Günter Grass and the Free Speech Moment

Last week I wrote a follow up to my Comment Is Free piece on Gunter Grass, this time for the New Statesman blog.

Over the past few days, a “free speech moment” has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League. Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the “free speech moment” has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism. Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author. In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here. The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship. Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event. A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of “work”. English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a “chilling effect” on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These “free speech moments” are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem. But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Me, Interviewed in The Bookseller

Wow. First a specialist radio programme, now a specialist magazine. I am All Over the specialist media this weekend.

I was interviewed in The Bookseller for a feature on English PEN. The article doesn’t seem to be online yet but you can read the article in all its printed glory below. Eagle eyed readers will note that three of the pictures are by yrstrly, too. As with the radio interview, I share the limelight with a colleague: this time, Writers in Prison Programme Manager Cat Lucas.
Continue reading “Me, Interviewed in The Bookseller”

Me, Interviewed on Word Salad

Last week, I was interviewed by Peter Spafford for East Leeds FM. He asked about the work of English PEN and the free speech campaigns we are running.

You can listen to the interview here. My five minutes of fame comes at exactly 61 minutes into the show. There’s a funny point in my monologue where Peter takes a breath to ask another question, but I carry on talking. I should learn to speak in shorter sentences.

Later in the same show, my English PEN colleague Irene Garrow talks about her experience as a writer-in-residence in the prison system, and the reading and writing workshops she organizes with prisoners.  Her slot starts at about 105 minutes.

Quoted on Libel Tourism

Eagle-eyed commuters will have spotted a quote from yrstruly in the Metro this morning, on the all important topic of Libel Tourism.  Barack Obama has just signed into law some measures that will protect Americans from British libel judgements.  The protection will kick-in if the libel judgement is at odds with the First Ammendment.

Yesterday, campaigners said Mr Obama’s move was a clear indication that our libel laws were way behind the times in protecting freedom of expression.  Robert Sharp, of charity English PEN, said: ‘It’s a national disgrace and just shows how skewed and unbalanced our laws are.’

Read the whole article.  My longer rant about libel tourism may be found on Comment is Free.

Behzti is no longer taboo

Liberty Central Logo

While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech.  Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments.  As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.


Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.

Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.

However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.

The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.

Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.

Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.

Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.

Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.

Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.

For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.

No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?

Behzti, a play about sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, was cancelled in 2004 after the Sikh community stormed the theatre. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Judging a Book by its Cover

An event report I wrote for the English PEN website.

Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.
Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.

I’ll admit, I judged this event by its cover.

I assumed that an discussion titled ‘Judging a book by its cover’ would be about book jacket design, rich and fertile ground for ideas on culture and mass marketing.  I expected to hear bookseller Rick Gekoski wax about the beauty of a hardback first edition, and hear Joanna Prior explain how Penguin’s mass market paperbacks have become an iconic design in themselves.  I expected to hear how the large publishers are stifling creativity by homogenising the book design process.

And in fact, I did hear about all those things. However, I expected them to be within a discussion that was essentially about aesthetics. I did not expect to be faced, instead, with a more philosophical question: what is a book? Is it the paper, the cover and the binding? Or is it the words on the page? Continue reading “Judging a Book by its Cover”

Arguing Libel Reform in the Solictiors Journal

I have an article in this week’s Solictiors Journal, calling for whole-scale reform of libel law.  In making my case, I find common ground with Nigel Tait of Carter Ruck:

Speaking at an English PEN event on libel, he [Tait] admitted that some proposals for change filled him with “fear and dread”, but he welcomed the idea of a libel tribunal as an alternative to full trial.

“I actually like the idea of the tribunal, the fast track scheme,” said Tait. “If you’ve got it wrong, then… at least you can go to a tribunal and test it. And we would have lots and lots of cases going through our system, instead of the five or six a year which we have at present.” Tait’s firm is often criticised by free speech campaigners, but here we are in agreement: it is surely better to fight libel cases based on truth and meaning, rather than on which side has the most money.

Mine is the first half of a point-counterpoint editoral feature.  Rod Dadak of Lewis Silkin LLP provides the alternative argument, saying that effective case management is a more effective route to reform.

The proposals made in the Index/PEN report, which include a radical change of our libel laws, are inappropriate and wholly unnecessary. They would seriously impact on the rights of a libel victim to seek vindication and compensation. Freedom of expression has to be balanced with their rights to have their reputation protected: a responsible media have nothing to fear from our existing libel laws. That said, there is iniquity and abuse in respect of costs and also jurisdiction shopping. It must be addressed. Neither the media nor the claimant should hold all the cards, but Index/PEN are over-egging the argument for reform.

Wholesale change is not the solution, effective case management is.

What is encouraging about this, is that at least Mr Dadak acknowledges the problem.  ‘Jurisdiction shopping’ is what is also known as ‘Libel Tourism’, and the issue of spiralling costs is a major obstacle to journalists defending themselves, as the BBC proved earlier this week when it conceded defeat in its legal tussle with Trafigura, over a report on Newsnight about the company’s toxic waste dumping in the Ivory Coast.

I think my reponse to Mr Dadak would be:  If effective case management is the answer, then why isn’t it being done already?  It is not as if the problem with UK libel laws is a new one:  I know Geoffrey Robertson and Anthony Lester, two human rights QC’s who work closely with PEN, have been complaining about the iniquities of libel for literally decades.  I would say that it is precisely the failure of the courts to acknowledge the extent of the problem, that has inspired free speech campaigners are now turning to the politicians to sort out the problem.

Free Speech is Not For Sale

Me, Quoted

I have been quoted in a couple of articles recently, both relating to free speech issues in the UK.

First, I was interviewed by The Booksller magazine, about the government’s proposed law on Criminal Memoirs:

Robert Sharp, campaign manager for English PEN, said publishers still had time to intervene, as the law would not be voted on until after the summer recess. “We have time to play for,” he said. “We would advise that people concerned about this should lobby the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, or Maria Eagle MP, to revist the bill, to run wider consultation, and come up with more clearly defined, narrower proposals.”

He also warned of “mission creep” arising. “You [could] have a law supposedly about mad gangsters boasting about how they stabbed someone, suddenly being used against someone writing about their harrowing journey through the criminal justice system.”

PEN will be refining these arguments for a campaign in the autumn.

I was also interviewed on the subject of UK libel laws by De Nieuwe Reporter, a Dutch magazine.  Here’s the money quote (literally):

‘Zelfs als ze zeker weten dat ze geen fouten hebben gemaakt, dan nog worden kranten en uitgeverijen gecensureerd door hun verzekeringsmaatschappijen omdat de financiële risico’s te groot zijn’, zegt Robert Sharp. ‘Het stelt rijke mensen in staat om een spelletje ‘High Stakes Poker’ te spelen, waarbij degene met het meeste geld uiteindelijk altijd wint.’

The article is in Dutch, but Google gives an English approximation.