Saturday, 10 January 2015

Freedom of Expression - Rights and Responsibilities

There have been two incidents over the last few days which have hit the headlines, one internationally and one nationally. The first is of course the terrible massacre of the editor and staff and others at the premises in Paris of the French ‘satirical’ magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, when they together with  two police officers on duty at the premises, and a visitor, were shot dead by two hooded assassins armed with  machine guns. The assassins then escaped in a stolen car, one having first ensured the death of one of the police officers lying wounded on the ground, by shooting him in the head. It has since transpired that the men were young men, Islamic fundamentalists who had apparently decided on this course of action  in retaliation  for the publication in the magazine of  blasphemous and offensive cartoons insulting Mohammed. Naturally this murderous incident has evoked world-wide condemnation, as indeed it should, however having seen examples of these ‘cartoons’, it is apparent that some are indeed blasphemous and some grossly offensive, verging on the obscene. In this and possibly other Countries, the public display and sale of such material would be against the law, in as much as it would be considered an incitement to racial and/or religious hatred. Once fondly regarded as the ‘eldest daughter’ of the Catholic Church, France has been a secular nation since 1789, the advent of the French Revolution, with legal and societal values based on ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity’. In the wake of this recent terrible massacre much has been said and quoted in the media about the right to free speech, and the right of publishers to publish this type of material, and their intention to carry on doing so in spite of the murderous response that it has evoked. What seems to have been overlooked is that with rights comes responsibility, and it appears that  many voices today clamour for  rights but do not want the responsibility that goes with it. In the case of ‘Charlie Hebdo’, it seems that the publishers consider it a right  to publish literature which is  deliberately and grossly insulting to the religious sentiments of so many of its own citizens, knowing full well that it will offend and stir up religious and racial hatred. Power without moral responsibility is a recipe for disaster, and the tragic and terrible events in Paris are the result of evil provoking an even greater evil, with many blind to the evil in the cause seeing only the evil in the effect.

The second incident to have occurred involves a 26 year old professional footballer Ched Evans, who in 2012 at Caernarfon Crown Court, was convicted of rape,  and sentenced to a term of five years imprisonment. He has recently been released on parole and has declared his intention of resuming his footballing career; he was of international standard having represented Wales.  He first applied to be allowed to train with Sheffield United, a Championship side, and although initially his request received favourable consideration, the plan  was stymied by opposition from the Club’s commercial sponsors  and supporters, on the grounds that it would not be a good advertisement for the Club to be associated in any way with a convicted rapist.  He then applied to Oldham, another Championship side, to join them, and again initially the response was encouraging. However a campaign on the internet, raised 60,000 signatures opposing this, with two of the Club’s corporate sponsors threatening to remove their sponsorship with immediate effect. Again the main reason for this opposition appears to be that employing a man convicted of rape would reflect badly on the image of the Club and the sponsors.  It is important to remember that Evans had paid the penalty for his crime, and what he seeks is the opportunity to carry on in the job which he knows and for which he has been trained. Certainly the crime for which Evans was convicted was a serious one, but there are many sportsmen convicted of serious offences who have been able to continue their sporting occupation once their judicial debt had been paid. One of the main objections put forward is that Evans as a footballer might become a good role-model, but Evans as a convicted rapist would certainly not.
This thesis might look impressive on paper, but is the reality quite like this? Not many professional footballers achieve role-model status, particularly in the lower divisions. I suspect that any fame achieved is remarkably transient, depending primarily on goal-scoring ability and achievement, and is always subject to team performance, results, fitness, etc. Undoubtedly Evans would experience verbal abuse from some, particularly in the early period of  rehabilitation, and some might say that he deserves it, but if he is prepared to accept this there is every likelihood that in a relatively short time the vast majority of football supporters will judge him on his footballing abilities, not on anything else. I wonder how many of those who signed the on-line petition are supporters of Oldham Athletic, or how many are even football supporters?  I am reminded of Jesus’ words to those who brought the woman accused of adultery to Him, ‘Let those of you who have not sinned cast the first stone’. And we know from the Gospel account  that they all walked away, and Jesus said to the woman,‘They have not condemned thee, neither will I condemn thee. Go, and sin no more’. Evans has consistently denied his guilt in this case, and some would say ‘he would, wouldn’t he’. However he has issued an apology for the course of events, if not for the alleged offence. It seems ironic, cruelly so perhaps, that his case seems to have been targeted by a certain section of the community, blown up by the media, and earnestly and publicly pronounced-on by such ‘eminent’ political leaders as David Cameron and Ed Milliband – you would really think that they must surely have major political problems of their own to deal with, or is it a question of any publicity is better than none?
Evans himself describes the difficulties that he is encountering, as brought on by ‘mob rule’, and in the circumstances he seems to be right.  The power of the internet, which can be an influence for both good and bad, can also become  judge and jury, creating a dangerous precedent. Certain football club managers have spoken out on the need to give Evans a chance, notably Harry Redknapp of QPR and Steve Bruce of Hull City, both Premier League Clubs, and I suspect there are others who share their opinion. From the point of view of natural justice, Evans has served his punishment and should not be subject to a double-whammy. He has not asked for favours and will sink or swim as a professional footballer entirely on his own merit, but first he must be given the opportunity.

 Thoughts from St Alphonsus

‘Souls enamoured of God live always with a tranquil heart and in continual peace, because like the sunflower that always turns to the sun, they in all events and in all their actions seek always to live and act in the presence of God’