Roy Moore, Project Veritas and the Backfire Effect

Across the pond, the Washington Post has exposed an attempted sting on its investigative journalism team. A right-wing group named Project Veritas sought to hoax the paper into printing false allegations about the sexual predator and GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore. Here’s the Washington Post story (its behind a paywall) and the Guardian US rehash.

A few notes on this. First, it’s emblematic of how profoundly damaged American democracy has become. Newspapers were always supposed to be, if not entirely neutral, then at least reliable arbiters of truth. This attempt by Project Veritas seeks to undermine that reliability. Had they succeeded, power and influence would have accrued to Donald Trump and those who enable him. Continue reading “Roy Moore, Project Veritas and the Backfire Effect”

Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All

Buffalo Jump at Wind Cave National Park

Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
Continue reading “Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All”

The Warning Signs

Earlier this week, Ratko Mladic was found guilty of war crimes.

It seems astonishing that, even after the Holocaust of the 1930s-40s, there could have been further genocides. Is it that people fail to recognise the warning signs that lead to such atrocities? Or that they lack the power and protection to stop the descent into barbarity?

A compelling new video from RightsInfo uses the testimony of three survivors of genocide to describe how these crimes against humanity came to happen.

The lesson is that human rights must be defended early and often. We should and we must defend our rights against even the tiniest encroachment. If we do not, whoever has violated those rights will surely return to erode them further.

See also: my interview with Anjan Sundaram, author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship.

All the UK and Ireland Bank Sort Codes

Image by Procsilas Moscas (Creative Commons)

As well as debating politics, human rights and free speech, this blog is also interested in spreadsheets. Regular readers may recall my triumphant post about UK Postcode Areas, or the deeply honest and uncompromising account of the Excel spreadsheet function VLOOKUP.

As part of my job I’ve recently had cause to look up the bank name and address for a given set of sort codes. To begin with, I simply Googled each sort code and then copied-and-pasted whatever information was revealed.

This is extremely tiresome, so I’ve made myself a spreadsheet. I scraped the web for the information, and have put it in a handy CSV file: sortcodes-uk-and-ireland.csv [1.2 MB]. Continue reading “All the UK and Ireland Bank Sort Codes”

Blogging as a Mode of Thinking

I’ve updated my WordPress blog software to version 4.9 and in doing so thought I would try their latest default theme. So the website looks a little different but all the content is the same as it was last week.

While doing the update I messed up something with the server permissions and everyone was locked out. This is something of a test post to check we’re back to normal.

Over on another eponymous blog, Austin Kleon writes about his experiment in daily blogging. This observation feels true to me:

I had forgotten how wonderful blogging is as a mode of thinking. Blogging is, for me, more about discovering what I have to say, and tweeting more about having a thought, then saying it the right way.

Indeed. Blogging is iterative writing. Continue reading “Blogging as a Mode of Thinking”

The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence

It’s nearly 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south London. His death has become a pivotal moment in race relations in the U.K. It has become, in retrospect, the moment when the country woke up to the shoddy justice available to people of colour. It prompted the MacPherson Inquiry which famously branded the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’.

In the 25 years since the murder, the Daily Mail has claimed for itself a central role in bringing justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its campaigning is hailed as an example of public interest journalism, and is often cited as a refutation of the charge that the newspaper itself is inherently racist.

In an enlightening paper for Political Quarterly, Professor Brian Cathcart examined every word that the Daily Mail published on the Stephen Lawrence case. He suggests that the newspaper has systematically exaggerated its influence over the case. He’s written OpenDemocracy article summarises the main findings. Continue reading “The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence”

Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”

So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission

This week the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP has called on the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, to ensure that the institutions under its purview guarantee free speech. He was commenting on the launch of a consultation by the new Office for Students on how it will regulate universities.

First of all, we should remind ourselves that Universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech: Section 43 of the Education Act (No.2) 1986. This section was added to the legislation amid similar concerns around No Platforming of Conservative politicians. So Mr Johnson’s suggestions are perhaps less radical than he supposes.

Second, there is something vaguely satirical about a Government forcing institutions to protect free speech. Reading Johnson’s comments, I was reminded of the Scarfolk Town Council poster ‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory‘. Continue reading “So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission”

Are Early Day Motions Pointless?

At Westminster, an Early Day Motion is a motion tabled by an MP, calling for a debate on a particular topic. The motions rarely get debated, but they draw other MPs’ attention to particular issues. EDMs are a sort of petition system, exclusive to members of the House of Commons.

I had always taken it as a given that EDMs were a useful tool in a campaigner’s kit. If one Member of Parliament is allied to your cause, they can table an Early Day Motion… which then gives supporters of the campaign a reason to write to their own MPs about the issue. By requesting that your elected representative signs the EDM, you are effectively asking “please put it on record that you support this issue”. This is useful.

During the course of the Libel Reform Campaign, we made much of the fact that 249 Members of Parliament had signed EDM 423, which was a lot. It was also significant that the motion had cross party support.

The disappointing fact that some EDMs do not attract cross party support is often a useful data point. For example, of the 36 people who have signed EDM 37, condemning the imprisonment of Raïf Badawi in Saudi Arabia, none are from the Conservative Party, who are currently in government. Since Badawi is in prison for the crime of setting up blog that discussed liberalism, it is odd that no Tory wishes to put their name to it. Perhaps they simply haven’t been asked… but perhaps the Conservative whips have asked them not to, for reasons of diplomacy. (This is infuriating to campaigners, but as I blogged previously, there may be good and honest reasons why this is so.)

It is possible, however, that if one seeks genuine change rather than posturing, EDMs are a distraction. While working on the Raïf Badawi case, I wrote to some MPs asking them to sign the EDM. I received this reply from one Member of Parliament:

I very rarely sign EDMs for the following reasons. First, they have absolutely no impact at Westminster.

Second, PR companies and the like suggest to their clients that they should pressure MPs to sign them when they know full well that they are political placebos with negligible impact but they can claim that their influence has made MPs sign EDMs. 

Third, I am told they cost the taxpayer (each) about £300 a month and there are hundreds of them. I do not like that at all in view of my first two points.

One MP I could name signs almost every one, but I think that to be dreadful because he knows full well that they achieve nothing. But it gets that MP off the hook! Not one EDM has made it through to legislation in my time.

The EDM on libel reform disproves that last point, but the others are worth considering. The £300 figure is a factual claim which I will check. But if the EDM process is not particularly respected by MPs then it might not have the parliamentary influence that campaigners assume, and those ‘PR companies’ assert.

HuffPost: Britain Sets An Example With Its Human Rights Laws – Counter-Extremism Policy Must Be No Different

To coincide with the publication of Free and Fair, HuffPost UK published an edited version of my chapter on their politics homepage.

Here’s the central message of the piece:

How can FCO diplomats credibly oppose the sinister monitoring of online discussion in China, when GCHQ is running a comparable mass data collection programme in the UK? How can NGOs credibly protest the prosecution of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül in Turkey for ‘revealing state secrets’ when our own Law Commission has proposed that the UK adopt a similar law? And how can activists effectively protest the treatment of writers like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for merely imagining a new political system, when the UK Home Office is cooking up mechanisms to shut up our own radicals?

You can read the whole thing on HuffPost UK.