This House Believes That Social Media Has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism

Egypt, February 2011

On 31st May, I was delighted to be invited to the Oxford Union to debate the proposition This House Believes That Social Media has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism.

I chose to debate against the motion, and spoke last. Also speaking against the motion was Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at The Daily Telegraph; Mark Kersten of the LSE; and Dr Christopher Carpenter from the University of Western Illinois. Speaking in favour was Senator David Vitter of Louisiana; Mark Pfeifle, National Security Advisor to President George W Bush; and Benjamin Cohen, the Channel 4 News Technology correspondent and founder of Ella Robertson of the Union opened the debate.

An iPhone recording of my speech is here, along with the transcript below. I shall write a follow up post with some nuanced thoughts on the debate, to balance the high flung rhetoric.

And for the record: Our side was successful. The motion was defeated!

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The Visual Grammar of Big Royal Events

There has been much discussion over the past few days about the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Weekend. There were a lot of spectacles and public events to cover, and not everyone thinks Auntie Beeb got the coverage right.

Its now a fact that our observations of any big public event such as the #RoyalWedding or the Diamond Jubilee largely mediated by TV. This is also largely true even if you were there. Jumbo TV screens show you what’s happening a few hundred yards away.

@Cllr_MikeHarris: I’m one of hundreds of 1000s of Londoners witnessing the historic sight of the back of a slightly taller person’s head #Jubilee

In eras past, one assumes that very few people actually witnessed the big events they had come to watch. I expect that a large proportion of the people who claim to have lined the streets for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 saw very little, and their memories of being there are mingled with memories of watching subsequent footage of the coronation on all those newly purchased TVs.

The way events are covered therefore matters a great deal to the message that event carries.

Instead of criticizing the BBC, its worth simply comparing their coverage of the different Jubilee events on offer. The truly unique event was the water pageant. There has been nothing like this for centuries. What was unsurprising about the BBC’s coverage was that they chose to cover it like a sporting event where one doesn’t quite know what will happen, and therefore all angles had to be covered. (The irony is, of course, that sporting events are remarkably similar to one another, and most sporting coverage is actually false hyperbole, emphasizing a uniqueness that is often missing. This Mitchell & Webb sketch perfectly satirizes this tendency amongst the broadcasters).

Contrast with religious and State ceremonies, which are all about ritual. Their value lies precisely in their repetition. All you need here is a presenter telling us, “this is the bit where…”

The Queen is the only monarch to have reigned during the TV age, so we cannot compare here performance to that of other British monarchs. But my feeling is that the monarchy in general, and this Royal Family in particular, always seem to come across better in moments of ritual, when they stand outside the contemporary. If they have any value, then it lies in this. So I always find that images of the Royals (especially Heir-to-The-Throne Prince William) in photographs with celebrities to be particularly discordant. And it was positively ridiculous to see the Queen standing next to Cheryl Cole on the night of the Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace: The permanent icon of Britain, whose hairstyle has not changed in 60 years, alongside the perfect representative of intransigence and fleeting fame.

I think it is this clash which accounts for some of the dissatisfaction with the BBC’s Jubilee Coverage. It wasn’t that the broadcaster covered it particularly badly, it was just that some events lend themselves to dignified, ritualistic coverage, and some do not.


Quoted in Politiken

Over the weekend I was quoted in Politiken, the Danish broadsheet, discussing the LOCOG attempt to control how staff, athletes and the public tweet during the Olympics.  The ‘Games Makers’ have strict tweeting rules, and Twitter have been roped in to police ‘ambush marketing’ attempts by companies who are not an official games sponsor.

Here are the quotes:

Hos den engelske afdeling af PEN, der kæmper for ytringsfrihed over hele verden, siger kampagneleder Robert Sharp, at han finder forbuddet direkte latterligt. “Det er bizart og man kan spekulere over hvilket signal OL sender ud ved netop at lægge så meget vægt på deres sponsorers interesser. Det efterlader en med en dårlig smag i munden og det strider for mig at se imod hele den olympiske ånd, der går ud på åbenhed og at dele”,  siger han.


Robert Sharp tvivler alvorligt på, at de den Olympiske Komite kan håndhæve nogen form for censur. “Vi har tidligere set i forbindelse med retssager her i Storbritannien, at selv ikke et forbud fra Højesteret har kunnet stillet meget op overfor twitter. Tværtimod tror jeg ethvert forsøg på at stoppe en twitterpost eller et opslag på Facebook vil have den modsatte effekt. Det vil sprede sig på nettet med lynets hast”, mener han.



Radio Interviews

A welcome side-effect of the new English PEN website is an increase in inquiries from journalists. There have been a couple of free speech moments in the past couple of weeks – Günter Grass, and China at the London Book Fair – and as such the media have been in touch with us. I was asked to speak on the radio on a couple of occasions.

Discussing Günter Grass on BBC World Have Your Say:

Discussing China at the London Book Fair on Monocle 24:

I also spoke to 2ser Radio in Sydney but haven’t heard the audio yet. (Update: here).

Its excruciating to hear all the “ahs” and “ums” and “you know” and “sort of” that pepper what feels, at the time, like normal fluent speech. The second clip is better than the first, which is because I had longer to prepare.

The audio is hosted on PodOmatic, which I’ve only just discovered. It is free to sign-up and has easy integration with iTunes. I would use AudioBoo but it limits the length of the audio clips to 3 minutes.

On Secularism and such like…

Earlier this week we had one of those cultural moments when ideas of atheism, secularism and religion were debated. In an obviously provocative manoever, Baroness Warsi spoke of ‘militant secularism’. Militants like Richard Dawkins rose to the bait, apparently affirming her pronouncements, while less militant atheists like Alain De Botton adopted a more conciliatory tone on twitter. Several people pointed out the oxymoronic notion of a ‘militant secularist’ by incorrectly quoting AC Grayling, who last year equated militant atheism with “sleeping furiously”.

There is lots to be said about this perjorative term ‘militant secularism’. It is a form of victimology that social conservatives like propagate. Sayeeda Warsi has form on such issues, naughtily spreading the ‘Winterval’ myth when she knows it is a lie. It enables bigots, who like to use religion to excuse their prejudices, even when those values are very much at odds with the tolerant philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Me, Interviewed in The Bookseller

Wow. First a specialist radio programme, now a specialist magazine. I am All Over the specialist media this weekend.

I was interviewed in The Bookseller for a feature on English PEN. The article doesn’t seem to be online yet but you can read the article in all its printed glory below. Eagle eyed readers will note that three of the pictures are by yrstrly, too. As with the radio interview, I share the limelight with a colleague: this time, Writers in Prison Programme Manager Cat Lucas.
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Me, Interviewed on Word Salad

Last week, I was interviewed by Peter Spafford for East Leeds FM. He asked about the work of English PEN and the free speech campaigns we are running.

You can listen to the interview here. My five minutes of fame comes at exactly 61 minutes into the show. There’s a funny point in my monologue where Peter takes a breath to ask another question, but I carry on talking. I should learn to speak in shorter sentences.

Later in the same show, my English PEN colleague Irene Garrow talks about her experience as a writer-in-residence in the prison system, and the reading and writing workshops she organizes with prisoners.  Her slot starts at about 105 minutes.

Half Light

The folk at my alma mater Fifty Nine Productions have produced this stunning short film, with Yes Prime Minister actors David Haig and Henry Goodman taking the two main parts.

Super Shorts 2011: The Half-Light (11-0327SS ) by THEHALFLIGHT

It has been beautifully shot by Feilx Wiedemann, who creates a melancholy mood from the outset. This is what great short films should do – introduce a single idea, a single character, a pivotal point in their lives… and then use the tools of film-making to conjure the mood of the moment.

Well worth 12 minutes of your time… and definitely worth voting for on the Super Shorts Audience Choice Awards (with a chance to win an iPad for your trouble).