Race hatred laws may have to be revised following the acquittal of the British National party’s leader, Nick Griffin, for the second time on incitement charges, senior government figures said last night.
Gordon Brown, the chancellor, and Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, said the laws may have to be looked at, while a spokesman for John Reid, the home secretary, said he would be “taking soundings” from cabinet colleagues about changing the laws.
“Mainstream opinion in this country will be offended by some of the statements that they have heard made,” said Mr Brown. “If there is something that needs to be done to look at the law then I think we will have to do that,” he told BBC News 24. Lord Falconer told the BBC that it was time to rethink the race hate laws. “What is being said to young Muslim people in this country is that we as a country are anti-Islam, and we have got to demonstrate without compromising freedom that we are not,” he said.
The government was twice defeated in parliament over its attempts to introduce laws on incitement to religious and racial hatred before getting an amended version of the act on the statute books.
Mr Griffin walked free from court yesterday to cheers and abuse as the wider storm broke over his acquittal.
There were sobs of relief in the public gallery from the Cambridge University graduate’s wife, Jackie, and their three daughters, while his co-accused, Mark Collett, the BNP’s publicity chief, trembled as he denounced a “waste of a million pounds of … people’s money”. Both men were greeted by about 150 flag-waving supporters outside Leeds crown court but Mr Griffin’s speech was drowned by 50 protesters from the Anti-Nazi League and Leeds University, where Mr Collett studied. Outside the court, BNP security men surrounded Mr Griffin as he claimed the verdicts showed the “huge gulf between ordinary real people and the fantasy world, the multicultural fantasy world our masters live in”.
An all-white jury of seven women and five men took three hours to clear Mr Griffin, 46, and Mr Collett, 26, of words and behaviour which were either intended or likely to stir up racial hatred.
As in the previous trial in February, which ended with acquittals on five charges but deadlock on three, the case stemmed from speeches at private BNP meetings in West Yorkshire which were secretly filmed by the BBC.
Although Mr Griffin was shown denouncing Islam as “a wicked, vicious faith” and Mr Collett repeatedly called asylum seekers “cockroaches”, their defence asserted they were not speaking in public but to like-minded partisans. The jury also returned to court halfway through their discussions for a second viewing of the speeches, which contained long passages of relatively uncontentious material.
“The bits which have hit the headlines are in there, but there’s so much other stuff which gives a different context,” a BNP supporter said at the trial. “The jury’s seeing all that which people outside haven’t.” His optimism proved correct.
Mr Griffin, from Llanerfyl, mid-Wales, was admonished by the trial judge, Norman Jones QC, for passages in a blog which “abused” the court’s decision to let him use a computer in the dock.
Mr Griffin and Mr Collett, of Rothley, Leicestershire, said after the verdicts they would have welcomed going to jail “for speaking the truth”.
After the first trial, Mr Griffin said the publicity had seen BNP membership and donations rise.
The Crown Prosecution Service defended its decision to seek a retrial as “realistic and in the public interest”.
After the verdict the BBC said it had a duty to investigate matters of public interest and the programme had caused “widespread concern”.
Weyman Bennett, general secretary of Unite against Fascism and Racism, said: “It’s a tragedy that a fascist and racist organisation can hide behind free speech…. But how do you prove intent without getting inside Griffin’s head?”