DAVID Cameron has entered the debate over free speech by insisting that the media had a right to “cause offence” but should not be subject to revenge attacks for voicing their views.
In a thinly veiled rebuke to contentious remarks made by Pope Francis in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, the Prime Minister said that as long as publications acted within the law they had the right to publish any material.
The Pope sparked controversy last week by saying there were limits to freedom of expression and that “one cannot make fun of faith”.
Speaking during an impromptu press conference, the Pope gestured to one of his officials, and said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others.”
Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, later said the Pope has “clearly” spoken out against “the terror and violence that occurred in Paris and in other parts of the world”, adding that his comments were consistent with his “free style of speech”.
Asked about the remarks on US television, Mr Cameron cautioned against those who view violence as a legitimate response in such circumstances.
In an interview with the CBS network’s news programme Face the Nation, recorded during his visit to Washington last week, he said: “I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian; if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak vengeance on them.
“We have to accept that newspapers, magazines, can publish things that are offensive to some, as long as it’s within the law. That is what we should defend.”
He told anchor Bob Schieffer that as a politician “my job is not to tell a newspaper what to publish or what not to publish. My job is to uphold the law, that they can publish things within the law.”
In the interview, broadcast yesterday, Mr Cameron said the current terrorist threat was severe and that the prospect of an attack was highly likely.
The nature of the threat, he explained, “has changed and altered, but it’s still based on the fundamental problem of a poisonous death cult narrative which is the perversion of one of the world’s major religions”.
He added: “Frankly, we’ve been in this struggle against extremist Islamist terrorism now for well over a decade-and-a-half, so we know what it takes to win. It’s going to take a lot of perseverance.”
He also cautioned against depicting the fight against Islamic extremism as a war, warning that is what the terrorists wished for. “They want this to be seen as a war between what they see as the true Islam and the rest, and that’s not the case,” he said.
Mr Cameron’s concerns about the right to freedom of speech were echoed by Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, Lord Harries, a crossbench peer, said the Pope was wrong to advocate violence.
“I am a great admirer of the Pope, but when, to make the proper point that we should not insult the faith of others, he said his assistant could ‘expect a punch’ if he cursed his mother, I was aghast,” he wrote in the Independent on Sunday. “The problem is that underneath all the outrage at the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the condemnation of this by Muslim leaders, interviewers picked up many Muslim voices bitterly condemning the magazine’s cartoons.
“The reference to a punch could easily be taken for a justification of violence in response to insult.”
Elsewhere in the CBS interview, Mr Cameron said that although there were doubts about the approach to combating the growing threat of Islamic extremists, it was important to emphasise that the strategy was not a quick fix.
“I think the reason some people are concerned about this strategy is that perhaps we haven’t said enough about how long it is going to take to work,” he said.
“If we take the issue of Islamist extremist terrorism coming out of Iraq and Syria, it is going to take a very long time to deal with this, because in the end the only answer to these terrorists will be strong, proper government in Iraq, with strong, proper Iraqi security forces.
“The same applies in Syria. I think the secretary‑general of the UN put it very well when he said a missile can kill a terrorist, but it is only good governance that can kill terrorism.”
He also paid tribute to his relationship with US president Barack Obama, with whom he enjoys a “very strong” bond.
“That tie, he said, was in part down to the long-standing connection between the UK and the US.
“Whether it was Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, or Churchill and Roosevelt, different relationships have been forged, but the underlying strength of this partnership is there for reasons of not just history, but of values,” Mr Cameron said.
Asked if he had a nickname for Mr Obama, Mr Cameron replied: “I don’t, no. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t tell you.”