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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Politics and freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is never more meaningful than during a general election campaign when rival parties can make broadcasts free from state control and censorship, writes media correspondent Nick Higham.

Last week one political party standing at the General Election, the Pro-Life Alliance, went to court claiming that the BBC and other broadcasters were trying to censor it.

The Alliance is opposed to abortion, euthanasia and experimentation on human embryos and is fielding around 40 candidates at the election, of whom seven are standing in Wales.

Under new rules on the allocation of party election broadcasts, those seven candidates qualify the Alliance for a broadcast in the principality.

So the Alliance prepared a tape, almost five minutes long, largely devoted to a succession of images of aborted foetuses, without sound or voiceover.


But when the tape was shown to the BBC the response was a firm rejection - seconded by the other terrestrial broadcasters who would also have to carry it.

The Alliance was told that what it wanted to broadcast would break guidelines on taste and decency and be "offensive to public feeling".

The BBC identified the images of aborted foetuses, "mostly in a mangled and mutilated state", as problematic.

It added that though some such images might be acceptable in the right context, the cumulative effect of several minutes' worth was unacceptable.

When the Alliance asked what would be acceptable the BBC refused to tell it - on the grounds that it was not the BBC's job in effect to compile the party's broadcast.

The Alliance went to court, seeking leave for a judicial review of the BBC's decision.


Its director, Bruno Quintavalle, said he accepted that some of the images were shocking, but that was because abortion (and the condition in which it left the foetus) was shocking.

He added that the party had done all it could to avoid sensationalism, but it needed to show the images to put across its message with proper force.

In court David Anderson QC for the Alliance argued that the broadcasters were displaying double standards, since they were quite prepared to show equally horrifying images (for instance of victims of war and famine) in other contexts.

And it said the broadcasters were breaching the Alliance's right to freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


Four years ago the Alliance was forced to go to court to try and win air time for a similar broadcast - which it failed to do.

The Alliance had appealed unsuccessfully first to the Court of Appeal and then to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Last October the Strasbourg court finally decided that the Alliance had no arguable case.

This time too - much to the BBC's relief - the Alliance lost.

The judge, Mr Justice Scott-Baker, said the broadcasters had had to balance an important right against an important duty - the Alliance's right to freedom of expression against their own duty not to broadcast anything offensive to good taste and decency.

"The evidence in my judgement clearly shows that they approached this balancing exercise in an entirely responsible way," he said.


He also accepted the argument put forward by David Pannick QC for the BBC that the Alliance's right to freedom of expression was not seriously impaired.

"The BBC is not restricting the claimant from saying what it likes," the judge said.

"It is not trying to gag it from conveying its message about the abortion laws. All the BBC is doing is preventing the claimant from sending particularly unpleasant images into people's homes."

The Alliance is unlikely to accept this meekly and is expected to appeal.

Bruno Quintavalle believes firmly that his party's message is fatally compromised, if it is prevented from showing people the reality of abortion.

Mr Quintavalle's legal team also believe Mr Scott-Baker's judgement is flawed legally because in effect it balances against the Alliance's right to freedom of expression the public's notional right not to be offended - a right they say is to be found nowhere in the European Convention.

But the Alliance's chances of overturning the decision seem as remote this time as they did in 1997.

The case has shown that even for political parties at election times there are limits on freedom of expression.

Nick Higham welcomes your comments at, although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.

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