Quoted on Libel Tourism

Eagle-eyed commuters will have spotted a quote from yrstruly in the Metro this morning, on the all important topic of Libel Tourism.  Barack Obama has just signed into law some measures that will protect Americans from British libel judgements.  The protection will kick-in if the libel judgement is at odds with the First Ammendment.

Yesterday, campaigners said Mr Obama’s move was a clear indication that our libel laws were way behind the times in protecting freedom of expression.  Robert Sharp, of charity English PEN, said: ‘It’s a national disgrace and just shows how skewed and unbalanced our laws are.’

Read the whole article.  My longer rant about libel tourism may be found on Comment is Free.

Behzti is no longer taboo

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While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech.  Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments.  As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.

Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.

Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.

However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.

The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.

Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.

Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.

Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.

Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.

Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.

For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.

No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?

Behzti, a play about sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, was cancelled in 2004 after the Sikh community stormed the theatre. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Judging a Book by its Cover

An event report I wrote for the English PEN website.

Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.
Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.

I’ll admit, I judged this event by its cover.

I assumed that an discussion titled ‘Judging a book by its cover’ would be about book jacket design, rich and fertile ground for ideas on culture and mass marketing.  I expected to hear bookseller Rick Gekoski wax about the beauty of a hardback first edition, and hear Joanna Prior explain how Penguin’s mass market paperbacks have become an iconic design in themselves.  I expected to hear how the large publishers are stifling creativity by homogenising the book design process.

And in fact, I did hear about all those things. However, I expected them to be within a discussion that was essentially about aesthetics. I did not expect to be faced, instead, with a more philosophical question: what is a book? Is it the paper, the cover and the binding? Or is it the words on the page? Continue reading “Judging a Book by its Cover”

Arguing Libel Reform in the Solictiors Journal

I have an article in this week’s Solictiors Journal, calling for whole-scale reform of libel law.  In making my case, I find common ground with Nigel Tait of Carter Ruck:

Speaking at an English PEN event on libel, he [Tait] admitted that some proposals for change filled him with “fear and dread”, but he welcomed the idea of a libel tribunal as an alternative to full trial.

“I actually like the idea of the tribunal, the fast track scheme,” said Tait. “If you’ve got it wrong, then… at least you can go to a tribunal and test it. And we would have lots and lots of cases going through our system, instead of the five or six a year which we have at present.” Tait’s firm is often criticised by free speech campaigners, but here we are in agreement: it is surely better to fight libel cases based on truth and meaning, rather than on which side has the most money.

Mine is the first half of a point-counterpoint editoral feature.  Rod Dadak of Lewis Silkin LLP provides the alternative argument, saying that effective case management is a more effective route to reform.

The proposals made in the Index/PEN report, which include a radical change of our libel laws, are inappropriate and wholly unnecessary. They would seriously impact on the rights of a libel victim to seek vindication and compensation. Freedom of expression has to be balanced with their rights to have their reputation protected: a responsible media have nothing to fear from our existing libel laws. That said, there is iniquity and abuse in respect of costs and also jurisdiction shopping. It must be addressed. Neither the media nor the claimant should hold all the cards, but Index/PEN are over-egging the argument for reform.

Wholesale change is not the solution, effective case management is.

What is encouraging about this, is that at least Mr Dadak acknowledges the problem.  ‘Jurisdiction shopping’ is what is also known as ‘Libel Tourism’, and the issue of spiralling costs is a major obstacle to journalists defending themselves, as the BBC proved earlier this week when it conceded defeat in its legal tussle with Trafigura, over a report on Newsnight about the company’s toxic waste dumping in the Ivory Coast.

I think my reponse to Mr Dadak would be:  If effective case management is the answer, then why isn’t it being done already?  It is not as if the problem with UK libel laws is a new one:  I know Geoffrey Robertson and Anthony Lester, two human rights QC’s who work closely with PEN, have been complaining about the iniquities of libel for literally decades.  I would say that it is precisely the failure of the courts to acknowledge the extent of the problem, that has inspired free speech campaigners are now turning to the politicians to sort out the problem.

Free Speech is Not For Sale

Me, Quoted

I have been quoted in a couple of articles recently, both relating to free speech issues in the UK.

First, I was interviewed by The Booksller magazine, about the government’s proposed law on Criminal Memoirs:

Robert Sharp, campaign manager for English PEN, said publishers still had time to intervene, as the law would not be voted on until after the summer recess. “We have time to play for,” he said. “We would advise that people concerned about this should lobby the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, or Maria Eagle MP, to revist the bill, to run wider consultation, and come up with more clearly defined, narrower proposals.”

He also warned of “mission creep” arising. “You [could] have a law supposedly about mad gangsters boasting about how they stabbed someone, suddenly being used against someone writing about their harrowing journey through the criminal justice system.”

PEN will be refining these arguments for a campaign in the autumn.

I was also interviewed on the subject of UK libel laws by De Nieuwe Reporter, a Dutch magazine.  Here’s the money quote (literally):

‘Zelfs als ze zeker weten dat ze geen fouten hebben gemaakt, dan nog worden kranten en uitgeverijen gecensureerd door hun verzekeringsmaatschappijen omdat de financiële risico’s te groot zijn’, zegt Robert Sharp. ‘Het stelt rijke mensen in staat om een spelletje ‘High Stakes Poker’ te spelen, waarbij degene met het meeste geld uiteindelijk altijd wint.’

The article is in Dutch, but Google gives an English approximation.

What is Channel 4 for?

I attended the Next on 4 event this morning, where Jon Snow hosted the launch of Channel’s 4 ‘strategic blueprint’. They are placing an emphasis on digital technologies in order to capture young audiences, and have launched a £50 million public service digital media fund.

Crucially, they are cutting their overseas aquisitions budget by £35 million, meaning less US shows. I wonder how this will affect the channel’s ratings over the next few years – surely the popular American dramas and comedies are a key draw?

Chief Executive Andy Duncan also announced that Channel 4 would be facing a £100 million funding gap by 2012 (the year of the digital switch-over), which they would be looking to make-up from public subsidy. The argument is that Channel 4 has recieved, in the form of a free analogue licence, about £150 million in public subsidy per year since it lauched. The channel would now like to see that subsidy continue in other forms. When challenged, Duncan argued that this figure was not some accounting sleight-of-hand, but represented a real edge that allowed them to run the channel in the way they should. Clearly, the money for this will have to come from one of two sources – the government’s central coffers, or the licence fee, but Duncan and his collegaues were relucant to suggest which this might be. In the coming months, we’re likely to see either (a) an ugly scrap between the BBC and Channel 4 over funding, or (b) an ugly scrap between publicly funded organisations on one hand, and commercial broadcasters on the other… over funding. Channel 4 were keen to talk simply about their unique position, but I don’t really see how a conversation can be had without constant reference to the BBC. They need to explain where they expect their new money to come from, and fast.

The conflict stems, of course, from the difficulty in quantifying the benefit of publically funded broadcasting. Often, discussions over public service broadcasting are couched in terms of a polite threat: “Pay the licence fee, or you’ll lose Life in Cold Blood“; “Fund us, or we’ll cancel Cutting Edge and replace it with Celebrity Big Brother’s 100 Greatest Moments“. When put in these terms, or when we consider the unpleasant prospect of the Murdoch-owned media dominating TV news, its easy to see how the arguments for public funding find favour. Though there are occasional controversies (like the Big Brother Race Row, or the BBC’s role in the David Kelly affair), I think the threat of back-to-back Love Island keeps the public and policymakers on-side.

However, a case could also be made that subsidies have the effect of shouldering smaller, regional and TV programme makers out of the market. In this analysis, it is less clear that the public (and our culture as a whole) is being served. Rather than constantly chasing the latest digital technologies, and ensuring every other show has its own blog and podcast, Channel 4 and the BBC simply need to prove that they are fostering the development of such regional talent. If they can do that, then I think they’ll be able to persuade government to give them the funding they ask for.

Cross posted at The Progressive.

Interfering with the Anglican Church

According to my Facebook profile, I am variously an anesthetist, and aesthete, and (less frequently) a non-practicing atheist. But whatever guise I choose for myself, I tend to look upon the tribulations of Dr Williams with the detachment of an outsider. I reason that because I’m not a church-goer, the possible ‘schism’ over gay clergy should not really concern me.

But now I’m wondering whether that is the correct view. Looking again at the word ‘Anglican’, it occurs to me that this particular Communion of Churches might actually be considered an exporter of British ‘soft power’ and influence, much like the British Council. The Church of England is still a formal branch of our state, and Anglican Bishops sit in the House of Lords. Furthermore, it is the British Prime Minister who effectively appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury. So I would say that the Archbishop and his Church are formal (though obviously not democratic) representatives of our country.

If The Church represents us all, is is not reasonable for atheists, agnostics and secularists to poke their nose into its affairs? Traditionalists say that Britain is still essentially a Christian country built on Christian morals. If that is the case, and while Church of England retains its privileged position in our political system, then I would say that us non-believers have the right to interfere in its policies and rulings.

I imagine that such an interference, should it come, would require Dr Williams to take a more liberal approach to homosexuality. He should commit the Church of England to a more tolerant stance (which we suspect he favours anyway).

Some might say that by taking an approach that is too liberal, Dr Williams will only catalyze the ‘schism’ in the Anglican community. Indeed, Dr Williams himself seems to hold this view. However, this is actually a very odd way of looking at The Church and at religion in general. In other situations, such as over the use of contraception or who to vote for in elections, we assume that the officers of religion hold enormous power over their flock. We assume that the pronouncements of an Ayatollah here or a Cardinal there, will inform, sway and change the values of their congregations. In a way, it is odd that we do not assume a liberal sermon from the most senior Anglican bishop would have a similar effect.

Yet, what else can inspire a better attitude to homosexuality, other than standing up to the conservatives, demonstrating that their intolerance breeds nothing but hate and harm? Its time for the Archbishop to speak up for the values of love and tolerance which Jesus stands for (regardless of his alleged divinity), and show that those values are embodied by homosexual members of the Anglican Church. He should hope and trust that the schism, when it comes, occurs (as it should) within the congregations of the conservative African Churches, rather than between Churches within the communion. Such an outcome is by no means guaranteed… but hey, that’s what Faith is for. Go for it, Rowan.

Remedy Scotland

One thing I have witnessed “first hand” is the anxiety – nay, terror – induced by the shocking MTAS system for appointing junior doctors. Various aspects of the mis-management continue to be discussed in the blogs and in newspapers, including the dumbing-down of the profession and the fact that some people are having to take on lower grade positions.

So, while I can concede that there are dozens of political groups that I could campaign for, I’ve lent my support to the junior doctors at Remedy Scotland by setting up a campaign blog for them. They have quite a focused campaign, with an achievable reform agenda, in a single policy area, so I am hoping that it can be quite incisive. Since so many people in Scotland will be affeced, a fairly disparate group of people will need to be mobilised. I am planning to utilise the full arsenal of Web 2.0 technologies to help spread the message. Expect blog buttons and such things very soon.

Do please visit the site and sign the petition. There is also a protest march planned for mid-July, in Glasgow.