Check your privilege: Whose free speech is it anyway?

Here’s an audio recording of my remarks at the ORGcon panel ‘The right to be offensive: free speech online’.

I saw this event as an opportunity to develop the discussion on offence and free speech that I had at the Liberty AGM panel last month.  There, the discussion about offensive words centred around ideas of blasphemy and obscenity, and the conclusion seemed to be ‘people need to have thicker skins.’  When it comes to the criticism and satire of religion or public figures, I agree with this sentiment.  But it is a weak and incomplete response to the hate speech and bullying.  An article by Helen Lewis at the New Statesman was fresh in my mind – a nasty culture of rape threats and racism seems to be evolving, and it is driving people offline.  This is also a free expression issue.

So free speech advocates are faced with a challenge.  If we campaign to esnure that offensive comments are legal and permitted in public and quasi-public fora like Twitter and Facebook, what do we do about the hate speech?  What do we do about the racist and sexist comments that discourage minority voices from participating in the discussion?  To expect these people to get a thicker skin and just shrug it off is a privileged attitude that prioritises the free speech of one group over another.

Human rights campaigners must come up with a solution that addresses hateful comments, but without recourse to law.  There may be technical solutions or behavioural remedies we can use to discourage the rape-threats and the sexism and the racism.  If liberal defenders of a free internet to do not address this problem, then populist politicians will seize the initiative and burden us with authoritarian speech laws.

Is online vigilantism the answer?   Can we not use our own right to free speech to shame the people posting the ugly comments?  Fellow pannellist David Allen Green was wary of ‘Twitter storms’, saying that they often result in someone in the storm calling the police.  He said that are unfocused and has previously likened them to an Orwellian Two-Minute Hate.   But perhaps a more surgical form of online counter-speech is the answer?  What would that look like, I wonder?

Liberty Annual Conference: Is Speech Free Online?

I was delighted to be asked to speak on a panel at the Liberty Annual Conference yesterday. I took part in the ‘Is Speech Free Online?’ discussion with Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and the Erotic Review, and Bella Sankey, Liberty’s policy director. Martin Howe was the chair.

Speaking first, my co-panellist Ian Dunt made a pertinent point about how the low financial barriers to free speech online are also the reason that online speech may be threatened. People do not need financial reserves in order to publish online – It is cheap and quick. However, this lack of money also means they are more vulnerable to being sued by those who do have money and power. The publishing divide is not between online/offline, but between those with lawyers, and those without.

I began own my remarks by noting that speech was most certainly not free online in other parts of the world. I cited the recent manoeuvrings to criminalise online dissent by the Azerbaijan parliament; China shutting down dissident Sina Weibo accounts; and Fazil Say’s suspended sentence in Turkey.

I spoke about the recent prosecutions from remarks made on social media, and the fact that current laws include the word ‘offensive’ as a trigger for prosecution, which is open to abuse. I noted how the immediacy of social media messaging meant that immature political views follow you around long after they should have been discarded, but that Tweeting and Facebooking are forms of publishing and could never be cordoned off as some special type of speech that is subjected to different laws. Parents and teachers need to help the young ‘uns be savvier about what they choose to publish online. I finished by warning that we cannot take our free expression for granted when we use social media spaces that feel public, but are in fact owned by corporations with a profit motive to censor if it is in their financial interests to do so.

The player is below or you can listen on SoundCloud.

During the Q&A I also managed to slip in a few re-tweetables about the nature of free speech and ‘counter-speech’.

Here’s the view from the panel just before the start of the session, as people began to filter in.

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Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?

The release today of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamed’s brilliant novel, reminded me to post this article I wrote for InPrint, the magazine of the Society of Young Publishers.  It was published last month, in the issue timed to co-incide with the London Book Fair.


Who drives our culture? Conventional wisdom says it is Hollywood. After all, it is the film industry that produces the most highly paid artistes and the most visible ‘A listers’. Film is a visual medium and it churns out icons at a steady, lucrative rate. The four-hour Oscars telecast is beamed live around the world.

By contrast, the announcement of the Man Booker Prize does not even get its own TV slot in schedules. The announcement is allowed to interrupt the news broadcasts, but the analysis and reactions are made to wait until a scheduled bulletin and it’s never the lead story.

Film claims global relevance, whereas publishing is parochial. Film claims to be popular, whereas publishing is elitist. Continue reading “Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?”

"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.

Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice

Over the weekend, I wrote a short piece about the Defamation Bill for Liberal Democrat Voice, urging activists to lobby their party leadership.  The Defamation Bill is to be debated in the House of Commons today, so it is worth cross-posting this now, before the crucial votes render it obsolete!  This morning, Stephen Tall wrote a follow up post: ‘Lib Dems Libel Reform retreat points to a wider coalition problem‘.


There is a new threat to the Defamation Bill.

No sooner had the proposed law been liberated, after being taken hostage by Leveson negotiations, than Conservative MPs have begun messing with crucial free speech provisions.

Former libel lawyer Sir Edward Garnier MP has tabled an amendment seeking to remove a crucial clause from the Defamation Bill. The clause places some limits on corporations’ use of the libel laws. It does not bar them from suing entirely – just asks that they show financial loss before they do so. It’s an objective and measurable test for companies, who after all do not have feelings.

Such a law would have discouraged the crippling libel cases brought by Big Pharma against Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre. It would have helped Simon Singh. It would stop the costly ‘lawfare’ waged by the extractive industries around the world against human rights groups like Global Witness. It would stop scientists and doctors from having to decide whether to speak out for their patients and risk selling their house in order to pay legal fees… Or keep their mouths shut. Continue reading “Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice”

Quoted in the Daily Mail, discussing Libel Reform

As well as quotes in the the Guardian and the Telegraph, I am also quoted in the Daily Mail today, discussing the same issue of libel law and corporations.

Libel lawyer and Tory MP Sir Edward Garnier has put down amendments to the Government’s Defamation Bill that would remove key sections designed to boost freedom of speech. … Robert Sharp, of English PEN, another group calling for change to protect freedom of speech, said both subclauses were essential ‘to stop the inequality of arms that corporations use’.

 

Quotes in the Guardian and Telegraph

I’ve been quoted in newspapers twice this week.

Yesterday, the Libel Reform Campaign learnt that Sir Edward Garnier MP was seeking to remove essential provisions from the Defamation Bill. The Guardian asked me to comment:

Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for English PEN, said both subclauses were essential “to stop the inequality of arms that corporations use. They use the libel law for PR.”

Sharp pointed out that Garnier does not have the full support of his party, with Tory peer Lord Mawhinney having given his support to the companies’ clause saying the fact they could sue anyone without any prima facie proof of financial damage was “a form of bullying”.

The quote from Lord Mawhinney was during a House of Lords debate on the Defamation Bill, which I attended.

I was also quoted in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, in a piece by Andrew Gilligan about the Royal Charter and Hacked Off. I am less pleased about that one, though – it is a story about process, not policy.

Interviewed on Free Expression in Vietnam

The General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng was in the UK this week, so English PEN wrote a letter to David Cameron, asking him to raise our free expression concerns during their meeting.

I was interviewed about the visit by Voice of America’s Vietnamese Service.

There is an accompanying article.  This is the key quote:

Thủ tướng Anh nên quan tâm đến việc các doanh nghiệp Anh có nên đầu tư vào một nước như Việt Nam hay không khi mà nạn vi phạm nhân quyền, vi phạm quyền tự do bày tỏ quan điểm đã trở nên quá rõ ràng đến mức như vậy.

Essentially: When writers are being locked up, how can you trust what is reported from within Vietnam?  Why should British buinesses invest in a country where information about the economy and corruption may be suppressed?

Those of you who don’t speak Vietnamese may appreciate a Google Translate version of the page.

 

Scientology and Libel Reform

Here’s a perfect example of the libel laws preventing literature and public interest debate: Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear will not be published in the UK.  His British publiser Transworld have said that some of the content was “not robust enough for the UK market.”

This is not a euphemism for saying the book is fabricated.  It means that although the author is confident of what he has written, neither he nor his publishers can afford the time or the money to defend the claims against the (famously litigious) Church of Scientology. Continue reading “Scientology and Libel Reform”

Discussing Free Speech in Turkey in The Guardian

PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office
PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office

I’m quoted in The Guardian today, discussing censorship in Turkey.

“This and other cases highlight the fact that Turkey has a free expression problem,” said English PEN spokesperson Robert Sharp. “When ill-advised laws are put in place, then those with an ideological agenda will seek to use them to censor words or writing they do not like. This is why we campaign against ‘insult laws’ all over the world – including the UK. Censorship does not begin with the state instantly imprisoning authors and burning books. It begins with individuals using bad laws as weapons against each other.”

I was commenting on the ridiculous news that the board members of PEN Turkey were hauled into the Istanbul Prosecutors Office, to be questioned as to whether they had “insulted Turkishness” by they called Turkey’s censorship laws ‘fascist’.  Thought-crime, essentially.  It is a huge irony that a complaint at ‘fascist developments’ should be met by the sinster act of summoning all the board members for questioning… an irony apparently lost on the authorities.