The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence

As an addendum to Brian Cathcart’s article, it is worth highlighting the terms in which the Leveson Inquiry report discusses the campaign

It’s nearly 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south London. His death has become a pivotal moment in race relations in the U.K. It has become, in retrospect, the moment when the country woke up to the shoddy justice available to people of colour. It prompted the MacPherson Inquiry which famously branded the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’.

In the 25 years since the murder, the Daily Mail has claimed for itself a central role in bringing justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its campaigning is hailed as an example of public interest journalism, and is often cited as a refutation of the charge that the newspaper itself is inherently racist.

In an enlightening paper for Political Quarterly, Professor Brian Cathcart examined every word that the Daily Mail published on the Stephen Lawrence case. He suggests that the newspaper has systematically exaggerated its influence over the case. He’s written OpenDemocracy article summarises the main findings. Continue reading “The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence”

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”

So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission

The Government remains a greater threat to free speech than a few over-woke students

This week the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP has called on the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, to ensure that the institutions under its purview guarantee free speech. He was commenting on the launch of a consultation by the new Office for Students on how it will regulate universities.

First of all, we should remind ourselves that Universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech: Section 43 of the Education Act (No.2) 1986. This section was added to the legislation amid similar concerns around No Platforming of Conservative politicians. So Mr Johnson’s suggestions are perhaps less radical than he supposes.

Second, there is something vaguely satirical about a Government forcing institutions to protect free speech. Reading Johnson’s comments, I was reminded of the Scarfolk Town Council poster ‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory‘. Continue reading “So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission”

Are Early Day Motions Pointless?

Some Members of Parliament certainly think so

At Westminster, an Early Day Motion is a motion tabled by an MP, calling for a debate on a particular topic. The motions rarely get debated, but they draw other MPs’ attention to particular issues. EDMs are a sort of petition system, exclusive to members of the House of Commons.

I had always taken it as a given that EDMs were a useful tool in a campaigner’s kit. If one Member of Parliament is allied to your cause, they can table an Early Day Motion… which then gives supporters of the campaign a reason to write to their own MPs about the issue. By requesting that your elected representative signs the EDM, you are effectively asking “please put it on record that you support this issue”. This is useful.

During the course of the Libel Reform Campaign, we made much of the fact that 249 Members of Parliament had signed EDM 423, which was a lot. It was also significant that the motion had cross party support.

The disappointing fact that some EDMs do not attract cross party support is often a useful data point. For example, of the 36 people who have signed EDM 37, condemning the imprisonment of Raïf Badawi in Saudi Arabia, none are from the Conservative Party, who are currently in government. Since Badawi is in prison for the crime of setting up blog that discussed liberalism, it is odd that no Tory wishes to put their name to it. Perhaps they simply haven’t been asked… but perhaps the Conservative whips have asked them not to, for reasons of diplomacy. (This is infuriating to campaigners, but as I blogged previously, there may be good and honest reasons why this is so.)

It is possible, however, that if one seeks genuine change rather than posturing, EDMs are a distraction. While working on the Raïf Badawi case, I wrote to some MPs asking them to sign the EDM. I received this reply from one Member of Parliament:

I very rarely sign EDMs for the following reasons. First, they have absolutely no impact at Westminster.

Second, PR companies and the like suggest to their clients that they should pressure MPs to sign them when they know full well that they are political placebos with negligible impact but they can claim that their influence has made MPs sign EDMs. 

Third, I am told they cost the taxpayer (each) about £300 a month and there are hundreds of them. I do not like that at all in view of my first two points.

One MP I could name signs almost every one, but I think that to be dreadful because he knows full well that they achieve nothing. But it gets that MP off the hook! Not one EDM has made it through to legislation in my time.

The EDM on libel reform disproves that last point, but the others are worth considering. The £300 figure is a factual claim which I will check. But if the EDM process is not particularly respected by MPs then it might not have the parliamentary influence that campaigners assume, and those ‘PR companies’ assert.

HuffPost: Britain Sets An Example With Its Human Rights Laws – Counter-Extremism Policy Must Be No Different

An op-ed version of my chapter appeared on HuffPost UK

To coincide with the publication of Free and Fair, HuffPost UK published an edited version of my chapter on their politics homepage.

Here’s the central message of the piece:

How can FCO diplomats credibly oppose the sinister monitoring of online discussion in China, when GCHQ is running a comparable mass data collection programme in the UK? How can NGOs credibly protest the prosecution of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül in Turkey for ‘revealing state secrets’ when our own Law Commission has proposed that the UK adopt a similar law? And how can activists effectively protest the treatment of writers like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for merely imagining a new political system, when the UK Home Office is cooking up mechanisms to shut up our own radicals?

You can read the whole thing on HuffPost UK.

Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights

The hope is always that Fabian pamphlets present ideas that the Labour Party could implement, if elected.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve written a chapter for Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights, the latest policy pamphlet from the Fabian Society.

Naturally, my section is on freedom of expression and privacy. The hope is always that Fabian pamphlets present ideas that the Labour Party could implement, if elected. I recommend that the next Labour Government should: reform the deeply illiberal Investigatory Powers Act; introduce a public interest defence to Offical Secrets laws; and abandon Home Office attempts to shut down non-violent radical speech. I also recommend that Labour tie any post-Brexit trade deals to respect for human rights. Doing business with rights abusing regimes ultimately makes us all less safe. Continue reading “Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights”

The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before

The same cycle of news, analysis and meta-analysis, and nothing changes

Hideous news from Las Vegas. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

Reading the coverage and the commentary, I’m reminded of the song ‘Nothing Ever Happens‘ by the Scottish band Del Amitri.

The song is 28 years old now.  Some of the lyrics I find too simplistic, like a sixth former berating the world (“Ignorant people sleep in their beds, like the doped white mice in the college lab”). But in other ways it feels contemporary:

Nothing ever happens / Nothing happens at all / The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before

Continue reading “The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before”

American Tribalism

It’s a powerful audio essay, but crushingly, Sullivan offers no roadmap for how America might resolve the crisis

By chance, I heard Andrew Sullivan’s radio essay about Donald Trump and tribalism in America on BBC Radio 4 yesterday evening.

Following the shock presidential election result last year, I had heard many of the insights that Sullivan set out in the monologue.  But the particular format of this piece, coupled with Sullivan’s great writing, makes it a particularly powerful iteration.

Crushingly, Sullivan offers no road-map for how this American (and therefore, global) crisis might be reversed, other than the hope that another ‘Lincoln’ might appear to save the country from itself. But isn’t a faith in saviours what has put America into this position in the first place? Obama and Trump are very different characters, but both took on a definite totemic status for their supporters. What is needed, it seems to me, is for the resolution to take place not within a single unifying figurehead at the top, but with a million acts of reconciliation among the citizenry. And we’re all out of ideas for how to bring that about. There is a chance things might get worse before they get better.

A Point Of View episodes are available indefinitely as a podcast. Visit the BBC website to listen again.

Nazi Punching

I am unsure why I did not publish the post at the time. Perhaps I forgot. Perhaps I felt I should not be ‘on record’ as being either for or against Nazi Punching

In a recent post, I listed the titles of all 53 of my unpublished blog drafts. This obviously prompted me to go back and look at some of them.

Among those still languishing in ‘blog purgatory’ was a post ‘On Punching White Supremacists’ and was written in January, when the dos and don’ts of Nazi Punching became a hot topic of conversation after a particular proto-Nazi was punched live on TV.

The post appeared to be a complete thing, and I am unsure why I did not publish it at the time. Perhaps I forgot. Perhaps I felt I should not be ‘on record’ as being either for or against Nazi Punching—Both positions are morally perilous, as the post itself explains.

Or perhaps I felt that the world simply did not need another ‘hot take’ on Nazi Punching.

Anyway, it seemed silly to keep the thing in limbo. The arguments for and against are a useful aide memoir, even if my conclusions are ambiguous. So I published it.

You can read the post here. Continue reading “Nazi Punching”

Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor

People in power like to hide behind national symbols (such as a flag or a monarch) as a way of deflecting criticism.

This blog is useful for many things: a jotter where I can experiment with half formed ideas; an outlet to vent my frustration at some form of shoddy public thinking; to impart advice or recommendations; or simply a place to marvel at the wonderful things that humanity or nature has created.

Today, however, it serves the useful purpose of providing l’espirit d’escalier—an opportunity to add to a conversation, after it has concluded!

The new Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea is Emma Dent Coad, and she has caused controversy at the Labour Party conference by being rude about the royal family. Some of the things she said about Prince Harry have turned out to be false, but she also made some pertinent points about how they spend taxpayers money. This has prompted a conversation about the limits of civil and respectable speech, and echoes some of the discussion in the USA right now, about whether athletes who #TakeAKnee during the national anthem are showing this respect, and if so, to whom.

All this is ripe for discussion on a call-in radio show. Eddie Nestor was leading the debate on his BBC drive time show yesterday, and I went on air to make an uncompromising case for free speech. You can listen to the entire show again on the BBC iPlayer, either on the web or on the app, for the next thirty days. You can also listen to my contribution on SoundCloud, or via the player below. Continue reading “Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor”