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Toby Young

The day I got heckled at Speakers’ Corner

The day I got heckled at Speakers’ Corner
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Monday was the 150th anniversary of Speakers’ Corner and, in the hope of drumming up some publicity for the Free Speech Union, I went along to give a speech. Rather embarrassingly, I didn’t actually know where it was. I had been there once before, but that was about 40 years ago, and Google Maps wasn’t much help. Perhaps that was deliberate on the part of the censorious tech giant. You can imagine a group of woke nerds sitting around in Silicon Valley laughing at the prospect of a clueless culture warrior setting up his soapbox in the area they’ve wrongly identified as Speakers’ Corner, letting rip about illegal migrants, then getting hauled away by the Metropolitan Police.

Not that being in the right location offers you much protection these days. On Sunday, the Met arrested the evangelical Christian preacher Hatun Tash at Speakers’ Corner, strip searched her, kept her in a cell overnight, then released her without charge. According to Hatun, whom I bumped into on Monday, someone had complained to the police about her T-shirt, which reproduced one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. As she was putting her clothes back on, a WPC helpfully explained to her that some devout Muslims might take offence at the cartoon. Being offensive isn’t against the law – at least, not yet – although not all police officers are aware of that. Last year, Merseyside Police drove around the Wirral in a van with a big poster on it saying: ‘Being offensive is an offence.’

‘Have you ever been here before?’ asked an aggressive middle-aged man as soon as I arrived in the right place. He clearly thought I was a johnny-come-lately who was only showing up because I was expecting television cameras to be there – and he was right, of course. Disappointingly, there weren’t any. Instead there was a small army of very odd-looking men, all pointing their mobile phones at me.

‘Where was the Free Speech Union when I was arrested at Speakers’ Corner during the lockdown?’ asked the same man. The oddballs eagerly held up their phones to capture the exchange. I nervously asked if there’d been a crowd of people there when he’d had his collar felt and he confirmed there had. I then explained the reason he’d been arrested was for breaching lockdown regulations, not because he was planning to say something controversial – so, strictly speaking, it didn’t fall within the FSU’s wheelhouse. He wasn’t having that, obviously. ‘I was prevented from speaking, so in my book it was a free speech issue,’ he said. The eccentric onlookers murmured their approval. I was obviously a complete charlatan.

I put up a banner, stood beside it and started making a speech while an FSU colleague filmed it on his mobile. The plan was to get a one-minute clip to stick on our social media channels, but I kept tripping over my words, swearing loudly and then starting again. After about the fourth take, I noticed that the platoon of videographers had filmed every word of this and were now grinning broadly. ‘Does your mum know how much you swear, Toby?’ asked one, to great amusement. I was providing them with enough material to fill their YouTube channels for a month.

After I’d finally managed to rattle off a decent soundbite and was about to pack up and go home, a man who appeared to have some kind of formal role at Speakers’ Corner asked me if I’d be prepared to stand on the official platform and say a few words. I duly obliged, which meant moving a few feet to my left and climbing a short stepladder. Needless to say, the amateur filmmakers shuffled leftwards, and by the time I had mounted the platform they were all standing in front of me again, phones at the ready. I couldn’t think of anything new to say, so just repeated what I’d said earlier, which the onlookers had already heard half a dozen times. It was at that point that the heckling started.

‘Just as well speech is free, innit, because no one would pay to hear this rubbish,’ said a wit in the front. My next words were drowned out by gales of laughter. As soon as it died down, another man piped up: ‘Ain’t you got nothing new to say Toby? We’ve heard this one before.’ Cue more hilarity. It was hopeless. I thanked God there weren’t any TV cameras present – this was the kind of train wreck that goes viral on Twitter.

As I slunk away, my tail between my legs, I realised I’d inadvertently provided the regulars at this landmark with the kind of entertainment they relish – an opportunity to take down a self-important, pompous twit. Not so much Speakers’ Corner as Hecklers’ Corner. May it last another 150 years.