Five Quick Thoughts On The General Election Result

The waning influence of the newspapers has been exposed for all to see

Here are five thoughts I had while watching the election results last night and this morning.

1. The Conservative Party’s coronation of Theresa May as their leader last summer looks, with hindsight, to have been a mistake. Mrs May only had to win over her fellow MPs and not party members. She did not have to do any debates or unpredictable public appearances. Had she done so, her weakness in this area may have been exposed. Or, if you prefer, her experience of a months long leadership campaign against Andrea Leadsome might have made her a more confident campaigner in 2017.

    Continue reading “Five Quick Thoughts On The General Election Result”

Theresa May: Undermining British Values and Doing Nothing To Keep Us Safe

Rewriting our human rights laws will not keep us safe but will give the Prime Minister more power

To all those who Tweeted messages of love after the Manchester bomb.

To all those who posted Facebook messages of defiance after the London Bridge attack.

To all those who shared pictures of the Jewish woman praying with the Muslim man, and to those who clicked ‘like’ on that video of the policeman dancing.

To those who spread about the Keep Calm and Carry On posters, and reminded everyone about London’s ‘Blitz Spirit’. To those who Tweeted banter and funny hashtags about the things that make Londoners really afraid.

To those who offers a cup of tea or a bed for the night to anyone stranded in Southwark. To those who offered a lif home to the kids stuck in central Manchester. And to all those who shared these stories and these memes, whose heart was warmed by the idea that we have ‘more that unites us than that which divides us‘. To those who said, over and over, that we would not let a few murdering idiots affect our liberal values or our democratic way of life.

To all these people I ask: how do you feel about Theresa May’s pathetic, ahistorical and opportunistic statement that she will weaken our human rights laws? Continue reading “Theresa May: Undermining British Values and Doing Nothing To Keep Us Safe”

#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London

Today I was honoured to meet Ensaf Haidar – author, activist and wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and charged with ‘setting up a liberal website’. He was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment. His case is one of the most egregious human rights abuses in the world right now… and yet the British Government maintains cordial relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi. Continue reading “#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London”

A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

Safe spaces need not be antagonistic to free speech – indeed, they can be a catalyst for full freedom of expression

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

On Killfies and Campaign Photos

What photo will the media use in the event of your untimely death?

Via @Documentally’s excellent weekly newsletter, here’s a short Observer article by Eva Wiseman on the phenomenon of ‘killfies’. This is where a person’s attempt to take a selfie of themselves gets them killed.

Which led me to think, maybe we’ve been getting our fears wrong all along? What if the way technology destroys humanity is not with an uprising of robots, of toasters turning against their masters, of self-driving cars choosing a road trip less travelled, but with something as simple as a reflection? There is something so unashamedly ancient in these deaths that it almost seems gauche to point it out. The sirens singing on the rock, beckoning sailors towards their comprehensive display of filters. The boys drowning in their own image. The recording of a risk, the risk itself. …

And once you’ve learned about killfies, it’s very hard to unsee them. Every Instagram post suddenly reads a little like a suicide note.

Or, as a candidate for ‘the photo of you the media will use when they report on your untimely death’, the darker side to selfies that I wrote about a few years ago. In bygone eras, these images were usually school photos or wedding day pictures. Now they tend to be self-portaits. Continue reading “On Killfies and Campaign Photos”

Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

When institutions abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle and expose themselves to conspiracy theorists and demagogues

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

I’m Glad That ISIS Suicide Bomber Jamal al-Harith Was Paid £1m Compensation By The British Government

We must not let politicians use this story to undermine the case for universal human rights

The news this week was full of the controversy surrounding the British born suicide bomber Jamal al-Harith, formerly known as Ronald Fiddler.  Al-Harith was picked up by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001, where he was suspected of fighting with the Taliban.   He spent time in the U.S. detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, before being returned to the U.K. It seems that he subsequently traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS and launched a suicide bomb attack during the current battle with the Iraqi army for the city of Mosul.

Aspects to this story include whether security services had been monitoring his movements; whether the policies of previous Home Secretaries (including Teresa May) made it easier for him to do what he did; The Daily Mail’s ridiculous attempt to smear Tony Blair for being at fault; and the alleged £1m compensation paid to al-Harith. Continue reading “I’m Glad That ISIS Suicide Bomber Jamal al-Harith Was Paid £1m Compensation By The British Government”

Imagine Your Well Meaning Policy in the Tiny Hands of Donald Trump  

One tangential effect of the Trump presidency—I hate to call it anything so optimistic as a ‘silver lining’—is that it is likely to reconfigure many people’s conception of the state and its power.
An ongoing difficulty for those of us who campaign on human rights issues is convincing ordinary that rights violations effect them. The people who usually have their human rights violated first are usually out of the mainstream: people on the political fringes, religious minorities, or those who are part of unconventional sub-cultures. Those who are part of the conventional majority do not the abuses happen to others, and even if they are told about them, they never really believe the old Pastor Niemöller warning that they could be next (I’ve talked about this before).


Although I think such attitudes are mistaken, I think they are forgivable. When one lives in a country with a healthy democratic culture under politicians who are conventional and centrist, it is entirely rational to think that any clipping or shaving of human rights will not affect you, because, frankly, they won’t.

This is why the British people appear to have consented to their government logging communication and browsing history: few people really believe that Prime Ministers like David Cameron or Teresa May will use their surveillance powers to establish a Nineteen Eighty-four style surveillance state.

Warnings to that effect (perhaps even deploying the word ‘Orwellian’) are perceived as hyperbole.

Likewise with the way in which people consented to human rights abuses perpetuated by the Obama Administration. Because the forty-fourth president was a thoughtful and essentially decent person, it was assumed that any capability the U.S. Government has to invade citizens privacy, or to launch drone strikes on foreigners, would be used wisely and sparingly.

But Barack Obama gifted Donald Trump an expansive surveillance state.

While I do not believe the Trump presidency is likely to be materially or morally helpful to the world, it will at least be rhetorically useful. In his awfulness and in his likely abuse of his power, he will provide the perfect warning, a salutary tale, a bogeyman that we can use to warn policy-makers and voters everywhere about the dangers of eroding civil liberties.

So when someone proposes a slight curb on free speech, or subtle change to surveillance powers, the argument will no longer be some nebulous hypothetical In the future someone could misuse these powers. Instead, the argument will be Imagine these powers in the hands of Donald Trump. The fact he has been elected and is busy ignoring all the standards, traditions and norms that keep a democracy strong and trusted, shows us just how quickly a stable democracy can slip off the rails. He is a stark reminder that we should build safeguards and worst-case-scenarios into our laws.

None of this is particularly interesting to the Irish or to ethnic minorities, of course. They don’t need to imagine state over-reach because they already have first-hand experience of how the state can abuse it’s power at their expense.

The Corruption of the Victim: Şafak and Koestler on Censorship

When rights are abused, we are all corrupted

Writing in the New Yorker about Turkey, the novelist Elif Şafak begins thus:

The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

This is, I think, an under-explored aspect of human rights… or rather, human rights violations.

When one is in the business of defending human rights and free speech in other parts of the world, it’s easy to slip into a simple dichotomy:  The censorious government is bad and corrupt; the dissidents are noble and good.

In reality, things are far more complicated.  Not all activists, journalists and writers have the courage or even the means to fight back. Those outliers who continue to write what they think—and damn the consequences—are few and far between. This makes it easy for the Government to identify them and pick them off.

Most people aren’t that brave and instead find themselves corrupted in some way: As Şafak explains later in her essay, this might be through direct complicity with the regime; silence (a sort of sin of omission); or else a corruption of their literary output as it flees into metaphor and ambiguity.

My interview with Anjan Sundaram about what he saw happen to journalists in Rwanda is relevant to Elif’s analysis: he saw the full spectrum of reactions to authoritarianism, from cringing complicity to outright defiance.

More generally, the corruption of the person and the state that comes when human rights are denied is a crucial argument against any weakening of rights protections.  As we prepare for a battle against a British Prime Minister intent on destroying our hard-won protections against state power, this is one of the arguments we must marshal: when the rights of some are abused, we are all diminished.

How to say this in a way that persuades?

Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’

A good formulation of one of the most powerful reasons to support free speech. I have already appropriated the phrase in my own advocacy.

Last month I was privileged enough to participate in the annual House of Lords Chamber Debate.  It’s the one time during the year when people who are not members of the House of Lords are allowed to sit on its benches and debate.

This year the debate was about free speech and its limits.  I made a short contribution about the practicalities of censorship and surveillance, and said that free speech should be about dialogue and conversation. Continue reading “Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’”