Tag Archives: freedom of expression

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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

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Talking Free Speech and ‘The Good Shabti’ on the Bookworm Podcast

Ed Fortune, the presenter of Starburst Magazine’s wonderful Bookworm Podcast, invited me onto the show to discuss the work of English PEN and my own creative writing endeavours.

Download Season 2, Episode 28 to listen to the discussion.

My bit begins at around 16 minutes into the show, but that really shouldn’t stop you listening to Ed and his co-hosts Ninfa Hayes and A.L. Johnson chatting about tea and reviewing a whole lot of genre literature.

Brenda Leyland and Twitter Storms

This is an emotive and controversial subject so it’s worth reminding ourselves of my standard disclaimer.

On Thursday, I was interviewed on Sky News about free speech on social media.   On Sunday evening, it emerged that the woman confronted by Martin Brunt in his associated report had been found dead in a hotel in Leicester.  At the time of writing details about the circumstances of Brenda Leyland’s death have not been made public.

This development raises all sorts of new questions about the conduct of the media, about discourse on social media, about the targetting of other social media users by online vigilantes, and about mental health issues.  I will not try to answer them here, but I will raise a couple of points I think are pertinent.

First, the entire Twitter history of Ms Leyland’s @SweepyFace Twitter account can currently be viewed and downloaded via GrepTweet  (or here as a .txt file).  There are over 4,000 tweets in the account and all of them appear to be about the McCanns… or rather, about #McCann, the ongoing “he said, she said” debate between pro- and anti- tweeters.  Browsing through the tweets, I see none that I would describe as threats or abuse.  The tweets do not directly address the McCanns, who are not on Twitter.

Related to this: its unclear which, if any of these tweets were in the dossier sent to the police and seen by Martin Brunt.

Second, it is incredibly sad and ironic that the death of a woman acused of trolling should mean that the Sky News reporter who exposed Brenda Leyland is now the subject of a Twitter storm.  This week I have often thought of this message from legal blogger Jack of Kent which sums up the situation perfectly:

Discussing McCann Twitter Trolls on Sky News

Last week I was invited into the Sky News central London studio to discuss free speech and ‘trolling’ on social media.  The segment had been prompted by a report by Sky journalist Martin Brunt into a ‘dossier’ of alleged abuse of Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing Madeleine.

During the discussion I made the distinction between tweets that were abusive or threatening on the one hand, and others that were merely ‘offensive’.  I cited the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on when to prosecute, and also warned at the development of ‘privatised censorship’ where different ideological groups use poorly-worded laws to threaten each other with prosecution.

A viewer recorded the segment off the TV and uploaded it to YouTube.

Continue reading

Fear of a 'legal chill' over Scots defamation law

Twice in a week, yrstrly is in the papers.  This time its the The Herald, where I say things not dissimilar to the article I wrote in July.

Robert Sharp, of freedom of expression group English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “The worrying gap between protections in England and Wales and Scotland is allowing a chilling loophole to exist and this is especially concerning after Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.”

The internet, and in particular social media, means that defamatory statements published in England, for example, could almost certainly be deemed to have been published in Scotland. So somebody who believes they have been defamed online – in, for example, the electronic version of a newspaper, story can now choose where to sue.

Mr Sharp added: “We have every respect for Scots law and understand that it is not the same. But as long as the loophole exists, the chill exists. As long as we have the UK, we can say that if somebody has a reputation in England that can be tarnished, they have a reputation in Scotland too. This is a real constitutional issue and we hope Scotland will adopt a defamation act quickly.”

Read David Leask’s full article on the Herald‘s website.

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.

"Nothing to hide, nothing to fear"? Two Retorts

One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.  I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.

But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument.  Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people.  They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us.  They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people.  In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.

Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers.  First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall.  I quote at length without apology: Continue reading

Interviewed on 2ser 107.3

A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression inside the 'market focus' area at the London Book Fair.  Photo by yrstrly.
A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression at the London Book Fair. Photo by yrstrly.

Both readers of my blog were subjected to a significant amount of London Book Fair comment and linkage last month.  I was asked to give opinions on the controversial China Market Focus programme.

During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney.  I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show.  Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!

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.