A Tale of Two Authors

Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.
First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places.  The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.
Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review.  His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages).  Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist.  However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.
This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago.  It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper.  I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.

Putting the Power of Censorship in the Hands of the Mob


English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr
English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr

Here’s a post first published earlier today on Labour List (a new venue for me).  I hope there will be comments to which I can respond in a follow-up post.
The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians.  You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not.  First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.
Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy.  The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.
The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort.  But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term.  It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again.  This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.
Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition.  Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places.  Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”
Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob.  For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost.   Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright.  If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with.  Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawing Moonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’!  Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.
When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life.  We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times.  The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.
To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion.  Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division.  No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly.  This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday.  I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies.  They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL.  Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest?  So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.
It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech.  Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing.  Time for Labour to lead.


Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr
Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr

Pædos, Prisoners, and Cameron's Attack on Human Rights

First they came for the prisoners.
A few weeks ago, MPs voted to ignore the European Court of Human Rights. The court in Strasbourg had said that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was incompatible with human rights law, and that the British government should rectify this. Following a debate in the House of Commons, Parliament thumbed its nose at the Court, as MPs voted 234 to 22 to keep a full ban on prisoners. Our Prime Minister put blatant populism above politics, declaring that “giving prisoners the vote makes me sick” (even if that means paying £143 million in compensation from the barren public purse).
Then they came for the paedophiles.
This week, we heard that those convicted of sex offences might not have to stay on the sex-offenders register for life. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that those included on the register should be able to appeal against permanent inclusion on the list, and on Tuesday it rejected a Home Office appeal against the ruling. The Government now has to formulate a policy based on this decision. At PMQs, David Cameron called the situation “appalling”.
There are clear similarities between these two stories. Both present issues where what might be considered the popular and common-sense approach is over-ruled by judges, forcing the Government to do something counter-intuitive. Both stories will inspire tabloid frothing at judge-made law. And in both cases, there are actually good and sober reasons why the judges ruled as they did, and why we should support their decisions. In the case of prisoners voting, such a change could catalyze the reform of prisons into places that offer better rehabilitation for convicts. Moreover, if a person will be released within the lifetime of a parliament, why shouldn’t they have a say on who will be representing them once they’re out? Similar arguments exist for sex offenders: In cases where a prisoner has been rehabilitated, coming off the sex offenders register might help reintegration.
It is crucial to remember that in both cases, all the courts did was rule against an absolutist approach: No ‘blanket’ ban on prisoners’ votes; and sex offenders have the right to appeal, not an absolute right to come off the register. The best comparisons for these issues are with parole or bail – you have the right to apply for it, but you might not get it. It is left to magistrates and judges to decide, depending on the actual circumstances.
So there may well be good reasons why extending the rights of some pretty unpleasant people might improve the whole of society… but it is for the penal reform groups to advance that argument. My concern is with how both these stories have been discussed by politicians – The Prime Minister in particular. With his bully-pupit, he has set a terrible example, placing the blame with the judiciary. His comments are clearly designed to undermine the European Court, the Convention on Human Rights and its manifestation in British law, the Human Rights Act (HRA). David Cameron and his allies have never been comfortable with that document, and these outbursts are designed to soften MPs and the public into agreeing to a watered-down Bill of Rights that will make our standing as citizens more tenuous.
Everyone remembers Pastor Martin Neimöller’s famous poem, which begins “First they came for the Communists” and ends with the narrator alone, with no-one left to speak in his defence. The moral should be clear: If you don’t stand up for the human rights of others, then eventually you will lose your own rights; stand up for the rights of others, and you protect yourself. But while we remember the poem, I think we fail to relate it to the present day. Neimöller’s victims, the Jews, the Trade Unionists, and the Communists, are all inoffensive and mainstream today, so we assume we are far away from the oppression described. But what we forget is that during Neimöller’s lifetime, all these groups were among the most vilified: the rhetorical equivalent of paedophiles and prisoners today.
What the Prime Minister seems to forget, is that Human Rights laws are designed to protect the most hated in our society, not least because these people are always amongst the most vulnerable too. They are supposed to frustrate our gut reaction. They are meant to be inconvenient. That the Courts’ rulings have caused outrage is actually a feature of our democracy, and not a bug. Kudos to the 22 MPs who recognised that, and shame on the Prime Minister. By undermining the principle of human rights, he undermines us all.


This was crossposted over at LiberalConspiracy.org in a more succint form.  It got a fairly good response in the comments, although Tyler makes a good point:

Voting is not a human right. As is so often confused by so many on the liberal left, it is a CIVIL right. It is thus conferred on people by the laws of the land. It is granted to an individual by citizenship, and is not unalienable or transferrable, unlike free speech etc.
If it were a human right there would be no real reason why children shouldn’t have the vote, for example…
As such, this argument that voting is some form of human right is simply the wrong one.

Mea culpa, but the central points remain intact.

Liberty, Whatever the Cost [Updated]

There is not enough poxes for your houses” says Jay Rosen to the pundits discussing #Tucson.  Well, here’s an astonishing quote from a non-pundit which goes places no politician dares to tread:

This shouldn’t happen in this country, or anywhere else, but in a free society, we’re going to be subject to people like this. I prefer this to the alternative.

That was spoken by John Green, the father of Christina Green, 9-year-old girl killed at the shootings on Saturday.  His statement eloquently explains the tough trade-off between liberty and security.  He acknowledges the limits of Government, and that ackowledges that horrible things will happen in a free society, and explicitly says that this is a preferable state of affairs.  It is a difficult case to make at the best of times (I have tried on a few occasions, regarding cannabis, ID cards, and other civil liberties). For Mr Green to say it at the depth of his grief is truly courageous.
Compare this to Nick Clegg and David Cameron, who seem to want to have it both ways.  If you want to argue for more civil liberties, I think you must acknowledge that the mythological state of absolute security does not exist, that there can be negative consequences to liberty… and that we should all be comfortable with that.


When I read this quote I instinctively assumed it was referring to the idea of liberty in general, and did not think too much about the particular tyoe of liberty that Green was advocating. However, a colleague points out that he can only be referring to gun-control (or lack thereof in the American system). And as many others have been arguing these past few days, liberty and the unfettered ‘right to bear arms’ do not necessarily go hand in hand.  Indeed, surely the whole point of consituting a state is to get away from all that! So it is worth adding a line here to emphasise that I do not share Mr Green’s views on gun control, and am relieved that we do not have that sort of ‘liberty’ here in the UK.  There’s no point in whitewashing my original post though – I think it best to leave my excesses and embarrasments for all to read.
Having said that, I think my central point remains.  Mr Green acknowledges that his ideology has negative aspects, and he embraces them anyway.

Geeks on the March

… and the April, and the May.
The latest fundraising project for the Libel Reform Campaign is the Geek Calendar.  The video below features a number of eminent scientists and science journalists explaining why the libel laws are so terrible, why science and medicine are particularly threatened, and therefore, why they agreed to feature in the calendar.

The Geek Calendar project is, I think, a fantastic example of a good idea that has been very well executed, with the help of new technologies. (To add a disclaimer lest the reader thinks I am sucking my own trumpet, the project was not managed by me – though as part of the Libel Reform Campaign I did get to watch the team in action at all stages.) The above video is a classic example of how a little forward thinking creates a significant amount of added value. The ‘geeks’ (including celebrities such as Jonathan Ross) were already being photographed – so why not do a quick interview while you’re there?
The Geek Calendar team have also been using behind the scenes imagery to build momentum for the project. At the other end of the production line, there have been several opportunities for us to spread the word and seed the #GeekCalendar hashtag via social networking sites – when the shop went ‘live’ for pre-orders; at the launch party last week; and when the calendars arrived through people’s letterboxes.
It also helps to have a strong constituency for the message and product.  As Nick Cohen pointed out in April, it is clear that one reason that the Libel Reform campaign has been so successful in lobbying the government (both the Labour administration, and the post-election Coalition) is that there exists a community of technologically savvy, but also very motivated and passionate geeks, to drive the message forward.  Earlier this year, Christina Odone labelled this group “the Lib Dem Spooky Posse of Internet Pests” after a forestorm of tweeting against her during a spat with former MP Dr Evan Harris.  Over at the New Statesman blog, David Allen Green gives a little more insight into the ‘Skeptics‘ movement.  These people would hate to be compared to the religious Right in the USA…  but in their dedication to their cause, and their belief that their engagement can actually cause change, I percieve more than a passing similarity.