Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition

Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flickr (CC licence)

Lost in the noise, this tweet from Labour Stephen Doughty MP:

https://twitter.com/SDoughtyMP/status/1072550760314007552

Events have over-taken this prospect. The Chair of the 1922 Committee received the required 48 letters on Tuesday, and so on Wednesday Theresa May had to weather a confidence motion from Conservative MPs. The opposition parties are keeping their powder dry on a confidence motion of their own. There is now no vote to avoid by proroguing parliament.

Nevertheless, the very thought of such manoeuvring should give us pause for thought. In the case of this Government and this embattled Prime Minister, the tactic would have surely backfired. While proroguing parliament is procedurally allowed, the British public would have considered it somehow ‘cheating’ and taken a dim view. Meanwhile, Members of the House of Commons would have been angry at having been denied the opportunity to censure the Government before Christmas, and would have returned in the New Year smarting for a confrontation. Continue reading “Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition”

Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News

On Tuesday 11th September, Lucy Powell MP introduced the Online Forums Bill to Parliament. It was a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’, a mechanism by which opposition and backbench members of parliament can introduce legislation.  The text of Ms Powell’s speech may be found in Hansard and there is a video on Parliament.tv.

The speech makes some challenging points. How is it that Facebook groups can grow to tens of thousands of people in secret, with no oversight or scrutiny? One such group, which discussed autism, recommended that parents give their kids ‘bleach enemas’ to cure the condition.

Powell also points out that members of these groups often feel too intimidated to speak out against the most vocal and radical members of the group. This shifts the dynamics of such groups to ever more extreme positions, and is a very particular free speech issue in itself.

The bill proposes that online forum operators like Facebook be forced to take greater responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Just after the parliamentary debate concluded, I was invited onto Sky News to discuss the proposals. The segment can be viewed below or on YouTube. Continue reading “Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News”

Why Are We Following Panic Brexit?

On the morning of 24th June 2016 I wrote a post on my blog entitled ‘Here’s What We Need To Do Now’.

Here’s What We Need To Do Now

The ‘we’ in that post were the Remainers. I recommended we refrained from moaning about racist, insular Brexiteers and instead adopted a conciliatory attitude. To accept that a bad decision had been made but then endeavour to make withdrawal from the EU work.

None of that happened, of course. Continue reading “Why Are We Following Panic Brexit?”

Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme

The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.

I was invited onto the BBC Victoria Derbyshire TV programme today to discuss the issue, alongside Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad; and Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and who has been taunted and harassed by the InfoWars website and its supporters. Continue reading “Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme”

Someone called the police

In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.

When Yale student Lolade Siyonbola fell asleep in the library while writing an essay, someone called the police. When Tenessee real-estate developer inspected a house in Memphis, someone called the police. When Oakland resident Onsayo Abram set up a barbeque in the park, someone called the police.

Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.

Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).

But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties. Continue reading “Someone called the police”

Name-alikeys, Revisited

A long time ago I wrote a post about other people named Robert Sharp. This was prompted by the fact that some guy wearing my name was running for Congress in the USA.

Nothing provokes as much introspection as your own personal homonym achieving something.

For some reason I didn’t link to the pop culture reference point for this, Are You Dave Gorman?

Since then I have created a Twitter list of other Robert Sharps, which I tautologically consider to be a form of narcissistic worldliness. Astonishingly the list contains not one but two professional wrestlers.

I have actually met Rob Sharp and the world did not explode, and I have also chatted on social media with Robert Sharp.

However, a recent Google search threw up a few faces of which I had not been aware. Here they are, in alphabetical order—click on the photographs to read more about each of them. Continue reading “Name-alikeys, Revisited”

I Told You So! When Media and Tech Companies Fail To Self-Regulate, Governments Step In

Following the revelations about the harvesting of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing worries about abuse and threats on social media, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last week began a new inquiry entitled ‘Is It Time To Regulate The Internet?’. At the witness sessions so far, peers have opened by asking each expert to comment on whether they favour self-regulation, co-regulation, or state-regulation.

The instinct to regulate is not limited to the U.K. Late last year senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said:

You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it… Or we will.

With the reader’s indulgence, these developments remind me of a point I made a few years ago at ORGcon2013, when I was speaking on a panel alongside Facebook VP for Public Policy EMEA, Richard Allan:

If we as the liberal free speech advocates don’t come up with alternative ways of solving things like the brutal hate speech against women, the hideous environment for comments that we see online, then other people are going to fix it for us. And they’re going to fix it in a draconian, leglislative way. So if we want to stop that happening, we need to come up with alternative ways of making people be nicer!

An audio recording of these remarks is on SoundCloud.

Its clear that neither Facebook, nor anyone in the technically minded audience at ORGCon, managed to solve the problem I raised. And lo! The legislators have arrived.

Social Exclusion at the Top

Ant McPartlin’s drink driving conviction and record £86,000 fine in Monday gives me an excuse to finally publish a post that has been sitting in blog purgatory for eight years.

Ant’s car crash is the latest example of fabulously wealthy TV and sports stars behaving badly in vehicles. Yaya Touré was handed a record-at-the-time £54,000 fine for drink-driving in 2016. Further back in time, we may recall the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was clocked doing 104mph in his Lamborghini, and John Terry has a penchant for parking in disabled bays.

Continue reading “Social Exclusion at the Top”

El Miracle de Miralles

I wrote this whimsy in a fugue state one evening in October after seeing this Tweet. Thank you Paul for the inspiration.

To say that the world was shocked when the Scottish Parliament building was suddenly transported 1000 miles into the centre of Barcelona, would be something of an understatement.

No similar, verifiable phenomenon had ever before occurred in human history. The field of physics was thrown into disarray, when not one scientist could offer an explanation for why a building with a footprint of some four acres should suddenly, and without warning, disappear from its site beneath the cragged, volcanic mountain of Arthur’s Seat, and reappear on the site of the Mercat Santa Caterina. Continue reading “El Miracle de Miralles”

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.