With the events of my great weekend at Wembley recorded on this blog, some people have asked me about the non-appearance of my husband. Was he at Wembley too? No, he was not! He is not a fan of rugby league. He is, however a great fan of good music – and Bruch’s Violin Concerto is one of his favourites. So it was particularly sad that last week’s performance of that piece by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall was so frequently interrupted and, eventually, taken off-air by the BBC.
There have been no steps taken against the people who interrupted the concert, and this got me thinking. So what follows is my piece published on Times Law today, with my take on it.
Public disorder is rarely out of our newspapers right now, but it hasn’t been confined to the streets. Last week at the Royal Albert Hall, 7,000 music lovers and countless BBC radio listeners had their own taste of it when an eagerly awaited Proms concert was disrupted by shouting and chanting by protestors who tried to stop the music. So frequent and noisy were the interruptions, the BBC was eventually obliged to take the concert off air for the first time in the Proms’ history.
Those involved in the riots who were judged to have committed disturbances and breaches of the peace have been shown no mercy by the courts, even when there were no signs of violence or theft. Politicians and judges have made it clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Back at the Proms, meanwhile, no arrests were made and what happened at the Royal Albert Hall received relatively sparse coverage in the press. Instead it was written off as an isolated, middle class “incident”. So is that what happens when serious breaches of the peace are carried out not by unemployed people in downtrodden areas, but by activists and middle class type at concert halls? Does the rule of law apply to one section of society, but not another?
Unlike the public disorder on the streets, the protest at the Royal Albert Hall was designed to be clever and witty. It followed the BBC’s refusal to cede to a group called The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which had demanded that the BBC cancel an invitation issued to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Instead the Prom sold out, with people paying up to £90 apiece for tickets. On the night the orchestra’s Musical Director, Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, picked up his baton. The soloist, Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham, picked up his Stradivarius violin. Then around 30 protestors, deliberately dotted around the venue, began a noisy chant about Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid”. They sang their protest to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
The orchestra played on, but the concert was taken off-air and inside the Royal Albert Hall, the “witty” protest turned angry and ugly. There were scuffles with audience members, and one person who was there said that the atmosphere felt “like a riot”. After the protestors were ejected by security, the orchestra received seven ovations.
The identities of those protesters are known, but none have faced any public order charges or any other charge at all. Why not? If this small group of individuals caused harassment, alarm and distress – which it certainly sounds like they did, not just to the musicians but to audience members – why shouldn’t they be held to account under Section 4A of the Public Order Act? When racially aggravated – and if the members of the orchestra deemed the verbal attacks to be racist attacks, they would fit the working definition of racial harassment – such a contravention is capable of attracting two years’ imprisonment at the Crown Court.
I note that the following day in Greater Manchester, another group of anti-Israel protestors – less educated this time, and less “witty” – made its mark. Graffiti was scrawled across houses, bus shelters and the offices of a local newspaper. “Free Israel”, they wrote. “Free Gaza.” “Jew scumbags.” The police are involved this time and the culprits are being hunted. So why are those who interrupted the Proms with similar sentiments and who succeeded in causing disruption and damage not being held to account? What is the difference?
I suspect that the costs of removing that offensive graffiti will be cheaper than the costs of the BBC, and therefore taxpayers, of broadcasting the concert this week minus the interruptions. If the Greater Manchester protestors are apprehended, criminal prosecutions may well follow. Shouldn’t it be the same for the Royal Albert Hall protestors? Or does one law apply to the little man who defaces a bus shelter, and another to the member of the intelligentsia who defaces a classical music concert?
We are in danger of condoning conduct with potentially serious consequences because of the class identity of those who commit such crimes, while refusing to tolerate similar behaviour from those with demonstrably less education and therefore different ways of expressing themselves. It would seem that the rule of law applies to everyone in theory, but not in practice.