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:
Twitter often combines the Two Minute Hate and Lord of the Flies in a way that neither Orwell nor Golding would have been surprised at.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 →
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!
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.
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.
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.