Thompson Airways, Syria Speaks and Thoughtcrime

My colleague Jo Glanville was on the Victoria Derbyshire programme last Friday, condemning the treatment of Faizah Shaheen by Thompson Airways.

Faizah Shaheen and Joanna Gosling
Faizah Shaheen (pictured) and Jo Glanville were interviewed by Joanna Gosling on the BBC Victoria Derbshire Programme. You can watch the interview on the BBC iPlayer until 19 August 2017.
Last year, Faizah was reported to counter-terrorism police by Thompson Airways staff after she was seen reading Syria Speaks, a book about the art and culture that has persisted in Syria despite the hideous civil war that has ravaged the country.

Some viewers watching the programme were extremely dismissive of Faizah’s complaint and the wider freedom of expression concerns that Jo Glanville raised. Continue reading “Thompson Airways, Syria Speaks and Thoughtcrime”

Bloggers Plug the Democratic Deficit

I’m quoted in this Herald article about bloggers in Scotland.

Robert Sharp of English Pen, however, stressed that online sources and bloggers were now replacing newspapers in much of rural Scotland – putting themselves at risk.

He said: “The Highlands and Islands cannot depend on the established media to hold decision-makers to account.

“It is bloggers who plug the democratic gap, and they need a simple, clear law.

“If our rights are written in statute and not confusing case law, they would know where they stand and will be better equipped to scrutinise the people with money and power.”

Continue reading “Bloggers Plug the Democratic Deficit”

Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week.  Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.  The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.

If this is a real trend then it’s appalling.  As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly.  Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage).  Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society.  Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.

I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading “Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?”

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

Continue reading “The ritual of condemnation”

Talking Free Speech and ‘The Good Shabti’ on the Bookworm Podcast

Ed Fortune, the presenter of Starburst Magazine’s wonderful Bookworm Podcast, invited me onto the show to discuss the work of English PEN and my own creative writing endeavours.

Download Season 2, Episode 28 to listen to the discussion.

My bit begins at around 16 minutes into the show, but that really shouldn’t stop you listening to Ed and his co-hosts Ninfa Hayes and A.L. Johnson chatting about tea and reviewing a whole lot of genre literature.

The Tricycle Theatre, the Jewish Film Festival, and Cultural Boycotts

Last week the Tricycle Theatre caused controversy when it asked the UK Jewish Film Festival (which it was due to host in November) to return a grant made by the Israeli Embassy.

Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine … The Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict…the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government

This has been met with widespread criticism.  Hadley Freeman in the Guardian says “don’t tell me what to think about Israel.” In the Spectator, Nick Cohen says its anti-semitic double-standards:  what other community but the Jews are asked to pass a political purity test?

There is one aspect to the debate that is missing from the reports and opinions that I have read, which is that members of Palestinian civil society have called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law.  With this in mind, I am not sure that charges of double-standards are quite accurate.  The test of ‘consistency’ is not whether the Triclcyle Theatre (or any other boycotters) accept money from other governments… but whether they heed other international boycott calls, from other embattled groups.

Having said that, I find this point diffcult to ignore:

In general I find the idea of cultural boycotts to be unsettling.  Artists are likely to be some of the most open and liberal people within a society, and it seems counter-productive to break-off dialogue with the very people who will be the vanguard of change in social and political attitudes.

In this case, it is clear that the UK Jewish Film Festival is curatorially independent of the Israeli state, and in fact shows films that are critical of the government and its policies towards the Palestinians.  To fund dissident voices is a curious form of propaganda!

However, some might say that propaganda is precisely what this amounts to: by supporting dissent in the cultural domain, the Israeli government can claim that it supports diversity and free expression.  Meanwhile, it continues to enable the construction of settlements in the West Bank…

Perhaps now is precisely the wrong time to take a stand?

Here’s a counter-intuitive thought: perhaps now, in the midst of the Gaza crisis, is precisely the wrong moment to make a boycott gesture?  Israeli violations of international law have been taking place for many years, and the BDS movement is in response to the settlement building in the West Bank, not the Gaza intervention.   Yet only now has the Tricycle Theatre chosen to make an issue of the Israel’s Embassy’s financial support for the JFF.

With our domestic law-making, we often fall prey to a Something Must Be Done attitude at moments of crisis, ignoring more routine and less spectacular injustices.  Perhaps it would have been better had this debate taken place at a time when Gazan civilians were not being bombed by the Israel Defence Force.


Is Everyone In Gaza A Combatant?

In my recent post ‘On The Killing Of Children‘ I wrote:

Implicit in this is the idea that if only Palestinian adults had been killed, the air strikes would have been more acceptable. Because Palestinian adults are seen as dispensible. Or worse: deserving of their fate. An idea that Palestinian adults are fair game, and their lives count for less, because they voted Hamas into power.

Appallingly, this precise sentiment has been voiced more than once in the last few days.   On 28th July, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, gave a public speech:

When you welcome Hamas into your living room and allow them to launch rockets next to your sofa, you are not a civilian you are a combatant.

When you are part of an election process that asks for a terrorist organization which proclaims in word and in deed that their primary objective is to destroy their neighboring country and not to build schools or commerce or jobs, you are complicit and you are not a civilian casualty.

Continue reading “Is Everyone In Gaza A Combatant?”

Damian Green Warns of "The Coercive Power Of The State"

Damain Green has blasted the Government’s overreach into our private lives:

I’ve had personal experience of the coercive power of the state.  If freedom was going to die out in this country it was never going to be because of some dramatic seizure of power by a dictator, it would always come about through the gradual erosiuon of the individual freedoms and privacy that we have all taken for granted all our lives.  And whether the excuse is the war on terror or the desire to provide better public services, that erosion is precisely what we are seeing today.

Continue reading “Damian Green Warns of "The Coercive Power Of The State"”

Trust in God and Theresa May, But Tie Up Your Human Rights Camel

So its come to this: defending the Human Rights Act through the medium of animated GIFs.  A few months back, Unlock Democracy posted ‘15 Reasons We Should Celebrate The Human Rights Act‘ on Buzzfeed, with some amusing pop-culture animations. (h/t to the brilliant Human Rights blogger Adam Wagner).

If these 15 reasons persuade, it is because they link our human rights to things that ordinary people can identify with: our right to a private life, &cetera.  However, they still refer to instances where the individual clashes with the state, for example at a demonstration, or a council tennacy. Continue reading “Trust in God and Theresa May, But Tie Up Your Human Rights Camel”

Yvette Cooper demands evidence, proportionality, checks and balances on surveillance (in 2013)

“We will apply the same principles, on evidence, proportionality, valuing liberty and security, privacy and the fight against crime, and seeking strong checks and balances too.”

A year ago this week, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper gave a speech outlining the Labour Party’s new approach to security policy.  She argued that we need to strike a careful balance between liberty and security, and that security decisions should be based on proportionality and evidence.

I attended that speech, and wrote afterwards about how impressed I was by the principles governing Ms Cooper’s approach.  Labour’s acquiescence last week to the Data Retention and Invesigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill ‘stitch-up‘ has made me feel pretty stupid in my praise.  It seems that at the first real test, Ms Cooper and her Labour colleagues have found it politically expedient to cast those principles aside. Continue reading “Yvette Cooper demands evidence, proportionality, checks and balances on surveillance (in 2013)”