Category: Other

The nature of a hate crime: Google thinks that incitement to racial hatred passes its tests

In the Home Affairs Committee last week, a baffled Yvette Cooper politely and repeatedly asked Peter Barron, a spokesman for Google in Europe, ‘In  what  circumstances  is “Jews  admit  organising  white  genocide” not  a statement of hate speech? ‘  The response from Google was as follows:

Peter  Barron:  There  is no  clear  definition  of  hate speech  in  British  law. We  have  our  own  guidelines  around  hate  speech.  The  guideline  that  we follow, which is very close to the law, is that a general expression against a  country,  for  example,  wouldn’t  qualify  as  hate  speech,  but  if  you  are promoting or advocating violence against a particular group based on their race or ethnicity, that would constitute hate speech. … I am not going to defend the content of the video; I found it abhorrent and offensive. However, the important question, which relates to wider issues of freedom of expression, is whether that content is illegal and whether it breaks our guidelines. Our policy and legal experts arrived at the conclusion that it didn’t. I think everyone in this room would agree that it was deeply distasteful.
Chair:  But  your  own  guidelines  say  that  it  is  “not  acceptable  to  post malicious,  hateful  comments  about  a group  of  people  solely  based  on their race” or religion or so on. How on earth is the phrase, “Jews admit organising white genocide”, as well as being clearly false, not a statement that  is  a  malicious  or  hateful  comment  about  a  group  of  people  solely based  on  race,  religion  or  the  other  protected  characteristics  that  your own guidelines and community standards say are unacceptable?
Peter Barron: The test that our legal and policy experts are looking at is whether  there  is  an  incitement  to  violence  against  a  particular  identified group.  I  accept  that  these  are  borderline  cases;  we  often  see  debate among our teams. The conclusion in this case was that it didn’t break our policy guidelines.

The response from Google seems to have divided commentators. One one hand, there are those who defend the principles of free speech – among them Spiked Online, which calls Yvette Cooper the ‘Witchfinder General’, and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.  On the other, there are many, most obviously the members of the Home Affairs Committee, who find this difficult to take.

Barron’s assertions that there is no definition of hate speech, and the argument that the content is not illegal, are mistakes.  The expression “hate speech” may not be used in UK law, but ”incitement to racial hatred” is, and incitement to hatred  is criminal.  There are many things that people are not allowed to say in the  UK – among them laws of public and private libel, incitement, conspiracy and sedition.  Even in the USA,  ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.’   (That comes from Schenck v. United States, 1919.)  There is a common confusion about the nature of free speech; it is not the freedom to say whatever one pleases, any more than freedom of movement means an unlimited freedom to swing your fist.

Google’s misreading of the law comes about because it has referred to the laws relating to racial hatred in the USA rather than laws in Europe.  Hate speech in the USA is protected by the First Amendment; to be criminal it has to be coupled with the threat of violence, and in general it will be charged only when it occurs in tandem with another offence.  As the threat of violence is already an offence, that reduces the status of hate crime to an aggravating factor, rather than a cause of action in its own right.  That’s why the Internet hosts other material, much worse than the example discussed in the Home Affairs Committee,  which more or less says, get these people before they get you (and no, I’m not going to post the links to the examples I’m thinking of, or even to identify the three words in Google that will bring them up).   It seems that Google is able to take down links and caches of sites questionably accused of infringing copyright, but not of sites that openly breach European laws on racial hatred.

The Big Questions

I was part yesterday of a studio discussion for “The Big Questions”, a Sunday morning TV programme. I’d been asked along to say something about Universal Basic Income, which was being put forward by Guy Standing and Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr. Other questions considered in the programme (each question gets twenty minutes) were about Scotland’s voice in Brexit, where I did get my oar in, and reparations for slavery, where I didn’t.  (There’s a hilarious take on the programme’s format here – I went in the full knowledge that it was going to be tough.)  The programme is on Iplayer for a little while.

I’ve said plenty about both Basic Income and Brexit on this blog, so let me fill a gap by saying where I stand on reparations for slavery.  While there’s no doubt about the depth of the historical injustice, I don’t think we can rewrite thousands of years of world history to rectify it.  I come from a long line of refugees.  I can’t accept the principle that I should be compensated for the injustice they suffered; I’ve done nothing to justify that.  (That also means, by the way, that I think the UN’s current position on hereditary refugee status is nonsense; if they’re right, I should be thought of as a refugee from three other countries.)  When my great grand father, grandfather and father came to Britain, the first in the 1880s and the others in the 1940s, they didn’t come to join a slave-traders’ club; they came to one of the few countries that had stood against slavery and oppression.  Britain has things to be ashamed of, sure enough, but it’s also got something to be proud of.

A request for a review

I’ve been sent a free copy of a book to review on this blog.  This is the first time I’ve had such a request, so I thought I ought in the interests of transparency to clarify what it means, and what my role  is.  In the course of my career, I’ve reviewed more than forty books for academic journals. Book reviews don’t generally get much credit as academic publications.  While there’s a certain amount of academic thinking that goes into a review, a reference should always be about the book being reviewed, not the reviewer – I hate reviews which don’t tell me what’s in the book.  It’s not about putting forward my own ideas, and that’s why I’ve not reproduced any of the reviews I’ve done on my open access page.

A reviewer for an academic journal is never paid, but gets to keep the book.  The arrangement relating to this blog is much the same at root as it would be with an academic journal.  I don’t then have any ethical reservations about accepting this book to review; it puts the blog on the same footing as an academic journal.  The main difference will be a matter of length:  academic journals usually ask for 600 words, and on this blog I hardly ever go beyond 300.

Some of my colleagues may be surprised that any publisher would want to take the risk of having a book reviewed by me, but that’s a different issue.

Why is sport treated as news? I don’t get it.

Summer is always a lean time for news, but it’s been made worse by the media’s obsession with sport in general, and the Olympics in particular.  The coverage in newspapers and TV in particular has been packed with drivel – celebrity interviews, speculation and journalists saying how they feel watching people play games. As someone who generally throws away the sports pages of the newspapers unread, I  have never really understood why sports results are treated as ‘news’ at all.   It’s not that there is never any news about sport – in the last week there’s been the story of the man who cheated at pigeon racing, and the reinstatement of a jockey who pulled back his horses to lose has all the makings of a film script – but these are out of the ordinary: man bites dog, rather than dog bites man.  The existence of a sporting contest, and the inevitable outcome that someone will win a competition, is a regular part of some people’s leisure activity.  I just can’t see why the results of competitions between elite sports stars in fields like archery or dressage are assumed to have any more interest than competitions between leek growers, video games players, sheepdog trials or the rankings of artists in the Country and Western Charts. And no, I don’t want the news media to tell me more about  those things either.

A review of sharia law in Britain: why should we assume it’s being ‘misused’?

An independent review for the Home Office has appealed for evidence about the application of sharia law in the UK.  While Muslims may reasonably expect a balanced report from the Chair, Mona Siddiqui,  and the inquiry is beginning with evidence from people with experience of sharia in practice, the terms in which the inquiry is framed are extraordinary.  It does not begin by asking how sharia law or how the courts work, but whether sharia law isn’t  dangerous and liable to misuse.

“Individuals with experience of sharia law are being urged to take part in an independent review examining whether the religious code is being misused within Britain.  The government-commissioned sharia law review is exploring whether the application of sharia is incompatible with the law in England and Wales.  It will also examine the ways in which the practice may be being misused, or exploited, in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values or cause social harms.”

I have no direct interest in sharia law, but I grew up in a world where people could always go to a rabbinical court if they chose; while I have may lots to say about the unreasonable bits in my own community’s law, I can’t see any fundamental objection to a system of mediation  based in shared principles and voluntary consent.   In the febrile and sometimes toxic atmosphere surrounding the current clash of cultures,  a less tendentious brief might have been better judged.

Reforming defamation law in Scotland

The Scottish Law Commission has issued a lengthy consultation paper on the reform of defamation law in Scotland, but I’ve only just seen it and the deadline for responses is set for tomorrow.  This is not my expertise (it’s forty years since I studied torts as part of English law, and I never used it)  and I’m not proposing to make a submission, but there  are issues of concern.  I don’t share the view of the Libel Reform Campaign that “Corporate bodies do not have a private life, personal identity or psychological integrity.” Clubs, societies and charities do have identity and integrity and may well depend very heavily on their reputations.  The law privileges  financial damage over other kinds of reputational damage, and that by comparison with the protection given to commercial traders there is a relative lack of protection for smaller, non-commercial groups, such as a mosque.

The main issue affecting the academic community is the potential suppression of scientific debate or criticism, most notoriously in the action taken against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association.   There is an exemption made in the 2013 Defamation Act, but it only allows for material in peer-reviewed academic journals or conference proceedings.  (For those who don’t know it, academic books are peer-reviewed too – 13 of my books have been peer reviewed anonymously, 2 others were subject to an editorial board.)  The restrictions mean that academics have to rely substantially on defences of public interest and fair comment, and they are likely to be forced to fold long before they get that far.

Erdogan calls for more tortoises

Osman Hamdi Bey - The Tortoise Trainer.jpg
Kaplumbağa Terbiyecisi (The tortoise trainer), 1906

Turkey has been transformed during my lifetime, both in economic terms and in terms of people’s welfare.  In 1970, the average birth rate for each woman was 5.5, and the under-five mortality rate was 134 deaths for every 1000 children born. Now the fertility rate is 2.0, and there are 19 deaths per 1000.

The progressive improvements in welfare go a long way towards explaining the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP.  Income per capita has almost trebled during their time in office.  However, President Erdogan has been developing his own solution to Turkey’s traditional problem of governance – how to train tortoises.  Erdogan has expressed the view that any woman who does not have at least three children is “deficient” and “incomplete”.  There have to be more tortoises.

The right to be objectionable

I’ve had a protracted debate in the course of the last week with some of the new Puritans, who hold that people who don’t agree with them should be isolated, ostracised and silenced.   This approach is both illiberal and anti-academic.  I was interested, then, to see some ratings of UK universities by Spiked, who have constructed an index of Free Speech.  Of 115 universities surveyed, only 12 have substantially avoided censorship of objectionable opinions.

I don’t agree fully with Spiked’s position.  Their manifesto argues for the removal of all limits on speech, including hate-speech and libel, and that’s why I couldn’t sign it.  We should not underestimate the power that speech has to deny a voice to other people, and free speech should not extend to statements like “kill these people before they kill you”.  There’s also an implicit contradiction in advocating the freedom to shout down other people.

There’s a persuasive academic argument from Scanlon that free speech is a misrepresentation of the true right, which is not so much the right of speakers to express themselves as the right of the audience to hear and decide for themselves.  If the audience would be wrong to decide  – “let’s lynch this murderer” – it may well follow, depending on the context, that the person saying it does not have the right to express it.   The context does matter, however.  In the course of teaching theory and ethics in academic institutions, I’ve reviewed arguments for lots of unpalatable positions, including eating babies, corruption, letting poor people starve and torturing people. The academic world depends on dialogue and developing the skills to deal with contrary views; suppressing those arguments is anathema to learning.

Floods: the British press show their colours

Arthur Koestler wrote a book once about uncanny coincidences.  Late last night we were witness to an extraordinary conjunction of events:  three right-wing newspapers, the Mail,  the Telegraph and the Express, all decided, within a couple of hours of each other, to link the lack of flood prevention to the foreign aid budget.   This argument is so strange that it seems difficult to account for it by rational explanation.  The floods have been going on for some time, so the synchronicity is even more unsettling.  One might almost think they’d got together to decide to do it.

I’m not at all sure that the papers are in tune with their readers.  Some of us might imagine that the distressing and sometimes horrific experience of flooding might make us more sympathetic to the plight of vulnerable people abroad, who suffer floods in even worse state.   The papers got it wrong about the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean; they may well be wrong about this, too.

 

 

 

At liberty

Today is the last day of my employment with the Robert Gordon University.  I have been granted the title of Emeritus Professor, and have every intention of carrying on with my work.  I set up my own domain for the website and blog earlier this year.  For the moment, I have short books in progress – on poverty, the welfare state and social security – as well as long with some articles to place.

This should also mean that in principle, I should be able to take up other opportunities as they arise.  I’m open to proposals.