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Alistair Thompson: How a pantomime horse, Peter Tatchell and the Christian Institute changed the law on insults

Alistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the last general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

Screen shot 2013-01-15 at 17.01.25Yes, this sounds like the start of a bad joke, but for regular Westminster Watchers, familiar with the Reform Section 5 Campaign, this unlikely alliance has just secured a major victory for free speech.

Yesterday, after months of campaigning, the Government finally accepted a House of Lords amendment that got rid of the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

This latest in a long list of Government u-turns was by no means certain and had it not been for the eclectic group of supporters, this pernicious law would still be on the statute books.

As the professional media back-up to the campaign, there were three factors that made the difference between success and failure.

First, I cannot underplay the support of this disparate group played in securing this reform. At the Parliamentary launch, the campaign brought together MPs from the three main parties, including senior backbenchers Edward Leigh and David Davis who both took a frontline role, the Christian Institute, the National Secular Society and Peter Tatchell.

This lead Mr Leigh to remark that the next time he would see this distinguished panel all sitting round the same table would be in heaven.

But it was with this broad church of support, (sorry NSS) along with a little bit of professional guidance from MIP that the campaign was able to reach out to hundreds of volunteers, think tanks, politicians, and most importantly the media.

The media, in particular the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and BBC, ensured that the debate around this stopped being just between a handful of people in the Village, but reached out to ordinary people, who took notice, ridiculed the legislation and demanded change.

The extent at how well the campaign message had spread beyond the usual political circles was brought into sharp focus when I was sitting in the back of the cab and the driver turned to me and started talking about this ludicrous, (my word not his) Government law.

My driver then proceeded to tell me about the student who was arrested after jokingly telling a police officer his horse looked gay, the teenager carrying a sign which read Scientology is a dangerous cult and, to use his exact words “...that national treasurer Peter Tatchell who got nicked” for holding a placard denouncing Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Having this level of public awareness ensured that MPs took notice.

The final element of the campaign strategy was as the imaginative use of stunts. Too often, those of us who work in PR find our hands tied, or a resistance to taking bold action, but in Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, we had a Campaign Director whose only question was: why not?

When we came up with the bizarre idea of dressing someone up in a pantomime horse outfit to accompany Peter Tatchell, who was dressed as a police officer in a demo outside the Home Office, the only question was: when do we want to do this?

Of course there were more serious events, including a parliamentary reception with comedian Rowan Atkinson, who criticised the legislation for having a “chilling effect on freedom of speech” - and has been viewed more than 310,000 times on You Tube. But RS5 had to constantly create new angles to keep the message live.

There are those who might also point to the role of former Chief Constable Lord Dear, who fought a heroic campaign in the House of Lords, or the pressure created by the news that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, did not believe that amending the legislation would hinder prosecutions against hooligans and yobs.

But it was these three elements, a wide coalition of supporters, support of the media and stunts that maximised our chances of changing the law and ultimately secured victory.


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