Prominent gay journalists have expressed concern at proposals from the government to introduce a new offence of inciting hate against gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

They believe it will undermine freedom of speech, adds little to existing laws and even plays into the hands of homophobes and bigots by allowing them to become martyrs.

However, gay equality organisation Stonewall hit back, saying there is a lot of misunderstanding about the proposed new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In the Daily Mail, actor Christopher Biggins said: “In a worrying new development, we seem to be moving from the fight against discrimination to a new kind of crackdown on freedom of expression.”

Calling it, “another step in the grim march of authoritarianism now afflicting Britain,” the former TV star and panto favourite compared the law to the actions of the thought-police in George Orwell’s 1984 and said he believed it could even lead to the prosecution of gay comedians such as Paul O’Grady.

In The Times Mathew Parris feared a similar blow to freedom of expression, questioning if homophobic insults were to become unlawful, “why should we remain free to sneer, in ways inciting hatred, at a person’s being Welsh, or Irish?

“Lines of absolute principle are hard to draw,” he added, “but some groups may be so weak and fragile as to need the law’s protection from hateful speech. I’d like to think we gays are no longer among them.”

In The Independent, Johann Hari added that while the views of Richard Littlejohn and Sir Iqbal Sacranie were the kind that might “encourage thugs who are likely to bottle somebody on a Saturday night,” it was better to meet their views in open debate.

“Gay people need to be confident enough to know that our arguments are so strong that they will win in any free, open exchange of views,” he said.

What is needed, however, Mr Hari argued, is a cultural change within the police force to enforce the laws already in place which make it a crime to incite violence or murder on the grounds of sexuality.

Peter Tatchell, writing on The Guardian website, agreed.

“Introducing legislation prohibiting the incitement of homophobic hatred seems a bit amiss when already-existing laws are not being enforced.

“All incitements to hatred should be treated with the same zero tolerance. But not, in my opinion, by means of criminal sanctions,” he added.

Alan Wardle is director of public and parliamentary affairs at Stonewall. The organisation lobbied ministers for a new homophobic incitement law.

He told PinkNews.co.uk: “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the laws actually mean.

“It will not criminalise people being rude, it will not criminalise people being offensive.

“What it does criminalise is where people recklessly or deliberately incite hatred against gay people, which has a very high threshold.”

This, he said, would only cover comments such as those contained in a BNP leaflet claiming all homosexuals were also paedophiles.

“What we’re seeking to do is match existing laws for race which have been on the statute for twenty years and have not caused any difficulties whatsoever.

“It’s about making sure where minority groups are already protected, gay people are protected as well.”

On Monday Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced that a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation will be introduced in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Mr Straw added that he would consider similar protections for trans and disabled people.