claims to be implicit in the bill. Brett said: “This new bill stops people criticising religious beliefs. We shouldn’t have to worry about Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.”

The bill begins its committee stage in the Lords tomorrow (25 October). The groups hope that the Government will accept the amendments as they were offered in a spirit of cooperation. If not, the issue will go to a vote. The bill would then return to the Commons.