Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal

The rigid UK visa requirements can prove an impossible hurdle for some artists

An Iranian childrens’ book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi has been denied a visa to visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Publishers have branded the decision “disgusting”.

The Bookseller broke the story and I’m quoted in Heloise Wood’s report, commenting for English PEN. Continue reading “Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal”

The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

An intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Continue reading “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

Google Search Links To This Blog Suppressed by Right To Be Forgotten Laws

The suppressed post concerns Inigo Wilson’s Lefty Lexicon, which resulted in his being suspended from his post at Orange.

Well, this is interesting.

Due to a request under data protection law in Europe, Google can no longer show one or more pages from your site in Google Search results. This only affects responses to some search queries for names or other personal identifiers that might appear on your pages. Only results on European versions of Google are affected. No action is required from you.

These pages haven’t been blocked entirely from our search results. They’ve only been blocked on certain searches for names on European versions of Google Search. These pages will continue to appear for other searches. We aren’t disclosing which queries have been affected.

This is the first time this has happened to me. Continue reading “Google Search Links To This Blog Suppressed by Right To Be Forgotten Laws”

The Writer in the World

In March, I was honoured and delighted to be asked to give the keynote speech at the University of Roehampton’s Creative Writing Soiree, an annual evening of fiction, memoir and poetry readings done by the English and Creative Writing students. The suggested title of my talk was ‘The Writer in the World’ which gave me the chance to speak about creativity, literature and the work of English PEN in broader and grander terms than the speeches I am usually asked to give.

I confess to being quite pleased with the end result. Not, I must stress, in the delivery, which comes across as extemporised rather than pre-planned. But rather, the broad idea of what it means to be a ‘writer in the world’ and the pragmatic suggestions for how one might go about living as such a writer.

The speech included a potted history of English PEN, some thoughts on the moral obligations of free speech, my earliest memories of learning to read, and the grind and grit required to be ‘creative’. Its a good statement of what I believe. Continue reading “The Writer in the World”

Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events

One reason why free speech is so important is that it ensures diversity of voices in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.

An odd story unfolded today: Buzzfeed News were disinvited from a Rochdale hustings event after the Labour candidate Simon Danczuk said he would refuse to attend if a BuzzFeed reporter was there. I was asked to comment on behalf of English PEN:

The move to ban BuzzFeed was also criticised by the freedom of expression group English PEN, which said: “One reason why free speech is so important to a democracy is that it ensures diversity of voices and opinion in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.” …

Robert Sharp, spokesperson for English PEN, the writers’ organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression, also criticised the decision to ban BuzzFeed News from the event.

“These reports are very worrying”, he said. “Political events should be open to all journalists, not just those who file positive stories about a candidate.

“It is odd that this should be happening during a general election, when the political parties are surely seeking to broadcast their message to as many people as possible.

“Candidates for political office need to reassure voters that they are open to scrutiny. Selectively refusing journalists access to events is not the way to build public trust.

He added: “If a politician thinks they have been unfairly treated by one outlet, then a better response would be to invite a greater range of journalists to cover future events.”

Continue reading “Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events”

#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London

Today I was honoured to meet Ensaf Haidar – author, activist and wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and charged with ‘setting up a liberal website’. He was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment. His case is one of the most egregious human rights abuses in the world right now… and yet the British Government maintains cordial relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi. Continue reading “#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London”

A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

Safe spaces need not be antagonistic to free speech – indeed, they can be a catalyst for full freedom of expression

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon

How web developers choose to solve difficult technical problems has huge implications for free speech and democracy

There’s a new social nework on the block: Mastodon.

Or rather, it’s a social media technology. When we funnel all our conversations through the servers of a big company like Facebook or Twitter, we grant them enormous power. They control the extent of our privacy and of our free speech, and that power can be abused in ways that are both legal and not. The companies can sell our data to third parties (a process made much easier by the US Congress last week); they can reveal our data to the security agencies of nefarious regimes; and they can throttle or shut down our free speech if they so desire, without going via a court.

Decentralising the way in which we converse online means we can reclaim some of that power. A few years ago I posted a link to a blog post on Dave Winter’s Scripting News which sets out the practical and political importance of this idea: by spreading out, we’re harder to stop.

Mastodon is an open source project, so anyone can install it on a server and run a Mastodon ‘instance’. The software uses a principle called ‘federation’ to allow users to see messages posted on other instances of the software. So people who signed up on (say) mastodon.social can view and respond to messages posted to octagon.social (which is the version I signed up to with the username @robertsharp).

Problem solved, then? Not really. Continue reading “Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon”

What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?

“It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions”

Using my statement to the Bookseller as a springboard, Ruth Coustick-Deal writes an interesting and challenging piece on counter-speech, and why it doesn’t solve the problem of hate speech in the way that free speech advocates assume.

Certain paragraphs that stood out for me, as particular challenges for free speech advocates.  We need to have answers to these points, and address them in our own responses to controversial speech. Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?”

Swallowed by the Kraken

I usually experience the podcast as disembodied conversation between my ears, but on this occasion I was able to step into that space myself… like someone sucked into his own dreams.

There has been a growth in the popularity of podcasts in recent years—both in the number being produced, and in those listening to them. I think part of the reason for this can be explained by the same psychologies that make sitcoms popular. Recurring characters in shows like Cheers, Friends or Big Bang Theory are your smart, funny friends that visit you every week. It’s a pseudo-social interaction, and I think ‘panel’ podcasts tickle similar synapses.  Continue reading “Swallowed by the Kraken”