Tag Archives: free speech

The #Sunifesto is confused about free speech

We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.

Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.

Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.

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The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.

The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.

The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).

Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?

For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.

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.

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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

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We can win the fight to save Raif Badawi from the horror of Saudi Arabian ‘justice’

First posted on the Independent website.

Do we see a glimmer of light in the dark case of Raif Badawi? King Abdullah has referred the case to the Saudi Arabian supreme court, following the international dismay at the public flogging Badawi received earlier this month.

Last week the news was grim. The imprisoned blogger might not have received his scheduled 50 lashes on Friday morning, but this was no act of clemency on the part of the Saudi authorities. The flogging was only delayed because Badawi was too ill and weak from his flogging the week before.

One-thousand lashes and a 10 year prison term would be a brutal punishment for any crime. But the fact that Badawi has received this sentence for insulting Islam and of founding a liberal website is astonishing. The world is appalled. The Charlie Hebdo murders have drawn public attention to ideas of freedom of speech and blasphemy, and the Raif Badawi case offers a chillingly convenient coda to the events in Paris. Continue reading We can win the fight to save Raif Badawi from the horror of Saudi Arabian ‘justice’

Railing against Saudi Arabia at the vigil for Raif Badawi

On Friday morning, I led a small vigil outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Raif Badawi, the blogger convicted of ‘Insulting Islam’ and ‘founding a liberal website.

Continue reading Railing against Saudi Arabia at the vigil for Raif Badawi

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I Am Not Brave Enough to ‘Be Charlie’… And Neither Are You

The public debate following a major news story has distinct phases. We are all literate in the stages: frantic news reports; confirmation of what has happened; The first opinion pieces, trying to make sense of what has happened (or, less charitably, spinning the events to fit the author’s world-view). Then we get push-back and counter-point to the earlier opinions; and ‘meta’ articles, discussing not the event itself, but the reporting, and the public response. Technology moves so fast that this piece I published on the Huffington Post is very much a ‘late era’ Charlie Hebdo article, despite the fact it was only (at the time of writing) six days since the hideous events in Paris. Continue reading I Am Not Brave Enough to ‘Be Charlie’… And Neither Are You

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

Continue reading The ritual of condemnation

Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

The callous murder of ten journalists and two policemen yesterday in the centre of Paris is a landmark moment. The French now have their own 9/11 or 7/7. It’s certainly a defining moment in the history of freedom of expression too: on a par with the Rushdie fatwa.

It’s less than 24 hours since the atrocity and the murders are still at large, yet there is already so much to write about. With ‘moments’ such as this we experience cycles of news, comment, counter-comment and meta comment (i.e. comment on the comment). We seem to be experiencing all of these at once. Continue reading Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

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Fictionalised Assassinations

I wonder what Lord Bell thinks of Sony’s decision to cancel screening of ‘The Interview’?

Earlier this year, the Tory peer said that author Hilary Mantel should be investigated by the police after she wrote a short story called (and about) ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983′.

It was a silly thing to say but free speech groups like English PEN (for whom I work) cexpressed concern at his words. Artists should be free to imagine and to fantasise, and equating a fictional murder of a head of state with actual incitement is not only fallacious, but gives dictators around the world yet another reason to shut down any kind of expression that portrays them in an impregnable light.

Which brings us on to The Interview, a comedy film in which Seth Rogan and James Franco star as two journalists who set out to assassinate Kim Jong Un.  The government of North Korea called the film “an act of war” and threatened “bitter reprisals”.  This week, Sony pictures announced that it would be withdrawing the release of The Interview  after pro-regime activists calling themselves Guardians of the Peace hacked Sony’s computer systems, leaked embarrassing e-mails, and threatened attacks on cinemas showing the film.

Now, Lord Bell’s suggestion that Mantel receive a visit from the police is not equivalent to North Korean activists threatening violence.  But Lord Bell’s idea – that fictionalised assassination of an already dead Maggie Thatcher is incitement, is surely equivalent to the idea that ‘The Interview’ is incitement.  Of course, I think both ideas are false… but when a member of the House of Lords peddles the first idea, it rather gives credence to the second. Continue reading Fictionalised Assassinations