The Withering of No Platform Policies?

Anti fascist demonstrators in Leeds
Anti fascist demonstrators in Leeds

In the Huffington Post, Jessica Elgot has a long review of the free speech issues of 2012.  It features many quotes from yrstrly, speaking on behalf of English PEN.  Mike Harris of Index on Censorship also gives his twenty penn’orth.

It also has a fascinating comment from Nick Lowes of Hope Not Hate, suggesting that the traditional ‘no platform’ policy towards extremists has become “outdated”. Continue reading “The Withering of No Platform Policies?”

Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester

The lastest person to be prosecuted forgiving offence on social media is eighteen year old Sam Busby, from Worcester.  Like Matthew Woods, he posted jokes about missing schoolgirl April Jones on Facebook.

Last week I went on the BBC Radio Worcester Breakfast show to make the case that while abhorrent, the prosecution was a step too far.  You can listen to my contribution via the embedded player below, or listen on the PodoMatic website. Continue reading “Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester”

Involving the police is not the way to teach trolls a lesson

First published at the New Statesman, so add your comments there.  I will definitely post a follow up to this as lots of people have made very pertinent points about this whole shennanigans.

Another day, another Twitter controversy. Less than a week after Paul Chambers heard that the appeal against his conviction in the so-called Twitter joke trial had been upheld, we hear that the police have arrested another person for something written on Twitter.

The person arrested is a 17-year-old, who sent messages to the British Olympic diver Tom Daley. In one tweet, the troll said “u let ur dad down” and in another (later deleted) said that Daley should be drowned. It must be assumed that it is this language of violence which led to the arrest.

When it comes to the limits of free expression, context is important. The messages were deeply unpleasant, but did not appear to include any specifics. The teenager was in Plymouth, not in the Stratford Aquatics Centre. He did not call for others to take a specific action. This appears to be the kind of outburst that is commonplace in a noisy, modern, and connected society. The referees of every professional football match receive similar threats every weekend. Edwina Currie said that tax exiles should be shot. Jeremy Clarkson wants to murder the entire public sector. We often hear calls for bankers to be hanged. Outlawing this kind of speech might seem desirable in theory, but would be chaotic in practice.

The outrage against these tweets (and by extension, a justification for the police intervention) is that Tom Daley is a national treasure. This is true, but laws cannot only protect people we like – they need to work equally well for everyone. If another, less popular, athlete receives similar abuse, will there be similar outcry?

In fact, one could argue that death threats to public figures are less important than those directed at ordinary people. If a schoolboy living in one of the East London boroughs around the Olympic park receives a tweeted death threat today, it is likely to be from someone he knows and who he actually meets every day. This kind of bullying is much more serious that the “remote” trolling experienced by members of Team GB.

Daley, meanwhile, has a legion of supporters. He seems to be perfectly capable of dealing with trolls like this without the police being involved. His response to the unpleasant tweets was classy – he re-tweeted them! The troll then received a heavy social punishment – thousands of people wrote in solidarity with Daley. His antagonist was so humiliated that he later posted some gushing apologies. The storm should have ended there. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter. When confronted with offensive and threatening words, it is usually better to respond in the same medium. Fight a book with a book, a play with a play, a tweet with a tweet. Police involvement might teach that troll a lesson, but it also “chills” other people’s free expression. People have a right to be angry.

In the coming days, we may hear from a few luddites (almost certainly members of one or other of the Houses of Parliament) decry Twitter and the internet as somehow inspiring this hate. This is of course rubbish. Poor taste jokes and vocalised wishes that certain public figures should die horribly have always been a feature of discourse. Before, these comments were lost in the din of a crowded pub. Now, they find a kind of semi-permanence on Twitter, which gives them a credibility they do not deserve. However we respond to this new kind of speech, let’s not confuse the medium with the message.

Here Be Trolls

The Free Word Centre asked me to write about Internet Trolls.

It’s always a little disorientating to hear politicians debating pop culture and the Internet in parliament. The jargon-rich language of the twenty-first century does not yet seem to fit with the panelled acoustics and formalspeak of the Commons or the Lords.It does not help that many politicians have a weak grasp on the concepts that emerge from the new technologies, and even those who do understand them seem uncomfortable with the new idioms.

The recent discussion in the commons about Internet ‘trolling’ is the perfect example of this. MPs took time during the Second Reading of the Defamation Bill to complain at length about the phenomenon, despite libel and trolling being two different things (one is the harming of a reputation, the other is a form of disruption and harassment). For those of us who have campaigned to reform the libel law for the past three years, it was frustrating to have to listen to so much off-topic debate, when crucial amendments are still required. One could even label these tangential points about trolling as a form of trolling itself – a provocative distraction.
Continue reading “Here Be Trolls”

Interviewed on 2ser 107.3

A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression inside the 'market focus' area at the London Book Fair.  Photo by yrstrly.
A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression at the London Book Fair. Photo by yrstrly.

Both readers of my blog were subjected to a significant amount of London Book Fair comment and linkage last month.  I was asked to give opinions on the controversial China Market Focus programme.

During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney.  I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show.  Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!

Azerbaijan's Terrible Record on Free Speech #Eurovison

More crossposting with the English PEN site.

Azerbaijan Protest

The state of free expression in Azerbaijan has be a major focus for English PEN in recent years. In 2009, we sent two of our members, Eva Hoffman and Alev Adil, to Baku to meet the writers there and to ask what the literary community in the UK can do to help. On their return, Eva filed a report for our OPEN magazine:

Such freedoms, however, are regularly violated in Azerbaijan. During our few days in Baku, we hear detailed and distressing stories of writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, or who have been persecuted in flagrantly unjust ways.

I must say that my writerly self felt a twinge of anxiety constricting my chest as I heard this story. To lose the fruit of so much work, which must have relieved the ghastliness of unjust incarceration — even while that incarceration continues! And yet, the spirits of our interlocutors seemed undampened.

We are now assisting some of those writers in the creation of a new Azerbaijan PEN Centre.

PEN has also worked closely with our colleagues at Index on Censorship, Article 19 and Amnesty International on a series of demonstrations and campaign actions for imprisoned writers in Azerbaijan, including Eynulla Fatullayev, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade (all of whom have since been released). The video below records one such demonstration, and you can view our photo galleries from other actions.

This weekend, Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest – a concept predicated on their idea of free expression. The arrival in Baku of the kitsch, glitz and music must inspire an improvement in the Azerbaijan Government’s approach to free expression.

Our colleagues at Article 19, have run extensive programmes in Azerbaijan and provided crucial documentation of the abuse and harassment experienced by journalists who are critical of those in power. Their compelling report Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices described the attacks and jailing of journalists, the ban on protests, and lack of independent broadcasting.

Take Action

Index on Censorship (who share offices with both Article 19 and English PEN) have launched a petition for a Guilt Free Eurovison. We urge all PEN members and supporters to sign the petition, demanding that President Ilham Aliyev takes positive action to end the harassment against the writers, activists and musicians who are being attacked.

Click here to sign the petition.

 

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.