Religious Doctrine and the Internet

If a religious tradition wants to evolve, it may also need to forget

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s series of Reith Lectures is called ‘Mistaken Identities‘.  I really enjoyed listening to the first lecture on ‘Creed‘ and am looking forward to the rest: ‘Country’, ‘Colour’ and ‘Culture’.

In the first lecture, Appiah walked us through the idea that religious practices and doctrines are far more fluid and open to interpretation and change, than the fundamentalists would have us believe.  This is a good thing in my view, as it offers hope that illiberal ideas spread under the guise of religion can eventually be abandoned.

But I found myself wondering whether the Internet and digital technology may actually stifle that process. Continue reading “Religious Doctrine and the Internet”

A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing

Why was that line omitted?

The news about the Bahar Mustafa prosecution meant that this week I was reviewing the old reports about the #KillAllWhiteMen controversy.  I noticed something about many of the articles that I think is noteworthy.

All the reports I saw noted that Ms Mustafa sought to ban cis-white men from attending an event that she was organising (indeed, it was this that brought down so much opprobrium on her).  In each story, the following Facebook message was quoted:

Invite loads of BME Women and non-binary people!! Also, if you’ve been invited and you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME just cos I invited a bunch of people and hope you will be responsible enough to respect this is a BME Women and non-binary event only.

In the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail,  the Daily Telegraph, the International Business Times, the BBC Newsbeat, the Daily Express, the quote was reproduced exactly as above.

However, the actual message was posted as a screen grab, and did include a crucial further line: Continue reading “A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing”

Debating Saudi ‘Red Lines’ on the BBC

Later in the show, the Saudi panellists also suggested that the campaign to free Badawi might actually be hampering the chances of his release. This is an extremely difficult thing to hear when English PEN has invested so much into campaigning on Raif Badawi’s behalf.

On Wednesday I was invited onto the BBC World Service programme ‘BBC World Have Your Say’ to discuss Raif Badawi’s PEN Pinter Prize and the issues experienced by bloggers in Saudi Arabia. Also on the show were Evelyne Abitbol, Chief Execuitve of the Free Raif Badawi Foundation and Saudi Arabian journalists Essam Al Ghalib, Eman Al Nafjan of Saudi Woman, and Abeer Mishkas.

You can hear our segment via the player below or on SoundCloud.  The entire programme can be heard on the BBC website or BBC iPlayer. Continue reading “Debating Saudi ‘Red Lines’ on the BBC”

Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?

There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship.  They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not.  Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.

I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”.  Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris.  If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood.  They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.

Continue reading “Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?”

Jorge Luis Borges In The Night Garden

“I had a dream,” he said. “A single, terrible dream.”

A battered side street in the old part of Buenos Aires. The tarmac seems pockmarked. Parts of the curb are missing, and the serrated edge of the paving slabs are exposed, like the diseased gums of an old Gaucho.

A modest cafe. It seems rooted to the sidewalk, like the weeds. Other shops have long since shuttered, and their proprietors have escaped to the suburbs. But this establishment persists.

I scrape back one of the metal chairs.

“Un cafe, por favor?” The young waiter rolls his eyes. Is he annoyed that I have not ordered more, or is he casting judgement on my formal, European Spanish? Whatever: He clearly understands, and he slopes inside.

To my left, a croak. “English?”

I turn my head. A man sits alone, his mouth drawn down on one side. A stroke, perhaps?

“Yes,” I reply. “London.”

“Where else!” he replies. And now a smile. So no, not a stroke, just a crooked face. But he does not look straight at me. He cannot see very well. Continue reading “Jorge Luis Borges In The Night Garden”

Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?

John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.

Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.

Continue reading “Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?”

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”

We Need To Scrutinise Executives' Contracts Before They Resign In Shame

http://twitter.com/MaxWindCowie/status/267730759798898688

The BBC’s Director General has resigned after only 54 days in post. Now there is concern that his £450,000 ‘Golden Handshake’ is disproportionate.

These controversies are not new. The payouts to bankers like Sir Fred Goodwin are well known, as is the money paid to Amnesty International’s outgoing Secretary General Irene Khan. Continue reading “We Need To Scrutinise Executives' Contracts Before They Resign In Shame”

Neck and Neck in the Polls?

This week, the BBC reports on the US Presidential this week have been consistently reporting the race “neck-and-neck”. This assertion is grounded on opinion polls: the latest BBC report trumpets an ABC News poll which places both candidates on 48% of the vote.

The problem is, one poll does not tell the whole story. Each polling outlet has a slightly different methodology which skews the results. For example, some poll only ‘likely voters’ and some ask everyone; some pollsters call cell-phones, while others use only landlines.

As a foreign media outlet, the BBC is not covering the race with the granularity of the domestic US media.

Rather than report the result of one poll, The corporation would do better to report on the polling averages between polling outfits, and the trend-lines of generated by each pollster over a given period. Both these macro views look better for President Barack Obama, whose polling in the last fortnight has been improving. More importantly, State Level polling shows the President ahead in battleground states like Ohio. Poll analysis site Five Thirty Eight (hosted by the New York Times) models the election on this basis, and is currently putting the chances of an Obama win at 85%.

This does not mean that Obama is coasting towards a second term. Governor Mitt Romney could still win. But given the totality of the polls, President Obama can be said to have the advantage. The situation does not really warrant the metaphor “neck-and-neck” which suggests either horse is equally likely to win. In the betting markets, Barack Obama is the clear favourite. He hasn’t won, but he is ahead.

So why does the BBC cherry-pick a single poll as its headline? Simples: “neck-and-neck” is a more sensational headline than “Obama ahead”. And the more sensational headline will deliver more viewers on Election Night.

The Tale of Two September 11s

The Free Word Centre has a couple of big bookcases at one end of its central space.  Last week, I was surprised to discover on the shelves a copy of the The Blog Digest 2007, which was edited by Justin Mckeating and features a couple of contributions by me.  It naturally drags to the surface those old thoughts about the nature of blogging and why someone does it.  Back in 2006, when we put together that book, ‘meta-blogging’ (i.e. philosophising about the nature of this new activity) was all the rage.  Nowadays? Not-so-much.   Back then, it felt as of blogging was its own thing, a distinct community with its own round-up.  Now, it is simply another way to take part in a global conversation.  Long-form Twitter.  Before, bloggers and journalists were considered different creatures.  Now, blogging is how journalists do their thing, and it’s never clear whether any given piece you might read online has also made its way into the printed edition of the paper or magazine.

I know why I started blogging: catharsis.  I was spending far too much of 2005 writing angry letters to newspapers, and submitting contributions to the BBC Have Your Say website.  The comments I made were on pretty much the same topics as the things I discuss on this blog even now: free expression, human rights, belief, foreign policy, the nature of democracy, gay rights, and the evolving internet technology.  It was a natural wish to be able publish without waiting for some editorial intern to deem my contribution as relevant!

I think my motivation for maintaining the blog has subtly changed since I began, seven years ago this month.  There is much less anger and frustration, less need to blurt out a rebuttal of some hideous, shoddy political argument. There are two reasons for this change.  The first is that politics has moved on: the insidious, divisive ideology pushed by President George W. Bush (and shockingly enabled by Tony Blair) has thankfully waned.  The second is that now I actually work in human rights campaigning, well within the London political ‘mix’ and with a tangible route to make a difference on the issues I care about.  The personal blog is no longer the only way I participate in the political process.  As a result, it becomes less urgent.

I am grateful that anyone stops by to read these pages, as I know many of my friends and a few strangers sometimes do.  But I know I have no right to expect anyone to continue reading.  With that in mind, I perceive a tendency to write as if I am taking notes, diarising (weblogging in other words) as a personal project.  I write as much for the future me as for the present you, the present them.  I often see the writing as a sort of insurance for the future, a partial brain-backup or a resource that an aged, dementia-addled version of myself can use to pass the time when I no longer go outside.

That, and a record for the progeny.  For the past few years, as I’ve mellowed, I have often thought of myself as writing for hypothetical children!  I am grateful to those among my own ancestors who wrote something for me, and it is not unreasonable to expect my descendants to read through the blog!  I hope they get a feel for this point in human history, and a sense of my ideals.   And if I seek to persuade anyone with my writing, it is them.

In a certain sense, therefore, this blog can be seen as shaped by two events, which took place exactly a decade apart.  The first is the infamous terror attack of September 11th 2001, which was the spark that ignited two wars and provoked the policies that so angered me.

The second event was the birth of my daughter on 11th September 2011 – one year ago today.  She cannot read yet, but now, at last, I know who I am writing for.