Why it was wrong to find Coleman guilty over right-wing blog

If you had been outside Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court on Friday you would have witnessed Michael Coleman playing to the gallery.
Just minutes after receiving a suspended eight-month sentence after being convicted of racially-aggravated harrassment, the former BNP city councillor was in full flow.
He vowed to continue posting political ‘articles’ (I use that term loosely) to his blog and said he believed it would eventually lead to his imprisonment.
Playing the martyr with the assurance of someone who possesses an Equity card, he said he was “a free-born Englishman” who will be damned if he will see hard-won freedoms secured by his forefathers in two world wars taken away.
Sadly, all Friday’s sentencing and the previous conviction have done is raised Coleman’s profile and given him a platform for his bizarre views.
When the voters of the Potteries did us all a favour by booting out him and his BNP cronies last year, it also starved them of the oxygen of publicity. Now he’s news again.
Whereas before a few thousand people may have visited his blog to play ‘spot the spelling mistake’ and raise their eyebrows at his unusual ideas, his prosecution has sadly served to increase visitors to the obscure Stoke Patriot website.
Anyone who believes the riots which swept London and other UK cities last summer exemplified ‘the difference in personality, perceptions and values of people of the darker races and ourselves’ is clearly talking nonsense and didn’t read the news reports at the time.
Anyone who accuses the city council of overseeing a ‘complete population replacement programme – darkies in, whites out’, is clearly in a very small minority. As well as being plain daft.
However, in spite of his repulsive, right-wing views, Michael Coleman’s prosecution was – in my view – misguided and could well do more harm than good.
The posts on his blog may be obnoxious but, in spite of the court’s decision, I just can’t see them inciting others to racial harrassment.
Frankly, they are more likely to incite someone to reach for a dictionary or the sick bucket.
As a result of his suspended sentence, Coleman is barred from standing in a local council election for five years.
Given that he was reported to the police by Labour councillor Joy Garner this immediately makes her actions seem politically-motivated, even though I’m sure they weren’t.
The bigger problem here is that the internet has given everyone a voice and the policing of blogs and the like is nigh on impossible.
If it was right to prosecute Michael Coleman then I would suggest that there but for the grace of God go countless thousands of other individuals who perhaps won’t appear in court because they aren’t on the radar of someone like Mrs Garner.
Uncomfortable as it may be for us to admit, I think Coleman is right in one respect: His conviction poses serious questions about our personal freedoms and the right to free speech.
Voltaire’s oft-quoted statement: “I may disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” comes to mind here.
The fact is we live in a democracy and a free country which is proud of being tolerant and a safe haven for the persecuted and peoples of other races, cultures and creeds.
I think our reputation as this bastion of tolerance is being somewhat undermined by the inability of everything from our judicial system to our national sport’s governing bodies to bring some common sense into the racism debate.
Different rules and standards seem to be being applied across the board – just take the FA’s kangaroo courts as an example.
It seems you get stiffer sentences these days for offending someone on the internet than you do for burgling a person’s home or mugging them in the street.
Where’s the logic in that?
I don’t, in any way, condone or defend Michael Coleman’s bizarre views but I can’t help but feel that – as a society – we should be able to cope with his minority view without resorting to criminal prosecutions.
Wrong he may be, but a danger to society who is inciting racial hatred? I don’t think so. Only if you let him.
The bigger danger, if you ask me, is the thought police’s propensity to overreact when anyone refuses to spout the vision of Britain being some sort of multi-cultural utopia.
I would suggest it is precisely the treatment dished out to Michael Coleman which is likely to get right-thinking people’s backs up and make them wonder whether they may be a point to his ravings.

Left to its own devices BNP will be shown for what it is

I suppose we should have seen it coming a while back when the British National Party’s leader described Stoke-on-Trent as the jewel in his party’s crown.

Nick Griffin was bound to darken our door with an election looming, particularly given the BNP’s success at a local level here in the Potteries.

Cue the predictable demonstration from idealistic university students and a small number of people who believe in using loud-hailers to espouse their vision of a multi-cultural utopia.

Some people would have you believe that all BNP supporters are fascists.

Others will tell you that the far right party is an affront to democracy and that its members shouldn’t be given the oxygen of publicity. It’s all cobblers.

The fact is, as offensive and reprehensible as the views of some of its supporters may be, the BNP is a legitimate political party and its members have every right to peddle their ill-informed manifesto.

In many ways, letting them do just that is the best way of tackling any threat they pose.

Just look at what a mess Mr Griffin made of his controversial appearance on Question Time.

It appears that you don’t need to challenge the bloke to expose him for the muppet that he is – you just have to let him speak.

Credit where credit is due, however.

The BNP’s leadership may be wrong about many things, but they aren’t shy of broaching subjects which bring other parties out in a cold sweat.

Take immigration, for example, or the European Union.

There is no doubt in my mind that a public debate needs to be had about immigration and the failure of this (and previous) UK Governments to implement a coherent strategy to deal with the fact that our borders have become so porous.

Unfortunately, all of the main parties seem afraid to tackle an issue that continues to exercise many people in this country.

Then there is the thorny issue of this little island’s membership of the EU. Weren’t we promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? Again, no dice.

Is it any wonder that voters are turning their back on Labour and the Tories?

I’m not bothered in the slightest about Nick Griffin launching the BNP’s national election campaign here in North Staffordshire.

I’m more concerned about the fact that some supporters of the mainstream parties, and indeed some politicians, seem to blame the party’s recent success on the media rather than looking a little closer to home.

Does anyone honestly believe that it is the fault of journalists that the BNP has secured a bunch of seats on Stoke-on-Trent City Council?

I suspect the truth is actually that voters in some areas of the Potteries were so disillusioned with the usual suspects who have made such a pig’s ear of running the city in the last 20 years that they sought an alternative.

They perhaps just wanted a hard-working councillor who answered their phone calls and replied to their letters – and they didn’t much care about his political affiliations.

This disenchantment with politics and mainstream politicians is mirrored nationally.

Indeed, in the wake of the expenses scandal I dare say MPs are now more unpopular than estate agents, traffic wardens and, er… some journalists. So is there much chance of the BNP’s first MP being elected in Stoke-on-Trent later this year?

I doubt it.

Someone once said you could dress a monkey in a suit and pin a red rosette to it and people would still vote Labour in Stoke-on-Trent. I doubt this General Election will be any different.

Thus Nick Griffin’s visit was probably little more than an interesting sideshow ahead of the main event.

Where is the leader capable of inspiring Stoke-on-Trent?

BNP leader Nick Griffin launches his election manifesto in Stoke-on-Trent.

BNP leader Nick Griffin launches his election manifesto in Stoke-on-Trent.

The more time goes on, the more unlikely it seems the Government will intervene directly in the running of Stoke-on-Trent.

Councillors and MPs alike are doubtless starting to breathe a little easier, but while they may be quietly humming the tune of the Great Escape, I’m starting to wonder whether or not this is actually an opportunity missed.

Let’s face it, the city is a rudderless ship at present – lacking any real direction and buffeted by the winds of fate.

The man who is currently the city’s most senior local politician is Mohammed Pervez, the Deputy Elected Mayor.

Except that he wasn’t actually elected to that role at all. He is simply a ward councillor who finds himself on the bridge of the aforementioned vessel staring bleakly into the fog.

Mr Pervez is also, with all due respect, a relative newcomer to the civic centre and I wonder just how equipped he is to steer us through the treacherous waters we currently find ourselves in.

Around him sits a coalition of convenience – a damned alliance of politicians of different hues which simply allows the local authority to function rather than make any real progress.

Hovering in the background, like the proverbial spectres at the feast, are nine democratically-elected BNP members.

Their party’s national leader, Nick Griffin, describes Stoke-on-Trent as the jewel in his crown. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

From this sea of mediocrity, I’m struggling to see who will rise up to champion Stoke-on-Trent.

The Whitehall-appointed Governance Commission itself stated that: “The evidence presented to us clearly questioned the capacity of the current members to carry out the role of a modern-day councillor.”

Note that the commission was simply referring to the role of a councillor – never mind someone equipped to lead a place that the naked eye can see lags about 20 years behind other comparable cities.

When a depressing 19 per cent of the electorate bothered to turn out to axe the elected mayor system, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Through the 1990s, as a city we lurched like a punch-drunk boxer from one crisis to another (the Cultural Quarter, Worldgate, etc) until the electorate finally said enough was enough and we scrapped the old council leader system in favour of having an elected mayor.

A few years down the line, and it’s Back To The Future time.

Instead of simply voting out two unpopular elected mayors, we’ve gone and killed off the one post that gave the safe-as-houses Labour stronghold that is Stoke-on-Trent the chance to have a national figurehead who wasn’t constrained by party politics.

All this may sound cynical, but, as someone who cares passionately about North Staffordshire, I’d prefer to think of it as me being realistic.

The electorate may be overwhelmingly apathetic when it comes to local politics, but the majority of voters aren’t stupid.

The fact is, the city has been poorly served in recent years by its elected leaders.

By the same token, no current sitting councillor stands out as someone who is going to do what needs to be done – namely, to grab the city by the scruff of its neck, give it some direction and, crucially, restore some public confidence into the much-maligned city council or, indeed, the role of public office locally.

All this makes me wonder if it may not have been better for the city to have been declared the basket case it so obviously is and for the Government to have placed us into special measures.

There is some wonderful work going on to help regenerate the Potteries, but over and above this we desperately need some strong leadership and radical thinking to banish the parochialism that continues to frustrate us at every turn.

It’s all well and good trumpeting the fact that we have “the most improved local council”, but when that improvement is from such a low starting point and we are still miles behind other comparable cities then it’s hardly time to break out the Moet, is it?

By George! Isn’t it time we recognised our patron saint?

Did you miss it, then? Chances are that, if you blinked, you would have. I am, of course, referring to St. George’s Day.

You know – flags with the red cross on a white background, that sort of thing.

I was up early and drove 67 miles during a day which didn’t finish until after 10pm.

Granted, I didn’t pass any civic buildings, but other than my own cufflinks, I clocked only one ragged emblem of St. George clipped to a white van on the A500 – along with the flag fluttering half-heartedly in the breeze above Sentinel Towers.

This sense of apathy makes me incredibly sad.

On St. Patrick’s Day you can’t walk down the street without being accosted by some halfwit wearing a leprechaun’s outfit staggering from an Irish-themed bar and claiming pseudo-Irish ancestry.

So why oh why are we so poor at celebrating the day of our own patron saint?

I know that the patronage of St. George isn’t the exclusive preserve of the English and that stories of the life and exploits of the said individual are many and varied. Dragons don’t exist either, apparently.

But does it really matter? The point is the national emblem of the English, along with the three lions, is the flag of St George. Why then are we so reticent to wave it about and celebrate our own heritage?

Let me give you an example. A bloke contacted The Sentinel on Thursday to say he had gone into a North Staffordshire pub on St. George’s Day dressed up as the mythic dragon slayer – only to be turfed out by bar staff who were afraid he may offend some of their customers.

Pardon? How, pray tell would he have offended them? Do some of their punters have an aversion to chain mail? Was it his plastic longsword?

Unfortunately, the reader asked us not to publish the story after his mate intervened and pub staff did a swift U-turn (having presumably realised they had overreacted just a tad).

This is exactly the kind of political correctness masquerading as multiculturalism which shames us all.

Stoke-on-Trent is strange place.

On the one hand it is a city with a proud history of tolerance. A city which has welcomed, and continues to welcome, people from different ethnic backgrounds from all over the world.

Examples include exiled Poles during the war and doctors from the sub-continent during the 1960s who went on to form the backbone of family medicine in the Potteries for generations.

We are also a city with several democratically-elected councillors belonging to the far right British National Party – which, in the eyes of Whitehall, is the equivalent of having leprosy.

Of course, the BNP isn’t slow to wave the red and white flag, which makes everyone else rather jittery.

This is presumably why we are forever apologising for our colonial past and falling over ourselves not to offend all and sundry while neglecting our own proud culture and traditions.

Forget my politics – I am very patriotic. If England were playing Ecuador in the final of the World Indoor Tiddlywinks Championship I’d probably watch it. Or at least set the DVD player for record.

You see, the flag of St. George doesn’t belong to the BNP or the Tories, Labour or the Lib Dems.
It’s mine… and it’s yours whenever you want it.

If you fancy dressing up in medieval garb and having a couple of glasses of your favourite tipple while toasting the health of Her Majesty and England’s cricket team ahead of The Ashes then you should be able to do just that – without fear of recriminations.

I mention sport because it brings people together like few other mediums can. When England play a football match it is as if our fears of being labelled extremists suddenly evaporate.

If Andrew Strauss has toppled the Aussies by August 24 then suddenly everyone will be a cricket fan and you won’t be able to move for red and white flags.

Poor old St. George deserves better than this. His emblem shouldn’t just be dusted off for major sporting occasions.

If our Glasgow-born Prime Minister wants to cheer up the majority of the electorate amid all the doom and gloom, then he could do far worse than making April 23 a national holiday in England – never mind what the captains of industry think.

At a time when we are all supposed to be pulling in the same direction, a time of unprecedented hardships, what better way than coming together as a nation once a year to celebrate whatever it is that Englishness means to each and every one of us?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel