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.


Kabul artist Aman Mojadidi dressed up in a policeman’s uniform, set-up his own check-point, and began offering bribes to passing motorists.  The stunt was a protest against the high-levels of corruption in the city:

“On behalf of the city of Kabul and the Kabul police, if you have paid a bribe or ‘tip’ to someone in the past, I apologize,” the officer says in Dari to the disbelieving driver. “Please take 100 Afghanis,” or about $2.

Mojadidi wanted to draw attention to the pervasive misuse of power in Afghanistan and to see how Afghan drivers would react when he apologized on behalf of the widely scorned police force.

H/T @RohanJay (whom fans of media freedoms should follow).  The stunt reminded me of the story earlier this year about the Zero Rupee note, an innovation by 5th Pillar designed to combat bribe culture in India.  From the CommGap report:

Fed up with requests for bribes and equipped with a zero rupee note, the old lady handed the note to the official. He was stunned. Remarkably, the official stood up from his seat, offered her a chair, offered her tea and gave her the title she had been seeking for the last year and a half to obtain without success.

The problem of bribe-culture of course begins when public officials are paid too little in the first place.  One hopes that these high-profile, amusing-yet-persuasive interventions inspire the politicians of those countries to address the underlying issues, if they can.  Charter Cities are one way of guaranteeing standards of pay and public standards, though I recoil at the colonialist mindset such projects seem to promote.  Are there more internationalist, left-wing versions of the underlying idea, I wonder?

Zero Rupee Note

The Big Libel Gig

Last night, the Libel Reform Campaign staged ‘The Big Libel Gig’, an evening of comedy, science and politics.  Scientists Simon Singh and Brian Cox joined doctors Ben Goldacre (author of ‘Bad Science‘) and Peter Wilmshurst.  Politicians Evan Harris (Lib Dem), Peter Bottomley (Con) and Paul Farrelly (Lab) also took a turn, alongside the proper comedians: Robin Ince, Marcus Brigstocke, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi and Dara O’Briain.

Some of my photos from backstage and in the wings are online at Flickr:

In parliament, the campaign reached a tipping point – the majority of eligible MPs have now signed Early Day Motion 423 which calls for reform.

Unfortunately, the libel laws are still being used to suppress discussion in the public interest.  Professor Francisco Lacerda is a Swedish academic who has been threatened with a libel suit by an Israeli lie detector manufacturer. He visited London last week, to highlight how England’s libel laws prevent him from publishing research about technology being used by the DWP in England. Millions of pounds of public money has been spent on this technology.

Answering the McCann Question

Mark Pack asked me to write a guest piece for the Liberal Democrat Voice on Libel Reform. It was a good opportunity to dig a little deeper into the argument for reform, and rebutt one of the most common objections to making changes.

Free Speech is Not For SaleThe clamour for a change to our pernicious libel laws grows louder every day.  In November, Index on Censorship and English PEN published Free Speech is Not For Sale, a report into the state of libel in England & Wales, and the bizarre phenomenon of libel tourism.  Impressed by this report, Jack Straw announced the creation of a working group to deliver reform.  Lib Dem peer Lord Lester announced on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme he will begin drafting a libel bill, and MPs have begun to sign EDM 423 (tabled by Dr Evan Harris) which demands a libel overhaul.  High profile cases like the recent battle between Trafigura and the BBC, and the suing of cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, have shown the general public what a blight on free speech our libel laws have become, and a petition for change is nearing ten thousand signatures (do sign it if you haven’t already).

Not everyone is convinced by the need for reform, however.  Some people resist the need for change, and it is up to campaigners to win the argument.  Since the Bournemouth conference made a brave manifesto commitment to libel reform in September, ‘campaigners’ now includes every Liberal Democrat party activist.  Liberal Democrat Voice is the ideal place to explore the sticking points of this debate a little more deeply. Continue reading “Answering the McCann Question”

The Execution of Gary Glitter


I watched The Execution of Gary Glitter tonight.  Just as executions have a morbid fascination, dramas about executions, like Dead Man Walking or The Green Mile seem to have that same fascination (although perhaps one degree removed).

I think the death penalty is a valid subject for Channel 4, a public service broadcaster.  Though it is not a live debate here, it is a real and divisive issue for our cultural cousins in the USA.  The hanging of paedophiles is an oft repeated thought experiment, whenever a Huntley or a Vanessa George is arrested, and it is sufficiently discussed in the UK for pollsters to regularly ask the public’s opinion on the issue.  According to the programme, 54% of British adults support its reintroduction.

The device of using Gary Glitter felt like exactly that, & hopelessly crass. If we executed people in the UK they’d be poor & unknown. (@leylandrichard on Twitter)

There’s no doubt that the choice of Glitter as the anti-hero was was a fantastic marketing ploy.  He is, shall we say, the most culturally significant bogeyman we have.  However, this also gave the narrative extra depth, because his rock-star past allowed the programme makers to pass commentary on popular culture. The Daily Mirror headlines for a Glitter trial felt real, and the MP3 remix sending Gary Glitter back to No.1 (on downloads) on the day of his execution was an obvious slam dunk. It is an uncomfortable thought, but I think he is the protagonist many writers would have chosen.  The device cannot simply be marked down as the product of pure cynicism.

Continue reading “The Execution of Gary Glitter”

Anatomy of Injustice

I’ve just attended the launch of the CPJ report Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in RussiaIndex on Censorship hosted a debate as part of the Free Word Festival.

Manana Aslamazyan, Jo Glanville, Nina Ognianova and Richard Sambrook discuss the report.  Photo by englishpen on twitter
Manana Aslamazyan, Jo Glanville, Nina Ognianova and Richard Sambrook discuss the report. Photo by englishpen on twitter

A culture of impunity has sprung up in Russia.  The murderer of Anna Politkovskaya has not been brought to justice, and the authorities are under no pressure to take investigations to their conclusion.  For the panel, the blame for this climate of indifference lies in a large part with the Russian media.  According to Manana Aslamazyan, there is no culture of solidarity amongst Russian journalists.  They fall into three categories:

  • A sizable group of cynics, who are content to game the system and support the regime;
  • A larger group of under-trained, provincial journalists, who live in fear of reprocussions and do nothing to upset the status quo;
  • A small group of “mad” campaigning journalists, who persist in holding power to account.

It is this group which is being murdered.  “An entire granch of journalism has been taken out” said Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC gobal news.  Investigative journalism has been effectively killed off in Russia.

It therefore falls to the Western journalists to keep Russia from sliding further into a deadly authoriarianism, and to support their beleagred Russian colleagues.  Foreign media can be a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities, says Aslamazyan, even ‘name-and-shame’ those in the domestic media community who are complicit in corruption and failure to accurately report.  By leading the way, Western journalists can embolden their Russian counterparts.  Indeed, said Oleg Panfilov (director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations), Russian journalists often ask foreign correspondents in Moscow to cover a trial on their behalf.  A report in the Financial Times of London is worth more than dozens of domestic reports.

Panfilov’s mentioning of the FT dove-tailed neatly with a comment by the author of the report, Nina Ognianova, who suggested that campaigners should focus on “shared interests” that the West has with Russia, rather than the rejected notion of “shared values”.  If the Russian government, and even the Russian public, are not outraged by the killing of journalists, then perhaps a campaign that aims for the wallet, rather than the heartstrings, might have more effect.  Business journalists, lead by (say) the Financial Times, should place more emphasis on how the decline of investigative journalism leads to corruption… which stunts the economy and ensures fewer returns on investment.  When the Russian elite realises that its own business interests are being irrevocably damaged by this culture of impunity, then perhaps they may be motivated to stop it.