Who has the right to write in the UK right now?

It was just confirmed the other day that my new work of fiction, Dicky Star and the garden rule, will be launched at the Free Word Centre in London. This launch event will be on 26 April 2012. All are welcome.

I’m particularly pleased about this for several reasons, not least because the Free Word Centre’s stated ethos is to be a place ‘where reading, writing and free speech come together.’ As such the centre on London’s Farringdon Road is home to organisations including the Arvon Foundation, Apples and Snakes and The Reading Agency that each promote and support literacy and writing in the UK. English PEN is based there too, and Index on Censorship who ‘defend freedom of expression on behalf of people around the world.

Events in recent months and days have demonstrated, if such demonstration were needed, that freedom of expression is an issue in the UK at the moment. I’m not talking about supposed freedoms of people in positions of power to defy ‘the PC brigade’ and spout any old racist, sexist, homophobic garbage, but the freedoms for example last year, to comment on the so-called ‘England riots’ of summer 2011 as they were happening, and more recently, the freedom to publish opinion in relation to the war in Afghanistan.

After the riots across the UK of August 2011, two young men, Jordan Blackshaw of Northwich, Cheshire, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan of Latchford, Warrington, were each given four year jail sentences following their conviction on charges of incitement to riot.

There were of course some critical responses to these and other harsh sentences relating to the 2011 riots, but elsewhere in the media there was an active evocation of complicity, a rhetorical call upon a consensus that may or may not exist. As one commentator put it:

If we know one thing for certain about the England riots, it’s that the public have been urging the courts to dish out some serious punishment.

‘The public’? Certainly the Lord Chief Justice’s judgement was clear: offences committed during the riots were as such ‘aggravated crimes’, and sentences should therefore, ‘be designed to deter others from similar criminal activity.’

The judgement in the cases of Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan discusses in some detail whether or not the ‘event’ pages they had created (not ‘websites’ as he erroneously describes them throughout) were a joke or were literally intended (are these the only two possibilities?), and seems to conflate agreement after the event and under questioning regarding possible effects of the posts with a prior intention. In his judgement, this means that Blackshaw, ‘believed the offences he was inciting would happen,’ (paragraph 57) and that Sutcliffe-Keenan, ‘accepted that he had encouraged the commission of riot, and intended to encourage its commission,’ (paragraph 59), even though Sutcliffe-Keenan had later cancelled his ‘event’ with the message, ‘“only jokin f… hell,”’ (pararaph 63).

Another way of looking at these particular cases might be to suggest that what Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan had actually done was to use social networks to compose short pieces of creative writing in response to current events and circulate them to each of their small groups of friends; to publish them, in other words. No-one, not even the young men themselves, actually turned up at these so-called ‘events.’ Perhaps this was because of messages from the police that were posted on Blackshaw’s page at least, warning of the consequences of attending. Or could it be that nobody turned up because the status of the posts as fictions was already clear to those involved? Perhaps, whether Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan quite understood this or not, the Facebook ‘event’ function was being used primarily as a publishing rather than a purely logistical medium.

In both cases it is also cited in the judgement (and therefore deemed, one must assume, as being of significance) that the pages were ‘also made available for general public viewing,’ but given the well-documented complexity of, and rapid changes to, Facebook’s privacy settings, this may not have been quite the clear decision that is suggested.

Certainly, these were pieces of writing that if penned by another and published or framed in a different way might have been understood as satirical or parodic commentaries or fantasies about the riots and/or those participating in them, about Government policy, and economic and other injustices, or about Facebook itself and the types of social relations it enables prescribes.

Interestingly, the title of Blackshaw’s ‘event’ (yes, it had a title!), ‘Smash D[o]wn in Northwich Town,’ is even constructed as a rhyme. There is a town called Northwich, but there is no such place as ‘Northwich Town.’ It is a deliberately poetic construction.

In October 2011 both convictions were upheld by the Court of Appeal.

As I write this, recent days have seen a similar arrest for a piece of writing published on a social network, but unlike the events of August 2011, this time there was also an opportunity to compare it with what was in some ways a similar piece of writing, but one that had been published in a different context.

Firstly, someone used a social network (Twitter) to post a link to the Guardian letters page where he and others had had letters published voicing criticisms of the official statements about the six British soldiers from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire and 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiments who were tragically killed in Afghanistan on 6 March 2012. In the lead letter (see right) another correspondent, Gregor Truter, characterised these statements as ‘sentimental and frankly appalling.’ He then pointed to the failure to acknowledge the huge numbers of civilian casualties in the war so far, and described the language of the official pronouncements as ‘hypocritical and shameful. Cowardly, disgraceful, appalling.’

Secondly, the Independent reported that a young man of nineteen named Azhar Ahmed from Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire had posted a message on a social network (Facebook) where he criticised the official statements about the six British soldiers from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire and 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiments who were tragically killed on 6 March 2012. Ahmed characterised these statements as ‘gassin,’ and pointed to the failure to acknowledge the huge numbers of civilian casualties in the war so far. Ahmed’s use of language (see far right) was unskilled and much more intemperate than that of Truter. The comments of a spokesman for the West Yorkshire Police have been widely reported:

He didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother.

Clearly, the gist of each of these more or less contemporaneous pieces of writing, if not the language or the media used to publish them, was very similar, but while some received the approbation of having their letters published in a national newspaper, Azhar Ahmed (who published in a place where such official approval is not needed) was arrested and charged with ‘a racially aggravated public order offence,’ even though as Kenan Malik points out: ‘Ahmed never mentioned race, ethnicity or even culture or faith in his rant.’ There is more very useful discussion of Ahmed’s arrest on — of course — the Index on Censorship blog.

All three examples — whether one is comparing Azhar Ahmed’s argument to those of more obviously educated writers of letters to the Guardian, or looking at all closely at Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan’s convictions for incitement to riot — are in some way also about writing, publishing and power, and new ways that social media is being used. Does the treatment of these young men also suggest that not everyone has the right to write in the UK right now? That some people in the UK are allowed to write but others are not?


Join English PEN:

English PEN promotes the freedom to write and the freedom to read in England and around the world. Anyone can join our membership, whether you’re a writer, a reader, an editor, a translator, a publisher, a literary agent… or just someone who is passionate about literature.

Support Index on Censorship by subscribing to their magazine for future issues including, in June 2012, ‘Olymic challenge’:

As London prepares to host the Olympics, Index takes a look at sport and freedom of speech. Should countries with poor human rights records be allowed to host international sporting championships? Is there any evidence that sport can have a positive impact on free speech? Or is it time to stop expecting sport to be morally improving?

See also China Miéville’s eloquent piece on the racism surrounding the Tintin au Congo case in the Belgian courts. It is, he says,

depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it.

Dicky Star and the garden rule is published on 26 April 2012 by Forma. Pre-publication copies are exclusively available from the Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) Shop.

One thought on “Who has the right to write in the UK right now?

  1. Pingback: The Worrying Censorship of Expression on Social Media | Robert Sharp

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