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Sunday, 24 October 2010

Judging the Orwell blogging prize

It is an interesting time to hold a prize competition for political blogging.

Recently Andrew Marr described bloggers as:

"socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting".

And some entity called Editorial Intelligence (no, I hadn't heard of it either) gave an award for Best Blogger to BBC political editor Nick Robinson.

For all his considerable talents, one would not regard Nick Robinson as primarily a blogger or say seriously that his blogging is an important part of his output. It was an astonishing decision, especially as a political blogger as capable and significant as Paul Waugh was also on the shortlist.


So is Andrew Marr correct? Is Editorial Intelligence correct?

Is this really the state of political blogging in the United Kingdom?


Well rather than asserting that things are not as bad as that, there is an opportunity to test how good (or awful) British - and Irish - political blogging is at the moment.


The 2011 Orwell Prize for political blogging has just been launched.

Bloggers can submit ten blogposts posted in 2010 for consideration; there is a longlist and then a shortlist; and in Spring 2011 there will be an award.

Last year I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted.

But this time round, I will not win it.

(Or at least I should not win it.)

This is because I have been asked to judge it, alongside Gaby Hinsliff, the excellent former political editor of The Observer (see here and follow her on Twitter here).


So what then is good political blogging?

Well, without prejudice to looking at the entries entirely on their own merits, here are some of my preliminary views.

And I will start on a very basic level.


First, what is blogging?

Of course, that can be simply answered: blogging is what bloggers do.

In many cases what constitutes blogging will be obvious: entrants will have their own blog or will contribute to a site which hosts a number of blogs. There will be some bloggers who do both.

However, commenters on blogposts often can make important contributions; and so can those who prefer posting on message boards in forums. Both are, in my mind, within the broadest scope of "blogging".

So, although the rules of entry stipulate that ten blogposts should be submitted, my personal view is that good comments or message board postings can also be submitted. Form should not defeat substance.

Also, although there should be some textual element to the submitted posts (and so pure podcasts and videologs are probably outside the scope of the blogging prize), effective use of graphics, images, and other visual paraphernalia, will not mean a blogpost will not be considered. Again, form should not prevail.

My attitude is that if someone seriously thinks they have ten items to be submitted for a blogging prize then they should not hesitate to submit them.


Similarly, a wide view should be taken of what constitutes political blogging.

The last two awards of the blogging prize - to pseudonymous public sector workers usually offering accounts of their engagement with working class life - have already signalled that the prize is open to bloggers beyond the Westminster village.

In fact, political blogging can take many forms.

There are campaigning blogs; gossip blogs; self-promotional blogs; sweary blogs; blogs for policy analysis; blogs by those formulating policy; blogs by those who inflict policy; and blogs by those on whom policy is inflicted.

And there are blogs which deal with public policy matters: legal blogs; bad science blogs; religious blogs; skeptic blogs; police blogs; prisoner blogs; soldier blogs; sex worker blogs; media blogs; and (even) alternative health blogs.

All these can be within the realm of political blogging.

No one form of political blogging has any inherent priority over the others.

Remember George Orwell himself rarely wrote about party political matters. Indeed, some of his most powerful writing - Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging - are simply detailed accounts of particular events in his life as an Imperial police officer. The political force of such writing is none the less for that.


So what is good political blogging?

Again, a liberal view should be taken.

A good political blogger may state political views in a particularly striking or eloquent way; or may place useful information into the public domain which otherwise would not be available; or may provide analysis or commentary which otherwise would not occur; or may campaign for an individual, party, or cause in an innovative manner; or may provide informed insights into the actual exercise of power and the impact of policy which otherwise would be lost.

A good political blogger may do some - or none - of these things.

But a good political blogger is surely always original and distinctive, providing something - whatever it is - to the reader which is not readily available anywhere else, and providing that something in an effective way.


To my knowledge, there are dozens of political blogs which are covered by this description (and not by Andrew Marr's). I am hoping to come across dozens more in the course of this prize competition.

I am hoping also that my approach to this task will meet the approval of fellow bloggers; I intend to be as open as is appropriate with the judging process; and my goal is that the longlist and shortlist will give clear testament to the strength and variety of British and Irish political blogging.

And if Gaby and I get it wrong, we can be sure that the blogosphere will tell us.


Anyone proud of their blogging really should enter - and encourage others to do so too.

And some good may come from the misconceived and illiberal comments of Andrew Marr: we can now participate in a process which can perhaps show just how wrong Andrew Marr can be.


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Friday, 22 October 2010

Libel and the Holy Man

Let me introduce you to His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj.

His Holiness is the "Third Holy Saint".

This is apparently very important.

He is not the second Holy Saint; not the fourth; and fifth is right out.

And what does His Holiness do?

He is suing a journalist for libel.

In a case which has now dragged on for over three years, His Holiness has been suing Hardeep Singh over an article in the Sikh Times (which I re-print for information in full below).

It is a case which should be nowhere near an English libel court.

The basis of the libel claim is an obscure doctrinal point which simply is not a matter for judicial determination.

And that is not only my view. It is the view of Sir David Eady, who threw the case out in May 2010.

His Holiness is seeking to appeal Mr Justice Eady's decision and today sees his lawyers again seeking permission to appeal at the Court of Appeal.


One of the most discrediting features (amongst many) of English libel litigation is that claims without merit can just go on for years.

The claims against socialist bloggers Dave Osler, John Gray, and Alex Hilton lingered for two years before the High Court threw the cases out as abuses of process.

In Hardeep Singh's case, it has now lasted over three years.

In all this time, the defendant is under constant financial strain and intense worry.

Let's hope the Court of Appeal today rejects the application for permission to appeal.

Let's hope Hardeep Singh can have this three year experience put to an end.

And let's hope the Coalition gets a move on with implementing the kind of libel reforms which puts a stop to this sort of libel abuse.


The Sikh Times article from 23 August 2007 by Hardeep Singh

Recently a division due to the influence of an accused Cult leader called Jeet Singh has disturbed the peace in the Sikh community in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The police and local MP are aware of the situation and have offered considerable support in finding an appropriate resolution to the crisis.

The Gurdwara 'Sikh Temple' was set up in 1991 by members of the Sikh community with the hope to join the local Sikh congregation and work to provide religious services and guidance for the community members. Wycombe is one of 3 affiliated Gurdwara's which was set up with the blessings of a Holy Saint Sant Baba Gian Singh Maharaj from Gurdwara Nirmal Kutia in Johla, Jullunder, Panjab.

The Origin of the lineage of true Saints from this ecclesiastical institution began with a man called Sant Baba Karam Singh from Hoti Mardan (1826 - 1903). Upon the dissolution of the Sikh army after the annexation of the Punjab to British India in 1849, Karam Singh joined the Corps of Guides which had been raised by the British in the Sutlej territory in 1846 to defend British interests in the region against the formidable Pashtun/Afghan tribesman, and which was later reorganised as the 5th (Guides) Battalion of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, with Mardan near Peshawar.

During the famous 'Sepoy Mutiny' in 1857 Karam Singh along with his regiment, the 'Guides' helped the British defeat the mutineers in the British India forces in the Historic battle for Delhi on the 20th of September 1857. He later took official leave from his services to the British army and spent many years in solitude and deep meditation.

The fifth and present successor to Karam Singh the Historical Saint Soldier figure, is Sant Baba Roshan Singh who has set up Hospitals and Schools for the poor in the Panjab and is working to tackle deprivation and social/Health inequalities in the state.

The current conflict effecting Wycombe's Sikh community started in 2003 when the last of the lineage of Saints in the Gurudwara Nirmal Kutia, Jullunder passed away, without inaugurating a 'legally appointed successor' to the assets and position as head authoritarian of Nirmal Kutia.

In Wycombe, the catalyst for the division is the split over the allegiance to the cult leader who is currently contesting his claim over successorship to Nirmal Kutia in the Indian High courts, the matter is still pending.

Cults are by no means a new phenomenon affecting the Sikhs globally and Jeet Singh is one of several high profile accused Cultists who are causing difficulties for the community worldwide.

He has asserted that the place known as Gurudwara Nirmal Kutia, India is not in fact a Sikh Gurudwara at which an offertory is maintained. It has been stated that Nirmal Kutia is a 'Dera' (abode or residence) of Jeet Singh and any offerings made there are offerings made to him personally.

Only last month July 24 in Sirsa, district of Haryana, Six persons were injured when a Dera Sacha Sauda (cult) follower fired at Sikhs in a village in Sirsa district of Haryana, leading to tension in the area. According to official sources in Chandigarh, the six persons, belonging to Sikh community, had received minor injuries on their legs after the shooting incident in Mallewala village, about 10 kms from Sirsa, and were treated in a local hospital.

The area was tense following the stand off between the Cult followers and members of the Sikh community after the recent alleged blasphemous act of the Cult Chief Sant Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh following his appearance in dress similar to that of 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Colonel GS Sandhu, Chairman of a Non Governmental organisation and Human Rights front called 'Aapna Panjab' www.aapnapunjab.org, is alarmed by the increase in Cultist activities in India,

'Simple Sikh men and women are being exploited by some of the ever increasing numbers of so-called sants and babas who have established dera's (cults) where many have sexually exploited and abused the women followers.'

He stated that the Sikh community needs to be aware of the nefarious activities of these anti-panthic (religious) people. He exhorted the Sikhs all over the world to seek the guidance and follow the teaching of only Sri Guru Granth Sahib and not from these self styled Babas. He gave examples of three such Bababs 'Johlanwala Babu' 'Ram Rahim Singh' and finally the Mann Singh of Pehowa and the latters exploitation of followers.

The Management Committee and Trustees of an affiliate Gurdwara to Wycombe, APDD Birmingham, Oldbury are fully aware of the APDD Wycombe situation which has also had a detrimental impact on their congregation, trustees and fellow management committee members.

In Oldbury, Birmingham the Cult leader attempted to even go as far as producing counterfeit trust deeds with an Attorney from India and remove the incumbent trustees and management committee in order to take over. These aggressive tactics and underhand operations demonstrate the influence these Cult leaders have both in India and abroad, tentacles which have now spread as far as Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

We advise the Whole Sikh community which is 850,000 strong in the United Kingdom and in particular now those in Wycombe to stand up to these Cult leaders and we urge them to follow the true Guru Sri Gurur Granth Sahib Jee, The holy Scriptures of the Sikhs.

Members of the Sikh community in Wycombe will be looking to work with the local authorities and police to maintain peace within the community in light of this recent difference of opinion with reference Cultist activities which has divided the congregation and caused a bitter demarcation between those who oppose the Cult and those who support it.



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Thursday, 7 October 2010

BREAKING - Migration Watch drop libel threat against Sally Bercow

According to Iain Dale, who is hilariously trying to spin it as a "No Score Draw", Migration Watch (and presumably Sir Andrew Green) have dropped their illiberal and misconceived threatened claim against my client Sally Bercow.

For background and links to the correspondence, see here.

Their face-saving form of words is as follows:

In a discussion programme on Sky News on 18 August, Mrs Bercow associated Migrationwatch with Mosley and Hitler. When we heard about this, we asked for a copy of the program and obtained a transcript of precisely what she had said. After taking advice from counsel we asked our solicitors to write to her seeking an apology and an undertaking not to repeat such an allegation. In their response, solicitors for Mrs Bercow said that she "did not intend to (and did not) allege that Migrationwatch is a fascist or racist organisation", that she was expressing an honest opinion about the handling of a Migrationwatch report by the Daily Express and that she had a right to do so in a democratic society.

Migrationwatch are strongly in favour of free speech. We accept her assurances about her intentions, and consider that important and sensitive issues such as immigration should be debated without descending into derogatory language and associations.

In view of the assurance contained in her solicitor’s letter, we do not intend to take the matter further.




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Sunday, 3 October 2010

Defending Sally Bercow


Last week I was instructed by Sally Bercow to defend her against a libel threat by Migration Watch and Sir Andrew Green.

The news of my firm's appointment is here and the legal correspondence has been published by Richard Wilson here. Richard has also posted an interesting account of the background to the libel threat.

Coverage of the breaking news of the threat was provided by Index on Censorship, New Statesman, The Lawyer, Liberal Conspiracy, and The Guardian. There were then a number of good follow-on blogposts, most notably from Teekblog and Heresy Corner.

This is not the place for me to discuss the substance of the libel threat against Sally Bercow. However, it may be useful to contextualise this case with others which have been featured on this blog.


To begin with, let's consider the following four statements:

"The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."

"- didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

"This right wing think tank Migration Watch has conducted a study which has revealed that youth unemployment is down to migration which is obviously grossly simplistic. The main reason for youth unemployment is the recession which was caused by the bankers and the bankers are more responsible than the migrants, and it’s fairly dangerous propaganda this kind of story. It is exactly what Mosley said in the 30s and Hitler argued in Germany."


On the face of it these four statements have nothing in common.


However, in respect of each of these statements, someone somewhere has thought the statement to be of such a nature that the coercive power of law should be used against the statement's author.

As it happens, the authors of these statements - respectively Simon Singh, John Dixon, Paul Chambers, and Sally Bercow - are all decent and courageous individuals unwilling to just accept what the law could inflict on them.

But in each of the first three cases, it was not easy.

Simon Singh had to endure an adverse first instance High Court decision before the Court of Appeal took a more sensible view. Likewise, John Dixon had to put up with a frankly bizarre finding by the Welsh Public Services Ombudsman before the wiser heads at Cardiff Council dismissed the complaint. The appeal by Paul Chambers (another of my clients) is part-heard, and one can only hope that his conviction by the Magistrates' Court is overturned.

It really should not be so difficult to defend free expression; but to do so is time-consuming and costly. Simon Singh lost two years of his writing career; Paul Chambers has so far lost two jobs.

And it is deeply disappointing how much disregard there is by public bodies and the courts for free expression. The High Court in Simon Singh's case and the Welsh Public Services Ombudsman with the complaint against John Dixon could not have made the decisions they did had they placed any proper emphasis on the basic value of free expression in a democratic society.

The most depressing aspect about the predicament of free expression in the United Kingdom is not that for so many statements there is someone out there who wants to "ban" them but that there are so many officials and servants of the state - police officers, prosecutors, libel judges, district judges, ombudsmen - who will casually supercharge such illiberalism with the coercive force of law.


None of the four quoted statements are particularly glamorous; but then they were not intended to be so.

None of the authors of the statements had any inkling of the legal consequences which would follow their utterance. But like a sinister (but equally pathetic) version of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, someone somewhere was able to get the law to burst in and disrupt the lives of the statement's author.

In each case the statement's author could have then taken the path of least resistance; indeed, I suspect dozens of people do so every day. Simon Singh and Sally Bercow could have "apologised"; John Dixon could have shown "remorse"; Paul Chambers could have maintained a "guilty" plea. And, in each case, no one would have really blamed them.

It is all so saddening.


Nick Cohen once said that you have to take your free speech cases as you find them and then get what victories you can. Not every free expression issue means defending Galileo, DH Lawrence, or Lolita.

Indeed, none of the four quoted statements are, by themselves, of great interest.

(Personally, I have no interest in alternative medicine (apart from when its practioners misuse libel, hence I know about homeopaths and chiropractors, but nothing about acupuncturists and Reiki therapists); I do not think the beliefs of Scientologists any more or less credible than those of Christians or Muslims, though the practices and tactics of Scientologists are extremely worrying; the joke of Paul Chambers was ill-conceived; and I have no special interest in Migration Watch, though they are against my own general preference for unrestricted migration.)

But it is the statements' lack of interest which provides their significance; these are - or should be - everyday statements, uninhibited by legal threats and certainly free from legal consequences.

And it seems only by the slow and painstaking process of catching instances where the law is being used (or threatened) in an illiberal and misconceived way, and then working to reverse those instances, that the culture of "banning" speech acts can be challenged.

It would be ideal to have, at a stroke, the United States' First Amendment guarantee of free speech introduced into the United Kingdom. That is not, however, practical politics.

But our "banning" culture in respect of free expression is not inevitable and can be reversed; there is no good reason why the first reaction of so many people to unwelcome statements is to get the law involved, and then there is no good reason for so many police officers, judges, and officials to allow them to do so.


So the libel threat against Sally Bercow is, for me, another example of something which is horribly wrong in our political and legal culture.

She is, for some, a controversial figure. (And I am certainly not a fan of her political party and their complete disregard after 2001 for civil liberties.)

Sally Bercow could have just quietly apologised, perhaps with the pre-prepared humble apology which was attached to the threatening letter.

But she chose not to do so.

She has chosen instead to make a stand for her right as a political commentator to respond to news stories in the way she did. She wants to show how threats like this to political commentators - and also journalists - support the need for libel reform.

And I think this is rather heroic, and so Robert Dougans (also instructed) and I are delighted to be able to assist her.



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