So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission

The Government remains a greater threat to free speech than a few over-woke students

This week the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP has called on the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, to ensure that the institutions under its purview guarantee free speech. He was commenting on the launch of a consultation by the new Office for Students on how it will regulate universities.

First of all, we should remind ourselves that Universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech: Section 43 of the Education Act (No.2) 1986. This section was added to the legislation amid similar concerns around No Platforming of Conservative politicians. So Mr Johnson’s suggestions are perhaps less radical than he supposes.

Second, there is something vaguely satirical about a Government forcing institutions to protect free speech. Reading Johnson’s comments, I was reminded of the Scarfolk Town Council poster ‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory‘. Continue reading “So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission”

HuffPost: Britain Sets An Example With Its Human Rights Laws – Counter-Extremism Policy Must Be No Different

An op-ed version of my chapter appeared on HuffPost UK

To coincide with the publication of Free and Fair, HuffPost UK published an edited version of my chapter on their politics homepage.

Here’s the central message of the piece:

How can FCO diplomats credibly oppose the sinister monitoring of online discussion in China, when GCHQ is running a comparable mass data collection programme in the UK? How can NGOs credibly protest the prosecution of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül in Turkey for ‘revealing state secrets’ when our own Law Commission has proposed that the UK adopt a similar law? And how can activists effectively protest the treatment of writers like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for merely imagining a new political system, when the UK Home Office is cooking up mechanisms to shut up our own radicals?

You can read the whole thing on HuffPost UK.

Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights

The hope is always that Fabian pamphlets present ideas that the Labour Party could implement, if elected.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve written a chapter for Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights, the latest policy pamphlet from the Fabian Society.

Naturally, my section is on freedom of expression and privacy. The hope is always that Fabian pamphlets present ideas that the Labour Party could implement, if elected. I recommend that the next Labour Government should: reform the deeply illiberal Investigatory Powers Act; introduce a public interest defence to Offical Secrets laws; and abandon Home Office attempts to shut down non-violent radical speech. I also recommend that Labour tie any post-Brexit trade deals to respect for human rights. Doing business with rights abusing regimes ultimately makes us all less safe. Continue reading “Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights”

Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor

People in power like to hide behind national symbols (such as a flag or a monarch) as a way of deflecting criticism.

This blog is useful for many things: a jotter where I can experiment with half formed ideas; an outlet to vent my frustration at some form of shoddy public thinking; to impart advice or recommendations; or simply a place to marvel at the wonderful things that humanity or nature has created.

Today, however, it serves the useful purpose of providing l’espirit d’escalier—an opportunity to add to a conversation, after it has concluded!

The new Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea is Emma Dent Coad, and she has caused controversy at the Labour Party conference by being rude about the royal family. Some of the things she said about Prince Harry have turned out to be false, but she also made some pertinent points about how they spend taxpayers money. This has prompted a conversation about the limits of civil and respectable speech, and echoes some of the discussion in the USA right now, about whether athletes who #TakeAKnee during the national anthem are showing this respect, and if so, to whom.

All this is ripe for discussion on a call-in radio show. Eddie Nestor was leading the debate on his BBC drive time show yesterday, and I went on air to make an uncompromising case for free speech. You can listen to the entire show again on the BBC iPlayer, either on the web or on the app, for the next thirty days. You can also listen to my contribution on SoundCloud, or via the player below. Continue reading “Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor”

On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi and I regret none of it.

As the extent of the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people becomes clear, many people have harshly criticised the response of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Facebook, one of my friends even expressed shame at having campaigned for her.

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. I picketed the Myanmar Embassy on a few occasions (see my photos here) and even addressed a rally for Burmese dissidents in Trafalgar Square (from whence the banner image at the top of this blog). I also collaborated with the Burma Campaign on #64forSuu, a campaign to celebrate her 64th birthday, while she was still under house arrest. On her release in 2012, I was invited to attend an event with her and other dissidents (including Zarganar) at the Royal Festival Hall.

I regret none of this. Continue reading “On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi”

Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia

Even ostensibly benign restrictions on freedom of expression can have significant knock-on effects

A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.

Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.

Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia”

The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

An intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Continue reading “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

Five Quick Thoughts On The General Election Result

The waning influence of the newspapers has been exposed for all to see

Here are five thoughts I had while watching the election results last night and this morning.

1. The Conservative Party’s coronation of Theresa May as their leader last summer looks, with hindsight, to have been a mistake. Mrs May only had to win over her fellow MPs and not party members. She did not have to do any debates or unpredictable public appearances. Had she done so, her weakness in this area may have been exposed. Or, if you prefer, her experience of a months long leadership campaign against Andrea Leadsome might have made her a more confident campaigner in 2017.

    Continue reading “Five Quick Thoughts On The General Election Result”

Theresa May: Undermining British Values and Doing Nothing To Keep Us Safe

Rewriting our human rights laws will not keep us safe but will give the Prime Minister more power

To all those who Tweeted messages of love after the Manchester bomb.

To all those who posted Facebook messages of defiance after the London Bridge attack.

To all those who shared pictures of the Jewish woman praying with the Muslim man, and to those who clicked ‘like’ on that video of the policeman dancing.

To those who spread about the Keep Calm and Carry On posters, and reminded everyone about London’s ‘Blitz Spirit’. To those who Tweeted banter and funny hashtags about the things that make Londoners really afraid.

To those who offers a cup of tea or a bed for the night to anyone stranded in Southwark. To those who offered a lif home to the kids stuck in central Manchester. And to all those who shared these stories and these memes, whose heart was warmed by the idea that we have ‘more that unites us than that which divides us‘. To those who said, over and over, that we would not let a few murdering idiots affect our liberal values or our democratic way of life.

To all these people I ask: how do you feel about Theresa May’s pathetic, ahistorical and opportunistic statement that she will weaken our human rights laws? Continue reading “Theresa May: Undermining British Values and Doing Nothing To Keep Us Safe”

#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London

Today I was honoured to meet Ensaf Haidar – author, activist and wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and charged with ‘setting up a liberal website’. He was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment. His case is one of the most egregious human rights abuses in the world right now… and yet the British Government maintains cordial relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi. Continue reading “#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London”