Free Speech – Really Difficult

This blog may give the impression that I am certain in my views, especially about freedom of expression.

But that’s not the case. Especially about freedom of expression.

As Robert Sharp of English Pen told me – just when you think you’ve settled your mind on all the arguments surrounding free speech and censorship, along comes an argument to throw you completely off again.

That’s from a blog post by Ben Please of the Bookshop Band, who are doing a marvellous project on censorship with the V&A, which has just acquired the archives of Oz Magazine. I hope I can go to their event on 20/21 April.

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

Discussing Free Speech and Richard Littlejohn on BBC Radio London

On Sunday morning, I was delighted to be invited on to Jamoké Fashola’s BBC Radio London Breakfast show, to discuss free speech.

This week, the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn caused outrage with a typically controversial column. Olympic diver Tom Daly had shared an ultrasound image on social media – he and his partner Dustin Lance Black are expecting a baby via a surrogate mother.

HAPPY VALENTINES DAY! ❤️👨‍👨‍👦❤️

A post shared by Tom Daley (@tomdaley) on

“Pass the sick bag, Alice” wrote Littlejohn. “I still cling to the belief that children benefit most from being brought up by a man and a woman.”

Continue reading “Discussing Free Speech and Richard Littlejohn on BBC Radio London”

Not Quite Censorship, but…

Virgin Pendolino at Euston

The Daily Mail is angry because Virgin Trains has decided not to stock the paper on its trains any more. The paper has accused the train company of ‘censorship’.

Hmm.

First of all, Virgin is a private company. Ultimately, it has a right to stock whatever it wants in the shops on its trains, and enter into the deals it wants to regarding distribution of free copies to its first class passengers. As Jane Fae says in a column for the Guardian, clearly the company has decided that the Daily Mail is not ‘on brand’.

Continue reading “Not Quite Censorship, but…”

This Is About Ethics In Spy Games Journalism

The  Intercept journalist James Risen has published a fascinating retrospective on his time covering intelligence and security for the New York Times. He discusses how many of his stories exposing CIA wrong-doing during the Bush Administration were spiked by editors who nevertheless gave front-page coverage to stories that appeared to confirm the existence of the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the pretext for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He also writes about his court appearances in 2014 and 2015 when the Obama Administration threatened him with imprisonment for not revealing confidential sources in stories about the CIA’s activities in Iran.

NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen says this was “the most important thing published about journalism today.” Risen’s piece made me think of this tweet from the last days of 2017:

Risen’s account of when and why some of his stories were spiked reminded me of the wonderful ‘Road To Damascus‘ episode from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It deals with the story of how the CIA recruited a double-agent, how that fact was leaked to journalist Tim Weiner, and how the reporting of that story in the New York Times probably caused the death of that double-agent. It was one of the most compelling things I listened to in 2017.

Adam Wagner on the tabloid framing of human rights

Adam Wagner is a human rights barrister and founder of Rights Info, and organisation that promotes public understanding of human rights. I’m a huge admirer of the project (and Adam!) and have written for the site in the past.

Following yet another Daily Mail headline that disparages the idea of human rights, Adam posted a couple of Twitter threads in response. The first was about why investigations into alleged human rights abuses by British soldiers is important and necessary. The second was about how the tabloids ‘frame’ human rights stories, and how fact-checking them is not enough if we want to ensure public support for our rights.

I’ve blogged about this communications challenge before, but I think Adam puts it particularly well. I anticipate referring back to this in the future, and make no apology for reproducing the entire series of Tweets below. Continue reading “Adam Wagner on the tabloid framing of human rights”

Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All

Buffalo Jump at Wind Cave National Park

Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
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The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence

It’s nearly 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south London. His death has become a pivotal moment in race relations in the U.K. It has become, in retrospect, the moment when the country woke up to the shoddy justice available to people of colour. It prompted the MacPherson Inquiry which famously branded the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’.

In the 25 years since the murder, the Daily Mail has claimed for itself a central role in bringing justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its campaigning is hailed as an example of public interest journalism, and is often cited as a refutation of the charge that the newspaper itself is inherently racist.

In an enlightening paper for Political Quarterly, Professor Brian Cathcart examined every word that the Daily Mail published on the Stephen Lawrence case. He suggests that the newspaper has systematically exaggerated its influence over the case. He’s written OpenDemocracy article summarises the main findings. Continue reading “The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence”

Fair and Free: Labour, Liberty and Human Rights

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”

The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before

Hideous news from Las Vegas. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

Reading the coverage and the commentary, I’m reminded of the song ‘Nothing Ever Happens‘ by the Scottish band Del Amitri.

The song is 28 years old now.  Some of the lyrics I find too simplistic, like a sixth former berating the world (“Ignorant people sleep in their beds, like the doped white mice in the college lab”). But in other ways it feels contemporary:

Nothing ever happens / Nothing happens at all / The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before

Continue reading “The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before”