Free Speech, Politics

Why We Marched to Defend Free Speech in the UK

Writers Helen Dale and Shazia Hobbs both attended the ‘Free Dankula’ protests on Monday April 23, Shazia in Airdrie, Scotland and Helen in London, England. Here, they report exclusively for Quillette.

Helen: I’m not sure speaking at a protest was ever on my bucket list but at least I can say I’ve done it now.

In circumstances I still find peculiar — outlined here to American journalist Tim Pool at 17:10 — I finished up speaking at the London ‘Free Dankula’ cum ‘Free Speech’ protest.

Shazia: I arrived at Airdrie Sheriff Court on Monday morning not knowing what sort of turn out to expect.

I was delighted to see lots of people had travelled from England to support Markus Meechan, but I was disappointed to see Scots hadn’t turned out in their thousands. Scottish law is different from English law and Scottish people should have been a more visible presence, since the outcome of the case could curtail their freedom of speech. This man was also at risk of ‘going in the gaol’ as Scots say.

Helen and Shazia: In the end, of course, Markus Meechan — aka ‘Count Dankula’ — didn’t go to gaol for his ‘Nazi pug’ video. That said, the £800 fine he copped probably makes it the most expensive joke in Britain. We have gone through some sort of looking glass, but from what to where is unknown and perhaps unknowable.

A man trains his girlfriend’s pet pug to do Nazi salutes in response to the trigger phrases ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘sieg heil’. At one point in the video he makes of this exercise, the pug — whose name is ‘Buddha’, by the way — is in front of a television screen as a Nazi rally plays. Police see the video on YouTube but are in a jurisdiction where police cannot bring prosecutions on their own motion. So they go looking for complainants — Jews who may be ‘grossly offended’ by what they see. The video is shown, presumably multiple times, to people who have not seen it and do not know of it. Some people are indeed offended and produce complaints, notably a Jewish Rabbi in Glasgow. The complaints are taken to the Procurator Fiscal, Scotland’s equivalent of the CPS or DPP.

It’s like the old joke: ‘Eugh! Look what I nearly stood in!’ [holds up dog shit in bare hand.]

The video joker is duly charged. He becomes famous. Many more people see the Nazi pug video. The video joker is convicted. He becomes still more famous, although in response to the conviction, YouTube ‘demonetises’ his videos, so he can no longer earn income from his fame. He is likely saved from a custodial sentence by the uproar surrounding his case. His story competes for headlines with the latest addition to the Royal Family. In words to chill the blood, during his sentencing statement, the Sheriff tells the joker the reaction by employers in the local area suggests that not only Jewish people found this material highly offensive: you say you lost a number of jobs as a result.

Helen has written elsewhere why she thought this prosecution utterly unworthy, damaging to freedom of speech but also of a type to reduce British law enforcement to a global laughing-stock. This time, it’s not only Americans — protected by the strong shield of their First Amendment — laughing at us. Other people are as well, even in countries with hate speech laws.

However, the law under which the charges were brought — Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 — is not a hate speech law. In some respects, this makes it more dangerous. Hate speech laws — whether one agrees that ‘hate speech’ exists or not — are narrowly drafted. This is so because both common law and Roman law (‘civilian’) systems have long recognised that constraints on speech need to be narrow or civic life becomes impossible.

As originally enacted — in 1935, no less — Section 127 was to stop people harassing others by telephone. During the protest, Helen had to explain to one of the youthful organisers what it was like to be called up in the middle of the night and sworn at, or to have heavy breathing down the telephone. Subsection 2 of the Act is clearly directed to a sibling under the skin of harassing midnight calls: phoning the emergency services and telling them granny is doing the watusi on the living room carpet when in reality granny is alive and well and on holiday in Brighton.

Section 127 of the Communications Act has become one of the principal means by which the Internet is policed in the UK. It has done so with little debate about whether it is appropriately worded to deal with modern technology. It is one thing to protect individuals from ‘grossly offensive’ personal telephone calls. It is quite another to protect groups of people from what are in effect public performances. That it is now being used to regulate YouTube is frankly bonkers.

*   *   *

HelenWhen I was invited to speak at the London protest, for a time it seemed I’d be sharing a platform with Tommy Robinson, which I admit gave me pause. Robinson — although he’s cleaned himself up of late — leaves a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, chiefly because he started out in football ‘firm’ culture and the EDL and has quite a rap sheet.

I had anxious friends contact me and suggest appearing on the same side was ‘bad for my reputation’, would ‘lose me my column at [x outlet]’ or even see me answering ‘please explains’ from my Conservative constituency association or the Law Society. There was also a risk his presence would attract Antifa, leading to a riot instead of a protest.

Robinson then went to Scotland to protest outside Airdrie Sheriff Court and my two concerns evaporated. Nonetheless, ideas don’t become wrong because of who believes in them. Guilt by association can get in the bin.

People marching were also not of a type commonly associated with protests. A few were in suits, but others waved American Gadsden flags, or the flag of an invented country, Kekistan. One joker had modified the Gadsden flag so the rattlesnake was transformed into a pug, with its tagline also altered: don’t tread on meme. London’s other main speaker was a man better known as ‘Sargon of Akkad’. Sargon of Akkad’s real name is Carl Benjamin, and he comes from Swindon (home to the Magic Roundabout). He invented the land of ‘shitposters’ known as Kekistan, although perhaps not their flag.

Carl Benjamin (AKA Sargon of Akkad). ‘Free Count Dankula Event 23/4/18’ by Mark Ramsay.

Benjamin’s Kekistanis were overwhelmingly young, wan in the weak spring sun and unfamiliar with the traditions of protest: they chatted amiably to Met officers scattered thereabouts. It took an older man, an obvious Boomer, to point a bullhorn at the police and shout. Later, Benjamin apologised for using a megaphone at the march’s terminus in front of Number 10. He was not, he said, the sort of annoying person who bellowed his amplified thoughts at unwilling listeners.

*   *   *

Shazia: Meechan and his girlfriend Sue — and Buddha the pug’s true owner — arrived at Airdrie Sheriff Court hand in hand. They walked past the press who had gathered, refusing to answer questions. I saw a cameraman from Sky News stick his foot out. It looked like an attempt at making Sue trip and fall.

The two of them waited outside the doors, Meechan smoking a cigarette. Supporters approached him, shaking his hand, wishing him good luck and asking for selfies. I asked him how he was feeling and he said, a little nervous. He kept his back to the paparazzi and camera crews the whole time; he didn’t want to give them a picture.

I spoke to police officers standing around the courthouse, waiting. They agreed the trial was farcical and a waste of police time and resources. They said they’d rather be out catching real criminals and solving real crimes.

*   *   *

Helen & Shazia: After Count Dankula was convicted last month, London comedy club ‘Comedy Unleashed’ decided to test whether the Nazi pug video was, in fact, funny. Directors Andy Shaw and Andrew Doyle don’t actually care one way or another. The three comedians have argued consistently that freedom of speech is the core issue here, otherwise the state finishes up arbiter of taste — something fatal not only to comedy, but to the arts more widely.

However, they were curious whether Dankula’s self-described ‘internet shitposting’ could bridge the gulf to live comedy. So, on 20 March they showed the video at their club — bookended with some comments by Comedy Unleashed’s compere, New Yorker Lewis Schaffer — and recorded the results.

*   *   *

Helen: After the protest finished, I went to a nearby pub with a couple of journalists. A somewhat agitated Andrew Doyle messaged me and asked if he could join us. What then followed — over the course of several hours, and came to include an experienced BBC cameraman, a second lawyer, and Carl Benjamin — involved working out whether Comedy Unleashed could upload the video to their YouTube page, and then tweet the link.

Uploading the video could enliven Section 127 1 (a) — the same provision that had just lightened Markus Meechan’s wallet by £800. Tweeting it could see Comedy Unleashed lose its Twitter account. One of Pie’s friends had already been permanently banned after tweeting a link to Meechan’s original video. The contagion could spread to anyone who re-tweeted it. First Pie, Doyle, and Shaw themselves (with 130,000 followers between them), then so on down the line.

I don’t recommend reading CPS prosecution guidelines on an iPhone screen after three pints of beer but even so, I was able to establish in England & Wales at least, uploading the video was unlikely to draw Plod’s attention and Comedy Unleashed was safe. Twitter, however, was another matter. There was no telling what it would do, and Pie — who often uses it to advertise ticket availability and extra shows — was particularly exposed.

The three decided to take the risk. The Comedy Unleashed ‘Nazi pug’ video — with Schaffer’s comments and audience reactions — is striking and well worth watching.

Also, occupying two £300-an-hour lawyers for half an evening so they could work out whether a comedy club could upload and tweet a link to a comedy video is, as Andrew Doyle observed, completely nuts.

*   *   *

Helen & Shazia: That Britain is a land of generational and class divides is a commonplace; the Tories nearly lost last year’s election because so many young people can’t afford a house. On Monday, we learnt of another divide, but this is within a single generation. The young people protesting were nothing like the moaning Millennials now staples of reportage and popular ‘youth-bashing’. They are literate but they do not have time for your sad story. Fed a steady diet of victimhood narratives at school, they have rejected the lot. Everything represents an opportunity for some ‘top kek’.

Many are ‘not posh’ in the broadest sense, hence the affinity for figures like Tommy Robinson and Markus Meechan and Sargon of Akkad. They’re often banned from online forums like Twitter or Facebook not because their ideas are particularly radical, but because their diction is insufficiently pure. Shazia, a working-class brown woman, has been suspended from Twitter repeatedly. This is partly because Scots swear, but largely because she isn’t ‘nice’.

Douglas K. Murray says things about Islam that, to our eye and ear, seem remarkably similar to things said by Robinson. But Murray went to Eton and Oxford and writes and speaks in the studied, oracular style perfected by the British upper-middle-classes. Robinson is an electrician who runs a tanning salon and once ran with Luton Town’s ‘firm’. Murray is on Twitter with his blue tick intact. Robinson has been perma-banned.

Shazia: We have become lazy in Scotland, too lazy to do anything about terror or rape-gangs, and lazy about standing up when people are trying to shut our speech down. That Braveheart mentality everyone thinks we’ve got: ‘You can take my life but you’ll never take my freedom?’ Only in films these days.

People outside Scotland don’t realise Markus Meechan has had his life destroyed for two years. He’s crowd-funded over £120,000 (£131K at time of writing) to fund an appeal because ‘I cannot allow the 2 years of litigation I went through and having my life put on hold, to happen to anyone else’. With top legal talent, there is a chance PF v Meechan may go the same way as the infamous ‘Twitter Joke Trial’, where a similarly ridiculous conviction was eventually quashed. That involved three appeals, though, before the UK judiciary finally located its sense of humour.

We may be here some time.


Shazia Hobbs is a Scottish-Pakistani novelist and columnist, and author of The Gori’s Daughter. She lives in Glasgow.

Helen Dale read law at Oxford and Edinburgh and is a past winner of the Miles Franklin, Australia’s premier literary award. Her novel Kingdom of the Wicked, (reviewed here in Quillette) has just been released. She lives in London.

Photography by Mark Ramsay: Free Count Dankula Event 23/4/18, available here under Creative Commons licence. 

34 Comments

  1. Chris says

    Was very encouraging to see the confluence of “nicely spoken” print journalists & ungovernable new media s***posters, on this issue. It was a very male crowd though. I think that’s what you meant by “wan”..
    anyhow, women of Britain, the next date is May 6th at Speakers Corner, when TR leads a march to Twitter’s hq.

  2. I just watched the “Gas the Jews” video for the first time. I think the repetition of that phrase is what grates most. It is offensive to any sane, humane person, certainly.

    But I wonder if the dog were being taught to perk up when the phrase “Kill the Whites” were being taught, whether the same political authorities would show so much umbrage and vindictiveness.

    Fining a man £800 for saying something deplorable indicates that freedom of speech in Britain is on the way out. As history shows with repressive regimes in Russia, China and Nazi Germany, that never bodes well for a populace or the world at large.

    • Adam says

      This is the problem, the constant double standards and hypocrisy from activists driving these things is what makes people either switch off and stop listening completely or get angry and fight back, leading to escalation.

      Common sense and a fair distribution of justice is what is needed to create dialogue, not identity politics.

    • Shane says

      This started with far left intellectuals who were actually pro Nazi, and antisemitic. And now you’re using you murder of Jews for thousands of years as the go to “joke” that represents freedom of speech. And you fond a kapo Jew here or there who know nothing about anything,(unless they are secretly Nazis) to prove it’s not bad.

      Very very very strange how the most vocalized, lied about, denied, and violent hatred in human history bar none, somehow weasels its way as the example of free speech over and over. Because antisemites have really had it bad in history.

  3. Andre says

    How about the comedy club. Should they be fined? They replayed the legally prosecutable content, after all. If Dankula was fined for it, why should it be any different for the club? Same exact content. Not to mention YouTube, which is well aware of the video since they still have it up.

    The only difference I can see is the UK police are brave enough to dogpile on one man, but are too cowardly to go after larger targets that have done the exact same thing, presumably because the point wasn’t to enforce the law at all, but make an example. That’s capricious government and tyrannical behavior – different rules for different people, based on their means.

    What if Dankula had directed a video of a fictional story where similar things happen – say to a fictional “Count Bankula,” played by an actor – Bankula trains girlfriend’s dog to salute Hitler, gets pursued by the law, etc., only in the end (twist!) he is not convicted or fined.

    Dankula then publishes this video. Same content, but without the social / legal retribution working. Should he be convicted, fined, and/or arrested for publishing the fiction?

    What if he had put an intro slide to his video saying, “This is a work of fiction”. Would that have made a difference? My best guess is that he would not have been prosecuted.

    This whole thing is a mess.

    • ga gamba says

      UK police are brave enough to dogpile on one man,

      Especially when those people are working class.

      Just the other day a teenaged girl was fined, given community sentence, and forced to wear an ankle monitor for the crime of posting a rap song’s lyrics.

      Our police busy themselves by patrolling the internet whilst failing to do much against serious offences such as stabbings, acid attacks, murder, sexual grooming, human trafficking, and rape.

      • Shane says

        Ah yes, the Nazis are working class bit.

    • Phillipa says

      That’s an excellent observation I must say. A fictional version of events wouldn’t likely accrue the same effect, take for example the ridicule of many ofcom complaints. I presumed the man would be tried for breaching hate speech laws so the use of a less obvious legislative vehicle seemed suspicious. He clearly stated a negative opinion of Nazis so hate speech wasn’t an option. It leaves us wondering what constitutes a significant enough degree of personal offense to be taken to be liable for such a crime, or indeed to prosecute someone for.

    • Shane says

      They should be. Any non Jew who publicly says gas the Jews should be punished for it.

  4. Adam says

    I traveled across English to attend my march, my first march (I certainly don’t wish to make it a habit). While I am not Jewish, I am related to holocaust victims. My grandmother’s brother-in-law survived Auschwitz only then to be sent to a labor-camp for possessing politically incorrect books (or as they would be called at the time “counter-revolutionary”). As such the idea that his memory is now being used as the means to dismantle the very protections that he sought when he fled here is infuriating and of course more offensive to me than any words or symbolic gesture.

    • Shane says

      There never was freedom of speech, how calling for murder of Jews by non Jews is a representation of freedom of speech, is very European and has been the history of Euro treatment of Jews. Everything will be about killing Jews or robbing them eventually.

      None of you pull out your SCHEMING words condemning Alt-right Poland for making less freedom of speech in that case if you call any Pole antisemitic. THAT’S A REAL ISSUE OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

      Antisemitism is most vocalized hate obsession ever, and it is always the victim too.

      • Puma says

        Are you talking about Poland’s new Holocaust law? Cuz that’s not what it does. It’s actually a perfectly acceptable holocaust denial law. Denying the Holocaust as it actually happened (by implying that there was a ‘Nation of Poland’ during Nazi occupation and that said Nation was collectively helping the Nazis) is a form of Holocaust denial. No Polish citizen will be punished for saying that someone hates jews or a specific person’s ancestors aided the Nazis

  5. Bubblecar says

    The court should have thrown this case out but nonetheless it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a “joker” who thinks it’s funny to turn genocide into a matter of sniggery amusement.

    He can complain about the fine, but I don’t think he can reasonably complain about being sacked. If you’re going to a lot of trouble to offend people with speech selected for its offensiveness, this carries social consequences, and so it should.

    The principle of “freedom of speech” means not being penalised by the state for speaking your mind. It doesn’t protect you from social opprobrium when you behave in an anti-social manner.

    • Emohawk says

      Bubblecar – I can only assume that you also feel the same way regarding the Father Ted episode which uses a similar vein of humour?

    • He didn’t “turn genocide into a matter of sniggery amusement”; he messed with his girlfriend by training her pug dog to make like he’s a follower of a monster. That’s the freakin’ joke.

      • Bubblecar says

        Um…what you’ve just said is: “He didn’t turn genocide into a matter of sniggery amusement, he turned genocide into a matter of sniggery amusement.”

        Reducing the gassing of the Jews to a chucklesome way to publicly tease his girlfriend, as a “freakin’ joke”, is turning genocide into a matter of sniggery amusement.

        • Mike says

          Exactly, and of course the people who would be most offended at turning their political and philosophical convictions into “sniggery amusement” would be the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and we mustn’t hurt their feelings.

          Funny is not the opposite of serious

          • Bubblecar says

            You’re free to hurt as many feelings as you like – just don’t burst into tears when you have to face the social consequences.

          • Frank Ch. Eigler says

            @Bubblecar,
            You’re free to violate as many civil rights as you like — just don’t burst into tears when some patriot hangs you for it.

          • Shane says

            “patriot hangs you for it” why is it always the antisemite side which calls for violence. Nor has Scotland ever had freedom of speech, I take it except for antisemites you don’t want it. Because nothing should be more protected than your 1200 years of obsessing on and hating Jews even when you killed every one of them out .

        • Michiel says

          Not sure if you are deliberately misrepresenting the case, but he didn’t reduce the gassing of the Jews to a joke, he reduced the Nazis obsession with antisemitism to a joke. Yes he used the phrase “gas the Jews” to do that, which you may or may not find appropriate or funny. That is a matter of opinion. I find it … distasteful, but that’s not the same as offensive. The fact is that the joke ridiculed the Nazis and made fun of their ideology. Many comedians have “reduced Hitler/Nazis to a joke”. Should they all be persecuted or “face social consequences”?

          • Shane says

            No he was a non Jew who made a joke about gassing the Jews, or he may have been serious, and did it in “joke form” at first.

        • Shane says

          They learned this, from the Intercept antisemite who was calling in to Jewish childcare centers telling them he planted bombs, everyone, all the smart people, defended him by saying he was just calling in 10 bomb threats here and there because he was getting back at his girlfriend, not an antisemite of course. Seems antisemites are very attentive to the latest antisemitic defense scheme. Or how the Jew can be powerful and the antisemite can be the the victim in anything.

      • Shane says

        That seems the be the style of defense of antisemites quite often. Strange how often the most vocalized hate obsession ever is the cause of the far left I mean right “free speech” ire.

  6. Mike says

    If he was suffering social consequences that would be fine. He is suffering legal consequences.

  7. Hello all, one of the co-writers of the piece here.

    Thought I’d pop in & re-emphasise that people don’t have to find the Nazi pug video funny for the free speech point to stand. We simply shouldn’t be in the business of using the state to punish people for jokes some – or even all – people don’t like.

    Personally, I found the Nazi pug video funny, but there I can easily imagine circumstances where I know I wouldn’t. If Count Dankula used a different breed of dog, for example – one of the big guarding or herding breeds (Rottweiler, German Shepherd) that the Nazis actually had in the concentration camps.

  8. Daniel PV says

    Bubblecar – Facing “social consequences” is one thing, but being banned from participation (from clubs, institutions, from social media etc.) or being fired from employment for saying something hardly constitutes “free” does it? Not the same as mere social rebuttal. In this case, he was actually sanctioned by the state. The nefarious question is “who gets to decide what is acceptable and what isn’t”? It gets even stupider when a person gets sanctioned for lampooning a social issue or satire, as in this case.

  9. George says

    At the end of the day, the main reason that Dankula is in trouble is because he’s a working-class white man and thus, in the eyes of the (thought) police, an easy target. Meanwhile at Oxford University last year a posh privately-educated female student stabbed her boyfriend in a booze- and cocaine-fuelled fit of rage and got let off by the judge because, I shit you not, he thought that an assault conviction might damage her budding medical career.

    Don’t forget that this is the same country where the police have repeatedly failed to investigate reports of sexual grooming gangs in multiple towns, thus allowing thousands of the most vulnerable girls in our society to be violently raped over a period of years. But when your daughter can’t walk home safely at night, at least you can sleep soundly in your bed knowing that she won’t have to see any tasteless jokes on the Internet.

  10. George says

    By the way: about halfway through you mention “Pie” as if the reader is already expected to know who this person is – but this is the first time that this name (are you referring to Jonathan Pie?) appears in the article. I’m guessing this is an editing mistake?

  11. Yes, it was an editing floof, and it does indeed refer to Jonathan Pie, who had agreed to retweet Comedy Unleashed – apologies. This is when we were concerned anyone who retweeted the club would have their Twitter account suspended or even banned.

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  13. Shane says

    This is BS defending Nazis started with far left Nazi sympathizers, antisemitism has always been vocal, marching and lying. The psychotic underling play by whites is a joke. Europe for example
    Scotland, has an over thousand year obsession with speaking loudly about murdering Jews.

    You evil people turned Nazism into the free speech movement, when antisemitism has always been highly vocal. Nor when you gain power to you believe in any other form of freedom of speech. In the alt-right test case, the slav-righ alt-right won in Poland, antisemites in Poland are everywhere and like those antisemites obsessed with the Jews everywhere loud and “persecuted” and part of the ruling class as the antisemites always are. That’s why they need to exaggerate Jewish power for 1600 years, and erase other Jewish accomplishments (it has to only be bad power). Poland made it illegal to mention Polish antisemitsm, that you evil frauds don’t protest. Which exposes your lie, you’re nazis not pro free speech.

    Nazis were the protected class prior and during Nazism, Nazis were the protected class just after Nazism with the Vatican protecting them, the British using them as the core of the newly invented CIA, and a hundred thousand other proven examples, in a hundred states, in fact the US did the Marshal Plan right away spending what would be hundreds of billions in today’s money to rebuild the Nazi countries, the Jews were conversely often attacked throughout the same period while you robbed Jews by talking about how much power they have, I don’t know the 6 known Jews they allow to live in Scotland at all (I’m sure there are more but they must remain very quiet), seem to be very important for you to protect your desire to gas them.

  14. George says

    Shane, if you think that Europe “has an over thousand year obsession with speaking loudly about murdering Jews”, you just wait until you go to the Middle East or read almost any document of Islamic scripture or history.

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