Discussing the UK visa system in The Bookseller

UK Border

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, has warned that the UK visa system alienates cultural visitors and is in dire need of an overhaul. In recent years, participants in the EIBF and other major UK festivals have had trouble getting permission to enter the UK – a huge freedom of expression issue for them, and for British audiences who have a right to hear them speak.

I’m also quoted in the piece, noting the many ways in which the UK visa system conspires to discourage cultural visitors.

“Here, I’ve noticed that the issue with visa refusals is not just the culture of ‘suspicion’ which leads to some authors and writers, usually young and usually from countries that are poor or which have security or human rights issues, being refused. The visa application system itself is too complex and it’s too easy to make a mistake or to provide incomplete information, which can also lead to a refusal. And the Home Office never provides any opportunity for the applicant to clarify or amend an application.”

He added: “The system is a combination of hostility and complexity that turns people off as well as turns people away. That this is a case is absolutely a political choice – yet another way in which antipathy towards immigration hurts British culture.”

The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Last year I posted some notes about the famous free speech formulation “I hate what you say, but defend your right to say it” which is erroneously attributed to Voltaire. I think the fact that it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall about Voltaire’s philosophy is now quite widely known, as evidenced by the extent of the gleeful crowing of ‘well actually’ every time some-one prominent (like education minister Sam Gimyah MP in The Times last year) gets the attribution wrong.

While writing my post about Hall (whose pen-name was S. G. Tallentyre) I naturally searched for a picture of her online. A Google image search for ‘Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ throws up dozens of versions of the image below: a young, determined looking woman with a sword. Many of the images that the search yields include the famous free speech quote, properly attributed to Hall. Continue reading “The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall”

Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!

At a museum in Haifa, Israel, a sculpture called McJesus has been removed from display.

The name of piece by Jani Leinonen tells you exactly what it looks like and also gives heavy clues as to why it is controversial: it is the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald.

There have been angry protests against the sculpture by Israeli Christians who consider it offensive and blasphemous. There were threats of fire bombing.

The sculpture brings to mind another crucifixion mash-up, Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andreas Serrano (1987). I also think of The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996), a picture painted using elephant dung and which features pornographic imagery. Rudi Giuliani, then mayor of New York, called it ‘sick’ when the painting was exhibited there in 1999.

Continue reading “Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!”

It’s fine to call an MP a Nazi. But it’s not OK to threaten them

Well okay, it’s not fine. It is almost certainly not true, it is very rude, it coarsens our political discourse, it widens divisions, and I really really wish people wouldn’t do it.

But when pro-Brexit protesters call a Remain-supporting MP a ‘Nazi,’ that most certainly is political speech and should be covered by free speech protections.

By contrast, it is not okay to physically intimidate anyone, whether that person is is a man, a woman… or an MP. Continue reading “It’s fine to call an MP a Nazi. But it’s not OK to threaten them”

Protesting the Imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

English PEN banners protesting the imprisonment of Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

I just noticed that the International Observatory for Human Rights put up a video last month, publicising the demonstration they did outside the Embassy of Myanmar in September. The ‘occasion’, so to speak, was the ridiculous jailing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

I was at the demo, representing English PEN, and am featured briefly in the video, calling on The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi.

Continue reading “Protesting the Imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo”

Gayer Cake

Icing is a medium of expression. I think often of this marvellous interview with the musician Todd Trainer (drummer in Steve Albini’s band Shellac) with the music journalist Holly Day:

Yeah. Icing has definitely always been a part of the visual aspect of Brick Layer Cake. All four records have had icing on the covers, both front and back covers – literally all the artwork that has ever appeared on my records is icing, so that’s a theme, an aesthetic theme … Icing is a rather limited medium – I shouldn’t say “limited”. It’s an unforgiving medium to work with, because you only get once chance to really do it right.

Trainer’s album covers, with their naïf cursive, are a thing to behold, and I wonder if there are other modern artists working in the medium. There are probably similarities in technique to art made from neon tubing, as practiced by people like Bruce Nauman or Tracey Emin. And since icing is very much a craft, it is surely ready for a Grayson Perry subversion. Continue reading “Gayer Cake”

The Free Speech Moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture

Kerry-Anne Mendoza
Kerry-Anne Mendoza

In debates about reproductive rights, a crucial concept is over ‘when life begins’ and when a complex collection of human cells starts to have a moral claim. Some people say this must be the ‘moment of conception’. Others talk about ‘viability’, when certain senses come online; or they talk about the moment of birth.

For a long time now, I have been meaning to write a post about the ‘free speech moment’, after which we have a moral duty to defend the right to freedom of expression, even if we find the speaker or their statements odious. During a free speech controversy, asking oneself when that moment might be is a useful exercise, which helps to clarify what one thinks.

The Free Speech Moment I refer to might be the point of publication. Or in other contexts: The clicking on the ‘tweet’ button; The curtain up; the the exhibition opening; The opening notes of the first song; the speaker clearing their throat.

Alternatively, the Moment might also be the point of commission; the announcement of the new season of plays; the curatorial decisions; the booking of the venue; or the invitation. Continue reading “The Free Speech Moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture”

Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News

On Tuesday 11th September, Lucy Powell MP introduced the Online Forums Bill to Parliament. It was a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’, a mechanism by which opposition and backbench members of parliament can introduce legislation.  The text of Ms Powell’s speech may be found in Hansard and there is a video on Parliament.tv.

The speech makes some challenging points. How is it that Facebook groups can grow to tens of thousands of people in secret, with no oversight or scrutiny? One such group, which discussed autism, recommended that parents give their kids ‘bleach enemas’ to cure the condition.

Powell also points out that members of these groups often feel too intimidated to speak out against the most vocal and radical members of the group. This shifts the dynamics of such groups to ever more extreme positions, and is a very particular free speech issue in itself.

The bill proposes that online forum operators like Facebook be forced to take greater responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Just after the parliamentary debate concluded, I was invited onto Sky News to discuss the proposals. The segment can be viewed below or on YouTube. Continue reading “Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News”

New Statesman: We mustn’t let the news cycle forget the Reuters journalists locked up in Myanmar

This week, two Reuters journalists working in Myanmar were found guilty of breaking official secrets laws and sentenced to seven years in prison. Officials from the British Embassy in Yangon attended the trial and report that there was scant evidence that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had done anything wrong. They have clearly been imprisioned as a means of silencing their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.

I wrote about the convictions, and how (I think) the campaign for their release should be run, in an article for the New Statesman.

A frustrating fact about human rights campaigning is that the release of a celebrated political prisoner usually happens not because the law is amended, but on the whim of an authoritarian politician. The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said. Fear and self-censorship persists, and tragically, many other people remain in prison. Presidential pardons rarely extend to equally deserving prisoners who have less of an international profile.

Read the whole thing on the New Statesman website.

Continue reading “New Statesman: We mustn’t let the news cycle forget the Reuters journalists locked up in Myanmar”

For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

Alps from Aiguille du Midi (SW) by Tony Fernandez. Creative Commons licenced photo on Flickr

The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.

A common argument trotted out in several quarters, including by me, was the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It might seem acceptable to ban someone unpleasant like Alex Jones, but who might they ban next? First they came for Alex Jones, but I was not a dangerous snake-oil salesman, so I did not speak up… Continue reading “For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does”