The #Sunifesto is confused about free speech

We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.

Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.

Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.

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The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.

The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.

The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).

Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?

For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.

Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller

Last week The Bookseller reported on a furore in the world of e-Book publishing. Erotic self-published novels appeared next to children’s literature in the WH Smith online store, which is powered by Kobo.

This looks to me like a technical mistake, but the occurence provoked outrage. The store was taken offline for a while and many books were removed from sale. I spoke to The Bookseller about the controversy: Continue reading “Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller”

Another Misguided Facebook Conviction

Another person has received a criminal conviction for something they posted on a social media site. Matthew Woods received a 12 week prison sentence for posting a message about missing schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page.  At 20 years old, Woods sits in the same young and foolish male demographic as Azhar Ahmed, @Rileyy_69 and Leo Traynor’s troll.

The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial.  Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.

However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading “Another Misguided Facebook Conviction”

Rapists, Pædophiles, Wifebeaters, and Mumsnet

Following my recent defence, on TV and on news websites, of the rights people have to say offensive things, a few people have asked my opinion of the banned advert placed by Fathers4Justice.

The advert ran earlier this year in the i Paper (the low cost digest of the Independent). It called for the supermarket M&S to boycott Mumsnet, because the web forum carried messages which “promote gender hatred”. The text on the advert is actually worded quite politely (“Fathers4Justice are writing to all advertisers this Father’s Day to inform them…”) but the image is of a baby boy with words like ‘deadbeat’ and ‘rioter’ scrawled over his body.

The advert has now been banned by the ASA, which means Fathers4Justice cannot use it in future adverts.

Is this not an infringement of free expression? If I have argued in the past for the right of people to say insensitive things or use hyperbole, what’s the difference here?

First, an ASA ban is not quite the same as a legal prohibition. Fathers4Justice can presumably continue to make similar claims on their own websites and publicity materials. Nevertheless, an ASA ban a form of censorship.

Second, the ASA have ruled on the claims that Mumsnet promote hatred, not on the shocking imagery in the advert. Scrawling the word ‘rapist’ on a baby is certainly shocking and offensive, but that is not what has been banned.

Instead, the ASA have ruled that the advert was misleading. Mumsnet do not promote gender hatred in the way Fathers4Justice claimed.

Nevertheless, part of me wants this sort of thing to be refuted in other ways. Mumsnet is an extraordinarily influential organisation (25,000 daily posts to the forums is a lot of traffic, and founder Justine Roberts was on Question Time a few weeks ago), and I wonder whether such bizarre claims from a famously odd organisation such as Fathers4Justice could not have been fought via discussion and debate. A few cutting blog posts, that demonstrate the falsity of the advert’s assertions, would surely spread like wildfire, discrediting Fathers4Justice, and burnishing Mumsnet.

There is also a free speech issue on the other side of the fence. An Internet forum is not a newspaper. The thousands of postings that go up every day are not the editorial voice of the platform provider. The nature of the discussions (parenthood, domestic issues, child-rearing) are emotive and one might expect a degree of angry venting to take place. That’s a feature, not a bug, of such websites. Mumsnet should not be held responsible that such content arises… Especially as they have a clear policy to remove posts that violate their comments policy. If sponsors like M&S were to withdraw sponsorship of the site, it would presumably wither and die. A valuable platform for free expression and useful ideas would disappear.


Aside: Note the names of the two organisations involved in this argument: Fathers4Justice and Mumsnet. Two portmanteaus, no spaces between what should be separate words. Creations of the digital space.

Behzti is no longer taboo

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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?

Behzti, a play about sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, was cancelled in 2004 after the Sikh community stormed the theatre. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Fear of Offending

Last week we learned that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have suffered death-threats on an Islamist site, after they attempted to depict the Prophet Mohammed in South Park.  Contributors to site called Revolutionmuslim.com warned they might be killed, like the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  The Revolutionmuslim site is now down, but their threats are cached by Google:

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

The post also contained a link to a Huffington Post article which describes where Stone and Parker live.  The group later presented a ‘clarification’ on SlideShare, which is still live, and which repeats the threat:

As for the Islamic ruling on the situation, then this is clear. There is no difference of opinion from those with any degree of a reputation that the punishment is death.  For one example, Ibn Taymiyyah the great scholar of Islam says, “Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) – a Muslim or a non Muslim- then he must be killed…” and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic  scholars.

… This shows that taking this stance is virtually obligatory, but it does not mean that our taking this stance is in some way an absolute call toward the requirement that the creators of South Park must be killed, nor a deliberate attempt at incitement, it is only to declare the truth regardless of consequence and to offer an awareness in the mind of Westerners when they proceed forward with even more of the same.

Quite chilling. In the end, Mohammed was shown on South Park in a bear suit, and then underneath a big black ‘censored’ box, with references to his name bleeped out. Producers at Comedy Central made clear that it was they, and not Stone/Parker, that inserted this censorship.  In the second of the two part episode, the man in the suit was revealed to be Father Christmas, not Mohammed.

What is odd about all this is that, before the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, South Park quite happily featured Mohammed, unveiled, uncloaked, and unbearsuited.  The episode freely circulates in repeats and on DVD, and can be viewed in this short Boing Boing interview with Parker and Stone:

This week, the saga took a strang twist, when cartoonist Molly Norris published and circulated a cartoon entitled ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day‘, highlighting the ridiculous outcome of the South Park situation, where drawing anything can be taboo if it is labelled ‘Mohammed’:

The images and the idea were dedicated to Parker and Stone, but their heritage can be traced back clearly to the beginnings of conceptual art: René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images‘ (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), perhaps? Norris ‘Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor’ label was quickly taken to be a real movement (it was not), and the ‘day’ assumed to be a proper publicity drive (which it wasn’t). Norris quickly removed her image, and made clear that she was not attempting to disrespect religion herself.

This entire episode marks a continuation, rather than a departure, from the frustrating discourse around blasphemy and ‘offence’.  Since the Rushdie affair, and especially since more recent examples such as the Theo Van Gogh murder, the ideal and right of free expression has been on the back foot.  Matt Stone’s quote in the video above highlights the sorry state of affairs:

Now that’s the new normal.  We lost. Something that was OK is now not OK.

When people like Stone and Parker do attempt to take this on, they are foiled by their own network.  Cartoonists like Molly Norris back away from any controversy.  In the UK, the recent production of Behud by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti reminds us that no-one is brave enough to put on Behzti, her controversial play set in a Sikh Temple.   Even the board of the illustrious Index on Censorship backed away from publishing a Mohammed cartoon earlier this year.

We are living in one of two worlds.  Either

  • the fears of all these people are justified, in which case, we have actually descended into a sort of fascist dystopia;  Or
  • we are being over-cautious, and self-censoring unnecessarily

My personal sense is that it is the latter state of affairs is where we are at.  The Revolution Muslim group seem tiny, pathetic and are easily dealt with using existing laws against threatening behaviour.  Likewise with other protesting groups in both the USA and the UK, who can be easily countered if free speech activists and artists co-ordinate properly.  Moreover, public opinion is certainly with free speech, and against those who think that blasphemy is a legitimate reason to censor.

Those with a personal connection to Theo Van Gogh, or Hitoshi Igarashi (Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator) may disagree over the nature of the threat.  Crucially, however, either situation is untenable and an assault on democracy, and cannot be allowed to stand.

My feeling is that political leadership is required.  Only political leaders can guarantee police and legal protection for those who push the boundaries of satire… and the companies that facilitate this.  We don’t have this at the moment, and artists seem to be swimming in uncertainty, lost and scared.