Free speech will suffer if politicians get tough on offensive tweets

I’ve had another article published on Comment is Free—this time about social media prosecutions and the tougher prison sentences that MPs want to introduce to punish those who send threatening messages via Twitter.

Social media is supposed to be the great enabler of free speech, but in fact it’s full of paradoxes. Posting on Twitter or Facebook is sometimes the quickest way to get censored. Governments like China and Vietnam closely monitor the online space for any sign of dissent, and a recent law passed in Saudi Arabia means a simple retweet could land you in prison for a decade.

Life is better in the UK, but the contradictions persist. Caroline Criado-Perez received misogynistic threats when she launched a campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note. Jane Goldman felt compelled to leave Twitter after receiving a torrent of abuse – ironically because her husband Jonathan Ross was perceived as sexist. Rape threats, hate speech and racism are common on social media. Women and minority voices are being forced off the platform: precisely the people who we need to hear more from in our political and cultural discussions.

These contradictions are a challenge to anyone who values free expression and open rights online. If we do not act to fix this problem – with either social or technological solutions – then those in parliament who are less concerned with protecting human rights will simply introduce tougher legislation to fix the problem for us.

You can read the whole thing on the Guardian website.

Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass

When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it.

My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force.

One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:

The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious.

The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population.

Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice.

No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.

So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.

I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights.

Continue reading “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”

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

Anti-free speech? UK courts can help

Comment is free

Here’s another piece I have just had published at Comment is Free…  Later, I will publish a selection of comments I’ve received, and try and respond as best I can.

After the article was published, I and the Guardian were contacted by lawyers for Khalid Bin Mafouz.  I had incorrectly stated that the Sheikh sought to have damages awarded in the USA, but this was not correct.  It was the fear that he would seek damages, which promoted US legislators to action.  You can see the correction made, below.


While various campaigning groups spring up left, right and centre with the aim of reforming Britain’s mangled political system, it seems that our friends abroad have already grown tired of waiting for us to get it right. It is time, they have decided, to take matters into their own hands.

Continue reading “Anti-free speech? UK courts can help”

Way of the Blogs: Blowback

I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by the type of comments my inaugral Comment is Free post received. Most people only wanted to discuss the extreme anti-free speech attitude of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference:

perklet: What you’re really asking is, “How do I deal with someone who insults my imaginary friend?”

and

Happytobeasocialist: Who is insulting them? I find religions and their reactionary, bigoted, backward, and misogynistic beliefs offensive. So where is my redress?

In many cases, it seemed as if the commentators were criticising me for being too religious, or for supporting religious defamation – which of course I don’t.  I was, however, trying to empathise with the religious, which seemed to sow confusion.

This from ishouldapologise was more substantial.

Yes, point taken. But, in fact if you had been a little more awake Robert Sharp, and as on your toes as you imply, then  you would know and refer to the many spin off Guardian blogs that have been created to do precisely what you say. To disagree with things that were said on the Guardian and to express themselves the way they feel like doing so.

Google is your friend.

Well, yes and no.  There are many projects like Islam is Peace which are online attempts to counter negative propaganda.  But in my travels around the web I couldn’t find anything to match Theatre J for really grabbing the offensive thing and creating with it.  My point was not so much that people should use the web, but rather, they should respond in the same medium as the offending piece.  So, a theatrical response to Behzti, for example.  If there are examples out there, I couldn’t find the right search terms on Google to harvest them, and would welcome further examples.

Later, imogenblack offers this:

Its just dawned on me that this guy is encouraging extreemists to use the net to air thier views… its hillarious… drivel, but hillarious.

Not quite, Imogen.  In the first instance, I am encouraging extremists to use the net to air their views, but only as an alternative to legislating against freedom of speech.  I think this is pretty uncontroversial, but its a point needs airing.

Second, I’m not really talking to the extremists, who (let’s be honest) are not really interested in freedom of expression, on the net or otherwise.  I am talking to more moderate adherents.  To repeat a point I made in the comments at CiF, its possible to be religious, to be offended and distressed by certain “denigration of religious persons” and yet still engage with the insult in some non-violent, constructive way.  To the commenters at CiF, it seems, this point is lost: For them, to be religious is by definition to be an extremist and an unworthy partner in dialogue.  I don’t share that point of view, for both idealistic and practical reasons.

On reflection, I think my main mistake in the post was not to elaborate on this:

However, when religion comes under attack, the alienation and marginalisation felt by believers is real. How can they achieve redress for a perceived offence, without resorting to censorship, or its kid brother, the boycott?

I think the word ‘perceived’ does the heavy lifting here, but that may have been lost in the sea of words.  When I talk of “redress”, I am not advocating that the faith groups be somehow compensated for the defamation of their religion.  That way, madness and intolerance lies.  Rather, I just mean a form of psychological redress.  A catharsis.  A satisfying opportunity to speak out, talk back, Have Your Say.  If we are going to mock and insult religion, then the least we can do is to grant those who are hurt by our words a platform to say “I am upset by what you say, and here’s why.”  If we do not see that as valuable, then we are no better than those who suppress freedom of expression in the name of their religion.

Way of the Blogs

Comment is free

Here’s a post I’ve just had published over at Comment is Free.  Later, I will post a selection of the comments I’ve received there.

Credit where its due: The Way of the Blogs is hardly a new idea.  It was much discussed back in the ’04 when people in the UK were starting to take notice of online debate.  More recently, it was discussed at one of English PEN’s round-tables that we held as part of our ongoing inquiry into UK libel laws.


There was some depressing news from Geneva last week, as the UN Human Rights Council voted to adopt a resolution on “defamation of religions”. Although the resolution is non-binding, and does not compel any state to change its laws, it does lend authority to those in countries around the world who wish to clamp down on criticism of religion.

Here in the UK, English PEN’s No Offence campaign in 2005 successfully ensured that religious defamation laws remained off the statute books, and that blasphemy laws are a thing of the past (thank God). Such laws are bad for freedom of expression, of course, but in seeking to shield adherents from criticism of their faith, they ultimately weaken religion, too.

However, when religion comes under attack, the alienation and marginalisation felt by believers is real. How can they achieve redress for a perceived offence, without resorting to censorship, or its kid brother, the boycott?

I think there is a lesson to be learnt from blogs. Despite the robust nature of much of the debate online, I do perceive a sort of online Omerta, a Way of the Blogs. This states that if you have been offended or disrespected online, you can always fight your corner by setting up a counter-blog somewhere else. The idea is that you do not attempt to suppress the offensive material, legally or otherwise, but instead use the same medium to counter and debunk it.

Offline, a recent example from the US, shows this spirit in action. The Jewish organisation Theatre J, based in Washington DC, has been staging readings of Caryl Churchill’s controversial Seven Jewish Children, despite many people branding the play anti-semitic (Comment is Free has already discussed this point at length). Director Ari Roth says he doesn’t endorse the play, but feels the playwright’s language has some resonance: “So many of the lines resonate not with the language of hate, but with the language of perception.”

Roth denies that he is engaging in a form of self-flagellation, because Theatre J’s staging was not done so uncritically. He commissioned two new pieces that engage with Churchill’s text, entitled Seven Palestinian Children and The Eighth Child. Ultimately, what Theatre J has done is to appropriate Churchill’s play. They have mirrored its style in new works, subverting it in order to advance an alternative world view. The quick and impromptu way they have done so seems to me to be very much a 21st century act, reminiscent of the mash-ups, parodies and rebuttals at which internet culture excels. Not so different from The Way of the Blogs after all.

So, staging someone’s play, singing their song, or telling their story, is not necessarily an act of endorsement. Sometimes it can be a broadside attack on a particular orthodoxy. Appropriation and mutilation of art is an act of rebellion, a well-established weapon of the disenfranchised. To give two other examples: I am reminded of Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of traditional fairy tales; and the sampling and looping that is an inherent feature of urban music such as hip-hop. Those who found Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti offensive, or those who were upset by Jyllands-Posten’s provocative Mohammed cartoons, could and should have responded in a similar manner. New digital technology makes this cheap and easy.

But why engage? Why should religious communities have to dignify such attacks from a secular majority that is intent on insulting them at every turn? The answer is simple: art and culture evolves through conflict. Failure to engage leads a culture to stagnation, irrelevance, and finally, death. Religious defamation laws will strangle the very communities they seek to protect. Only raw and offensive free expression can offer salvation.

(Comment at Comment is Free)