Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

“Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, This Is Wrong”

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech.

Commissioned by and first published on the Free Word Centre blog


In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on the subject of free speech at universities. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, and the protests over controversial speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have kept the issue in the headlines, and the publication of Sp!ked Magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings seems to have emboldened free speech advocates to push back against campus censorship. A new campaign, Right2Debate, targets the National Union of Students (NUS) and its No Platform policies that prevent controversial speaker events from going ahead.

As a campaigner with English PEN, I support the campaigns to expand free speech at universities. But in recent weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the debate is evolving. Each side talks over the other, and some of the fundamental questions at the heart of the issue remain unresolved. Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech. Continue reading “Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities”

Literary Campaigning at its Best

Solidarity and activism is not the only outcome of this writing—the cultural conversation is being advanced too

During my time working for English PEN I’ve often used the phrase ‘literary campaigning’ to describe our particular style of activism.  Its a term that probably seems self evident: we use literature to draw attention to the situation of writers at risk.  For example, we might read the writing of an imprisoned poet outside an embassy, or stage a world-wide reading at multiple locations around the world.

Its an approach that has value for several reasons.  Not only is it non-violent, but it is also not particularly hostile or antagonistic to those who have imprisoned the writer or who are responsible for their persecution.  So it has a diplomatic quality.

It also a fantastic act of solidarity for the embattled writer.  Where they have been entirely censored through imprisonment (or even death) it is a way to give them a voice and restore to them some sort of expression. Continue reading “Literary Campaigning at its Best”

It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’

In an Atlantic article about the prohibition of anti-Zionist views at American Universities, this:

One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel’s right to exist.”

The phrase “Israel’s right to exist” is a common one in debates about Zionism and the hideous disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.  It’s often used as a line in the sand: critics of Israel are often asked whether they support its “right to exist”. Continue reading “It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’”

Free Speech Turtles, All The Way Down

‘Common Knowledge Free Speech’ is the agreement that no-one in the debate is seeking to censor anyone else

I’ve written quite a lot recently on the topic of No Platform and the wider issue of free speech at universities.  And I am not done yet.  If the reader feels as if I am repeating myself, that’s because I am: blogging is an iterative form of discourse where each evolution towards some kind of opinion is published for all to see.

And I have been thinking about iteration in the context of the campus free speech wars.

After reading Emey’s amusing-but-actually-serious Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters, my mind wanders back to the debate of the past few days.  Consider, once more, the the Tatchell pile-on from last week: an internicine debate between left leaning social liberals. Continue reading “Free Speech Turtles, All The Way Down”

Freedom to Boycott (Part I)

Condemning a choice to boycott is not the same as denying the right to boycott

Yesterday evening I left a comment1 on a post by Chris Jarvis on the Bright Green blog.  Discussing Peter Tatchell and No Platform, Chris wrote:

Tatchell tacitly endorses the idea that people should not be able to collectively decide the people that they chose to invite to speak at events that they are organising in their own spaces.

No, I replied.  In signing the letter, Tatchell is saying that when people chose not to debate people with whom they are disagree, they are making a mistake and harming their own cause. Continue reading “Freedom to Boycott (Part I)”

The Moral Demands of Free Speech

If we say that these activists have some kind of obligation to debate, then we have an obligation to stand with them

In my earlier post, I wrote:

And perhaps students, at the cutting edge of culture and knowledge, have a greater and particular duty than the rest of us? …No Platform is the political equivalent of fly-tipping.  Rather than dealing once and for all with the unpleasant rubbish, the policy causes the mess to be dumped elsewhere.

There is a coda to this which I think is important to acknowledge.

If we compare No Platform to fly-tipping, then it follows that that the task of debating reactionaries is an unpleasant experience.

If we ask trans* activists (or feminists, or members of a marginalised group) to debate those who have disparaged them, we should at least acknowledge the unpleasantness of the task. Continue reading “The Moral Demands of Free Speech”

No Platform: Political Fly-Tipping

No Platform just makes the bigots someone else’s problem

The debate about students and free speech has flared up again.  NUS LGBTQ officer Fran Cowling refused to share a platform with veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, acusing him of racism and transphobia.

Many people have pointed out that refusing to speak alongside someone is not the same as denying them a platform; others argue that it can amount to the same thing.

The standard argument against No Platform is that we should debate people we disagree with, because we will win the argument.  This is a point I have made in many contexts.  But there is a collary to this which is often glossed over:  No Platform just makes the bigots someone else’s problem.

No Platform is just a clever form of NIMBYism.  When students refuse to engage, the people with unsavoury views are not discredited to the extent that they fall out of the discourse.  Instead, they double-down.  Although they may be prevented from speaking in a particular place, they usually take their speech elsewhere. Continue reading “No Platform: Political Fly-Tipping”

The Newspapers’ Double-Standards on Charlie Hebdo

The newspapers were very happy to publish pictures on their front pages of an actual murder, and yet felt unable to publish pictures of a religious figure in charicature.

Ever since the hideous massacre of journalists at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, I’ve been relaying a pair of juxtaposed facts about the media coverage of the incident.  I am preparing a talk to some media studies students about the coverage, and I have just realised I have never properly blogged about what I noticed.

Better late than never, I’m doing that now. Continue reading “The Newspapers’ Double-Standards on Charlie Hebdo”

Attack on my colleagues at Kurdish PEN

To see an office so clearly labelled ‘PEN’ with its door kicked in is personally chilling, and I feel the intimidatory censorship of my Kurdish colleagues quite acutely.

Ordinarily, I am a couple of degrees removed from the people who are persecuted for standing up for free speech.  But an e-mail that was sent to me over the weekend brought the perils a little close to home.

On 2nd February 2016, the offices of the Kurdish PEN Centre in Sur Amed (Diyarbakir) were attacked.  Photos provided by my colleagues at Kurdish PEN show the door to their office was bashed in, and the abstract statues in the courtyard were decapitated. Continue reading “Attack on my colleagues at Kurdish PEN”