by Connor Briggs
Since becoming an advocate for freedom of expression by joining York PEN, when I explain to friends or acquaintances (or my interviewer for an internship for that matter) PEN’s ethos – freedom to write, freedom to read – I am often faced with an unfortunate response. First comes the eye widening, followed by the “oh cool,” and then the question: “but how does that concern us in the UK?”
This question is disquieting for two reasons. Firstly, the geographical specificity implies that those I have spoken to are aware that censorship exists in the international arena, but believe that it doesn’t really concern them. And it doesn’t seem to overly worry them because the question also implies that they believe that the politics of censorship, whether radical or soft, does not have historical or contemporary resonance in the UK. Whilst I wish that this was true, it’s an imagined reality that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, simply switching on the radio or television can position the British public as participants, albeit sometimes indirectly, in the politics of censorship. Music icons Madonna and Lady Gaga have in recent years been subject to governmental attacks that have tried to censor their advocacy of LGBTQ rights or performances. Iconic British television show Doctor Who was censored in Asian countries in order to remove a lesbian kiss, with The Telegraph reporting that “Singapore’s rules state that ‘information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality…should be treated with utmost caution…and not in any way promote, justify or glamorise such lifestyles.’” The politics of censorship is therefore inescapable – simply by being consumers of pop-culture, the British public are engaging in a wide spectrum of cultural products which have been subjected to policies designed to curtail the messages they represent.
However, the prevalence of censorship, and the politics thereof, is embedded within British culture most clearly in literature and the written word. School and college students are educated in literature and history through a number of texts that have historically been banned. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and even J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been banned in the UK in some capacity since their publication, and the school curriculum is thus framed around, and undoubtedly influenced by, censorship laws past and present. There is even discussion today concerning the arguably quasi-censoring of the English curriculum with the recent overhaul of the English syllabus; by removing literature from other cultures and placing emphasis on modern British texts, access to the international scope of literature has been dramatically restricted. No more To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible, Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath. But nah, that doesn’t matter. Right?
In other areas of British life, the recent Prison Book Ban has caused outrage, with family members now unable to send prisoners books to read whilst detained. This dramatically restricts prisoners’ access to literature and reading materials, and thus limits their access to an activity that English PEN claim “goes hand in hand with education and rehabilitation.” Additionally, journalists covering international issues in volatile parts of the world where freedom of expression is not as openly welcomed are faced with threats of incarceration, or even death. The Committee to Protect Journalists have reported that 36 journalists have already been killed in 2014, demonstrating the danger that journalists face when dealing with international stories.
Another major international issue, which directly impacts a large demographic of British society, is the laws on censorship and freedom of expression online. What people post on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter legally counts as published material, and governments can (and have) prosecute(d) people for what they share online. Therefore, with the ever-increasing rise of internet personas and online surveillance that takes place in the UK, the USA, and across the world, we are increasingly falling into what The Independent reports to be a “spiral of silence.” Given the pervasiveness of social media in British culture today, (self)-censorship online is a major concern, and one that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
Therefore, questioning the presence of the politics of censorship in the UK today is like questioning the presence of Coronation Street’s theme tune at 19:30pm on a Monday evening. Both are omnipresent, ingrained in British culture and have been for multiple decades. We may engage in the politics of censorship by consuming material which has been banned elsewhere in the world, we may study a text that 40 years ago was unavailable to the British public, or we may face the risk of death for an article we are about to write. We live in a world where intolerance and violations of the human right to freely express one’s opinion has codified the international communicative arena that we reside in. We cannot say that censorship does not affect us in the UK. To do so would almost be an act of censorship in itself.
Connor Briggs is Co-Chair of York PEN for the academic year 14/15 and studies English and Related Literature and History at the University of York.