Aylan Kurdi on the beach

On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi

Before I mire myself in questions of when and whether to publish shocking images, I should—must—begin by writing about the fact of Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the refugee crisis in general.  If the central argument for publishing an image of a dead boy is that it ‘gets people discussing the issues’ then I think I have an obligation to do so, even if these thoughts have been stated earlier and more eloquently, elsewhere. Continue reading On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi


Mazen Darwish is Free

English PEN today received formal confirmation that all charges against the Syrian journalist and writer Mazen Darwish have been dropped.  He is a free man.

Darwish is the founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), an organisation that has fearlessly campaigned for free speech in Syria despite the appalling civil war and associated human rights abuses.  Darwish, along with his colleagues Hussein Gharir and Hani Al-Zitani, were detained in 2012 and held without trial until earlier this year. Continue reading Mazen Darwish is Free


We should rethink ‘NSFW’

Here’s a timeline of Facebook censorship of breasts and other anatomical parts.

When I posted this to Facebook just now, I was going to add the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, Not Safe For Work. But that prompts two thoughts. The first is that my work actually involves looking at links and images like those displayed here! I often wonder if I have inadvertently shocked my colleagues who have accidentally wandered past my screen while I was reading some link about porn or violence or racism or something.

Second, its surely a problem that our culture, as reflected in the Facebook image usage policies, deems images such as masectomies, nude drawings, and breastfeeding as “NSFW” regardless of context. Why shouldn’t these images, undeniably in the public interest, be viewed at work?

I reckon we should start labelling images and GIFs from sporting events as ‘NSFW’ because surely that’s the number one content that should not be viewed at work, damging as it is to productivity.


How would Corbyn govern?

With Jeremy Corbyn ahead in the polls and expected to win the Labour Leadership contest, there is plenty of discussion about how he would behave as leader and (possibly) Prime Minister.  For example, The Mail on Sunday has published a frankly hilarious piece of mock futurism by David Thomas: ‘The 1000 days that destroyed Britain‘ warns of blanket re-nationalisations, the abolition of the Bank of England, and—worst of all—a gender balanced Cabinet. 

But surely the best indicator of how Corbyn would govern is to look to the record of another member of the ‘Awkward Squad’ who won power: Ken Livingstone.
Continue reading How would Corbyn govern?

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 10:  Labours candidates for Leader and Deputy Leader Liz Kendall,Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper  and Jeremy Corbyn take part in a hustings in The Old Fruitmarket, Candleriggs on July 10, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland. The four candidates for the Labour leadership Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Jeremy Corbyn and Yvette Cooper faced questions on a range of issues including immigration, welfare and the economy.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Could Corbynism compromise with Blairism?

The thing that irritates me about the Labour Leadership campaign is the Manichean approach adopted by everyone. We hear talk of schisms and splits and the “soul of the party” as if Corbyn is presenting such a different vision for the party that the Venn Diagramme of values and polices has no overlap between him and the other candidates.

This cannot, in reality, be true. But what troubles me about the overall tone of the debate is that it has made me doubt whether the losing faction, whichever it may be, will work with the person who wins. Continue reading Could Corbynism compromise with Blairism?


Hack the Paparazzi Market

The Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge are angry at the paparazzi pursing Prince George and Princess Charlotte in public places.

Here’s one idea that might make the paparazzi go away – undercut them.

How about the Royals employ a photographer to take a steady stream of snaps of the family, in a similar manner to Barack Obama’s official Whitehouse photographer.  Snaps of official engagements would likely be free and creative commons.  But images where the personal photographer ostensibly has exclusive access could be made available to agencies for a fee.  The money paid for any particular image could be donated to one of the Duke and Dutchess’s many charities.  Quite a large fee could be charged, and yet still undercut the paparazzi’s asking price, making images of the Royals far less profitable.  The harassment should dissipate.

Yes, this does equate to the selling of privacy and not something I’d choose for myself.  But for the children that our perverse political system designates as future Heads of State, it may be a better option than what they endure at the moment, and help those less fortunate in the process.

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Liz Kendall as a Quick Case Study on Political Persuasion in the Digital Age

On Monday, Labour Party members received an e-mail from Liz Kendall in their inboxes: an open letter.

You probably think I’m writing to ask you for your vote in the upcoming election for party leader.

And I am.

But what really matters for our country and our party is another election – the one we’ll fight together in 2020.

By then, our country will have suffered under five more years of the Tories.

&cetera.  I was a little underwhelmed by the text, to be honest.  The values she lays out do not seem to delineate Kendall from other candidates, or even the other parties.  “End inequalities” and “eliminate low pay” are policies that Labour surely shares with the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP.   Conservative Party Leadership Candidates probably would not put these issues at the top of an appeal to their members, but it would be difficult to find a Tory MP that disagrees with either.  However, “we need a more caring society”, “We must share power with people” and “We need a future of hope for all our young people” are phrases that would make their way onto a Conservative membership e-mail.   Only once in the e-mail does Kendall explain a policy difference between her and anyone else (on inheritance tax).   So the aspirations and goals, worthy though they are, seem rote when stated by themselves. Continue reading Liz Kendall as a Quick Case Study on Political Persuasion in the Digital Age


Amidst Racist Shootings and Stabbings, the Resurrection of Jesus

Recent weeks have brought us a couple of examples of improbable and extraordinary forgiveness in the face of brutal racism.

Today, the newspapers carry the story of teacher Vincent Uzomah.  Of the 14 year old who stabbed him while shouting racists slurs, Mr Uzomah said this:

As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to the society.

Continue reading Amidst Racist Shootings and Stabbings, the Resurrection of Jesus


Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’

An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.

I spoke to the Huffington Post about the issues raised for English PEN: Continue reading Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’

trafalagar square protest

RightsInfo: Free Speech And Why It Matters

The brilliant and essential new website Rights Info, developed by the team behind the equally indispensable UK Human Rights Blog, asked me to write a guest post on the concept of free speech.  The article was part of a week long series on the right to freedom of expression.  In previous weeks the site has focused on other human rights, like privacy.

Freedom of Expression is an ‘enabling right’.  It is the human right that allows people to secure and defend all the other human rights.  Without an unfettered right to speak, how could you complain about ill-treatment at the hands of the state?  Without free speech, how could you organise to associate with others?  Without free speech, how could you express your religious beliefs?  Without free speech, how can journalists hold big business and politicians to account?

Freedom of expression is not just a tool for enforcing other rights.  It enables human flourishing and is therefore an end in itself. This is because freedom of expression is more than just the right to speak freely.  It includes other kinds of activity too. The freedom to write, to publish, to paint and to perform. The freedom to record voice, music and song and to disseminate the recordings. Crucially, freedom of expression also includes the right to receive information too: the freedom to read, to watch and to listen. In the Internet age, freedom of expression includes the freedom to share, too.

Finally, freedom of expression includes the right not speak, if you disagree with the words that others want you to say.  Together, these activities we call ‘expression’ drive human interaction.  Any interference in freedom of expression curtails culture and postpones politics.

Debate me, argue with me

There is inherent value in human discussion, debate and argument. The progress of our cultures and our species depends on it. The suppression of ideas causes complacency and stagnation. It is always better for ideas to be out in the open where they can be developed, or discredited, as the case may be. Bottle up a bad idea and it usually develops, unchallenged, into an even worse one.  Far better to keep the bad ideas out in the open, where criticism and ridicule will cause them to wither.

 Many people like to claim they support freedom of expression, and then go on to say ‘but’… They place caveats on the idea, and say that with freedom of expression comes ‘responsibilities’.  That is a confused approach, because we have plenty of other laws that place responsibilities upon us.  Human rights are a special type of law, because they govern how the state behaves towards its citizens, not how citizens must behave towards each other. 

Free speech must include the right say things that other people may not wish to hear, and free speech with conditions is no free speech at all. Words that shock are very often essential: they might be the only way to make people listen or to understand the importance of what is being said. Whether or not you use offensive language is a matter of manners and style: the law has no place in regulating insulting speech. Laws that regulate offensive speech give veto power to those with the thinnest skins. Paradoxically, it is often those in positions of political or religious power who are the quickest to take offence.


Freedom of expression also includes ‘counter-speech’ – the right to answer back.  What many people label ‘political correctness’ is in fact the emboldened voices of previously silenced groups, telling those in positions of traditional power why they are wrong. When privileged people are challenged, they mistakenly believe that they are being censored. They are not. Instead, they are merely being told that they are wrong!  Free speech means no-one gets to have the last word.

Counter-speech is an important concept, because it provides an answer to the perennial free speech conundrum: what do we do about people who use their freedom of expression to spout racist or bigoted views? The answer to unpleasant free speech can only be more free speech! Those who value their freedom of expression can take advantage of that right, to challenge and counter harmful ideologies. This might mean signing a petition, attending a protest, sharing a link on Facebook… or simply, writing: a tweet, a blog, a book. 

All of these acts are free expression in action, which is why in authoritarian countries, such activities will very often land you in trouble… or even in prison. Dictators do not like to be challenged.  For over ninety years, English PEN activists have exercised their own freedom of expression in support of people who have been imprisoned or attacked because of what they have written.

As a literary charity, English PEN does more than campaign. It also runs events, giving a platform to diverse authors; outreach workshops, bringing literature to marginalised communities; and a translation programme, funding the publication of new literature from other languages.  Not only do these activities enrich our culture, but they build bridges and bonds between communities.  And they are all enabled by the right to freedom of expression.

Find out more about Freedom of Speech on Rights Info