Author Archive

Azerbaijan’s dictator joins the “selfie craze”

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

See, dictators can join the fun and do selfies to! Here is Azerbaijan’s dictator Illham Aliyev, a man who imprisons journalists, civil society activists and opposition MPs, while using a mafia like clique to run the country, taking a hilarious selfie alongside Western ambassadors.

This really is the jump the shark moment.

[Tweet https://twitter.com/ElshanYenisey/status/453505781971681280]

Event: London Book Fair, Luke Harding in Conversation with Mike Harris

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

09 Apr 2014, 10:00 – 10:30; English PEN Literary Salon, EC2

At London Book Fair, I’ll be interviewing Luke Harding on his new book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian. He has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and has also covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of Mafia State and co-author of WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011) and The Liar: The Fall of Jonathan Aitken (1997), nominated for the Orwell Prize.

Happy 25 Birthday World Wide Web – Let’s Not Destroy It

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, International

It was British ingenuity that led to the development of the World Wide Wide 25 years ago today, and unfortunately it appears British guile will be responsible for its possible demise. The hopeful beginnings of the Web have turned sour. Our experience of free encylopedias, free global communications, free content, free universities, a knowledge explosion – is tempered by the knowledge that governments including our own are hoovering up our most personal data. Every day GCHQ has the capacity to process 21 petabytes of data a day, that’s 39 billion pieces of information. The state can pry into our video calls with our family; feels free to collect metadata that tells us if we’re visiting a cancer clinic (and to see whom), if we frequent gay clubs, or who our friends or associates are. The openness of the Web, where we share information to better humanity, is under seige. If we don’t act, the Web we have come to trust, will become ever more sinister.

25 years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee drafted a not immodest proposal for hyperlinked content that would become the Web. Written in biro, on his draft, a superior had noted ‘Vague but exciting’. Berners-Lee’s insight would revolutionise the way we shop, the way we interact and the way we think about information. In part, the genius of the Web was to see the links between different pieces of content and make it easy to distribute. Another often overlooked reason why the Web succeeded is that it is based on open standards that were free for everyone to use. Anyone can produce a website and no one has to pay Tim Berners-Lee a penny. This gift to the world faciliated an information revolution that has made it harder for the media moguls but given us mere mortals a real chance to learn as much as our brains can store. Simultaneously, as the Web became a greater part of our lives, connection speeds rose exponentially (I find it hard to explain just how slow a 14.4k modem is to anyone under 20), and so did the amount of data it was possible to transmit. It also made us liable to spill our private data across the Web. This, we have now learnt thanks to Edward Snowden, was an open invitation to GCHQ.

Much has changed since 12 March 1989. Our mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, has collapsed. The rise of post-War Communism did not end liberal democracy (rather the opposite). Our fear that enemy would trigger a thermnonuclear war to end all human civilisation did not materialise. Yet the endless rise of intelligence agencies’ budgets continues unabated. This is not to downplay the very real threats we face, but the challenges from the age that the Web was inspired in, seem rather more pressing. We need to rethink the balance between digital rights and the powers of the state. This is why Tim Berners-Lee has called for a Digital Magna Carta, a digital bill of rights in every country that is a compact between government, corporations and individuals. Berners-Lee said today that threats to the internet such as mass state surveillance are threats to democracy:

“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”

How is that spirit of openness possible in a world where we say the state can invade the privacy of everyone – regardless of their innocence or guilt? The founders of the Web are also concerned over another possibility: that the open Web they have created will be eroded as more and more people go offline to protect their privacy. Increasing numbers of activists are using high-tech tools such as TOR or TAILS to encrpyt their internet browsing and email (there was a huge Cryptoparty in London organised by English PEN and Open Rights Group just a few weeks ago). If the state continues to invade our privacy, it is a real possibility that the Web could fragment into a series of highly encrpyted parallel networks. Or, as we see from sabre-rattling from Brazil, nations could “force data to come home”, meaning the global Web as we know it could be replaced by national Web(s).

That’s why we’re about to launch the Don’t Spy On Us campaign, a coalition of the leading human rights, privacy and freedom of expression organisations. You can sign up to the campaign here. In the spirit of the Web’s birthday, we’re calling for real openness about the scale of surveillance and the reforms to the law required to put surveillance on a clear legal footing. We want a proper independent inquiry, to report before the next general election. Then we want to see our MPs commit to reform. It’s time British politicians acted to get GCHQ under control. It’s taken 25 years to get the Web we want, it may not take much time at all to wreck it.

Mike Harris is Campaign Director of Don’t Spy On Us @mjrharris

 

Why is free speech not good enough for Northern Ireland?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression

Very few know why the Defamation Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland, an outrageous decision that has created a gaping loophole in the government’s attempts to reform the UK’s libel laws. It took endless humiliation before parliament got the message and decided to reform the law of libel: the UN Human Rights Council said our libel law chilled free speech across the entire globe, American academics faced our courts for writing about the funding of Al Qaeda, Barack Obama signed into law an Act to protect Americans from our libel law and decent scientists such as Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and NHS cardiologist Pete Wilsmhurst faced ruin thanks to the law.

These humilations led the three major political parties to make a commitment to libel reform in their general election manifestos in 2010. They didn’t qualify this bold commitment with “except in Northern Ireland”. Why would they? The law in Northern Ireland has always been substantially the same as the law in England and Wales, that is until the government reformed it. At no point in the parliamentary debate did the government signal the Defamation Bill would not apply to the citizens of Northern Ireland. But that’s what happened. In the name of devolution, a DUP Minister was able to block (single-handedly) the law from applying to the province.

The law was blocked in a less than democratic manner that is still clouded in secrecy. The former Minister of Finance and Personnel, the combustible Sammy Wilson MLA, withdrew a paper on adoption of the new Defamation Bill without scrutiny by either the Assembly or the Executive. Wilson’s Department refuses to comment, even to a political committee in Stormont, on why consents for the Defamation Bill weren’t sought in the required timescale. What is known is that just days after the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr MP made no less than 10 interventions casting doubt on the Defamation Bill in its second reading debate in the House of Commons, Wilson withdrew the paper relating to adoption of the Defamation Act.

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson has said it is “absurd” to claim that the libel law “restricts in some way the media from doing their job”. Yet, Northern Ireland’s media seem under siege. As Sam McBride, the political correspondent of the News Letter tweeted:

“The volume of solicitors’ letters from DUP to BBC over one Spotlight episode gives a pretty clear hint as to why DUP blocked libel reform”.

Other journalists agree. Viscount Colville (himself a respected BBC journalist) relayed to the House of Lords testimony he had been given by the editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Mike Gilson:

“In a small country without official opposition the media’s scrutinising role of government and institutions is even more crucial. I have edited newspapers in every country of the United Kingdom and the time and money now needed to fight off vexatious legal claims against us here is the highest I have ever experienced”.”

The DUP have been very clear in stating their opposition to reform. Worse still, due to the cross-community provisions in the Good Friday Agreement, as the largest Unionist party the DUP can effectively block any Bill they don’t like – even though they only control 38 of the Assembly’s 108 seats. With a majority in the Assembly sympathetic towards the prospect of libel reform and a consultation showing 90% of people in Northern Ireland back reform of the law, this is hardly democratic.

A Private Member’s Bill launched by Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, attracted support in the Assembly. But now it has been put on ice after the new DUP Finance Minister set the Northern Ireland Law Commission off to run a consultation on the law of libel. While the Law Commission is an esteemed institution, many politicians feel this is an attempt to kick the matter into the long grass. No date has been set for the Commission to launch their consultation, it may not happen for a year. Worse still, evidence submitted to the Law Commission will not be protected by privilege, leaving NGOs reporting on the libel threats dished out by politicians themselves open to libel actions.

Next week in Parliament, an attempt will be made by Peers to amend the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to extent the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland. Seeing the impact on freedom of expression and the opaque manner in which this issue has been handled, respected parliamentarians are backing the amendment. It is a direct challenge to the DUP who felt they alone could decide on libel reform. The question now is whether the Labour party and Liberal Democrats will back this amendment. Both parties, in particular Labour as the midwife of the Good Friday Agreement, feel fealty towards devolution. Yet, they did also tell the UK at the last election if elected they would reform the law of libel – with no exception. Parliament should send a clear message to the DUP – you alone cannot decide on whether free speech is good enough for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

This article was posted on 21 February 2014 on mjrharris.co.uk

Jon Cruddas: I want to be deputy

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Labour

Jon Cruddas talks to Michael Harris about the BNP, how to revive the Labour party and the wine that focus groups drink

This article was originally published by Total:Spec Magazine in 2008.

“Actually, I feel more energetic and radical now than I have done for 20 years”

Jon Cruddas MP

Symbols and the Left

Symbols are very important to the Left. Many of the ‘modernizers’ who according to your opinion either a) captured, or b) revitalised the Labour party in the mid-90s, had little truck with the symbolism of the past: the banners, the marches; even the party’s colour, red, was replaced by blushing crimson or the incongruously regal purple. Blair’s metropolitan fetish for modernity has meant he is rarely pictured with the lumpenproletariat, to avoid antagonising the chattering classes. So out went photos of the Prime Minister in greasy spoon cafes, and in came the now de rigour holiday snaps of Blair and family at some celeb’s home au gratis. I met some Iraqi trade unionists a few weeks back and they were keen to tell me about their visit with Labour MPs to the Durham Miner’s Gala, a working-class festival of banners, brass bands, and booze. These Iraqi trade unionists understood the important symbolism of this now museum-piece relic of working-class culture in a manner Blair does not: needless to say, Tony Blair has never attended as Labour party leader, and is the only leader never to have done so (his parliamentary seat is 10 miles away). Subtly, symbols and Labour’s history are part of Jon Cruddas’ message: he understands and feels comfortable with these symbols, and perhaps doesn’t really care if they do frighten the middle-classes.

 
In 2000, Peter Mandelson banned the singing of the anthem the ‘Red Flag’ from the Labour party conference, a song which opens immodesty, “The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead”, not quite in keeping with the parvenus’ view of what new Labour represented. To Cruddas, the dropping of the Red Flag was akin to blasphemy: “We’re made far too much of a rupture with the past and we should be proud of what is, after all, a rich history.” It is this very history, the history of a movement which emerged from an act of defiance by the Tolpuddle Martyrs into fully fledged trade unions and an onwards march into the mass membership Labour party that Cruddas understands and wants to bring into the modern era.

Jon Cruddas’ stated aim is to be the next John Prescott, that is the deputy leader of the Labour party. We know that Gordon Brown – except only for an act of God – is to be crowned leader of the Labour party after his relatively patient wait since a pact in Islington between the soup and the sorbet, so the attention of the press has turned to who will replace the venerable Prescott. Cruddas is one of 7 declared and expected-to-declare candidates including Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, and Jack Straw: he is the only candidate who is not a member of the Cabinet.

 

The Unions

Cruddas is a union man. Whilst working as the PM’s deputy political secretary, he was seen as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the trade union movement inDowning Street. When he left to contest a safe Labour seat in 2001, the Prime Minister was left without a conduit to the trade unions and his relationship with them rapidly deteriorated.
 
Cruddas’ opponents are all too quick to accuse him of being a union placeman, digging up the mumbles of some at the time of his selection as a parliamentary candidate, which (even by the standards of politics) got rather dirty. At the time, Cruddas was one of three trade union activists along with Tom Watson and John Mann, who went from the upper echelons of the trade union movement straight to rock-solid safe Labour seats. Many of ‘Blair’s babes’ (the horrific media epithet given to newly elected women in parliament) were appalled at the seemingly old Labour trick of securing unbeatable Labour seats for working-class, white males. One senior woman politician said of his selection, “Jon Cruddas was eased into place with TGWU funds to back him”. A union official blasted back: “Some of these middle-class women are not really bothered about getting more women into Parliament… they just want more places for female lawyers and other professional women from wealthy backgrounds. They do not want to see working [class] people in Parliament full stop.” It was a moment of class war that was no longer supposed to exist in the modern sanitised new Labour party.
 
There is certainly no doubt that Cruddas is close to the T&G trade union, which as one of the ‘big four’ unions now provides most of Labour’s funding (since Lord ‘cashpoint’ Levy has found donors less willing to cough up), and a not inconsiderable number of the ‘bright young things’ who staff parliament wear T&G ribbons around their neck to support their passes, and in turn Mr. Cruddas.
 
In fact, I got to speak to Jon Cruddas through a trade union colleague, which was lucky as Mr. Cruddas is rather the media darling at the moment. I was assured however, ‘you’ll get the same amount of time as The Times did last week’, ah, being a union member comrades!
 
Jon Cruddas was born in 1962 in Cornwall to devout Roman Catholic parents. A lot of media attention has focused on his links with the unions, but none on his religious upbringing. I asked him about the link between his politics and his Catholic upbringing: “[my] social and community interaction was mostly through the Catholic Church, so it was driven by ethics of service, homelessness and poverty based around quite radical Catholic activity”. Catholicism provides an important, but overlooked backdrop to his politics; one of his political heroes is the assassinated Catholic Archbishop ofSan Salvador, Óscar Romero (who the last Pope attempted to make a saint), and his middle brother became a Catholic priest. At the recent ‘Defend Freedom of Religion Rally’ he attacked Jack Straw’s comments on the veil, “I am a Catholic and I come from an Irish Catholic tradition. I talked to members of my family about their feelings about the debate about the veil and religious symbols, they said if that debate had been … [about] Catholicity, they would have felt hunted”.
 
After a spell inAustraliain which he became “heavily involved” in the trade unions there, he returned to theUKto take a Doctorate in Philosophy atWarwickUniversity. Whilst the cozy atmosphere of student politics didn’t suit, “the student union didn’t interest me at all”, he became politically active as a result of the Miner’s Strike; “it was a profound seismic political event”, and the imposing and controversial figure of veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, “I voted Benn in 1981. I saw that as the route [for radical change]. I was very disappointed with the whole right-wing drift of the government, at the back end of the 70s. The Labour party was very factionalised, and I was drawn to the Left, not in a factional way, but because I saw Benn as quite a refreshing figure. I went with a lot of it, it chimed with my experience of youth unemployment, the bomb, and the Miner’s Strike.” In a sense, Cruddas hasn’t entirely left the legacy of his flirtation with Bennite politics in the 80s, his calls to rebuild the Labour party into a mass membership party are uncannily familiar to those of Mr. Benn, as is his belief that the style of leadership that Blair espouses and the structure of the party is about to change. “The page is turning now on a specific period of the Labour government, people have left the party for a whole series of reasons not less a lack of involvement in the democratic procedures of the party, policy failures that a lot of people have concerns with such as the War [in Iraq], top-up fees, the perceived authoritarianism of the government, Blair himself”, he breaks, not quite content to put the boot into his old boss at No. 10, “… where I sit as the local MP in one of the most challenging environments in the country the need for a Labour government, a radical Labour government, is as acute now as it has ever been and arguably even more so.”
 

THE BNP AND DAGENHAM

Dagenham is a troubled place. In the early-1920s, the world’s largest social housing development was built – at a time when the Soviets were having a real go at building mass housing projects – the vast Becontree Estate turned Dagenham from a village to a vast town overnight and is still home to 100,000 people. Many of those who came to Dagenham were a first wave of ‘white flight’ migrants, who fled from the increasing Jewish population of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Bow, to a homogenous white existence in Dagenham. The decline of the famous Ford car plant, which in the 1960s employed 40,000 and gave much of the area its employment, turned an old fashioned suspicion of the multiculturalism that lay down the road inLondon, to pure bigotry. In the eighties, neo-Nazi thugs cut out the kidney of a North African man on the District Line near Dagenham; Tony Lecomber the ‘BNP bomber’ grew up here, and the nail bomber David Copeland, a psychopathic ‘National Socialist’ lived next door in Barking. At the last election for Barking and Dagenham council, of the 13 council seats the BNP contested, they won 12. Jon Cruddas as the local MP, faces the serious possibility at the next election of being ousted forBritain’s first BNP MP, it is worrying indeed.
 
I ask Jon why people vote BNP: “It’s a really complicated phenomenon which takes different forms in different parts of the country… So you need a certain understanding of forces which combine in one particular area, in our area it is about massive demographic changes colliding with a long-term legacy of poverty and real concerns about access to public services like housing and healthcare.” Housing and healthcare really are the BNP’s two recruiting sergeants. As immigrants and Black Britons have moved from the centre of the capital to Dagenham in search of cheaper housing, the BNP has attempted to capitalise through clever mistruths. Recent campaigns include giving NHS Somali language leaflets to vulnerable pensioners and claiming they told foreign Muslims how to skip waiting lists, printing a leaflet called “Africa in Dagenham” which said the council were paying Nigerian families living in Tottenham £50,000 to move to Dagenham, and naming a local tower block “Kosovo Towers” – it was soon daubed with swastikas and racist graffiti by local neo-Nazis. The pace of change is certainly fast, a commonplace amongst locals is: “I can walk from my house to the shops, 1,500 yards, and never hear an English voice.” Jon concurs, “I think we have the fastest changing community in the country”, but he doesn’t let his government off the hook, “overriding this change is a sense of disenfranchisement by the Labour party, a sense that the party has moved away from them. A sense that all of the political parties becoming increasingly interchangeable and articulating an agenda that is relevant to a different place and community than ours.”
 
According to Cruddas, the reason the BNP are so strong is because Labour are now weak. Cruddas thinks that the structures of the party have become too closed and that “opening them up democratising them and handing them back to the membership is a proxy of re-enfranchising people back into the political process”, and that doing this will enfranchise people in Dagenham at the expense of the 45 marginal seats the political parties chase after (or ‘super-turbo marginals’ as Jon mockingly refers to them). “So the debates about the structures of the Labour party are key debates about re-democratising society, [to create] a more radical policy agenda that goes with the grain with communities like mine, rather than people who drink…”, there is a pause, I like to think here that internally Jon spent this time thinking which drink was typical of new Labour focus groups, ‘Claret, no, too mid-nineties’, but he continues, “the focus group member, you know what I mean?” Cruddas has spent a lot of time working on his local Labour party, getting back the old membership and bringing in new members: “Interestingly enough, in my experience at local level membership has gone up, activity has gone up, the age profile has gone down [and] the membership is coming from a whole series of different communities as well”. Part of his local party’s revival, against a background of moribund Labour party that has lost 200,000 members since 1997 (half its membership), is the threat the BNP pose, but I imagine another part is the role of Jon himself as a charming salesman for a politics we thought had disappeared.
 

“I think you have to give people reasons why they should want to join the Labour party and you have to give them a notion of a different society, a world that you want to create. I joined the party to change the world – I literally did!”


 
Cruddas is not convinced that we no longer need to change to the world, a la Fukuyama, “I mean there is this notion that this is an age of contentment compared to the previous era of the Cold War, the bomb, class war, Thatcher, I would argue those insecurities are more acute now actually. They take very different forms but it means that the case for political activity and radical political activity is even more acute now than it was 25 years ago when I got involved”. I begin to play out a standard argument you hear a lot at the moment, that people are interested in the big issues that Cruddas refers to (the environment and Third World poverty especially), but not in monolithic political parties. People will sign up to single issue campaigns, but as consumers we are not prepared to sign up in totality to a political party’s programme. Mr. Cruddas does not agree, “I think that’s a bit lazy. The usual argument is political parties are inevitably in decline, they belong to a previous era, its all single issues, blah, blah, blah”, I fear I oughtn’t to have mentioned this, “I think this is really lazy thinking, it sells the past on organised politics and it hands [power] over to cartels of power in terms of the press, industrial capital and authoritarian groups in the centre of political parties… saying that this is inevitable offers a very simple alternative to actually getting involved to change [things].” There is for Cruddas no alternative to getting stuck in and getting your hands dirty, moreover the current ‘authoritarian groups at the centre of political parties’ (the spin doctors and Special Advisors) are according to Cruddas about to be banished along with the “focus groups, key seat organisation, the middle-England agenda, the interchangability of politics, because that is creating chasms and vacuums that will be filled by a more radical politics on the left, and actually on the right as well… it will have to or else more extremist forms will come in and fill those vacuums.”

The Cruddas agenda is one where politics reaches out beyond the 45 ‘turbo-marginal’ seat scrap of electoral territory the main parties entrench their armies on, and instead reach out to places like Dagenham where the proto-fascist BNP are active. That means more local activists and so more members, and perhaps exorcising the ghosts of Labour’s past: “there’s a view in some quarters that if we become a more democratic party, then some mystical band of Trots will take over. I think the biggest problem we face now is not being infiltrated by a latter-day Militant Tendency but no-one joining at all.” Yet, the question key Labour figures such as the Immigration Minister Liam Byrne are asking of Cruddas is whether his agenda will do the one thing that any political position needs to deliver – another election victory. Whilst the tried and trusted Blair strategy of appealing to the middle-England of marginals has given Labour a historic third term, Cruddas’ Bennite strategy of big ideas and a big party is as of yet untested. Whether it will be given a chance is up to the 200,000 Labour party activists Cruddas wishes to empower.

This was originally posted on 14 February 2014 at mjrharris.co.uk

Magna Carta+800

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

Next year, it’s the 800th anniversary of the signing of the original version of Magna Carta. The anniversary seems an appropriate time to reassess the state of civil liberties in the United Kingdom.

What would Magna Carta+800 look like? In the coming months, I’ll be canvassing views on what  a modern Magna Carta would look like.

I’d like a UK First Amendment that provides the level of protection for freedom of expression seen in the United States. Arguably, this would not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet, a British Bill of Rights (and dare I say it, a British Constitution) could be an ideal outcome in a United Kingdom that has seen off Scottish independence and is celebrating 800 years of one of the most important documents in human history.

With the UK reassessing its relationship with Europe, rethinking its national identity and grappling with huge challenges to civil liberties (from TEMPORA surveillance to secret courts), this debate cannot come soon enough.

London CryptoParty, Free Word Centre, 11 February 2014

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

Cryptoparty!

The Don’t Spy On Us campaign is a coalition of the most influential organisations who defend privacy, free expression and digital rights in the UK and in Europe. We’ve come together to fight back against the system of unfettered mass state surveillance that Edward Snowden has exposed. Right now, the UK’s intelligence services are conducting mass surveillance that violates internet user’s privacy and chills free speech. The impact globally may be more profound. If democracies turn a blind eye to mass surveillance, dictatorships will build ever more dystopian surveillance programmes to shut down the space for democratic activism, civil society and internet freedom.

The campaign kicks off on the 11 February with a CryptoParty to show you how you can protect your personal security and privacy. This event is FREE with a bar, live demonstrations and some big hitting guest speakers!

The evening is hosted by English PEN in association with Open Rights Group.

To sign up enter your details above or go to the ORG meetup page here.

Don’t ban Jobbik – beat them

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

Jobbik are a vile political party. The far-right political movement holds 3/22 Hungarian seats in the European Parliament and 47 seats in the Hungarian Parliament. As noted by Progress it is anti-semitic, anti-Roma and homophobic and allies with other European far-right movements including the British National party, Front National and Golden Dawn. Jobbik is part of Hungary’s new right-wing politics that has seen its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán clamp down on press freedom and rewrite the country’s constitution.

This weekend, the leader of Jobbik, Vona Gobor will attempt to rally his Hungarian supporters living in London. A number of Labour politicians including Camden’s Labour councillors and London Assembly Member Andrew Dismore have called for Gabor to be banned from entering the UK. They are wrong to do so.

Jobbik, like the BNP, is a legal political party. There is a significant difference between opposing fascist political parties which the excellent Hope Not Hate does, and banning political opinions (however offensive and vile) that you do not agree with. Dealing with hate speech is of course complex. But the attempt to bar political opinions you don’t like (the “no platform” policy of various student unions for instance) or prosecute them out of existence, has limited impact. Offensive opinions will regroup in the dark recesses of the internet.

In contrast, winning the argument and exposing the far-right works. As UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue has pointed out in a recent report on hate speech the best way to combat hate speech is through more freedom of expression not less. The BNP is in considerable retreat because it has been given a platform, exposed and ridiculed. Subjecting the BNP’s claims to scrutiny and giving a voice to those who are victims of hate speech has neutered it. Banning the BNP would have, in hindsight, been counter-productive. The same is true of Jobbik. Let Gobor speak to a tiny hate-filled audience. Go and protest outside. Expose the anti-Semitic and hatred.

A Home Office ban would give Gobor the opportunity to tell an old lie from history – that the far-right are persecuted because only they speak the truth and the “liberal elite” are too frightened to let people to hear their message. It’s these conspiracies that fan the flames of racism.

It would also impact negatively on the situation in Hungary where free speech is in decline. Jobbik’s racism is increasingly becoming protected speech by Orban’s right-wing government. As Index on Censorship points out, the Hungarian Ambassador to Austria called for the cancellation of an anti-Jobbik art exhibition which opened in the Austrian city of Linz in October last year.

The exhibition by Roma artist Marika Schmiedt drew parallels between the Nazis and the Jobbik party. One poster shows Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the label of “Natural Smoked Gypsy Cooked Salami” – right next to a Jobbik logo. The Ambassador, Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky described the exhibition as “a cheap provocation, openly racist and hostile against Hungary”.

Unless we remain respectful of the right to free speech of vile anti-Semites such as Gobor, we risk strengthening the hand of the already powerful against marginalised voices such as Roma artists and Hungary’s under siege media.

You can donate to Hope Not Hate here.

The heroes of the Libel Reform Campaign

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

The heroes of the Libel Reform Campaign

On 1 January 2014, the Defamation Act took effect across England and Wales. The Act will have a hugely positive effect on freedom of speech and better protect the public interest, fair comment and individuals from corporate bullying. But – who made this happen? This is my personal take on the individuals who are the heroes behind the Libel Reform Campaign.

My list can’t (and doesn’t) cover the 60,000 people who took the time to sign the petition, lobby their MPs and write to every newspaper in the country. Nor can it anything but touch upon the donors, 100 affiliated organisations or politicians who made the campaign a huge success. I will have no doubt forgotten hugely significant people from the list – omissions are entirely the fault of my lacklustre memory.

So in absolutely no particular order:

Victims of the law

Simon Singh @slsingh

Simon was the inspiration for and constant source of energy for the campaign. Simon’s absolute stubborn determination to do something about the state of the law during and after his case was extraordinary.

Peter Wilmshurst

A true modern hero. Dr Wilmshurst risked his family home and his professional career to speak out about a study into a medical device. Alike many of the victims of libel who joined our campaign, Dr Wilmshurst dedicated a huge amount of personal time in order to speak to politicians to persuade them to get the law right.

Ben Goldacre @BenGoldacre

Don’t talk to Dr Goldacre about vitamin pills. His case illustrated the dangers of the state of the libel law – and his unwavering support broadened the campaign considerably.

Honorable mentions: CarersWatch, Alex Hilton, John Gray, Vaughan Jones, Stuart Jones, Lesley Kemp, David Osler, Hardeep Singh.

Famous folk

Lots of famous people turn up to an event, have their photo taken and disappear. Not these lot.

Dara Ó Briain @daraobriain

My favourite Dara moment isn’t the Big Libel Gig where he gave a barnstorming performance, but him in private meetings with Ed Miliband and Lord McNally where his knowledge of the law was not only impressive, but mildly terrifying to the politicians who expected mild-mannered banter but were put on the spot.

Brian Cox @ProfBrianCox

Not only did Prof. Cox find the time to tour TV studios, but he handed in our 60,000 strong petition to Downing Street and used his Sun column to back the campaign.

Dave Gorman @DaveGorman

One of the key figures behind the Mass Rally for Libel Reform an event the then Justice Secretary Jack Straw described as the best attended he’d seen in parliament in years.

Robin Ince @RobinInce

The brilliant host (and co-organiser) of the Big Libel Gig, Robin rounded up as many of his contacts as he could to put on the greatest comedic show ever – about the law of defamation.

Honorable mentions: Marcus Brigstocke, Stephen Fry, AC Grayling, Ian Hislop, Shappi Khorsandi, Tim Minchin, Jonathan Ross, Adam Rutherford.

Journalists & Writers

Lisa Appignanesi @LisaAppignanesi

Lisa’s personal experience of the libel laws as a writer made her push for libel law reform as early as 2008 while PEN President.

Nick Cohen @NickCohen4

From the Ehrenfeld case through to Singh case and Lord Puttnam’s last minute attempt to tack Leveson into libel (and wreck the Bill), Cohen has written more than almost anyone else on why libel reform was necessary and just.

David Allen Green @JackofKent

David’s call to arms in the Wetherspoons pub (the Penderal’s Oak) in Holborn is immortalised in a plaque that now hangs on the wall. As one of the campaigning lawyers and journalists who gave impetus to the campaign he stuck with us through thick and thin.

Maya Wolfe-Robinson @mwolferobinson

Had to wade through as many op/eds on libel reform as any sane person could handle. But continued to give unstinting support to the campaign.

Honorable mentions: Jake Arnott, Guy Black, Phillip Campbell, Amanda Craig, Frances Gibb, Fiona Godley, Afua Hirsch, Natasha Loder, John Micklethwait, Alan Rusbridger, Nick Ross, John Sweeney, Craig Woodhouse, Peter Wright.

Lawyers

Robert Dougans @RobertDougans

Simon Singh’s lawyer first and foremost but also the defender of a long list of other worthy folk. Dougans is a one-man free speech engine.

Mark Lewis @MarkLewisLawyer

Defended the Owlstalk bloggers and Dr Peter Wilmshurst from libel actions. An endless source of knowledge, time and ideas for the campaign.

Adrienne Page @PageAdrienne

Gave the campaign exceptionally useful advice during the passage of the Defamation Bill especially on how to improve the public interest defence.

Gill Phillips @ladywell23

Endless good advice and practical examples of how the law chilled responsible journalism.

David Price

An enormous help to the campaign in refining our position on costs, the public interest defence and in a number of other key areas.

Stephen Sedley

Chair of the Alternative Libel Project. His sensible stewardship has made cheap alternatives to a full trial possible.

Mark Stephens @MarksLarks

Gave a significant amount of his time to the original report and subsequently to promoting libel reform within the legal profession.

Honorable mentions: Alistair Brett, Joanne Cash, Harvey Kass, Caroline Kelly, David Marshall, Gavin Millar, Brian Neill, Marcus Partington, Jonathan Price, Heather Rogers, Pia Sarma.

Campaigners

People who gave their time. For free.

The Geek Calendar @geekcalender

The nerds (as a compliment) who launched Geek Calendar not only made the must-have calender of 2011, but raised thousands of £s for the campaign. Special thanks to the organisers Mun-Keat Looi (@ayasawada); Alice Bell, Louise Crane and the production team Ben Gilbert, Greg Funnell; Cosima Dinkel; Greg Foot, Barry Gibb, Tom Ziessen.

Tracy King @tkingdoll

The co-organiser (and inspiration for) the Big Libel Gig, a huge sell out show in front of over 2,000 people in London’s Palace Theatre. Tracy’s gig was a massive success that fired a rocket up the politicians.

Honorable mentions: @noodlemaz, @rebeccawatson, @davepaton

Scientists, NGOs, campaign groups

Justine Roberts (@Justine_Roberts) & Rowan Davies (@RowanDavies), Mumsnet

Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts donated a staggering £12,500 to the Libel Reform Campaign and kept her organisation behind the campaign through the whole 4 year period.

Charmian Gooch, Global Witness

Global Witness’s evidence to parliamentarians made a huge difference in persuading the government to update and improve the public interest defence.

Honorable mentions: Emma Ascroft (Yahoo!), Kate Briscoe, David Colquhoun, Richard Dunstan (Citizens Advice), Francisco Lacerda, Antony Lempert (British Medical Association), Richard Mollet (Publishers Association) Dalia Neild, Bob Satchwell (Society of Editors).

Politicians

You only ever hear bad stuff about politicians. This group of politicians put party-politics aside and made a big difference.

Lord Lester

The “grandfather” (in his own words) of the Defamation Act. Without Lord Lester’s private members bill, none of this may have been possible. His private bill showed that placing important defences into statute was feasible and created a vehicle for the final Act of Parliament.

Dr Evan Harris MP @drevanharris

I may have an absolutely fundamental disagreement with Evan over Leveson, but frankly without his tireless commitment to the campaign and sage advice the campaign would not have been such a success. A truly fearsome campaigner.

Lord McNally

Did what he said he would — as Justice Minister he delivered the first wholesale reform of the law since 1843.

Sadiq Khan MP @sadiqkhan

Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary really kept the pressure on the government to improve the Defamation Bill throughout the parliamentary process. Sadiq scored a big victory in reducing the ease with which corporations can sue for libel.

Paul Farrelly MP @PaulFarrelly

Paul founded the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libel Reform which helped coordinate sympathetic MPs to push for libel reform.

Lord Mawhinney

As Chair of the Joint Scrutiny Committee of the draft Defamation Bill, he oversaw a scrutiny process that enhanced and strengthened the Defamation Bill (rather than, as we feared, may have weakened it).

John Whittingdale MP

His Committee’s important report (Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee) into libel significantly increased the momentum in parliament for reform.

Honorable mentions: Lord Allan, Baroness Bakewell, Lord Bew, Peter Bottomley MP, Lord Browne, Viscount Colville, David Davis MP, Paul Farrelly MP, Rob Flello MP, Lord Grade, Dominic Grieve, Baroness Hayter, Julian Huppert MP, Lord Macdonald, Baroness O’Neill, Jack Straw MP, Lord Taverne, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, every MP who signed EDM 1636 and EDM 423.

The professionals

Every campaign needs people to actually do stuff. At the core of the campaign were 3 amazing groups you should support (English PEN @englishpen; Index on Censorship @IndexCensorship; Sense About Science @senseaboutsci). Here are their humans:

Tracey Brown, Jo Glanville, Jonathan Heawood (@jheawood), John Kampfner (@jkampfner), err me Mike Harris (@mjrharris), Síle Lane and Robert Sharp (@RobertSharp59).

Honorable mentions: Chris Peters, Padraig Reidy.

Oh, and a warning from history

Just a note of caution.

The Report recites in non-technical language the general criticisms of the present law, and lists them as complication, cost, uncertainty, stifling of public discussion, undue severity upon unintentional defamation and bias in favour of ” gold-digging ” plaintiffs.

That report was not Free Speech Is Not For Sale but the Porter Report of 1948 which recommended reform to the law of libel which culminated in the Defamation Act 1952. Sixty years on, after initial progress, reform was required once more.

One sentence from the Porter Report, as noted by Selwyn Lloyd MP in The Spectator’s archive, will stand out for seasoned Leveson-watchers:

The Report abhors what it calls “Group Defamation,” for example, the vilification of a particular race or creed or party, but considers that any attempt to go beyond the present law as to seditious libel would curtail free political discussion.

The Libel Reform Campaign essential reading list

‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ (November 2009)

http://www.libelreform.org/our-report

‘Reforming libel – what must a Defamation Bill achieve?’ (September 2010)

http://www.libelreform.org/news/471-reforming-libel-what-must-a-defamation-bill-achieve

‘Libel Reform Campaign – Evidence to Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill ‘ (May 2011)

http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/LRC_submission_to_Joint_Ctt__cover_note_2011_may_25.pdf

‘Libel Reform Campaign – initial analysis of the Defamation Act’ (April 2013)

http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/Libel/Libel_Reform_Campaign_-_Initial_asssesment_of_the_Defamation_Act.pdf

Northern Ireland

‘Libel Reform Campaign – Evidence to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Finance and

Personnel Committee ‘ (July 2013)

http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Documents/Finance/Defamation-Act/written-submissions/Libel-Reform-Campaign-Defamation-Act-submission.pdf

‘Libel Reform Campaign response to the proposed Private Member’s Bill on the law of defamation in Northern Ireland ‘ (November 2013)

http://libelreform.org/images/lrcmikenesbitt.pdf

Alternative dispute resolution

‘Alternative Libel Project – Final Report’ (March 2012)

http://www.englishpen.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Alternative_Libel_Project_FinalMarch2012.pdf

Libel Reform Campaign meets Ed Miliband

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