Online Harms: A Few Times When The Algorithms Chilled Freedom of Expression

'Lot and his Daughters' by Oeter Paul Rubens

The consultation to the British government’s Online Harms White Paper closed this week. English PEN and Scottish PEN made a submission, arguing that the government rethink its approach.

The government proposal is that a new ‘duty of care’ is placed upon online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to protect their users. If they expose users to harmful content—ranging from terrorist propaganda and child porn, to hazily defined problems like ‘trolling’ — then a new regulator could sanction them.

This sounds sensible, but it presents a problem for freedom of expression. If the online platforms are threatened with large fines, and their senior management are held personally responsible for the ‘duty of care’ then it’s likely that the online platforms will take a precautionary approach to content moderation. Whenever in doubt, whenever it’s borderline, whenever there is a grey area… the platforms will find it expeditious to remove whatever has been posted. When that happens, it is unlikely that the platforms will offer much of an appeals process, and certainly not one that abides by international free speech standards. A situation will arise where perfectly legal content cannot be posted online. A two tier system for speech. Continue reading “Online Harms: A Few Times When The Algorithms Chilled Freedom of Expression”

Censorship and Capitulation at the Saachti Gallery

Oh dear. The Saachti Gallery has covered up some paintings after complaints that they are blasphemous.

The gallery, founded by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, rejected calls from some visitors to remove the paintings, arguing it was up to visitors to come to their own conclusions on the meaning of the art. However, in response to the complaints, SKU suggested as a compromise the works should remain on the gallery wall but be covered up with sheets.

“It seemed a respectful solution that enables a debate about freedom of expression versus the perceived right not to be offended,” he said in a statement to the Sunday Times.

I’ll tell you what’s offensive — capitulating to censorious complaints, and then trying to dampen the impact of your decision by saying that it ‘enables a debate about freedom of expression.’ Continue reading “Censorship and Capitulation at the Saachti Gallery”

Discussing the UK visa system in The Bookseller

UK Border

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, has warned that the UK visa system alienates cultural visitors and is in dire need of an overhaul. In recent years, participants in the EIBF and other major UK festivals have had trouble getting permission to enter the UK – a huge freedom of expression issue for them, and for British audiences who have a right to hear them speak.

I’m also quoted in the piece, noting the many ways in which the UK visa system conspires to discourage cultural visitors.

“Here, I’ve noticed that the issue with visa refusals is not just the culture of ‘suspicion’ which leads to some authors and writers, usually young and usually from countries that are poor or which have security or human rights issues, being refused. The visa application system itself is too complex and it’s too easy to make a mistake or to provide incomplete information, which can also lead to a refusal. And the Home Office never provides any opportunity for the applicant to clarify or amend an application.”

He added: “The system is a combination of hostility and complexity that turns people off as well as turns people away. That this is a case is absolutely a political choice – yet another way in which antipathy towards immigration hurts British culture.”

The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Last year I posted some notes about the famous free speech formulation “I hate what you say, but defend your right to say it” which is erroneously attributed to Voltaire. I think the fact that it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall about Voltaire’s philosophy is now quite widely known, as evidenced by the extent of the gleeful crowing of ‘well actually’ every time some-one prominent (like education minister Sam Gimyah MP in The Times last year) gets the attribution wrong.

While writing my post about Hall (whose pen-name was S. G. Tallentyre) I naturally searched for a picture of her online. A Google image search for ‘Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ throws up dozens of versions of the image below: a young, determined looking woman with a sword. Many of the images that the search yields include the famous free speech quote, properly attributed to Hall. Continue reading “The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall”

Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!

At a museum in Haifa, Israel, a sculpture called McJesus has been removed from display.

The name of piece by Jani Leinonen tells you exactly what it looks like and also gives heavy clues as to why it is controversial: it is the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald.

There have been angry protests against the sculpture by Israeli Christians who consider it offensive and blasphemous. There were threats of fire bombing.

The sculpture brings to mind another crucifixion mash-up, Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andreas Serrano (1987). I also think of The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996), a picture painted using elephant dung and which features pornographic imagery. Rudi Giuliani, then mayor of New York, called it ‘sick’ when the painting was exhibited there in 1999.

Continue reading “Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!”

Free Speech – Really Difficult

This blog may give the impression that I am certain in my views, especially about freedom of expression.

But that’s not the case. Especially about freedom of expression.

As Robert Sharp of English Pen told me – just when you think you’ve settled your mind on all the arguments surrounding free speech and censorship, along comes an argument to throw you completely off again.

That’s from a blog post by Ben Please of the Bookshop Band, who are doing a marvellous project on censorship with the V&A, which has just acquired the archives of Oz Magazine. I hope I can go to their event on 20/21 April.

Quoted in the New York Times discussing the cancellation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The Royal Court Theatre has cancelled a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play about grooming and sexual exploitation. The cancellation came after it was revealed in October that Max Stafford-Clark, who directed the original production and co-directed the revival, had been forced to resign as creative director of Out of Joint due to multiple allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour.’

The venue had recently staged No Grey Area, an event in which 150 stories of sexual abuse and exploitation were shared over the course of an afternoon. The Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone has called for the British theatre community to reckon with the abuses of power, just as Hollywood is doing now that the extent of Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behaviour has been revealed. In this context, says the theatre, staging Rita, Sue and Bob Too is “highly conflictual.”

I spoke to New York Times correspondent Anna Codrea-Rado about the cancellation and am quoted in her report: Continue reading “Quoted in the New York Times discussing the cancellation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too”

Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

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”

We’re All Puritans Now

Its Banned Books Week, a time for all the family to gather round the dinner table to discuss free speech and censorship. One book that often comes up in such conversations is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, which was the subject of a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s.

I have been reading the Wikipedia page for the trial, and found this marvellous section on the testimony of academic Richard Hoggart, who was subjected to a snide cross-examination by the prosecuting barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones: Continue reading “We’re All Puritans Now”

Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia

A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.

Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.

Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia”