“My Welsh-speaking grandfather Stephen Owen did not, I think, join the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry in 1914 and fight in the trenches so that his grandson could be banned from speaking at Cardiff Library almost a century later.
It’s a complicated saga, but Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub had booked me to talk about my book, Church Of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology on Monday, June 17, and were looking for a bigger venue than the usual boozer.
They approached Cardiff Library, who gave a tentative yes, then, a bit later, a flat no. No to my critical take on Scientology, no to another planned talk by Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser who was sacked in 2009 after he claimed Ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol.
The sense was that Prof Nutt and I were in breach of Cardiff council’s equality plan, “Everybody Matters”, with the controversial nature of our talks. A spokesman for Cardiff council said this was not right, and the booking and consequent unbooking was due to “a misunderstanding” over staffing evening events. However, a previous talk at Cardiff Library had posed no such staffing problem: an evening of mediums, the people who claim they can communicate with the dead.
Prof Nutt and I remain banned or, at least, “un-booked” from Cardiff Library.
The professor, I am sure, can look after himself but neither he nor I threaten the Queen’s peace. As a distinguished scientist, in a democracy he has every right to say what he thinks about the Government’s drugs policy. He may be right, he may be wrong but just because the then Home Secretary sacked him does not mean he cannot speak his mind in a publicly owned building.
It’s no secret that the Church of Scientology is not a fan of my two BBC Panoramas on them, or my book, or, indeed, me. The Church says I am a liar, a bigot and psychotic. But the Church has not sued me or my publisher, and thus far we have sold around 10,000 paperback and e-book copies of Church Of Fear.
I have given talks about the Church in London, Birmingham, at the Hay Festival and close to the Church’s British base in East Grinstead without any trouble.
In the 21st century people have a right to believe in anything and nothing. Having reported from North Korea, I take a dim view of any state that bans freedom of belief. But, equally, people have a right to challenge beliefs and criticise them – and I assert that right. The issue is that I can say what I like in a Cardiff pub but not, it appears to me, in the city’s library; not actually in the library proper, because that would be silly, but in a side-room.
(To be honest, I would have much rather give my talk – which does not, of course, represent the views of my employer, the BBC – in a pub. Libraries have books and books are good. Pubs have beer and beer is better.) But Cardiff Skeptics thought lots of people would come to my talk and asked for a room at the library. The moment I was banned or at least unbooked from Cardiff Library, I took not ullage but umbrage.
I’m afraid I don’t quite buy Cardiff council’s “misunderstanding” argument, especially if psychic mediums can do their thing in Cardiff Library but not a critic of the Church of Scientology.
In the end, Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub have got a room in the Senedd, so free speech will out. But the rigmarole feels wrong – and not what my grandfather and his pals fought for.”
* John Sweeney will be speaking at the Senedd on Monday, June 17, at 6.30pm. Church Of Fear paperback is £12.99, ebook £4, via www.amazon.co.uk
Council defends library policy in free speech row
A Cardiff council spokeswoman said: “As previously stated, Cardiff council has never banned John Sweeney or Prof Nutt from Cardiff Central Library nor have we refused to allow Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub to hold their event at the library as a result of the nature of the topics to be discussed.
“In this case, incorrect advice was given to the organisers about the availability to hire the library as an evening venue.
“The library is not set up as a night-time venue for hire.
“Central Library does occasionally hold evening events organised by the library as part of the library’s own events programme, which have in the past included an evening of mediumship and speed dating events to encourage a new audience to the library.
“Since the misunderstanding, the Cardiff Central Library manager contacted Cardiff Skeptics to see if the council could work with the organisers to find an alternative council venue more suitable for hosting an evening event.”
“As previously stated we are sorry for the misunderstanding but this was not an attempt to ban anyone from Cardiff Central Library.”