I was listening to the Proms last night, when the concert was rudely interrupted. As most readers will know, protesters disrupted the concert because the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was playing.
I’m attracted by Norman Lebrecht’s view (expressed in response to an earlier, similar outrage at the Wigmore Hall, apparently involving at least one of the same people, Deborah Fink) that such disturbances are an assault on an element of civilisation and that no cause that can ever justify the desecration of the sanctuary of the concert hall. If I were forced to philosophise about it for an hour or so I suspect I couldn’t be sure no cause could ever justify this sort of thing in any circumstances (the Springbok rugby tour protests in 1969 give me slight pause). But this is real life, 2011, and art not sport; and I can’t think of a cause that would justify it. I think protests like these are irrational and ignorant.
This is about the importance of artistic expression, and raises exactly the same issues as earlier controversies about The Satanic Verses, Behzti and Jerry Springer – The Opera. Fanatics of every stripe regularly try to disrupt art they don’t like. I’m against them. I’m for freedom of expression.
Incidentally, I find it depressing that mainstream human rights organisations like Liberty seem to have nothing to say about incidents like this – it’s one of several reasons why I’m not a member. Perhaps we need an organisation that will specifically stand up for artists’ freedom against zealots. Some people might lazily think this is a complex issue pitting artistic freedom versus the right to protest – but it’s not. I think there is a legitimate case to be made for Palestine, and I have no problem with people protesting outside the Albert Hall.
In this case there’s another reason why I found the disruption unacceptable. I know criticism of Israel isn’t the same as antisemitism. I realise every protester would deny they’re antisemitic, and say they’re against Israel, not Jews. I dare say they all mean it sincerely, and I know at least some were Jewish. But boycotting shops because of Israel reminds me of this, and disrupting an Israeli orchestra reminds me that the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur used to disrupt concerts by Jewish musicians in the 1930s. Surely no one can fail to see the moral problem here, particularly as the IPO seems to have been founded as a result of Jewish musicians being sacked from orchestras in Nazi Germany. I don’t see why it matters whether or not you’re Jewish.
So I’m surprised and disappointed there were no arrests last night. I think there could have been, under section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which makes it an offence to trespass on land and do anything intended to disrupt lawful activity there. You might initially think the protesters were not trespassers in the Albert Hall, having been let in with tickets, but the 1976 Court of Appeal decision in R v Jones and Smith (I can’t find it on BAILII I’m afraid) suggests that you become a trespasser for the purposes of criminal law if, though entering premises with the consent of the owner, you do so intending to do something that goes beyond the scope of the implied permission you were given to be there.
Yes, arresting these protestors would arguably have interfered with the article 9 Convention right to manifest one’s beliefs, and the article 11 right to peaceful assembly. But interferences with those rights can be justified for the protection of public order and the rights and freedoms of others – in this case of course the equally important freedom of expression of both musicians and audience – and arrest and prosecution would be entirely proportionate in pursuit of either of those policy aims.
So there’d have been no human rights difficulty in making arrests. On the contrary: the human rights issue here, in my view, is the positive obligation of state institutions upholding the rule of law to prevent unjustified and disproportionate private breaches of freedom of expression.