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.
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?
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”
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.
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.
— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) November 10, 2009