Liberté, libel and illusion

In the wake of the hideous murders at the Charlie Hebdo journal in Paris (which every decent person would unequivocally condemn), the world has seemed very binary: either you’re for total free speech or you’re not.

But here’s a fact which has got lost among the 1s and 0s of binary thinking: we don’t have free speech. Or rather, I’ll qualify that: we have qualified free speech.

In the UK, the Public Order Act 1986 makes any ‘visible representation… causing another person distress’ an offence. Incitement to racial or religious hatred can involve words or images and is an offence. And what about libel laws? You are not free to say absolutely anything about absolutely everybody. And while there’s no hint of physical threat attached, the No More Page 3 movement are clearly not in favour of unlimited free speech (for which, read unrestricted dissemination of images) where it allows the publication of photos of half-naked women in The Sun newspaper.

I don’t want to get into the relative merits of these offences and the campaign here now. But what has worried me since the Charlie Hebdo massacre is what feels like the unspoken implication that if you don’t come out unequivocally as pro-free speech – without caveats – you’re somehow some kind of apologist for the murderers’ actions.

But if ‘the right to offend’ is so crucial and apparently to be valued almost above all else, why have British newspapers avoided reprinting the offending cartoons? Could it be that they have concluded along the lines ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to’? (I don’t believe it’s simply because they fear reprisals.) And have they taken into account the fact that a predominantly white, privileged press, if it goes overboard, can seem quite threatening to a less privileged racial and religious minority?

We need a more nuanced, mature approach to freedom of speech post-Charlie Hebdo. And people need to be free to not feel pressured into saying ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ while still fervently coming out against the barbaric acts of last week.

Surely those so passionately outspoken in favour of freedom of expression would allow for a peace-loving Muslim, say, to declare ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo’?

Scotland says Yes to No


I simply had to go to Scotland for the referendum. I’d had enough of watching the build-up to the vote through someone else’s lens; I had to see it for myself.

Whether it was some atavistic urge (see previous Scotland post), a healthy – or unhealthy – curiosity, or just a concern for the state of the nation – my nation – I virtually felt the pull as a physical force. But even before I took the 10.00 train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh on the day of the referendum, I was treated to a beguiling sight [above].

A woman carrying a saltire and the Union Jack on the forecourt of the railway station appeared to be praying to herself and reading from the Bible. She was possibly homeless, having a supermarket trolley packed with goods nearby. But she didn’t fully conform to the cliché of a homeless person; she was well presented and the trolley was tidy.

I was struck by the intensity of her absorption with the printed word and her meditative approach to it. She was oblivious to the whorl of the rush hour around her, holding the flags aloft, at times leafing through pages, perhaps to find verses appropriate to this momentous occasion. I guessed she was pro-union, but I could be wrong. I could have asked her, but I was loathe to interrupt. It was simultaneously a public and private moment.

The journey from London itself was absorbing too. A very polite woman apologised for disturbing me as she took the seat next to me, but needn’t have done so. She and her husband and son were travelling from their Pimlico home to their Ayrshire base to vote, via a family commitment in the north east. It transpired she was Caroline Knox, director of ‘The World’s Only Festival of Biography and Memoir’, the Boswell Book Festival. Her husband is the MD of The Art Newspaper, and was formerly the saviour of The Spectator. We had an animated discussion about the Establishment being in a blue funk about the vote (a commentator on STV later analysed it as UK Prime Minister David Cameron agreeing to the wrong question – why not make it Yes to the union? – with the wrong timing, allowing Salmond too long to mobilise, and the wrong people fronting Better Together, the No campaign.)

Wall of dreams

Arriving in Edinburgh, for the first half mile along Princes Street away from Waverley station it was possible to believe it was just another dreary day in the city. Buses disgorged and engorged passengers, clouds threatened rain, shoppers shopped. 307 years of joint history within the United Kingdom looked unthreatened. But the story changed as I approached the National Gallery.

A rock band augmented by a bagpiper played enthusiastically to a meagre crowd, while a couple of young women danced on the steps in front of them, one holding a letter ‘N’, the other an ‘O’, each about 50cm high. Visually, though, Yeses were in the ascendant. The cobbles were covered in affirmations of independence, and the graffiti artists had at least had the decency to use chalk and not an indelible medium.

That split was, it seemed to me, symptomatic of how the nation was in the run-up to the referendum: the Yeses had the greater presence, but the phenomenon of the ‘quiet Nos’ (or at least quieter Nos) was real. Allegedly, some people were putting up Yes posters and stickers in their windows to avoid constant canvassing – and then voting No.

The sight that really started to justify the 400+ mile trek north for me was of the messages in The Mound precinct, a couple of tied together double-height barricades bearing handwritten aspirations for a post-referendum Scotland. I would be surprised if they hadn’t featured in television coverage even in England, but they had passed me by till now. Some of the requests were unarguable by many people’s standards (most shouty capitals removed): ‘A fairer, more democratic society…’, ‘In a new Scotland there should be no need for food banks’, ‘Total equality for women…’ Others would be harder to deliver: ‘No government borrowing…’, ‘No abuse of power, No corruption…’

It took me a moment to twig that the one No not clearly represented in this display was the No to Scottish independence. It was apparently off-limits and thought to be necessarily incompatible with these other hopes and, presumably, with the idea of a new Scotland.

Sleep on it

I made Perth around dusk and landed on my feet at the Sunbank House Hotel which had one room left. The woman who served my evening meal was one of the quiet Nos, and looked genuinely anxious about which way the result would go. She finished work shortly afterwards, and I felt for her as she and countless others would later go to bed not knowing what kind of country they would wake up to.

After the polls closed, I flitted between all the various TV channels’ coverage, then finally landed on my favourite medium of radio. I think this plebiscite’s equivalent of “Were you up for Portillo?” (from the 1997 UK general election) is ‘Were you up for Glasgow?’. Technically, my answer was ‘No’ as I was lying on the bed, but in between bouts of snoozing, I did hear the result for the nation’s biggest city come through (53% in favour of No on a 75% turnout). Despite that, the result by then was pretty certain and went the other way.

I wonder if the woman outside Kings Cross had had her prayers answered..?

The eyes don’t have it

Earlier this year I had the privilege of working on BBC Radio 4’s long-running series for visually impaired people, In Touch. Apart from a bit of ocular drift (necessitating specs), I have pretty good eyesight. So it was something of a culture shock to be working with not one but two blind colleagues – the presenter, Peter White, and producer, Lee Kumatat.

(Lee commissioned my feature idea of exploring visualisation in radio – that is, the proliferation of studio webcams, and visual accompaniments to radio shows on the web and in apps and so on. My piece is about 6½ minutes into this edition:

On one occasion during my time on the show I was struggling with a cable tie holding together a coiled headphone extension. There are two types of tie: the sort which let you release the tension on the cable and which are therefore reusable, and the single-use ties which don’t and aren’t.

Lee was with me and heard my struggle. She said kindly, ‘Are you seeing too much, Adrian? Let me have a go.’

I relinquished the plastic tie, and she very quickly established it was the single-use type. 1-0 to blind perspicacity.

Another time I was trying to find a flash disk extension which let me download a digital audio recording onto a PC. I’d be given special privileges by studio managers (BBC Radio’s trusty sound engineers-plus) to take this device away from their area because I had a track record of returning gear they lent me. So it was embarrassing to discover I’d mislaid it in the In Touch office at London’s Old Broadcasting House.

After doing the rounds of the desks for other shows in this shared space (Saturday Live? No. The Media Show? Nope…), I came back to Peter’s desk, tail between legs. I hadn’t wanted to bother him with my worries and thought (patronisingly?) he might not be best placed to help in any case.

When I told him what I was looking for he said, ‘Oh, that thing? I think it’s here’, and, feeling under a couple of his Braille script print-outs, produced the little electronic box with its cable. He clearly had a mental map of his desk that I with my supposed light perception lacked. 2-0.

I was reminded of that biblical quote from Mark’s gospel (chapter 8, verse 18), ‘Do you have eyes but fail to see?’

I mean no disrespect to my former colleagues – quite the reverse – when I say working with them was a real eye-opener.