Archive for October, 2013

Peter Taylor talks to Oxford PEN

Posted: October 31, 2013 in 2013-14, Events

On 22 October we welcomed the award-winning investigative journalist Peter Taylor to St Anne’s College for our first speaker event of the new academic year. Taylor, who is best know for his reporting on Northern Ireland and Islamist extremism, came to discuss the broadcasting ban.

Our event took place almost exactly 25 years after the introduction of the original broadcasting ban in October 1988. The enduringly controversial legislation, implemented by the Thatcher government, famously meant that the voices of members paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and those believed to support them could not be heard in news broadcasts: “the voice of an actor” became the familiar substitute. In May 2013, after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the Home Secretary Theresa May seemed to suggest that similar restrictions might be considered in the coverage of Islamist extremism. With both the anniversary and these more recent remarks in mind, it seemed important to revisit the ethical, political, and practical implications of the broadcasting ban, and none could be better placed than Taylor to guide us in doing so.

Taylor was careful to outline the various factors which prompted the government to take this step in 1988: in order to understand the broadcasting ban it had to be put back into its complex original contexts. While its introduction marked “a dark day for freedom of speech” and denied journalists their “raw material”, and while the ban can be regarded in some senses as a “child of Thatcher”, Taylor also explored the question the government can be seen to have been facing at the time – that is how we deal with voices in the media which the majority of the audience would regard as unacceptable. Clearly, the Home Secretary’s comments earlier this year indicate that this question remains a pertinent one.

Media censorship in Northern Ireland was already a serious concern, Taylor pointed out, in the 197os, when the government banned altogether programmes he had made from being aired. He went on to explain the frustrations of the 1988 measure for the journalist tasked with bringing people the news from Northern Ireland. It had its absurd effects, too, and to illustrate the latter he played an extract from his documentary Inside the Maze (1991). For this film, Taylor interviewed a number of paramilitary prisoners and serious BBC deliberations followed as to which sections of the film would need to be dubbed with voice-overs in order to comply with the restrictions. It was decided that when a prisoner was speaking in his official capacity as a member of a paramilitary organisation his voice would have to be concealed, but when he spoke personally of his own opinions and perspectives his voice could remain audible. So it was that the IRA’s spokesman on food had to be dubbed, because in the section of the film in which he discusses the quality of food with prison guards (he memorably points out that the sausage rolls have been getting smaller) he speaks in his official IRA capacity.

The discussion which followed was chaired by Marc Mulholland, Fellow in History at St Catherine’s College, and it opened out beyond Northern Ireland to consider the question of broadcasting restrictions and challenges faced by journalists reporting on terrorism and extremism today. The media landscape has, of course, changed unrecognisably: now information can be disseminated rapidly via social networks the nature of the debate about how to control the circulation of that information has had to change, too. By coincidence, our event took place on the same day as Facebook announced that it would allow videos of beheadings to be posted and shared on its site again. The 1988 ban, Taylor said, was retrogressive, ineffective, and it “diminished us as a society”. The questions which surround it haven’t gone away, but the circumstances under which they are now confronted have changed as our relationship with information and the media has changed, too.


Writing Revolution

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Events, Writers

Back in May, and with the generous support of IB Tauris and English PEN, Oxford Student PEN hosted an event to mark the publication of Writing Revolution: The Voices from Damascus to SyriaPEN committee member Nico Hobhouse wrote about the event for the Oxonian Review, and now you can read his review here, too.

On the evening of Thursday 30th May, Oxford Student PEN welcomed Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel, two editors of a recently released collection of essays, Writing Revolution: The Voices From Tunis To Damascus. They came to speak about the new book and were accompanied by Mohamed Mesrati, a young Libyan activist and author of the book’s piece on Libya.

Each of the essays collected in Writing Revolution was written shortly after the Arab uprisings in early 2011, and the authors all directly participated in the events in their respective countries. As such the collection bears witness to times and changes that we have all heard about through the media but have rarely, if ever, seen through the eyes of the protagonists.

Layla and Matthew commissioned eight different writers from eight different Arab countries to contribute. Even this commissioning process proved difficult. Layla recalled the shocking phone call she had with the Syrian journalist, Khawla Dunia, in which she attempted to explain the project while simultaneously attempting to evade the attention of Syria’s notorious phone monitors. As she blustered along nonsensically, avoiding the use of such key words as “activism” and “revolution”, Khawla cut in: “You want to know why I’m engaged in the revolution? Because it’s about our dignity. This is also why I will speak with you on the phone as I please and I will write as I please.” That Writing Revolution got off the ground at all is testament to this spirit of bravery and defiance.

The authors were set no parameters within which to operate and this freedom, combined with the obvious fact that they are all of different nationalities with unique stories to tell, means that each of the essays has a very different and individualised tone. Mohamed explained that at the time he was asked to write he was planning to return to Libya from London—feared, in fact, that he might never return. Thinking that this could be the last chance to record all the ideas that had been brewing throughout his life, and especially in the months following the revolution, his initial contribution was a wild conglomeration of reflections that was gradually cut down to satisfy the demands of the word count. Even in its reduced form his essay is a free-roaming exploration of such diverse topics as the subversions of his childhood (mostly centred around unnerving school teachers by drawing penises in class), the realities of life under Gaddafi, Libyan folk tales, the persecution of his playwright father and the secret political activism of his mother.

Some of the other essays are less playful and lack something of the cautious optimism that underpins the accounts of the “successful” revolutions. Safa Al Ahmad opens her tale of the failed protests in Saudi Arabia with the words she feels she has to utter whenever she meets women from other Arab countries: “I’m Saudi. I’m sorry.” Ali Aldairy bemoans the intellectuals in his native Bahrain who refuse to condemn the killing of peaceful protestors, describing how in February 2011 he leafed through opinion columns in the local papers and “looked for a word repudiating murder and repression. Nothing.”

But even with these reminders of the disappointments that have scarred the Arab Spring from the off, the overall atmosphere of Writing Revolution is hopeful. This is not because any of the writers express a naïve confidence in the future. The hope instead comes from an unwavering sense that the change seen in the Arab world since 2011 is inevitable. Time and again the same motif crops up: it is impossible for people to live under the yolk forever. Ghania Mouffok expresses this sentiment in his essay about Algeria, recording the “demands” of a young protestor who says simply, “We demand to breathe, and that’s a big enough demand in itself.”

Writing Revolution is unlikely to further the various revolutionary causes themselves. Although most of the essays were originally written in Arabic they have all been translated into English (for which the translators received an English PEN award) and the book has not been released in any of the countries it describes. However, as both Layla and Matthew emphasised, their intention was never for the book to change the political landscape—that is changing fast enough on its own. Rather, they wanted to give Arab writers, so long unheard in the West, a chance to step up and tell their own stories. For if the Arab Spring has meant anything it is that Arabs will no longer settle for being victims, for merely being talked about. They can and will speak for themselves.

It’s that time of the year again: the new academic year is well and truly underway and Oxford Student PEN has been catching up with existing members and welcoming many new ones. We were at the Freshers’ Fair this week, and held our start-of-year drinks at the Turl Street Kitchen last night. We have a fine array of events coming up this term – as ever, we’re offering space for debate and discussion, ongoing campaigning activity on behalf of writers around the world, and the fourth Poets for PEN night. Look out too for details of our screening of The Suffering Grasses, a film about the Syrian conflict.

First, let’s introduce ourselves. We are the Oxford Student PEN Committee 2013-14:

President: Helena Taylor

Secretary: Nico Hobhouse

Treasurer & Translations: Kevin Brazil

IT, Communications & Media: Rosie Lavan

And now, here’s what’s coming up:

Campaign for writers and journalists at risk, and read and translate poetry from around the world.
2ND WK: CENSORING THE NEWS? Tuesday 22 October, 6pm to 7.30pm, Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre, St Anne’s College. Award-winning investigative journalist Peter Taylor discusses the politics, ethics and practicalities of the ‘broadcasting ban’, 25 years after its introduction in coverage of Northern Ireland and just months after the Home Secretary proposed its reintroduction in the reporting of Islamic extremism.
5TH WK: FILM SCREENING: THE SUFFERING GRASSESa film about the Syrian conflict by acclaimed director Iara Lee. £3 donation. Wednesday 13 November, 7pm- 9pm, Lecture Theatre 2, English Faculty, St Cross Building. This will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s production manager, Abdulwahab Tahhan. All proceeds to Médecins Sans Frontières Syria Crisis Appeal.
7th WK: POETS FOR PEN. Saturday 30 November, 6pm to 8pm, Shulman Auditorium, The Queen’s College. Readings by Simon Altmann, David Constantine, and Hannah Sullivan
As ever, you can email us for more details on, like us on Facebook for updates there, or simply come along to one of our events. We look forward to seeing you soon!