Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”

Public Inquries Are Not An ‘Outrage’, They Are A Democratic Tool That Make Us Safer

The Sun is outraged that army killings in Northern Ireland will be reinvestigated. Soldiers who killed during the ‘Troubles’ will be considered as manslaughter suspects in a new inquiry, report Tom Newton-Dunn and Matt Wilkinson.

The report contrasts the “brave” servicemen with the IRA terrorists who were killed, or in some cases, received a pardon. The newspaper says this is a “witch hunt”.

This re-tread over old ground is down to the trust, or lack of it, that the the people have in the Government. We now know that the police and security services colluded in UVF the murder of Catholics in Ireland as late as 1994. Such actions were in themselves a hideous human rights abuse and a betrayal of a Government’s core duty to protect its citizens. But it also eroded the trust that any Government needs to operate effectively in matters of security. Continue reading “Public Inquries Are Not An ‘Outrage’, They Are A Democratic Tool That Make Us Safer”

Discussing defamation in The Bookseller

If publishers are spending money on libel, they’re not spending on new stuff

The Scottish Law Commission’s consultation on the law of defamation closes this week.  If you want take a stand for free speech in Scotland, then an easy but important thing you can do is co-sign the Libel Reform Campaign’s letter to Lord Pentland, the chair of the commission.

Last month I spoke to the Bookseller about defamation reform, after the incoming president of the Publishers’ Association, Simon Barr, said that it was important that it was important to close the “loophole” caused by the different defamation regimes in England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Long-time readers of this blog will recall that while the Westminster parliament has legislated, the parliaments at Holyrood and Stormont have not yet done so.

There are many reasons to reform defamation, but to my mind the one that should motivate publishers in particular is this:

Another consequence is the possibility legal costs will dent budgets for breaking new authors. “If publishers are spending money on libel, they’re not spending on new stuff,” Sharp said. And the books that get binned, it won’t be the mainstream commercial titles, it’s going to be the experimental stuff – the first time authors, the challenging and the quirky things that are a bit of a risk.”

You can read Katherine Cowdrey’s full report on the Bookseller website.

Legalising abortion in Northern Ireland is vote-neutral for the Westminster parties

Last week, U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump provoked outrage when he said that women should be punished for having an abortion.  Unusually for the self-styled maverick, he walked back the comments in subsequent interviews, saying that, actually, the woman is the victim in such cases.  The idea that a woman who seeks an abortion should be criminalised (instead of or in addition to the person performing the procedure) is far outside mainstream political opinion, even in a country where religious fundamentalists have high levels of politically engagement.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, a woman has been given a criminal record and a three-month suspended sentence for aborting her baby in Northern Ireland. Continue reading “Legalising abortion in Northern Ireland is vote-neutral for the Westminster parties”

Peter Tatchell’s Surprising Support for the Homophobic Bakers

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the homophobic Bed & Breakfast owners. But Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’?  Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation.  The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.

The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week.  Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery.  There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.

I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:

It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage.  Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one.  The implications loom large.  Tatchell asks:

Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

The Medium of Icing

Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.

Urging #LibelReform in Scottish Legal News

Earlier this week I spoke to journalist Kapil Summan on behalf of English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, on the issue of reforming the UK defamation laws.

The Defamation Act 2013, you will recall, reformed the law in England & Wales.  But MSPs at Holyrood and MLAs at Stormont have yet to legislate for their jurisdictions.

I extemporised on why reform in required in both places! Kapil wrote up two versions of the interview, for Scottish Legal News and Irish Legal News

Key message:

The fact the Defamation Act seems to be working as Parliament intended is precisely what we were after so we’re going into this … with confidence that the Defamation Act is a very strong blueprint for reform in other jurisdictions.

Canaries down the free speech mine

On Tuesday I was quoted in a Belfast Telegraph report on the rise of super-injunctions in Northern Ireland.  Super-injunctions, you will recall, are those special types of gagging-order where the judge not only stops you from reporting certain facts, but also bars you from even telling anyone you’ve been censored.  As a rule of thumb, this tends to be a bad thing. Continue reading “Canaries down the free speech mine”

"A looming democratic deficit"?

The Government flatly rejected proposals to extend the Derbyshire principle to private companies spending taxpayers money. British citizens are therefore confronted with a looming democratic deficit.

The folk at the brilliant OurKingdom blog commissioned a piece from me on the next steps for Libel Reform.  The crucial issue:

During the Parliamentary debates, the Government flatly rejected proposals to extend the Derbyshire principle to private companies spending taxpayers money. British citizens are therefore confronted with a looming democratic deficit. As private companies take over the running of prisons, waste collection, school dinners, care homes, and large swathes of the NHS, the space to criticise them is squeezed. By leaving the Derbyshire principle to the courts to develop further, the Government have introduced an unwelcome ambiguity into our public discourse, especially at the local level. It will be left to citizens to closely monitor how the big subcontractors behave in this area. Any hint that these corporations are stifling public criticism through use of the libel law must be met with a public outcry.

Read the whole article, What next for libel reform?, on the OurKingdom blog.

Murder vs Terrorism

As politicians from all sides condemn the brutal killings in Northern Ireland, one word seems conspicuously absent from their comments: “terrorism”.

As politicians from all sides condemn the brutal killings in Northern Ireland, one word seems conspicuously absent from their comments: terrorism.  Gordon Brown seemed particularly careful to label the perpetrators “murderers”.

I am reminded of a Matthew Parris column from two-and-a-half years ago, comparing the British Government’s approach to violence in Northern Ireland, and the radical Islamist threat:

Let’s treat the plotters as common criminals, not soldiers in a global war

It is clear why this distinction is made.  Labelling the attacks “murders” suggests that these are isolated incidents, divorced from ideology.  Meanwhile “terrorism” would point to a Second Troubles.  No-one but the Real IRA wants that.  If/when we fall victim to another Islamist terror attack, it will be interesting to note what language the Government uses then, especially now that the “War on Terror” has fallen out of vogue.