Important free speech judgment on Bus Ads case

30 July 2014

Which is it? Did Boris mislead the media or the High Court?

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson’s willingness to redefine words to avoid political inconvenience is exposed today (30 July) following a remarkable High Court judgment involving the banning of a London Bus Ad.

“The words are in black and white in the evidence submitted to the Court. Boris cannot have it both ways. Either he wilfully misled the media and the public during an election campaign or he subsequently misled the Court about his role,” explains Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre.

“At stake here is the plain meaning of English words and whether leading public figures are allowed to wriggle out of that plain meaning when the truth that they convey suddenly becomes politically inconvenient. If we allow the meaning of words to be redefined and reconfigured at the whim of politicians how can we hope to have any political accountability? Is it any surprise that engagement with politics and trust in politicians has fallen to such a low level?”

In today’s judgment Mrs Justice Lang finds that London Mayor Boris Johnson did not order the banning of a Bus Ad at the eleventh hour – in spite of clear evidence, produced in Court, stating that Boris had ‘instructed’ Transport for London (TfL) to pull the Advert.

Andrea continues: “And now we find a High Court judge unwilling to address Boris’ deliberate manipulation of meaning.  This remarkable judgment manoeuvres all over the place to avoid the plain meaning of words in order to let the Mayor off the hook.”

The judgment comes in a case brought by the charity Core Issues Trust whose Bus Ad was banned at the last minute following intervention by the Mayor. The Ad, which read “Not Gay. Post Gay. Ex Gay and proud. Get over it!” was a direct response to the Ad being run by LGBT lobby group Stonewall at the time, which read “Some people are gay. Get over it!”

The Core Issues Ad was banned at the eleventh hour but the Stonewall Ad was allowed to run – both at the time and subsequently. Lawyers for Core Issues have consistently highlighted the asymmetry of treatment towards the two viewpoints expressed in the Ads and the damage to freedom of expression through the exercise of government censorship.

On the day of his intervention (12 April 2012), Boris took personal credit in the media for banning the Bus Ad. Yet, two years later, he told the High Court, “I did not instruct TfL to do anything.”

Evidence extracted from TfL and the Mayor’s Office by Core Issues Trust and submitted to the Court further revealed that:

On the day of the Mayor’s intervention, his Communications Director responded to the Deputy Mayor Richard Barnes writing that ‘Boris has instructed TfL to pull the adverts’. A month later, the Mayor himself wrote to Hazel Blears MP stating that he had “instructed” TfL to ban the Ads.

The Mayor’s intervention took place three weeks before the London Mayoral election and just two days before the Mayor was due to appear at a hustings event organised by Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group that had sponsored the original Advert .

However, two years later in May 2014, Boris submitted a signed witness statement to the High Court, claiming, “I did not instruct TfL to do anything.” Lawyers acting for him then proceeded to argue that when Boris had used the word ‘instruct’ he was merely expressing a point of view.

Andrea Williams Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which has supported Core Issues Trust responded:

“This is a judgment worth reading.  It centres on adverts on London buses and involves words with meanings which are as clear as one of Boris’s double deckers.  An official asks if he should “pull” an advert.  He is then instructed by Boris to “pull” the advert.  Yet the judge says he was not asked to “pull” the advert.    It is time for the public and independent commentators to judge the judges (and Boris).  If they are incapable of seeing something as obvious as a London bus then the question is what is causing their institutional bias against plain English?

“What are the pressures on our judges that stop them being able to follow the clear meaning of words and search for truth even if it involves powerful people?  What pressures made Mrs Justice Lang decline to permit cross examination of the Mayor or allow computer forensics to check the accuracy of his statements?

“Free speech is a precious thing. Testing the integrity of our leaders is important.  Our democracy cannot survive if our press is deliberately misled by political figures and justices don’t choose to understand the plain meaning of words.  This case is about free speech. This case hinges on the words people use to describe themselves.  Their self-identity.

“Mrs Justice Lang cleverly avoided deciding which version of the Mayor’s ‘truth’ was true. She explained away the contradictory versions of what he said as a mere matter of ‘semantics’. I am surprised that the Judge decided to accept Boris’s implausible claim that when he said ‘instructed’ he was not using the word as it is generally understood but instead that he was simply ‘expressing his opinion’.

“This judgment has failed to punish the London Mayor for showing privilege to Stonewall, which has continued to run its controversial bus ads defying an earlier ruling by Mrs Justice Lang that neither Stonewall nor Core Issues ads should not be allowed to run.

“This case is an important test for democracy and freedom of expression under the rule of law and in the face of a powerful public elite. This case was a test of judicial independence and impartiality. Today that has been found to be lacking.

“The Judge supported TfL’s and Boris Johnson’s biased decision that the terms ‘ex-gay’ and ‘post-gay’ were ‘offensive’. It is a stark example of the State prohibiting the right of people to descriptors of their choice but allowing Stonewall to celebrate the ‘gay’ descriptor. Why exactly can’t someone describe themselves as ex-gay?

“This judgment marks a dark day for freedom of expression. It demonstrates that fear of a powerful gay lobby will trump the freedom of individual expression and choice.  In most all things we must be free to have both sides heard in any debate, and must allow people the freedom to express that belief as broadly as possible, up to and including the point of giving offence to the Guardian’s 750,000 readers. That is what true freedom is and that is what democracy means.”

Find out more about Core Issues Trust
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