“No Problem Is Beyond Solving”

Joseph Jefferson as Dr Pangloss, by John Singer Sargent (1890)
Joseph Jefferson as Dr Pangloss, by John Singer Sargent (1890)

In the past few weeks I’ve been having debates with good people whom I respect deeply about the limits of freedom of expression. When Britian First were banned by Facebook I suggested that the extremists in our society might be moderated and rehabilitated through dialogue.

When I have made this point, my friends have criticised me for being naiive. The bigots are irredeemable (they say) and the best strategy is therefore to cauterise their movement by silencing it wherever we can.

Continue reading ““No Problem Is Beyond Solving””

Rights and Responsibilities

Markus Meechan

A quick thought about the nature of ‘responsibility’.

In the Meechan case this week the judge at Airdrie Sheriff Court said:

In my view it is a reasonable conclusion that the video is grossly offensive. The description of the video as humorous is no magic wand. This court has taken the freedom of expression into consideration. But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility.

On the Sky News debate programme The Pledge, presenter Nick Ferrari echoed this sentiment.

With the right to free speech comes a responsibility to use it wisely. This a sentiment I hear a lot and it seems sensible. Personally, I am not convinced it is the rhetorical silver bullet that most people think it is. I can think of examples where a speaker might actually think it very responsible to mock or to offend someone who they believe deserves it. And when journalists expose Official Secrets (as the Guardian did when publishing the testimony of Edward Snowden) there were plenty of people ready to call this kind of publication irresponsible. So ‘responsibility’ is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading “Rights and Responsibilities”

Notes on the Nazi Pug Thing

The Nazi pug

In Airdrie, Scotland, a man named Markus Meechan has been convicted of posting a grossly offensive video on his ‘Count Dankula’ YouTube channel. He taught his girlfriend’s dog to give a Nazi salute in response to the phrase ‘gas the jews’.

It’s clearly a joke. In fact, he explains as much in the video itself:

Mah girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute her wee dug is, and so I thought that I would turn him into the least cutest thing that I can think of, which is a Nazi.

This is clearly in poor taste. However, making offensive jokes should not be a criminal offence. Continue reading “Notes on the Nazi Pug Thing”

Free Speech – Really Difficult

This blog may give the impression that I am certain in my views, especially about freedom of expression.

But that’s not the case. Especially about freedom of expression.

As Robert Sharp of English Pen told me – just when you think you’ve settled your mind on all the arguments surrounding free speech and censorship, along comes an argument to throw you completely off again.

That’s from a blog post by Ben Please of the Bookshop Band, who are doing a marvellous project on censorship with the V&A, which has just acquired the archives of Oz Magazine. I hope I can go to their event on 20/21 April.

A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech

Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.


When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.

Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?

Not quite. This development is still problematic and draws our attention to the unexpected role that social media plays in our politics. We have been discussing these problems for years without, in my opinion, coming any closer to solving them. Continue reading “A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech”

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

Quoted in the Observer, Discussing Artistic Freedom

Last week, the award-winning Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar posted a disconcerting message on Facebook, regarding his play Pah-la.

My dear Tibetan Friends, in Tibet and in exile, who have contributed extensively to the writing of Pah-la, I regret to inform you that the play has hit a roadblock again.

It was supposed to open on 4th October 2017, at the Royal Court Theatre, in London, with its poster printed and rehearsals fixed, when the British Council China pressurised the theatre to withdraw it from opening because of a program in China that they were running together.

Continue reading “Quoted in the Observer, Discussing Artistic Freedom”

Not Quite Censorship, but…

Virgin Pendolino at Euston

The Daily Mail is angry because Virgin Trains has decided not to stock the paper on its trains any more. The paper has accused the train company of ‘censorship’.

Hmm.

First of all, Virgin is a private company. Ultimately, it has a right to stock whatever it wants in the shops on its trains, and enter into the deals it wants to regarding distribution of free copies to its first class passengers. As Jane Fae says in a column for the Guardian, clearly the company has decided that the Daily Mail is not ‘on brand’.

Continue reading “Not Quite Censorship, but…”

This Is About Ethics In Spy Games Journalism

The  Intercept journalist James Risen has published a fascinating retrospective on his time covering intelligence and security for the New York Times. He discusses how many of his stories exposing CIA wrong-doing during the Bush Administration were spiked by editors who nevertheless gave front-page coverage to stories that appeared to confirm the existence of the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the pretext for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He also writes about his court appearances in 2014 and 2015 when the Obama Administration threatened him with imprisonment for not revealing confidential sources in stories about the CIA’s activities in Iran.

NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen says this was “the most important thing published about journalism today.” Risen’s piece made me think of this tweet from the last days of 2017:

Risen’s account of when and why some of his stories were spiked reminded me of the wonderful ‘Road To Damascus‘ episode from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It deals with the story of how the CIA recruited a double-agent, how that fact was leaked to journalist Tim Weiner, and how the reporting of that story in the New York Times probably caused the death of that double-agent. It was one of the most compelling things I listened to in 2017.