In my previous post at the end of last month (here) I told how we, the GayMarriageNoThanks.com (here) campaign team, planned to display ‘Sophie’ posters on billboards across London ahead of the third reading of the same-sex marriage Bill in the House of Lords on 8th July. The purpose of the poster was to draw urgent attention to the issue of children: at the heart of marriage for most people and, with the honourable exception of a very few parliamentarians (here), kids have been entirely ignored in the gay marriage debate.
We tried first to book space for her with two of the major billboard companies, Clear Channel UK (here) and Primesight (here). They both examined the artwork and declined our business, the latter informing us it was “due to the content” which was “too contentious”.
This was ludicrous. Of course Sophie was contentious – how could she not be? She brought a specific, relevant and legitimate viewpoint about a highly contentious issue that was currently being discussed in the mother of parliaments and democracy just down the road, and we wanted to exercise our right as citizens to influence that discussion.
So we took Sophie along to the Advertising Standards Authority or rather to its associate, the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), which offers ‘authoritative advice’ on the UK’s advertising rules (here). In the light of their guidance we amended the statement along the bottom of the poster from ‘FACT:’ to ‘Evidence shows…’ and set about finding a new billboard company.(To clarify: CAP in no way endorsed or approved our poster, and they make it clear that advertisers are not to imply any such endorsement or approval. We listened carefully to their advice some of which we accepted, but the responsibility for the poster remained entirely ours.)
A colleague in Scotland had used AdTRAILERS (here) mobile billboards in the past so on Sunday 7th July, the day before the third reading, Sophie found herself being driven around Westminster and central London on one of their trucks. Response to her was both positive and very negative, and in Trafalgar Square some hostile gay marriage supporters shouted obscenities and ripped part of the poster from one side of the truck.
But much worse was to come. Early the following morning as the day of the Lord’s debate dawned I took a call from AdTRAILERS. Their staff member was apologetic but informed me they were cancelling the contract with immediate effect. The company had received “horrific” and “frightening” threats to the driver, the staff and the company, and for their own safety’s sake they could not allow the truck to go out again. “I have known nothing like it in ten years – it’s violent stuff,” said the shocked representative.
We subsequently received an email from the company cancelling the contract because of “threats” and “offensive complaints” and offering a refund. We asked them to report the intimidation to the police and supply us with the relevant crime numbers, but they declined. Fear of reprisals – to persons and business – by the gay marriage supporters paralysed the company who simply wished the matter would go away.
No doubt her antagonists crowed about their ‘victory’. But more thoughtful observers may pause to reflect on the implications for our society. The silencing of legitimate public debate through violent threats and fear are the hallmarks of autocracies and tyrannies.
The UK is not yet Putin’s Russia or Taleban-controlled Pakistan. But inch by inch our free speech is being closed down, our liberties are being curtailed and our democratic space is shrinking. So maybe, just maybe, we are on the way.