Just as we were discussing offence, blasphemy and Islam, a reminder that hard-line Muslims are not the only enemies of free speech. Index on Censorship reports that The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been forced to cancel its production of The Bible because of complaints from religious groups.
Last week The Bookseller reported on a furore in the world of e-Book publishing. Erotic self-published novels appeared next to children’s literature in the WH Smith online store, which is powered by Kobo.
This looks to me like a technical mistake, but the occurence provoked outrage. The store was taken offline for a while and many books were removed from sale. I spoke to The Bookseller about the controversy: Continue reading
Another person has received a criminal conviction for something they posted on a social media site. Matthew Woods received a 12 week prison sentence for posting a message about missing schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page. At 20 years old, Woods sits in the same young and foolish male demographic as Azhar Ahmed, @Rileyy_69 and Leo Traynor’s troll.
The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial. Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.
However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading
The advert ran earlier this year in the i Paper (the low cost digest of the Independent). It called for the supermarket M&S to boycott Mumsnet, because the web forum carried messages which “promote gender hatred”. The text on the advert is actually worded quite politely (“Fathers4Justice are writing to all advertisers this Father’s Day to inform them…”) but the image is of a baby boy with words like ‘deadbeat’ and ‘rioter’ scrawled over his body.
The advert has now been banned by the ASA, which means Fathers4Justice cannot use it in future adverts.
Is this not an infringement of free expression? If I have argued in the past for the right of people to say insensitive things or use hyperbole, what’s the difference here?
First, an ASA ban is not quite the same as a legal prohibition. Fathers4Justice can presumably continue to make similar claims on their own websites and publicity materials. Nevertheless, an ASA ban a form of censorship.
Second, the ASA have ruled on the claims that Mumsnet promote hatred, not on the shocking imagery in the advert. Scrawling the word ‘rapist’ on a baby is certainly shocking and offensive, but that is not what has been banned.
Instead, the ASA have ruled that the advert was misleading. Mumsnet do not promote gender hatred in the way Fathers4Justice claimed.
Nevertheless, part of me wants this sort of thing to be refuted in other ways. Mumsnet is an extraordinarily influential organisation (25,000 daily posts to the forums is a lot of traffic, and founder Justine Roberts was on Question Time a few weeks ago), and I wonder whether such bizarre claims from a famously odd organisation such as Fathers4Justice could not have been fought via discussion and debate. A few cutting blog posts, that demonstrate the falsity of the advert’s assertions, would surely spread like wildfire, discrediting Fathers4Justice, and burnishing Mumsnet.
There is also a free speech issue on the other side of the fence. An Internet forum is not a newspaper. The thousands of postings that go up every day are not the editorial voice of the platform provider. The nature of the discussions (parenthood, domestic issues, child-rearing) are emotive and one might expect a degree of angry venting to take place. That’s a feature, not a bug, of such websites. Mumsnet should not be held responsible that such content arises… Especially as they have a clear policy to remove posts that violate their comments policy. If sponsors like M&S were to withdraw sponsorship of the site, it would presumably wither and die. A valuable platform for free expression and useful ideas would disappear.
Aside: Note the names of the two organisations involved in this argument: Fathers4Justice and Mumsnet. Two portmanteaus, no spaces between what should be separate words. Creations of the digital space.
Here’s my interview on Al Jazeera, discussing the #TwitterJokeTrial and free speech online: