Defamation Day

No, not a day where we pick someone to defame.  Instead it is the final parliamentary debate on the Defamation Bill.

Following this process has been a great way to watch how law-making really happens.  In this case, the Government published a draft Bill for consultation.  The proposed law was then debated on the floor of the House of Commons, then by a smaller group of MPs in a Public Bill Committee (days 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), then again in the House of Commons.  A similar process took place in the House of Lords, with a more generalised debate preceding detailed scrutiny in a Grand Committee (days 1, 2, 3 and 4), followed by more debates.

Now, the amendments made to the Bill by each House are being debated and accepted by the other.  Today, the House of Lords have one final aspect of the Defamation Bill to consider, which is the limits that should be placed on ‘non-natural persons’ (i.e. companies and associations) that wish to sue.

The Government have already agreed that a corporation must show financial loss if they want to claim that they have suffered serious harm, but is still dragging its feet on what access private companies delivering taxpayer-funded services should have to the libel law.

Currently, central government and local councils cannot sue their citizens!  This is established by the common-law Derbyshire principle, which protects unhibited criticism of democratically elected institutions and their agencies.  However, the trend towards contracting out public services to private companies means that this principle has been undermined.  For example, you can criticise a publically run prison, or a local council’s waste collection service… but if you criticise a private prison or a sub-contracted bin collection service, then you run the risk of a libel threat!

With the reforms to the NHS meaning more services will be commissioned from private companies, this loophole will only get bigger.  Imagine if your healthcare was managed poorly, and a blog or a tweet about it prompted a lawyers letter!

This afternoon, the House of Lords will be debating this issue and hopefully they will vote to fix it in the Defamation Bill.  I will be watching the debate online on the Houses of Parliament website.

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Hilary Mantel's comments on the Duchess of Cambridge are brave and necessary

The double-Booker winning author Hilary Mantel has caused controversy, after delivering an uncompromising critique of the Duchess of Cambridge. The lecture she gave to the London Review of Books is now online: audio and text.

The Daily Mail and the Metro seem to have misinterpreted Mantel, reporting the speech as a ‘scathing’ and ‘venomous’ attack on the Duchess. But that is not the author’s sentiment at all. Instead, Mantel is critiquing the way in which the illusion of Royalty turns women into objects, vessels, and wombs. I am sure that Kate herself would find the analysis uncomfortable, but the attack is on the Monarchy as a whole, and on media outlets like the Mail and the Metro that feed off the images of Royal consorts.

The backlash towards Mantel puts me in the mind of the Orwell (or was it Hearst) quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” The speech is a form of social and cultural criticism rather than journalism, but I think the Orwell/Hearst sentiment applies equally. Mantel’s negative comments about Royalty are precsiely the sort of thing that other people – call them Monarchists, or ‘The Establishment’, or social conservatives – would prefer had been left unsaid. That fact is, in itself, a reason to applaud Hilary Mantel for saying it alound and in public. This speech should shock us into reconsidering the role of Royalty in our society. It should make us revise our stratospheric expectations of the Duchess of Cambridge, too.

It is worth noting that this kind of speech act is precisely the sort of thing that gets censored in other countries. Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws and many, if not most, other countries, have criminal defamation or ‘scandalising’ laws that would have seen Mantel down at the police station for an interview, or on trial, or in prison. In the UK, we finally abolished our dead-letter analogues in 2009. It should be a source of pride that one of our most celebrated novelists is able to make such controversial statements, unfettered.

This is precisely the kind of social leadership that we need from our authors. I wonder what would have happened if a politician had said the same thing?

Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.

On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?

This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?

Continue reading “Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism”

Interviewed on Free Expression in Vietnam

The General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng was in the UK this week, so English PEN wrote a letter to David Cameron, asking him to raise our free expression concerns during their meeting.

I was interviewed about the visit by Voice of America’s Vietnamese Service.

There is an accompanying article.  This is the key quote:

Thủ tướng Anh nên quan tâm đến việc các doanh nghiệp Anh có nên đầu tư vào một nước như Việt Nam hay không khi mà nạn vi phạm nhân quyền, vi phạm quyền tự do bày tỏ quan điểm đã trở nên quá rõ ràng đến mức như vậy.

Essentially: When writers are being locked up, how can you trust what is reported from within Vietnam?  Why should British buinesses invest in a country where information about the economy and corruption may be suppressed?

Those of you who don’t speak Vietnamese may appreciate a Google Translate version of the page.

 

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 Free Speech in Turkey in The Guardian

PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office
PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office

I’m quoted in The Guardian today, discussing censorship in Turkey.

“This and other cases highlight the fact that Turkey has a free expression problem,” said English PEN spokesperson Robert Sharp. “When ill-advised laws are put in place, then those with an ideological agenda will seek to use them to censor words or writing they do not like. This is why we campaign against ‘insult laws’ all over the world – including the UK. Censorship does not begin with the state instantly imprisoning authors and burning books. It begins with individuals using bad laws as weapons against each other.”

I was commenting on the ridiculous news that the board members of PEN Turkey were hauled into the Istanbul Prosecutors Office, to be questioned as to whether they had “insulted Turkishness” by they called Turkey’s censorship laws ‘fascist’.  Thought-crime, essentially.  It is a huge irony that a complaint at ‘fascist developments’ should be met by the sinster act of summoning all the board members for questioning… an irony apparently lost on the authorities.

Counter-productive Hatchet Job at the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail have published a rather odd hatchet job on Gavin Freeguard, Harriet Harman’s culture advisor. Gavin formerly worked for the Media Standards Trust, who are part of the Hacked Off Campaign. This fact, and some year-old tweets from Freeguard where he (shock! horror!) criticises David Cameron allow Mail journalist Richard Pendlebury to paint Gavin as some kind of Manchurian spad.

We desperately need to hear strong arguments against state-regulation and ‘licensing’ of the press. Left-wingers love to loathe the Daily Mail, but it is a hugely influential newspaper with one of the most visted websites on the Internet. There is no better platform for the arguments against statutory regulation to be presented.

And yet, on the eve of the Leveson Inquiry report publication, there is nothing in today’s editorial on #Leveson. Instead, the Daily Mail editors choose to run a piece which appears to be little more than an ad hominem attack on someone who previously worked for the Media Standards Trust. The pro-regulation camp will spin this a more evidence that the press is unserious about the regulation debate, and more interested in attacking individuals in order to sell newspapers – precisely the sin that (the critics say) makes the case for regulation!

As someone who is very wary about the prospect of state regulation of the press, I find it very is frustrating that the newspaper that could be the most powerful voice for press freedom is pursuing such a short term agenda, squandering its platform, and undermining the case for press freedom at such a crucial moment.

Twitter Succumbs to Regulation

The news that Twitter is censoring content in Germany is a great big casserole of free speech and censorship issues. There are so many things to say that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.

The first issue is over the German laws against holocaust denial and Nazism. These laws are not unique in Europe and should be seen in the context of the second world war. Europeans, and Germans in particular, are obviously very sensitive about the Nazi ideology and one can understand why such laws are in place. However, this does not make them right or sensible. It is all very well to suppress Nazi ideology, but what if the next threat to democracy comes from a left wing perspective? Communism, after all, is as lethal as Nazism.

Suppressing any speech, however abhorrent, only serves to send it underground. It is far better to have such speech out in the open where it can be countered. The great failure in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that Hitler was allowed to put forward his views, but that not enough people challenged him. This is how evil flourishes – good people stand by and do nothing. Laws against Nazism and holocaust denial are sticking plasters. They do not tackle the root cause of such ideologies, or change minds. Continue reading “Twitter Succumbs to Regulation”

Nick Griffin and the Limits of Free Speech

BNP Chairman Nick Griffin MEP has just caused a bit of a Twitter storm by publishing the address of a gay couple who sued a Christian B&B couple who refused them board.

I spend a lot of time on this blog defending the right of bigots and racists to say horrible things, online and in person.  However, I think this superficially anodyne tweet might actually cross the line into territory I would not defend.

Why?  Well, first, there is an invasion of privacy.  Griffin is a public figure with a large Twitter following.  The couple in question have a reasonable expectation that their address will not be broadcast.

More importantly, the tweet could be considered inciting violence and harassment.  In a followup, Griffin said a ‘British Justice Team’ (whatever that is) should visit to give them ‘a bit of drama’.  If it were my address that had been published, I would feel harassed and terrorised and probably go and stay elsewhere for a few days.

This is the sort of ‘direct’ incitement I have spoken of previously when considering the boundaries of free speech. Continue reading “Nick Griffin and the Limits of Free Speech”