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.

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”

Religious Doctrine and the Internet

If a religious tradition wants to evolve, it may also need to forget

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s series of Reith Lectures is called ‘Mistaken Identities‘.  I really enjoyed listening to the first lecture on ‘Creed‘ and am looking forward to the rest: ‘Country’, ‘Colour’ and ‘Culture’.

In the first lecture, Appiah walked us through the idea that religious practices and doctrines are far more fluid and open to interpretation and change, than the fundamentalists would have us believe.  This is a good thing in my view, as it offers hope that illiberal ideas spread under the guise of religion can eventually be abandoned.

But I found myself wondering whether the Internet and digital technology may actually stifle that process. Continue reading “Religious Doctrine and the Internet”

A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing

Why was that line omitted?

The news about the Bahar Mustafa prosecution meant that this week I was reviewing the old reports about the #KillAllWhiteMen controversy.  I noticed something about many of the articles that I think is noteworthy.

All the reports I saw noted that Ms Mustafa sought to ban cis-white men from attending an event that she was organising (indeed, it was this that brought down so much opprobrium on her).  In each story, the following Facebook message was quoted:

Invite loads of BME Women and non-binary people!! Also, if you’ve been invited and you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME just cos I invited a bunch of people and hope you will be responsible enough to respect this is a BME Women and non-binary event only.

In the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail,  the Daily Telegraph, the International Business Times, the BBC Newsbeat, the Daily Express, the quote was reproduced exactly as above.

However, the actual message was posted as a screen grab, and did include a crucial further line: Continue reading “A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing”

Debating Saudi ‘Red Lines’ on the BBC

Later in the show, the Saudi panellists also suggested that the campaign to free Badawi might actually be hampering the chances of his release. This is an extremely difficult thing to hear when English PEN has invested so much into campaigning on Raif Badawi’s behalf.

On Wednesday I was invited onto the BBC World Service programme ‘BBC World Have Your Say’ to discuss Raif Badawi’s PEN Pinter Prize and the issues experienced by bloggers in Saudi Arabia. Also on the show were Evelyne Abitbol, Chief Execuitve of the Free Raif Badawi Foundation and Saudi Arabian journalists Essam Al Ghalib, Eman Al Nafjan of Saudi Woman, and Abeer Mishkas.

You can hear our segment via the player below or on SoundCloud.  The entire programme can be heard on the BBC website or BBC iPlayer. Continue reading “Debating Saudi ‘Red Lines’ on the BBC”

Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?

There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship.  They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not.  Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.

I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”.  Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris.  If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood.  They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.

Continue reading “Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?”

How British politicians might chill the press

I promised a comment on what form political intimidation of the press might take, under the new system of regulation.

The provisions in the Royal Charter for press regulation, and the associated sections of the Crime & Courts Act 2013, are complex and layered. There are buffers between the politicians (and the wider ‘establishment’) and the press. There are plans for an arbitration service and a body that oversees the regulator, which in turn will try to keep the press both strong and honest.

Supporters of these provisions have emphasised that the politicians will not be able to censor the newspapers or stop stories from being published.

But free expression issues do not begin and end with formal state censorship that we see in hideous regimes like China, Iran or Zimbabwe. There are much subtler ways of exerting pressure on publishers, that nevertheless ‘chill’ (i.e. discourage) the exercise of free speech. Continue reading “How British politicians might chill the press”

Jorge Luis Borges In The Night Garden

“I had a dream,” he said. “A single, terrible dream.”

A battered side street in the old part of Buenos Aires. The tarmac seems pockmarked. Parts of the curb are missing, and the serrated edge of the paving slabs are exposed, like the diseased gums of an old Gaucho.

A modest cafe. It seems rooted to the sidewalk, like the weeds. Other shops have long since shuttered, and their proprietors have escaped to the suburbs. But this establishment persists.

I scrape back one of the metal chairs.

“Un cafe, por favor?” The young waiter rolls his eyes. Is he annoyed that I have not ordered more, or is he casting judgement on my formal, European Spanish? Whatever: He clearly understands, and he slopes inside.

To my left, a croak. “English?”

I turn my head. A man sits alone, his mouth drawn down on one side. A stroke, perhaps?

“Yes,” I reply. “London.”

“Where else!” he replies. And now a smile. So no, not a stroke, just a crooked face. But he does not look straight at me. He cannot see very well. Continue reading “Jorge Luis Borges In The Night Garden”

Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?

John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.

Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.

Continue reading “Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?”

Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester

The lastest person to be prosecuted forgiving offence on social media is eighteen year old Sam Busby, from Worcester.  Like Matthew Woods, he posted jokes about missing schoolgirl April Jones on Facebook.

Last week I went on the BBC Radio Worcester Breakfast show to make the case that while abhorrent, the prosecution was a step too far.  You can listen to my contribution via the embedded player below, or listen on the PodoMatic website. Continue reading “Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester”