#LibelReform: The Perils of An Inadequate Response

First posted on OpenDemocracy

The government has responded to grassroots pressure for libel reform, but its proposals do not go far enough towards genuinely safeguarding free speech on the internet and ensuring that powerful corporations cannot silence their critics.

During a panel event on Defamation Reform earlier this year, the lawyer Paul Tweed said that the recent focus on Libel Tourism was the result of “the most successful lobbying campaign since that conducted by the tobacco industry”.  Those of us at English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science who had done some of that lobbying gleefully re-tweeted Tweed’s back-handed compliment.

We’re lobbying for libel reform in the UK because we believe the law is not fit for purpose in the 21st Century.  The high cost of fighting an action in the High Court is coupled with a law that seems to prioritise reputation over free expression.  The truth of the matter and the harm caused are presumed in favour of the claimant.  And because the law has not been updated to reflect the invention of the Internet, each web-page is treated as a ‘publication’ as if it were a book printed in the country where it is read.  All this has created the phenomenon of Libel Tourism, where foreign libel claimants take advantage of the English Courts’ claimant-friendly jurisdiction.
Continue reading “#LibelReform: The Perils of An Inadequate Response”

Rapists, Pædophiles, Wifebeaters, and Mumsnet

Following my recent defence, on TV and on news websites, of the rights people have to say offensive things, a few people have asked my opinion of the banned advert placed by Fathers4Justice.

The advert ran earlier this year in the i Paper (the low cost digest of the Independent). It called for the supermarket M&S to boycott Mumsnet, because the web forum carried messages which “promote gender hatred”. The text on the advert is actually worded quite politely (“Fathers4Justice are writing to all advertisers this Father’s Day to inform them…”) but the image is of a baby boy with words like ‘deadbeat’ and ‘rioter’ scrawled over his body.

The advert has now been banned by the ASA, which means Fathers4Justice cannot use it in future adverts.

Is this not an infringement of free expression? If I have argued in the past for the right of people to say insensitive things or use hyperbole, what’s the difference here?

First, an ASA ban is not quite the same as a legal prohibition. Fathers4Justice can presumably continue to make similar claims on their own websites and publicity materials. Nevertheless, an ASA ban a form of censorship.

Second, the ASA have ruled on the claims that Mumsnet promote hatred, not on the shocking imagery in the advert. Scrawling the word ‘rapist’ on a baby is certainly shocking and offensive, but that is not what has been banned.

Instead, the ASA have ruled that the advert was misleading. Mumsnet do not promote gender hatred in the way Fathers4Justice claimed.

Nevertheless, part of me wants this sort of thing to be refuted in other ways. Mumsnet is an extraordinarily influential organisation (25,000 daily posts to the forums is a lot of traffic, and founder Justine Roberts was on Question Time a few weeks ago), and I wonder whether such bizarre claims from a famously odd organisation such as Fathers4Justice could not have been fought via discussion and debate. A few cutting blog posts, that demonstrate the falsity of the advert’s assertions, would surely spread like wildfire, discrediting Fathers4Justice, and burnishing Mumsnet.

There is also a free speech issue on the other side of the fence. An Internet forum is not a newspaper. The thousands of postings that go up every day are not the editorial voice of the platform provider. The nature of the discussions (parenthood, domestic issues, child-rearing) are emotive and one might expect a degree of angry venting to take place. That’s a feature, not a bug, of such websites. Mumsnet should not be held responsible that such content arises… Especially as they have a clear policy to remove posts that violate their comments policy. If sponsors like M&S were to withdraw sponsorship of the site, it would presumably wither and die. A valuable platform for free expression and useful ideas would disappear.


Aside: Note the names of the two organisations involved in this argument: Fathers4Justice and Mumsnet. Two portmanteaus, no spaces between what should be separate words. Creations of the digital space.

Religious Activism and the Language of Political Correctness

Veronica Connolly says she is being “persecuted for being a Christian” after refusing to pay her TV licence in protest at the BBC’s decision to show Jerry Springer The Opera.

Rubbish. Mrs Connolly is using the language of political correctness to claim victimisation, when she is actually engaging in a deliberate act of civil disobedience. She is being prosecuted for the act of not paying for her licence. The authorities are not deliberately going after her because of the underlying beliefs.

Stewart Lee’s show is challenging and satirical and surely not for everyone, but the BBC’s public service remit means it should be showing controversial programmes and films. If the corporation sought to avoid offending anyone its output would become stale and anodyne.

If you don’t like a particular show then don’t watch it.

This issue does raise questions about the license fee, which is really a form of tax. If you don’t agree with the behaviour or the programming of, say, BSkyB (linked as it is to Rupert Murdoch) you can always choose the Virgin TV package instead. And if you can’t stand Richard Branson then you can withdraw from taking that service and just take the FreeView Channels, or pay for LoveFiLM and Netflix, or go and look at YouTube. But there is no way to ‘opt out’ of funding the BBC because anyone with a TV must pay the licence fee.

Of course – There’s no way of ‘opting out’ of British war-mongering or ill-advised spending decisions either. That’s the point of the system of taxes and democracy – you change the spending decisions indirectly, by participating in the political process.

The issue of the licence fee is that, in the 21st century, we tend to think that we have some kind of choice over the media we consume. We can get films, TV series and and music via the Internet, and can ‘unbundle’ the articles in a newspaper so we can read the sports sections without buying the political sections (or vice versa). The bundled, all or nothing approach of the licence fee – which is a special sort of tax, whatever the nomenclature – seems a little at odds with the rest of the media ecosystem. As a fan of the BBC, this vexes me.

I do also have some sympathy with the argument put forward by Mrs Connolly’s lawyer, who says that a TV set is no longer a luxury but a “primary organ of communication”. Indeed. Might our right to receive and impart information include the right to access a TV and the Internet?

Azerbaijan's Terrible Record on Free Speech #Eurovison

More crossposting with the English PEN site.

Azerbaijan Protest

The state of free expression in Azerbaijan has be a major focus for English PEN in recent years. In 2009, we sent two of our members, Eva Hoffman and Alev Adil, to Baku to meet the writers there and to ask what the literary community in the UK can do to help. On their return, Eva filed a report for our OPEN magazine:

Such freedoms, however, are regularly violated in Azerbaijan. During our few days in Baku, we hear detailed and distressing stories of writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, or who have been persecuted in flagrantly unjust ways.

I must say that my writerly self felt a twinge of anxiety constricting my chest as I heard this story. To lose the fruit of so much work, which must have relieved the ghastliness of unjust incarceration — even while that incarceration continues! And yet, the spirits of our interlocutors seemed undampened.

We are now assisting some of those writers in the creation of a new Azerbaijan PEN Centre.

PEN has also worked closely with our colleagues at Index on Censorship, Article 19 and Amnesty International on a series of demonstrations and campaign actions for imprisoned writers in Azerbaijan, including Eynulla Fatullayev, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade (all of whom have since been released). The video below records one such demonstration, and you can view our photo galleries from other actions.

This weekend, Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest – a concept predicated on their idea of free expression. The arrival in Baku of the kitsch, glitz and music must inspire an improvement in the Azerbaijan Government’s approach to free expression.

Our colleagues at Article 19, have run extensive programmes in Azerbaijan and provided crucial documentation of the abuse and harassment experienced by journalists who are critical of those in power. Their compelling report Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices described the attacks and jailing of journalists, the ban on protests, and lack of independent broadcasting.

Take Action

Index on Censorship (who share offices with both Article 19 and English PEN) have launched a petition for a Guilt Free Eurovison. We urge all PEN members and supporters to sign the petition, demanding that President Ilham Aliyev takes positive action to end the harassment against the writers, activists and musicians who are being attacked.

Click here to sign the petition.

 

Günter Grass and the Free Speech Moment

Last week I wrote a follow up to my Comment Is Free piece on Gunter Grass, this time for the New Statesman blog.

Over the past few days, a “free speech moment” has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League. Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the “free speech moment” has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism. Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author. In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here. The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship. Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event. A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of “work”. English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a “chilling effect” on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These “free speech moments” are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem. But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

The Great Banner Wall of China

This week English PEN has been at the London Book Fair. China was the ‘Market Focus’ country and as such, there were a lot of Chinese state-run stands at the fair.

I joined with activists from the Tibet Society and the Independent Chinese PEN Centre to stage a poetry protest in front of the Chinese Government stands. The poetry we recited earned their authors a ten year prison sentence.

Later, GAPP officials used a load of pull-up conference banner stands to block the protest from view. “The Great Pull-Up Banner Wall of China”. Not a good look, in a trade fair designed to promote openness.

I was also reprimanded by the security guards for holding up a sign saying ‘Free Speech is not a crime’ on carpet owned (or at least, paid for) by the Chinese government.

Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass

When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it.

My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force.

One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:

The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious.

The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population.

Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice.

No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.

So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.

I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights.

Continue reading “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”

Hit Günter Grass with Poetry, Not a Travel Ban

Liberty Central LogoAnother piece on Günter Grass and his poem, this time for Comment is Free.

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Censorship might be legitimate when a writer incites violence or war, but Grass’s poem does neither. His transgression is to write something that many people find offensive and (given his history, as a conscript in the Waffen-SS) deeply insensitive. However, this is no reason for censorship: freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to offend. This is true not just for criticism of Israeli foreign policy, but the criticism and satirisation of other states, religions and individuals too. This is why we in English PEN oppose defamation and blasphemy laws all over the world and have also argued against laws banning Holocaust denial. On this we agree with the philosopher Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents both died in the Holocaust) who said that “confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper” and Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who says that one must “counter a book with a book; a statement with a statement.”

If Grass has written a polemical poem, the Israeli literary community should respond with poetry of their own, parodying and picking apart Grass’s offering. Literary dialogue, as opposed to diatribes by official spokespeople, is a far superior way to discuss these thorny issues. In 2009, the US-based Theatre J responded creatively to what they saw as unfair criticism in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children by commissioning counter-plays. The result was more art, and a genuine attempt to discover some common ground.

Individuals, not states, should be free to make up their own minds, and this principle applies to boycotts in the UK, too. Recently, a group of prominent British artists demanded that the Globe Theatre cancel the performance of The Merchant of Venice by Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel. The troupe has performed in the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and therefore, say the signatories, it is disqualified from performing in the UK.

While these are legitimate concerns, the result of this would only be to remove the moral choice from theatre-goers, many of whom are understandably excited about seeing a play notorious for its antisemitic characterisations interpreted by a Jewish group. Moreover, the play has been programmed as part of an international celebration of language and Shakespeare, and excluding the Hebrew language would be odd. The issue is nuanced and complex and it is unlikely that either a large arts institution, or a cabal of actors and directors, will get the answer just right. Far better that the choice on whether to boycott is made by the individual audience members.

For those who disagree with the performance, there are other ways to express displeasure. Peaceful protests can and should be staged outside the Globe, and new plays can be written in response. Grass may even choose to write another poem, giving us his thoughts. The dialogue will continue afresh. Free speech means no one ever gets the last word.

A Tale of Two Authors

Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.

First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places.  The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.

Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review.  His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages).  Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist.  However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.

This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago.  It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper.  I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.