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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Downing Street reassures comics
Mel Smith, Pamela Stephenson, Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys Jones
Not the Nine O'clock News satirised religion
Downing Street has said planned security legislation will not harm freedom of speech for comedians after Rowan Atkinson criticised the measures.

In a letter to the Times newspaper, the Blackadder star told Home Secretary David Blunkett that the proposed anti-terrorist bill could lead to the imprisonment of those who satirised religion.

But a spokesman for the prime minister has responded by saying the proposed measures would be "carefully framed" to avoid such an outcome.

For telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be praised

Rowan Atkinson
"I think we are able to tell the difference between comic sketches and comedy and people who are trying to whip up and incite religious hatred," said the spokesman.

Mr Blunkett announced a raft of anti-terror measures on Monday, including increased powers to tackle "racists, bigots and hotheads".

Some religious groups pressed for the measures to prevent the agitation of racial hatred in the wake of the 11 September atrocities.

The new offence will carry a maximum prison term of seven years.

Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder III
The BBC's Blackadder mocked religious characters
Mr Atkinson said he was "aghast" at the plan which he feared could make it illegal to ridicule religions or make religious jokes.

The Mr Bean and Not The Nine O'Clock News comedian said: "I have always believed that there should be no subject about which one cannot make jokes, religion included.

Bad jokes

"For telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be praised.

"For telling a bad one, you should be ridiculed and reviled.

"The idea that you could be prosecuted for the telling of either is quite fantastic."

A Conservative spokesman said his party, too, had concerns about the legislation.

He said it would need to be persuaded that the law would protect people in the way the governments intended without curtailing freedom of speech.

But the government said it was aware of the need to strike a balance between the right to free speech and the right to lead a life where people were free to practice their religions without fear.

Rowan Atkinson in the Thin Blue Line
Atkinson fears comedians could be arrested
Atkinson doubted whether the Monty Python film The Life Of Brian could have been made under the proposed laws.

He also pointed to a Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch which showed Muslim worshippers bowing to the ground in a mosque.

No prisoners

He wrote that jokes of this ilk could be considered offensive under the new laws, but that it should be the audience that decides the appropriateness of the joke.

Atkinson was backed by satirist Rory Bremner and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

"It is a very, very tricky area, some people are very, very aware of it, hurt by any comment about it - not that we cartoonists care," Scarfe told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'Miserable afterlife'

"It is one tricky area but I am with Rowan Atkinson. I think anything is grist to the mill really."

Bremner said he agreed, adding: "I think if there is a God it is very important He has a sense of humour - otherwise you are in for a very miserable afterlife."

But human rights lawyer Geoffrey Bindman told the Today programme comedians had nothing to fear.

"Remember, there has been a law against incitement to racial hatred since 1965.

"As far as I know no comedian has ever been prosecuted, although there have been some pretty racist comedians," he said.

"The purpose of this law is to protect communities from violence that can be provoked by free speech."

Rowan Atkinson
is interviewed by BBC Radio 4's PM programme

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See also:

16 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Religious hate law failings
15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
UK anti-terror measures unveiled
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