Friday, 12 June 2009

Freedom of speech - it's not just for 'proper' writers

There’s a story over on Mediawatchwatch that, when you think about it, suggests a slapdash, partial approach to freedom of speech amongst UK liberals.
In brief, Andy Thackwray, a prisoner in Hull, writes a column called ‘Angry Andy’ for Inside Time, a newspaper by and for prisoners. In his latest he hypothesises that swine flu was the result of a failed plot by Osama Bin Laden to “eradicate every pig in Christendom”. The article also has a cartoon of a bearded, sneezing and turbanned pig.
If you want, you can find the whole thing at, a blog run by an ex-prisoner who flagged the whole thing up to the world.
OK, not going to challenge Jonathan Swift for the heavyweight satirist world championship, but a bit of light relief if you’re banged up on a cold, dark night.
Except that next John Roberts, Operations Director and Company Secretary at Inside Time, is contacted by ‘Diversity at Wormwood Scrubs’ (whatever that is) who think the article and cartoon “might be offensive to Muslims”. So, all 50,000 copies of the magazine get withdrawn and reprinted without Angry Andy’s piece and accompanying cartoon (which I’m not sure was by him anyway). This is costing the charity behind Inside Time £15-20,000.
The Jailhouselawyer also reports that Andy has been charged with a Disciplinary Offence, put in the Segregation Unit, and will be transferred out of HMP Hull. For those not familiar with prison affairs, this is a highly unusual punishment, usually reserved for hardcore political prisoners. Try Googling the name ‘John Bowden’ for an example of both the kind of individual and circumstances under which it has been used recently.
Now at this point, if this was a writer in South America or an Arabic country then PEN, Index on Censorship and others would be going ballistic, probably even Amnesty or Human Rights Watch.
When an Oxbridge inbreed like Martin Amis spouts clueless shite about Muslims in a broadsheet does the print run get stopped? Ditto the admittedly more reasoned writing of Salman Rushdie and his supporters once the Satanic Verses saga kicked off.
Is the quality of Angry Andy’s writing any worse than the rhetoric of Geert Wilders, or the cartoon than the infamous Danish ‘turban bomb’? Or is it that we don’t think there’s a principle at stake if the censored writer is ‘only’ a common English convict?
I would argue that, if anything, assuming that no Muslim prisoner will see the joke and all will riot as one in protest is itself racist and offensive. And I can think of at least two Muslim women stand-up comedians in the UK doing stuff at least as ‘offensive’ about their fellow Muslims, not to mention chavs, evangelical Christians and Guardianistas.
I would argue that treating some working class white guy in a UK jail in a way the police and courts would not dare treat an Oxbridge professor who expresses the same view, but in more flowery language in a literary mag, is bang out of order.
I would argue that the principle of freedom of speech has to be defended robustly in this country or not at all. You don’t pick and choose the nice guys and the eloquent cases. You defend the Rushdies, but also right wing pricks like Geert Wilders and the Danish cartoonists…..and lags like Andy Thackwray, serving time for I know not what and I am not about to ask.
Because it makes no difference, and because if decent folk don’t speak up for the Thackwrays of this world as we would for ‘proper writers’ scum like the BNP will pretend to.

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