November 10, 2022 - 7:00am

There was a time when writers’ organisations unequivocally opposed censorship. Now authors are told they shouldn’t hurt other people’s feelings, no matter how unreasonable those feelings happen to be. Scotland is at the forefront of this unwelcome shift, in the shape of a “code of conduct” for writers that limits free speech on an exhaustive range of issues.  

No doubt the Scottish Book Trust, a charity that promotes literature and reading in schools and libraries, will say that writers have a choice: if they don’t agree with its new code, they don’t have to sign up. But fees for taking part in events are an important source of income for the 600 authors on its Live Literature Register. And what the trust is demanding goes far beyond controlling what a writer might say at one of its events.

It admits that an author’s behaviour in the wider world normally falls outside its scope. “However, when presented with clear and unambiguous evidence of serious public misconduct,” its website announces, “we reserve the right to address that misconduct, even if not committed on Scottish Book Trust time.”

Serious public misconduct? Who on earth is the trust proposing to send into schools? Its chief executive, Marc Lambert, told the Times that “we have a responsibility to all of our audiences and it is therefore incumbent upon us to have an up-to-date code of conduct.” 

Most authors manage to do readings without committing criminal offences or causing members of the audience to run screaming from the room. But this isn’t about that, as the trust’s website makes clear. “We oppose all forms of bigotry, including (but not limited to) ableism, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ageism, classism, xenophobia, language discrimination and intolerance to people of any religion or faith,” it declares. No vegans? What about dog owners?

As an old hand in the free expression business — I chaired the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee from 2000 to 2004 — I can see all sorts of problems here. People of faith are not always fans of free speech, as I discovered in 2005 when an Islamist threatened to kill me because he didn’t like something I wrote in the Independent. But it is transphobia that currently sits at the top of the outrage scale, and that’s what critics of the Scottish Book Trust believe this is about.

The poet Magi Gibson is “deeply troubled” by the code, fearing it is “an infringement on the free speech of authors and poets in Scotland”. She also believes it could be used by “bad-faith actors” to harass writers who don’t believe in gender identity theory. Gibson is spot-on: accusations of “transphobia” are so common, and used so lazily, that they have become little more than smears. J.K. Rowling has been targeted with false accusations of transphobia for two-and-half years, though she’s not financially vulnerable, unlike most of the writers working with the trust.

One should not be surprised to learn that the trust gets most of its income from the Scottish government, whose capture by gender extremism could hardly be more complete. But the trust’s behaviour reflects a wider trend, in which writers’ organisations have been slow to condemn the abuse of Rowling. International PEN took a month to respond when she was viciously attacked in September 2020, finally cranking out a statement about online harassment that didn’t even mention her.

Defending authors’ rights to say unpopular things is so last century, of course. War is peace, freedom is slavery, and “being kind” is the new free expression. 

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.