Quoted in Heat Street on Social Media Prosecutions

Free speech must always include the right to offend.

The Crown Prosecution Service have updated their guidelines for when someone should be prosecuted for something posted to social media.  I spoke to Kieran Corcoran of Heat Street about how the UK laws governing social media really need to be updated:

Robert Sharp, a spokesman for free speech campaigners English PEN, also commented, telling us: “Free speech must always include the right to offend.

“The law already bans abusive, harassing or threatening messages, which is surely adequate to stop the worst social media trolls.

“The words ‘grossly offensive’ are highly subjective and introduce ambiguity into the the law. This in turn chills free speech.

“Parliament should legislate to remove these words from the Communications Act, just as it removed similar wording from the Public Order Act in 2014.

“Other countries look to the UK on free speech issues – criminalising causing offence sets a poor international example.”

The CPS has tried to head off criticism of its new laws by advising prosecutors to exercise “considerable caution” in their decision-making to avoid “a chilling effect on free speech”.

The Public Order Act amendment I mentioned was a tweak to section 5.  See the Reform Section 5 website for more details.

I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing

The CPS doesn’t keep track of the gender of victims in revenge porn prosecutions. Additional statistics for social media prosecutions are now essential.

Last month, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published a report on Violence Against Women.  It received significant pick-up in the media due to the high number of revenge porn prosecutions that have been brought since a new law was introduced.

I made a Freedom of Information request to the CPS, to ask whether they could tell me how many of the victims in the cases they prosecuted were women. I assumed they would have this information to hand.

I received a reply to my request today. It turns out that they do not keep track of that information Continue reading “I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing”

So I Built A Cupcake Card Game Simulator

Children as young as 3 can play with adults on an equal footing because the game is entirely based on chance.

Orchard Toys do a great line in table top games for kids.  They include games of chance, strategy and memory using thick card and clear, colourful illustrations. I heartily recommend any of the line as good value for money birthday presents.  (They also have a Pirate Memory Game, a fact which will be hilarious to fans of Little Britain).

One of their games is Where’s My Cupcake?  Children as young as 3 can play with adults on an equal footing because the game is entirely based on chance.  Players take turns to pick a cupcake card off a central pile, and see if it matches one of the cake cards laid out on the table.  If it does, they add both cards to their pile.  If it does not, they check to see if anyone has a matching card on the top of their pile, asking “would you like a cupcake?”  If no-one claims the cupcake card, its placed on the table and the next person takes a turn.  Play continues like that until the pile of cards are exhausted. The player with the most cupcake cards is the winner. Full instructions are here.

The only problem with the game is that because it is entirely based on chance, its actually very hard to let a very young person win, if you want them to!  Sometimes, a string of bad luck can mean they miss several opportunities to put a cupcake on their plate, and they might lose several games in a row.  For someone just learning how to share and play fair, this can be demoralising to the point where they refuse to play.  It would be nice to be able to optimise their chance of victory.

Since the game is entirely procedural, the outcome of the game is pre-determined from the moment the cards are shuffled.   However, the shuffling involves 30 cards with 10 designs on them, which means there are 4.39 x 1039 possible combinations.  Even the fastest super computer in the world would take several millennia to evaluate every combination.

Nevertheless, I decided to script a virtual version of the game, so I could simulate many hundreds of games and discover which player is statistically most likely to win.  Armed with that knowledge, I can ensure that the person I want to prevail is sat in that spot when the game is played, and thereby decrease the likelihood of tears before bedtime. Continue reading “So I Built A Cupcake Card Game Simulator”

These Two Photos Show Eight Years of Change

At first glance, the image looks modern. People mediating their own experience of the moment via a glowing rectangle. Taking their very own version of a famous photograph.

New York Magazine has a long feature on the eight years of Obama’s America.

The first illustration in the piece is a compelling diptych of President Obama: two portraits taken eight years apart.  The difference is stark.  His hair has turned grey and his face is rumpled.

President Barack Obama, by Dan Winters

However, the photograph that really brought home for me the changes of the past eight years was one taken on inauguration day in January 2009.  Its a version of an image that I’ve commented on before.

Inauguration party, 2009.  Chicago Tribune/MCT
Inauguration party, 2009. Chicago Tribune/MCT

At first glance, the image looks modern.  People mediating their own experience of the moment via a glowing rectangle.  Taking their very own version of a famous photograph.

But when you compare it to the photograph below, taken in 2016, the inauguration image suddenly looks horribly dated.

Hillary Clinton waves to a selfie-taking crowd at a recent campaign event in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Barbara Kinney


The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech

The opportunistic words of one writer will mutate, and perhaps cripple, the literature of another.

The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante.  Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1

Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression.  Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty.  This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material. Continue reading “The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech”

An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious, arrogant, cowardl and self indulgent. On all of these counts, you are mistaken.

Dear People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters —

As is customary with this form, I must begin by stating whether or not we have met.  We have not.  But in many ways, I feel like you.  In fact, following my Open Tweet to People Who Write Open Letters this morning, it could be said that I am you.  I share your concern that the Open Letter form has become a cliché, and your worry that we are reaching Peak Open Letter, bringing an ennui that can only be described as Open Letter Fatigue.

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious and arrogant.  You claim that they are cowardly.  You claim they are self indulgent.

On all of these counts, you are mistaken.  Continue reading “An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters”

59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage

This multi-layered book is perfect for the 59 productions treatment

This week 59 Productions (the radical design and production company than I had a hand in setting up) announced their latest project.  Its an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Duncan Macmillian, the acclaimed writer of People Places Things.  The show is directed by my friend Leo Warner and is a co-production with Home and the Lyric Hammersmith.

City of Glass (part of Auster’s New York Triology) is an intriguing post-modern detective story that plays with ideas of reality, identity and imagination.  I think its a perfect fit for the kind of art that Warner and the remarkable 59 Productions team create.  In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he outlines their approach. Continue reading “59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage”

On human rights, the UK should not be a law unto itself

There is something extremely comforting about the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a treaty others can hold us to

The parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls is about to publish a report into the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.  It appears as though British-made weapons have been used to commit human rights abuses in Yemen.

Its draft report, seen by Newsnight’s Gabriel Gatehouse, said: “The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”

The committee said it seemed “inevitable” that such violations had involved arms supplied by the UK which would mean it was in violation of its own legal obligations.

I’m not sure, but I think the phrase “its own legal obligations” means aspects of UK law that prohibt certain kinds of sale.

It’s stuff like this that makes me (and human rights groups) extremely distrustful of the Conservative Government’s proposed ‘Bill of Rights’.  This is a proposal to place our human rights protections entirely within the UK legal framework, with no reference to the law and jurisprudence of European Court of Human Rights.

As the Saudi arms sales story shows, this Government, in keeping with all past and future governments, cannot really be trusted to abide by its own rules and laws!  There is therefore something extremely comforting about the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a treaty and an obligation that other countries can hold us to (and of course, we can hold them to it as well).

On human rights, I’m glad that Britain is not currently a ‘law unto itself’ and fear for the time when that changes.

Ban the Burkini Ban

As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment.

Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong.

The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up. Continue reading “Ban the Burkini Ban”

Can Courage be Learnt?

The author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success.  ‘Outliers’ is term he gives to incredibly successful people, but I’ve used the same word to describe that particular sub-genus of political activist, who persists in challenging authority when others are intimidated into silence.  These people are often sued, imprisoned, attacked and even murdered because of what they write. It is my great privilege to work with and on behalf of such people at English PEN.  They are compelling because they are so unusual in their societies (a fact that makes them even more vulnerable as people in power seek to make a public example of them). What makes such a person?

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Revisionist History has only recently been launched but it’s already in the Top 10 downloads on iTunes. Episode 03 ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot‘ revisits the idea of what makes some people take different decisions to others, told through the fascinating story of two basketball players.  It gives some insight into what makes both types of ‘outlier’—the successful sportsman; and the tenacious political activist.

The episode asks why barely any professional basketball players shoot free throws underhand. It’s a technique that is proven to yield more points for a player… but it’s also deemed ‘cissy’ or a ‘grandma shot’.  Social pressures prevent basketball players from making a simple change to improve their game!

The reason for this bad choice is not ignorance.  Basketball player Wilt Chamberlin said he knew he was better shooting underarm than over, but he chose the inferior technique anyway.

Gladwell explains that we all have a psychological threshold that must be met before we change our behaviour.  Towards the end of the episode he describes what’s going on in our heads when we make these kinds of choices:

He doesn’t care! The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. … Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations. Who would rather be right than liked.

It takes courage to be good. Social courage. To be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.

To my mind, the idea that someone like Lydia Cacho or Liu Xiaobo or Mazen Darwish has ‘courage’ is true, but also slightly trite, because it only describes what they have done, not why or indeed how. Courage is difficult behaviour to discuss because it is unclear whether it can be learnt or whether it is innate.

Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions here offer arguments for both.  First, his discussions of a low psychological ‘threshold’ that can inspires radical behaviour (or a high threshold that can discourage it) implies that something innate. It’s just a part of our personality that we acquire at an early age. However, as he describes elsewhere in Outliers, a great deal of talent can actually be acquired through practice (specifically, focused practice).

Perhaps courage, as displayed by the political activists and writers I work with, can be similarly taught!? I wonder what this looks like in practice?

Photo: Syrian journalist and activist Mazen Darwish (right), recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.  Darwish spent 4 years detained without trial in Syria. © Robert Sharp