Counter-productive Hatchet Job at the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail have published a rather odd hatchet job on Gavin Freeguard, Harriet Harman’s culture advisor. Gavin formerly worked for the Media Standards Trust, who are part of the Hacked Off Campaign. This fact, and some year-old tweets from Freeguard where he (shock! horror!) criticises David Cameron allow Mail journalist Richard Pendlebury to paint Gavin as some kind of Manchurian spad.

We desperately need to hear strong arguments against state-regulation and ‘licensing’ of the press. Left-wingers love to loathe the Daily Mail, but it is a hugely influential newspaper with one of the most visted websites on the Internet. There is no better platform for the arguments against statutory regulation to be presented.

And yet, on the eve of the Leveson Inquiry report publication, there is nothing in today’s editorial on #Leveson. Instead, the Daily Mail editors choose to run a piece which appears to be little more than an ad hominem attack on someone who previously worked for the Media Standards Trust. The pro-regulation camp will spin this a more evidence that the press is unserious about the regulation debate, and more interested in attacking individuals in order to sell newspapers – precisely the sin that (the critics say) makes the case for regulation!

As someone who is very wary about the prospect of state regulation of the press, I find it very is frustrating that the newspaper that could be the most powerful voice for press freedom is pursuing such a short term agenda, squandering its platform, and undermining the case for press freedom at such a crucial moment.

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”

On Politics, Power and the Pulpit

Following the news that two members of Pussy Riot have been sent to remote penal colonies in Russia, UCB Radio asked me on to Paul Hammond’s show on to discuss ‘Politics and the Pulpit’.

Is a church an appropriate place for political messages?   There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether activists should protest in a Church.  Was the uninvited ‘hooliganism’ of Pussy Riot justified? I cited the example of Jesus himself, who caused havoc in the Temple in what was surely a political as well as spiritual protest (see, for example, Mark 11-15). Continue reading “On Politics, Power and the Pulpit”

Twitter Succumbs to Regulation

The news that Twitter is censoring content in Germany is a great big casserole of free speech and censorship issues. There are so many things to say that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.

The first issue is over the German laws against holocaust denial and Nazism. These laws are not unique in Europe and should be seen in the context of the second world war. Europeans, and Germans in particular, are obviously very sensitive about the Nazi ideology and one can understand why such laws are in place. However, this does not make them right or sensible. It is all very well to suppress Nazi ideology, but what if the next threat to democracy comes from a left wing perspective? Communism, after all, is as lethal as Nazism.

Suppressing any speech, however abhorrent, only serves to send it underground. It is far better to have such speech out in the open where it can be countered. The great failure in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that Hitler was allowed to put forward his views, but that not enough people challenged him. This is how evil flourishes – good people stand by and do nothing. Laws against Nazism and holocaust denial are sticking plasters. They do not tackle the root cause of such ideologies, or change minds. Continue reading “Twitter Succumbs to Regulation”

Two Pussy Riot Convictions Upheld

Pussy Riot in the dock
Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

Yesterday in a Moscow court-room, two of the three Pussy Riot convictions were upheld.  Nadezha Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina will serve a two year sentence for hooliganism.  The appeal of Yekaterina Samutsevich was granted and she was released.

The three members of the Pussy Riot punk art collective had previously been convicted on a charge of hooliganism, for a political protest staged in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  The English PEN website has more detailed information and suggested actions to take in support of the two imprisoned women.

The Russia Legal Information Agency published a live-blog of the appeal hearing yesterday.  One entry stands out:

13:11 [Prosecutor] Alexei Taratukhin is up. He negatively assessed the request for a special ruling to restrict President Putin from expressing sentiments about the trial. “Everyone has the freedoms of thought and speech. Should we force the highest official in the country to give up his opinion?”

(Emphasis added).

So: The prosecutor in a trial seeking to suppress protest cites the value of free expression, but only when applied to the President.  The hypocrisy here is breathtaking. Continue reading “Two Pussy Riot Convictions Upheld”

Another Misguided Facebook Conviction

Another person has received a criminal conviction for something they posted on a social media site. Matthew Woods received a 12 week prison sentence for posting a message about missing schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page.  At 20 years old, Woods sits in the same young and foolish male demographic as Azhar Ahmed, @Rileyy_69 and Leo Traynor’s troll.

The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial.  Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.

However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading “Another Misguided Facebook Conviction”

Two e-Books

Last week, I published two e-Books for English PEN.

The first is Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer. This is a fantastic piece of literary campaigning for three prisoners of conscience. The government of Vladimir Putin, in collaboration with the Russian Orthodox church, have sought to censor the satire and criticism directed at them by the punk art collective Pussy Riot, by convicting three of them on a charge of ‘hooliganism’.

There is little English PEN or I can do to help with the legal battle. But what we can do is ensure that the feminist poetry and the dissident message is not suppressed. Catechism amplifies what Putin sought to silence.

Download the eBook or buy a printed copy now! You can even make a donation if you feel so inclined.

The other project is PEN Atlas: 10 Literary Dispatches from Around the World. It has been published to coincide with the international translation day conference taking place today in London. It is a re-packaging off some of the best content from our PEN Atlas online project.

Download the e-book now!

In creating these publications, I applied some of the lessons learned during the course of my Insignificant Woman project. I also advanced my knowledge a bit too.

I had been using the EPUB conversion cool within Lulu.com to create my e-book files. This tool is simple and easy to use (you just upload a Word Document) but is somewhat limited. For example, when you want to place two headings adjacent to each other in the text, it creates unnecessary page breaks. However, by good fortune I happened across the Sigil tool on the Google Project Hosting repository. It is not an entry-level program, but it is perfect for someone like me, who has basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. I used it to tweak an existing EPUB file for Catechism, but then used Sigil to create the PEN Atlas file entirely from scratch. Later, I used Calibre to convert and EPUB file into a Kindle ready eBook.

Confronting a Troll

Troll, by Doug Wildman on Flick
Troll, by Doug Wildman on Flick

 

For once, I am ahead of the Internet curve.  This fantastic post by Leo Traynor is all over the Internets and the Twitters this morning… but yrstly was sharing it yesterday!  Does that make me some kind of opinion former?

In the blog, Traynor describes how he was bullied off Twitter by a persistent troll, and then lived in fear when he started getting offline threats too.  Eventually, he managed to track down the IP address of the troll, and found that his tormentor was the 17 year old son of a friend of his.

This is a useful piece of writing for two reasons.  First, it is an example of speech that I do not believe should be free, that it is legitimate to criminalise.  Traynor experienced sustained personal threats.  It is the very opposite of the ‘generic racism‘ and unspecified unpleasantness put out by Liam Stacey (who posted racist messages about Fabrice Muamba) and Azhar Ahmed (convicted for a Facebook rant).

I was also eager to share, because it speaks directly to an idle wish I made in an article for the Free Word website, earlier this year.  Discussing internet ‘trolls’, I suggested that an enterprising journalist might track down some of the people who do this, and find out what makes them tick. The answer in Leo Traynor’s case was the young man was bored, confused, and appeared to enjoy the feeling of power it gave him.

Censoring Inflammatory YouTubes

The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?

First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.

However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.

Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.

Pussy Riot: Beyond the Retweets

The sentencing of Pussy Riot for hooliganism happened late last week, when I was out of the office. Theirs is clearly and ’emblematic’ case for human rights groups and free speech organisations like English PEN. However, I do feel a subtle unease at the way in which the case is being reported and discussed in the media and online.

Two pieces of comment scratch the itch. First, Jonathan Heawood says “There’s more to protest that hitting retweet”:

But to pin the fate of Pussy Riot on to one man, as though Putin runs Russia single-handedly, is misleading. He runs a powerful machine, certainly, but there are millions of active cogs inside the Russian regime, and there are many other passive participants who are allowing this to happen. Once the silly season is over, the world will once again stand back as the state machine continues its relentless project to dismantle Russian democracy and civil liberties.

Who’s standing back, you say? We’ve sent literally loads of tweets about it. Some of us have even been to the Russian embassy to protest. How many of you? Oh, at least a hundred. Well congratulations to those who stood up to be counted, but where was everyone else?

This is a theme discussed regularly on this blog. Raising awareness is not the same as establishing consensus, much less provoking the mass movements required to force through positive change.

Jonathan ends the piece by applauding Madonna’s interest in the Pussy Riot case. However, Joshua Foust is less excited. He says that the focus on Pussy Riot actually detracts from the actual anti-democratic manœverings in Russia:

Magnitsky’s death prompted some wrangling in the US Congress, where a bill named after him now awaits enactment. But the many celebrities urging their fans to show concern about Pussy Riot, about Russian women, about the plight of Art, apparently don’t know about the many men, non-punk rockers, regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin’s government every day.

Raising the problem of this misplaced attention to spectacle on Twitter raised a number of complaints — namely, that any attention drawn to Putin’s abuses is good attention, regardless of detail (along with some particularly unpleasant comparisons of Pussy Riot to Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks). This is wrong, however: focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures from the real issues that prompted the Pussy Riot trial in the first place.

So: Emblematic cases are only useful ’emblems’ if they serve as a gateway to the wider context.

Finally, Rohan Jayaskera of Index on Censorship (the one stop shop for news on Pussy Riot) has a pertinent tweet: