Urging #LibelReform in Scottish Legal News

Earlier this week I spoke to journalist Kapil Summan on behalf of English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, on the issue of reforming the UK defamation laws.

The Defamation Act 2013, you will recall, reformed the law in England & Wales.  But MSPs at Holyrood and MLAs at Stormont have yet to legislate for their jurisdictions.

I extemporised on why reform in required in both places! Kapil wrote up two versions of the interview, for Scottish Legal News and Irish Legal News

Key message:

The fact the Defamation Act seems to be working as Parliament intended is precisely what we were after so we’re going into this … with confidence that the Defamation Act is a very strong blueprint for reform in other jurisdictions.


Let’s ban corporations from using law to silence their critics

English PEN is working with Scottish PEN on a campaign to reform the law of defamation in Scotland.  I wrote an opinion piece for the Herald’s ‘Agenda’ slot, which was published in the paper yesterday.  There was also a news report about it, giving more information about corporations that sue.

The law of defamation in Scotland is woefully out of date.

It has not been reviewed since 1996, before the Scottish Parliament was re-established.

During this time, the internet has evolved from a hobbyist’s plaything into the centre of public discourse, and yet defamation law has failed to adapt to digital communication. Continue reading Let’s ban corporations from using law to silence their critics


Do cis white straight men know what its like?

In an enlightening article on Little Atoms about ‘safe spaces’ and free speech, Marie Le Conte writes:

While discussions of identity and privilege online haven’t always been constructive in recent times, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t something cis straight white men will ever get. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they never get picked on, or that their lives must therefore be perfect; it’s just that they’ll never know what it feels like to be continuously attacked for what they represent, not who they are.

The phrase “its just that they’ll never know what its like” jumped out at me, because in its absolutist form I think its very wrong. Cis straight white men might not know what its like; and they will certainly never know what it is to be picked on in this way; but it is certainly possible that they can know what it is like to be picked on… because those who have experienced it can describe it to them!

This is the great value of language—in particular, metaphor and simile. It allows people who have no experience of something to have it described to them in a way that means they can empathise with someone who has experienced it.

Art (and particularly in my view, literature in translation) is an essential tool for achieving this. In reading the stories about people very different from ourselves, we can break out of whatever psychological box in which our particular race, gender or orientation has placed us.

My favourite example is In The Ditch (1972) a semi-autobiographical novel by Buchi Emecheta. The book tells the story of Adah, a Nigerian immigrant struggling to bring up her five children alone on a London council estate. I am neither black, an immigrant, a single-mother or a welfare recipient, but Emecheta’s literary descriptions of Adah’s plight conveys to me and other readers precisely what it is like to be in the metaphorical ditch of the welfare spiral. And it does so quite profoundly: I genuinely do not think it is possible to honestly hold hostile views towards immigrant welfare recipients after reading the book. Empathy with the character and the author is far too strong.

Countless novelists have written equally powerful works dealing with what it is like to be a woman in different social, cultural and country settings; what it is like to be a black person in a white-ruled country; what it is like to be discriminated against because you are gay… or indeed, what it is like to be bullied because you are different.

One reason I am pedantically picking on a particular turn of phrase in Marie’s essay, is that she actually deploys an excellent metaphor in support of her point that consistent discriminations, insults and hurt will rightly wear down the oppressed:

To someone with sturdy ankles, a mild fall will have little impact. To someone who once broke their ankle, the same fall may result in a greater injury. If the ankle was broken time and time again, even the mildest of falls may break it again. The fall is exactly the same in all three cases; the ankle isn’t, and neither will be the outcome. The same logic can be applied to, say, rape jokes.

This is as succinct and persuasive an argument against the suggestion that people are ‘coddled‘ as you are likely to read anywhere. I’ve never suffered the discrimination that women, black people or LGBTQ people might endure. But I most certainly do know what it is like… and I modify my political views accordingly.

As I say, I am acutely aware of the pedantry of this point, but it is important because political progress will develop faster and more smoothly if cis white straight men come to understand what it is like to be something other than cis, white, straight and male. They are capable of empathy, and those on the other side of the identity divide must never doubt that fact.

Far better that they empathise and ally themselves with people with of other races, genders and sexualities, than be hauled into the political future kicking and screaming: The more metaphors and similes that can be deployed in support of this goal, the better.

‘Safe spaces’ are necessary, both for the well-being of the people who seek them out but also intellectually. But they should not become places where those who enter choose never to leave. That would be intolerable, because it would be little more than a cultural prison. It would also cede the public space to the dominant culture… which would become the poorer for it.


After Paris, maybe we need to slap ISIS about with Matthew’s Gospel?

Since the hideous Paris attacks last week, a point that has been made over and over again is that ISIS (or, Daesh if you want to annoy them) have a strategy of provocation.  Their atrocities are designed to ‘sharpen the contradictions‘ by provoking people in Western countries into acts of racism, and provoking Western governments into acts of war.  They hope that by sowing division and actually causing human rights abuses against minorities, more Muslims in these countries will become disaffected and radicalised.  Journalist Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed has a good analysis of the strategy: Continue reading After Paris, maybe we need to slap ISIS about with Matthew’s Gospel?


Patronising Pa’s Parenting Prolongs the Patriarchy

Every Friday I take some or all of my kids to a playgroup at the local church hall. It is run by a group of wonderful women, all retirees, and they charge a paltry £1 per family. Since I bring more children than most to the group, I always feel like I am gaming the system or abusing their goodwill. But no, they say, it’s a straight £1 no matter how many kids you bring. For that I also get a cup of tea plus juice and biscuits for the kids.

The group is advertised as a ‘Mother and Child Playgroup’. But I’m a father. Continue reading Patronising Pa’s Parenting Prolongs the Patriarchy


A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing

The news about the Bahar Mustafa prosecution meant that this week I was reviewing the old reports about the #KillAllWhiteMen controversy.  I noticed something about many of the articles that I think is noteworthy.

All the reports I saw noted that Ms Mustafa sought to ban cis-white men from attending an event that she was organising (indeed, it was this that brought down so much opprobrium on her).  In each story, the following Facebook message was quoted:

Invite loads of BME Women and non-binary people!! Also, if you’ve been invited and you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME just cos I invited a bunch of people and hope you will be responsible enough to respect this is a BME Women and non-binary event only.

In the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail,  the Daily Telegraph, the International Business Times, the BBC Newsbeat, the Daily Express, the quote was reproduced exactly as above.

However, the actual message was posted as a screen grab, and did include a crucial further line: Continue reading A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing


Discussing #KillAllWhiteMen in the Guardian and the Evening Standard

Bahar Mustafa is the Goldsmiths College Students Union Officer who allegedly tweeted #KillAllWhiteMen.  She was charged with ‘sending a communication conveying a threatening message’. However, it emerged on Tuesday that the charges against her have been dropped.  The Guardian‘s news reporter Jessica Elgot broke the story and asked me to comment on behalf of English PEN:

“The tweets were never a credible threat and while Ms Mustafa might have offended some people, that alone should never be enough for prosecution,” he said.

“It’s a shame this investigation took so long to conclude, but the police are working with laws that are no longer fit for purpose. These charges were brought under communications legislation that was written for fax machines, not social media. The law needs an urgent update.”

Continue reading Discussing #KillAllWhiteMen in the Guardian and the Evening Standard

Baroness Anelay

Why doesn’t the FCO speak out on behalf of Raif Badawi? Minister and officials respond

In September I attended the launch of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta Partnerships programme, a new fund that seeks to promote legal expertise and the rule of law around the world.  FCO Minister Baroness Anelay was joined by current and former diplomats for a panel discussion on how good governance and robust legal institutions can strengthen the rule of law, and in so doing, also protect human rights.

The British Government is regularly criticised for its apparent support for human rights abusing regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.  So during the Q&A session I was able to ask the Minister and other panellists why our Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and officials overseas do not make more public statements on behalf of political prisoners like Raif Badawi.

You can listen to the exchange via the player below and on SoundCloud.  Or you can just read the transcript. Continue reading Why doesn’t the FCO speak out on behalf of Raif Badawi? Minister and officials respond