Tag Archives: censorship


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.

Page 3 returns? The winner is still free speech!

Well, that was a short lived celebration, wasn’t it? After a just week, the Sun has reversed its editorial policy, and the topless models are back on Page 3.

This rather dates my post from only yesterday, which begins talking about the ‘success’ of the No More Page 3 campaign.

I stand by the post itself, though, and repeat the core point: no law, no police, no threat of violence were part of the decision over whether the pictures should be published. The choice to publish or not remains free. Freedom of expression prevails! Note that the Sun suffers no sanction as it resumes publication. All this gives the lie to the ridiculous idea that this country had succumbed to politically correct censorship. We had not.

Though I remain of the view that Page 3 is a bad thing for society and am privately disappointed that it has returned, one cannot help but be wryly amused at the Sun’s tactics here. What label should we give it? ‘Machiavellian’? ‘A false retreat’? Trolling? The editors must be laughing their bellies off right now.

Happily, the No More Page 3 campaign understands that the debate is unlikely to end in the near term. They are happy to deploy their own right to free expression to continue their campaign. Here they are on Twitter, promoting their petition and welcoming new followers.


The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism

At first blush, the success of the No More Page 3 campaign does not look like a victory for free speech. After all, a thing that was being published, is no longer being published. The prudish censors have prevailed, right?

Look again. No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3 (or, for that matter, Page 4 or 5). MPs did not vote on a new Bill. No lawyers have filed a complaint, no judge has granted an injunction. The law is not involved. Freedom of speech means a choice over whether to publish, and Mr Murdoch has chosen not to publish pictures of topless women any more. Continue reading The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism

Condemning Censorship in the Maldives in the Guardian

Today I am quoted in the Guardian, blasting the Maldives‘ ridiculous new law that insists all books be passed by a board of censors:

At English PEN, head of campaigns Robert Sharp called the “sweeping new law” a “disaster for freedom of expression in the Maldives”.

“The parliament should be acting to expand the space for freedom of expression, not enacting laws that will stifle debate and dissent,” said Sharp. “These new rules will also damage Maldivian culture.  How can Dhivehi authors flourish when all novels and poetry must pass a board of censors?  Maldivian literature will stagnate under these new rules.  We hope the president and the parliament of the Maldives will think again.”

Read the whole article on the Guardian website.

Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine

Off Black Magazine launches today: fashion, arts and culture.


Me too.  I was delighted to be asked to write for the launch issue (which takes ‘The Body’ as its theme) on the censorship of art and culture.  My article takes in erotica, Google algorithms, 3D models of vaginas, Instagram’s terms & conditions, and Rupert Bear’s penis.

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?


Quoted in the Guardian on banning Darwish in Saudia Arabia

Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’.  A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”.  This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.

I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:

But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.

“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”



The Outliers

I have worked for (and with) some courageous people at English PEN.  I am often struck by the personal cost of exercising your right to free expression, and how damaging to life and finances taking stand can be.

For Banned Books Week, I was asked by Tor.com to write a piece on these people, the ‘Outliers’ who do the thing that most people would not.

Have you ever been stood up by Cory Doctorow? I have. Back in 2010 I was due to interview him at the London Book Fair about his latest novel For The Win. I read his entire back catalogue and planned loads of insightful questions, but when the time came for the interview in the PEN Literary cafe, he didn’t show up. Later, I received an e-mail from him with a preposterous and obviously made-up excuse about how his plane had been grounded by a volcano. So it was me on the stage with an empty chair. (My hastily written chat standard performance poem “The Empty Chair a.k.a Cory Doctorow Is Not Here Today” rocked YouTube, with literally dozens of views.) Continue reading The Outliers


Is parental snooping the alternative to censorship?

How should a parents keep tabs on their kids?

On the technology site GigaOM, Matthew Ingram has posted two of a series of three articles about his “experiences of snooping on my kids and their online behaviour over a period of years.” He installed a ‘keylogger’ on his daughter’s computer everything she typed was e-mailed to him. When he confessed this to friends, they were shocked.

Is such parental behaviour justified? Children have fewer civil rights than adults (they cannot get married or vote) and its unreasonable to expect that they enjoy the same level of privacy as an adult – Parents should be aware of their medical conditions, for example. However, the transition from childhood, to the place where you take responsibility for yourself, is long and grey (see a previous post where I recommended aligning the age of religion with the age of consent).

When teenagers are concerned, NSA-style eavesdropping feels creepy. I think having secrets is part of what makes us a rounded and mature human being, and accepting that there are things that you do not know about your child is part of the parental process of ‘letting go’. However, much of their discourse takes place in public and semi-public social media spaces. It is less creepy to register an account and ‘follow’ a tween’s online discussions. I think that even doing so under an alias would be acceptable. What better illustration of the pitfalls in online discourse can there be, than discovering that the kid with the cat avatar you’ve been discussing Zac Efron with, was actually Your Mum?! Continue reading Is parental snooping the alternative to censorship?


Hilary Mantel's comments on the Duchess of Cambridge are brave and necessary

The double-Booker winning author Hilary Mantel has caused controversy, after delivering an uncompromising critique of the Duchess of Cambridge. The lecture she gave to the London Review of Books is now online: audio and text.

The Daily Mail and the Metro seem to have misinterpreted Mantel, reporting the speech as a ‘scathing’ and ‘venomous’ attack on the Duchess. But that is not the author’s sentiment at all. Instead, Mantel is critiquing the way in which the illusion of Royalty turns women into objects, vessels, and wombs. I am sure that Kate herself would find the analysis uncomfortable, but the attack is on the Monarchy as a whole, and on media outlets like the Mail and the Metro that feed off the images of Royal consorts.

The backlash towards Mantel puts me in the mind of the Orwell (or was it Hearst) quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” The speech is a form of social and cultural criticism rather than journalism, but I think the Orwell/Hearst sentiment applies equally. Mantel’s negative comments about Royalty are precsiely the sort of thing that other people – call them Monarchists, or ‘The Establishment’, or social conservatives – would prefer had been left unsaid. That fact is, in itself, a reason to applaud Hilary Mantel for saying it alound and in public. This speech should shock us into reconsidering the role of Royalty in our society. It should make us revise our stratospheric expectations of the Duchess of Cambridge, too.

It is worth noting that this kind of speech act is precisely the sort of thing that gets censored in other countries. Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws and many, if not most, other countries, have criminal defamation or ‘scandalising’ laws that would have seen Mantel down at the police station for an interview, or on trial, or in prison. In the UK, we finally abolished our dead-letter analogues in 2009. It should be a source of pride that one of our most celebrated novelists is able to make such controversial statements, unfettered.

This is precisely the kind of social leadership that we need from our authors. I wonder what would have happened if a politician had said the same thing?