Last week I was invited into the Sky News central London studio to discuss free speech and ‘trolling’ on social media. The segment had been prompted by a report by Sky journalist Martin Brunt into a ‘dossier’ of alleged abuse of Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing Madeleine.
During the discussion I made the distinction between tweets that were abusive or threatening on the one hand, and others that were merely ‘offensive’. I cited the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on when to prosecute, and also warned at the development of ‘privatised censorship’ where different ideological groups use poorly-worded laws to threaten each other with prosecution.
Robert Sharp, of freedom of expression group English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “The worrying gap between protections in England and Wales and Scotland is allowing a chilling loophole to exist and this is especially concerning after Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.”
The internet, and in particular social media, means that defamatory statements published in England, for example, could almost certainly be deemed to have been published in Scotland. So somebody who believes they have been defamed online – in, for example, the electronic version of a newspaper, story can now choose where to sue.
Mr Sharp added: “We have every respect for Scots law and understand that it is not the same. But as long as the loophole exists, the chill exists. As long as we have the UK, we can say that if somebody has a reputation in England that can be tarnished, they have a reputation in Scotland too. This is a real constitutional issue and we hope Scotland will adopt a defamation act quickly.”
Today I am quoted in the Guardian, blasting the Maldives‘ ridiculous new law that insists all books be passed by a board of censors:
At English PEN, head of campaigns Robert Sharp called the “sweeping new law” a “disaster for freedom of expression in the Maldives”.
“The parliament should be acting to expand the space for freedom of expression, not enacting laws that will stifle debate and dissent,” said Sharp. “These new rules will also damage Maldivian culture. How can Dhivehi authors flourish when all novels and poetry must pass a board of censors? Maldivian literature will stagnate under these new rules. We hope the president and the parliament of the Maldives will think again.”
One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.
But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument. Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people. They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us. They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people. In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.
Both readers of my blog were subjected to a significant amount of London Book Fair comment and linkage last month. I was asked to give opinions on the controversial China Market Focus programme.
During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney. I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show. Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!
This week English PEN has been at the London Book Fair. China was the ‘Market Focus’ country and as such, there were a lot of Chinese state-run stands at the fair.
I joined with activists from the Tibet Society and the Independent Chinese PEN Centre to stage a poetry protest in front of the Chinese Government stands. The poetry we recited earned their authors a ten year prison sentence.
Later, GAPP officials used a load of pull-up conference banner stands to block the protest from view. “The Great Pull-Up Banner Wall of China”. Not a good look, in a trade fair designed to promote openness.
I was also reprimanded by the security guards for holding up a sign saying ‘Free Speech is not a crime’ on carpet owned (or at least, paid for) by the Chinese government.
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.
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.
We know where this story will go next. Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil. She will draw attention, crowds, the press. She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave. Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency. Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.
This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour. It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.
Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic. They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.
Here, I have to disagree. I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here. Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression. If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena? It is appalling.
I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify. It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate. If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices. We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.
This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised. Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches. A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.
If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves. Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all. It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance. The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:
Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”
I just gatecrashed a meeting some of my colleagues were holding, about writers running workshops in UK prisons. One of the authors made the point that the term ‘creative writing’ can actually have a negative effect on the people attending these workshops, because it implies that writing is the only creative act.
What needs to be emphasised, he said, is that reading is a creative act too – Using your imagination to reconstruct the story and fill in the blanks, between the words the author has sketched. This is well worth remembering, lest we invest all our admiration in writers, and neglect the other half of the equation, readers.
There’s another kind of creativity in reading too, which is in choosing just what to read. Making connections between authors, and between their stories, constructing a network of books, choosing which literary pathway to follow – these are supremely creative acts too.