November 15, 2022 - 4:15pm

This Thursday will see an unprecedentedly large Annual General Meeting of the Society of Authors, after a year which has seen the organisation embroiled in an internal conflict over freedom of speech. More than 500 members, many clutching proxy votes for friends, will gather on Zoom. The first five resolutions to be discussed at the meeting, concerning the taking of minutes and the review of accounts, are unlikely to attract much attention. The real draw for the audience is the two motions that follow.

Resolution 6 asks Chair of the Society’s Management Committee, Joanne Harris, to step down from her position “in light of her documented behaviour and comments”. For the uninitiated, in August Harris tweeted out a poll which took a flippant approach to authors receiving death threats. Shared soon after the attack on Salman Rushdie, it was no coincidence that Harris tastelessly referred to the threats “(credible or otherwise)” following a similar accusation that was sent to JK Rowling after she tweeted support for Rushdie. The Chair, you see, has some pretty profound disagreements with Rowling about gender ideology, and has several times made pointed barbs about the Harry Potter author.

Hundreds of members of the Society have made their feelings clear that Harris’s outspoken stance creates a chilling effect for free speech. This brings us to Resolution 7, which asks that the Society “urgently reviews how to pursue its stated aim ‘to protect free speech’ and puts in place a robust framework to […] protect the fundamental right of all authors to express themselves freely within the law”. 

This second resolution should be entirely reasonable, yet Harris yesterday retweeted a supporter who suggested that it has been “proposed by a fringe minority of bad actors”. In a personal blog post, she made this “fringe minority” out to be even more sinister, saying that the “targeting of the SOA is part of a wider attempt to force the organization to abandon its impartiality and to pander to the demands of the right wing, via the gender critical movement”. 

The Society faces fresh challenges to upholding of free expression and, of course, not all of them directly stem from its beleaguered Chair. Last week the Scottish Book Trust’s new code of conduct, which looks suspiciously like a morality clause, attracted criticism from the British press. The chance to discuss that and other issues of free speech at the AGM and throughout the year ought to be available to the SOA. Under current leadership, however, it isn’t.

The Society of Authors is 138 years old and today represents 12,000 writers. Among those are some of the UK’s most thoughtful and open-minded public figures. If they cannot weigh up Resolution 7 and discuss its implications sensibly then something immense has been lost. 

The SOA is a genuinely essential union. It has presided over a steady expansion of authors’ rights in contract law and publishing tort; in the 1950s it helped to ensure that a rising tide of McCarthyism did not take hold in the British book world. It still has a purpose. If, like me, you are a member and want this venerable institution to keep sight of its principles, you can vote here until the end of the day.

Kate Clanchy is a poet, author, and teacher. Some Kids I taught and What They Taught Me is available now from Swift Press.