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”

Hit Günter Grass with Poetry, Not a Travel Ban

Liberty Central LogoAnother piece on Günter Grass and his poem, this time for Comment is Free.

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Censorship might be legitimate when a writer incites violence or war, but Grass’s poem does neither. His transgression is to write something that many people find offensive and (given his history, as a conscript in the Waffen-SS) deeply insensitive. However, this is no reason for censorship: freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to offend. This is true not just for criticism of Israeli foreign policy, but the criticism and satirisation of other states, religions and individuals too. This is why we in English PEN oppose defamation and blasphemy laws all over the world and have also argued against laws banning Holocaust denial. On this we agree with the philosopher Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents both died in the Holocaust) who said that “confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper” and Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who says that one must “counter a book with a book; a statement with a statement.”

If Grass has written a polemical poem, the Israeli literary community should respond with poetry of their own, parodying and picking apart Grass’s offering. Literary dialogue, as opposed to diatribes by official spokespeople, is a far superior way to discuss these thorny issues. In 2009, the US-based Theatre J responded creatively to what they saw as unfair criticism in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children by commissioning counter-plays. The result was more art, and a genuine attempt to discover some common ground.

Individuals, not states, should be free to make up their own minds, and this principle applies to boycotts in the UK, too. Recently, a group of prominent British artists demanded that the Globe Theatre cancel the performance of The Merchant of Venice by Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel. The troupe has performed in the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and therefore, say the signatories, it is disqualified from performing in the UK.

While these are legitimate concerns, the result of this would only be to remove the moral choice from theatre-goers, many of whom are understandably excited about seeing a play notorious for its antisemitic characterisations interpreted by a Jewish group. Moreover, the play has been programmed as part of an international celebration of language and Shakespeare, and excluding the Hebrew language would be odd. The issue is nuanced and complex and it is unlikely that either a large arts institution, or a cabal of actors and directors, will get the answer just right. Far better that the choice on whether to boycott is made by the individual audience members.

For those who disagree with the performance, there are other ways to express displeasure. Peaceful protests can and should be staged outside the Globe, and new plays can be written in response. Grass may even choose to write another poem, giving us his thoughts. The dialogue will continue afresh. Free speech means no one ever gets the last word.

A Tale of Two Authors

Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.

First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places.  The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.

Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review.  His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages).  Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist.  However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.

This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago.  It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper.  I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.

Debating Breivik’s Manifesto

As tweeted yesterday, I was asked onto Paul Hammond’s morning show on UCB Radio, to discuss Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breiviks’ manifesto, which has been published online.  I made the case that, unpleasant though Breivik’s views are, censoring his manifesto would only give him a martyrish status.  Also, the reasons given for suppressing such writings would quickly be used to attack and censor other books (like the Bible).

Here is the audio of my segment [6 Mb].

On the UCB’s Facebook page, a few people raised dissenting views.

… surely the human rights of the Norwegian students and there families should be held in higher esteem the Anders Behring Breiviks. He gave up his rights the moment he blew up the building in Oslo.

I think this is just a confusion of the concept of human rights.  Of course rights such as free expression may be lawfully removed, but its wrong to say that a killer or any other hated person in society can forfeit their rights in this way.  If that were the case, we would call them ‘privileges’ not ‘rights’.

Another common sentiment:

But I would caution against publishingg such material. Not everyone has the wisdom or intelligence to be able to read it. God forbid but what if there was to be a copycat killing because of publishing this?

To this, I am reminded of Bronwen Maddox writing in The Times, discussing the ramblingsof another killer, Cho Seung Hui:

The accusation that the NBC broadcasts may provoke copycat attacks — the most serious charge against the network — appears to rest on a notion of severe mental illness as contagious, common and predictable.

UCB is a Christian radio station, and as such there were a few comments invoking the more nebulous concepts of God and Satan:

He had his foot in satans kindom, he is a freemason wich is v evil ,he also listend 2 chantin an playd demonic games on computa,he gave the devil an entrance 2 his mind.ther so much ocult activities that warp the mind an insesetive the value of life

I don’t think this is helpful.  Evil and even satanic Anders Breivik may be, but these are adjectives to describe his end state of mind, not the process by which he became like that.  Explaining a good or a bad act as being the work of God or Satan is a way of avoiding hard thoughts and (maybe) a difficult truth.

Free Eynulla Fatullayev

Yesterday, English PEN took part in a demonstration with other free speech organisations outside the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan. We demanded the release of Eynulla Fatullayev, and editor who was imprisoned for defamation of the state (i.e. criticising the government), a law which it is generally agreed is an infringement of the right to free expression.

During the demo we made a short video, featuring yrstrly.

The protest was convened in part to show solidarity with Azeri writers and Fatullayev’s family, so providing a translation was essential. After edting it, we used a nifty tool called CaptionTube to create subtitle tracks for the video.

Photos are available too:

Behzti is no longer taboo

Liberty Central Logo

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

A Jeremiad on UK Visas

Goldsmiths
The view from the panel

Last Monday night I spoke on behalf of English PEN alongside Tony Benn at a meeting a Goldsmiths College Student Union, on the problem of the UK’s new points-based visa system.  The system has caused hundreds of writers and artists to be refused entry to the UK, even for short-term visits such as a one-off gig or book launch.  Academics and university support staff are particularly concerned with how the system affects relationships with their students:  The system places new monitoring requirements on professors to log attendance at individual lectures and inform the UK Border Agency of any ‘suspicious behaviour’.

It was clear that, at Goldsmiths at least, neither staff nor students support the new measures.  The general mood is that staff should boycott any extra tasks that the UKBA demands they perform.  Many were frustrated that such a boycott is not already in operation.  However, co-ordinating such action – which really amounts to a simple work-to-rule action, because there is nothing about surveillance of students in any staff contract – nevertheless requires organisation and a sense of momentum.

From the floor, we heard the story of a student who has been harassed and harried at every turn in her bid to stay and study at the college.  She has spend over £2,600 in legal costs and ‘fees’ for processing various immigration applications.  The university cannot give her much help, since they do not want to “act as solicitors”, and she even had to represent herself and an immigration tribunal.  The ‘helpline’ she has been given to assist with her problems costs £1.20 per minute to call… and she is frequently put on hold whenver she calls.

Belle Ribeiro, the NUS Black Students officer, said that in general, international students do not get enough support when they come to study in the UK, despite contributing a huge amount in fees.  The new rules that insist that foreign student carry an ID card will mean that BME students are likely to be disproportionately hassled to identify and justify themselves.  And when ID card fraud inevitably occurs, it will be the overseas students who suffer.

My own speech was a jeremiad (hat-tip James Fallows for that word) on how this country was sending itself into a horrible cultural decline.  The approximate text, corrected for grammar and general semantic sense, is reproduced below.   You can check it against an recording.  The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn was also on the panel:  I’ve put an MP3 of his remarks online too. Continue reading “A Jeremiad on UK Visas”

Arguing Libel Reform in the Solictiors Journal

I have an article in this week’s Solictiors Journal, calling for whole-scale reform of libel law.  In making my case, I find common ground with Nigel Tait of Carter Ruck:

Speaking at an English PEN event on libel, he [Tait] admitted that some proposals for change filled him with “fear and dread”, but he welcomed the idea of a libel tribunal as an alternative to full trial.

“I actually like the idea of the tribunal, the fast track scheme,” said Tait. “If you’ve got it wrong, then… at least you can go to a tribunal and test it. And we would have lots and lots of cases going through our system, instead of the five or six a year which we have at present.” Tait’s firm is often criticised by free speech campaigners, but here we are in agreement: it is surely better to fight libel cases based on truth and meaning, rather than on which side has the most money.

Mine is the first half of a point-counterpoint editoral feature.  Rod Dadak of Lewis Silkin LLP provides the alternative argument, saying that effective case management is a more effective route to reform.

The proposals made in the Index/PEN report, which include a radical change of our libel laws, are inappropriate and wholly unnecessary. They would seriously impact on the rights of a libel victim to seek vindication and compensation. Freedom of expression has to be balanced with their rights to have their reputation protected: a responsible media have nothing to fear from our existing libel laws. That said, there is iniquity and abuse in respect of costs and also jurisdiction shopping. It must be addressed. Neither the media nor the claimant should hold all the cards, but Index/PEN are over-egging the argument for reform.

Wholesale change is not the solution, effective case management is.

What is encouraging about this, is that at least Mr Dadak acknowledges the problem.  ‘Jurisdiction shopping’ is what is also known as ‘Libel Tourism’, and the issue of spiralling costs is a major obstacle to journalists defending themselves, as the BBC proved earlier this week when it conceded defeat in its legal tussle with Trafigura, over a report on Newsnight about the company’s toxic waste dumping in the Ivory Coast.

I think my reponse to Mr Dadak would be:  If effective case management is the answer, then why isn’t it being done already?  It is not as if the problem with UK libel laws is a new one:  I know Geoffrey Robertson and Anthony Lester, two human rights QC’s who work closely with PEN, have been complaining about the iniquities of libel for literally decades.  I would say that it is precisely the failure of the courts to acknowledge the extent of the problem, that has inspired free speech campaigners are now turning to the politicians to sort out the problem.

Free Speech is Not For Sale

Geoffrey Robertson QC and Alan Rusbridger

Now then: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has resigned from the PCC code committee.  Last week he said that the PCC report into the allegations that the News of the World had been hacking people’s phones was “dangerous to the press” and that it was behaving “uselessly” as a self-regulator.

That was last Monday, 9th November.  But I wonder if Rusbridger’s mind was finally nudged in favour of resignation the following day, by the Human Rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC?  Robertson was speaking at the launch of English PEN and Index on Censorship’s Campaign for Libel Reform, at the Free Word Centre.  He had this to say on the subject of the media and the PCC:

The media … have for years committed a fraud on the public and on their readers by presenting this confidence trick of the Press Complaints Commission, as though it were a real court, as though it were significant.  The Press Complaints Commission has been funded by the press, in order firstly to provide a poor person’s libel court (which has now gone by the board because now everyone who sues uses CFAs); it has been funded secondly to prevent the encroachment of the law of privacy – and its too late now, because we have a law of privacy: ill-designed, vaugely worded, European Gobbledegook for the most part, which is being implemented in a ham-fisted way by the judiciary.

So, there’s no point in the PCC.  If the editors of Fleet Street had any real integrity they would withdraw.  As Ian Hislop said, as the editor of the only organ that refuses to accept PCC judgements, he wouldn’t want to live up to the ethics of the newspaper editors who are on the PCC’s ethics committee!

Alan Rusbridger, crouched in the aisles and listening with a wry smile, duly reported some this criticism via Twitter.

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Geoffrey Robertson QC