by Joan Smith
Thursday, 10
November 2022
Debate
07:00

The Scottish Book Trust has given up on free speech

Writers' organisations are betraying the people they're meant to represent
by Joan Smith
Credit: Getty

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. 

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Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
17 days ago

“One should not be surprised to learn that the trust gets most of its income from the Scottish government”

I think that tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about this imposition of ideology. He , who pays the piper, and all that.
What is so dispiriting, for Oicks like me, is the utter spineless’ness of ‘educated’ people who should know much, much, better.

Matt M
Matt M
17 days ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

This, like the Gender Recognition Act in Scotland, should be on top of Kemi Badenoch’s in-tray. If she can think of a way to neutralise it, she can strike simultaneous blows for traditional values and The Union in one go. The UK government standing up for the rights of the normal people of Scotland against its current Woke overlords.
It would also give a shot in the arm to the government’s standing south of the border. And it would cost nothing.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
17 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

It might prove surprisingly popular north of the Boarder too. Contrary to the opinion of some the Scots are not idiots and to be asked to believe an intact man is a woman because he claims to be stretches credulity beyond breaking point for most sensible people.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
15 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

No the majority are idiots Jeremy, and I speak as a Scot. They cling on to this nostalgic view of their Braveheart country and keep voting SNP based on these nationalist sentiments. The majority are idiots, and I’m afraid they’re verging on being fascists in their narrow minded nationalism – so banning authors they don’t agree with fits nicely into that template.

Rob N
Rob N
13 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Does not matter if intact or not. Castration of a man makes a eunuch NOT a woman.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
15 days ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Yes it is dispiriting that the so called arts people have participated in this quasi-religious persecution of other artists who don’t follow the latest trendy movement.

But on the other hand……….it’s rather reassuring to see so many arts people to be revealed as having lead feet – they believe themselves to be deeply self-aware, moreso than other human beings, and the last 10 years with Brexit and Trump, and now trans and BLM, has shown the common man that they are just as biased and narrow minded as the rest of us, in fact even more bigoted in their belief that their own world view is the single truth. It’s worth the unfairness and societal bullying just to see this revealed.

It needed Trump to happen for DeSantis to come along. It needed Farage (who used to try to appeal to extremists too) and Johnson for Brexit to take place. These oddballs and ‘fruitcakes’ make stuff happen that needs to happen.

Last edited 15 days ago by Ian Stewart
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
17 days ago

Why do the Scotch put up,with such nonsense?
The country is rapidly becoming an embarrassing cesspit.
Is this the result of Small Nation Paranoia?

R Wright
R Wright
17 days ago

Scots abide by such nonsense because their existence is defined by opposition to the English. If the English begin to turn the clock back on free speech and trans issues, expect the Scots to double down. It is the same as with the Irish republic.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
17 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

How very ungrateful of them considering the massive subsidies both receive.

Graeme Arnott
Graeme Arnott
17 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

Scottish nationalists might be defined by their opposition to all things English but most Scots aren’t. Please don’t tar us all with the same brush

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
15 days ago
Reply to  Graeme Arnott

Sorry you’re wrong Graeme. They win elections, so Scots voted for these numpties, repeatedly. It’s fair to tar Scots (and I’m Scottish) with this brush.

Chris W
Chris W
17 days ago

Hugh Trevor-Roper makes a good argument for calling the Scots, “Scotch” and I am sure it is correct historically. But when you say Scotch, it comes out as an insult, which I’m sure it is meant to be.
This is another example of SE England superiority. I’m sure you are aware that the subsidy per head to Scots is paid from tax receipts and is very similar to the subsidy paid to English people. Since we are part of the UK, everyone is in the same boat.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
17 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

The per capita subsidy for the ever needy Scotch is way above that provided for the English, as you jolly well know.
Thank you for the information about Lord Dacre, who off course wrote a wonderful debunking of Scotch mythology in general, as you probably know.

Last edited 16 days ago by stanhopecharles344
Rob N
Rob N
13 days ago

And not only is the per capita subsidy higher but so are benefits and when compared to the cost of living even higher.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
15 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

Ah you bit Chris. Of course Charles is deliberately using an insult to attack Scots, and he just wants a reaction. He doesn’t care about reasoned debate when he does this, which is a shame on this forum.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
15 days ago

More or less, yes.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
17 days ago

‘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.’
No one deserves to be falsely accused, no matter how wealthy they are.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
17 days ago

I had never heard of PEN, but following the the last link in the article I see that there has been an update to that statement dated… yesterday.
I quote:
________

“Update – 9 November 2022
Jennifer Clement, PEN President said:

“PEN International stands for freedom of expression. For almost one hundred years we have stood with all groups and individuals who are silenced and harassed, and have defended their right to be able to talk and write freely about identity and oppression without fear. To reference a discussion currently being enacted on social media, the ability to write or speak freely without harassment stands as much for trans writers defending their rights as it does for JK Rowling. PEN has always called for a world where the rights of all are respected. We acknowledge that many have not been the ones to tell their own stories and we believe in imaginative freedom so writers may write the books they want to write.”
_________

The bit I don’t understand is towards the end. What does “We acknowledge that many have not been the ones to tell their own stories ” actually mean?
However it ends on a upbeat note by stating what should be obvious, “writers may write the books they want to write.”

Last edited 17 days ago by Andrea X
Matt M
Matt M
17 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

It is bemoaning the fact that women have been prevented from publishing novels for centuries and if they did no one would read them because of the Patriarchy.
Except for Jane Austen obviously.
And the Bronte sisters.
And George Eliot and Mary Shelly and Louisa May Alcott.
And Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton.
And Virginia Wolfe and Gertrude Stein and JK Rowling.
But apart from those…

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
17 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

“PEN has always called for a world where the rights of all are respected.”

Such a world is literally impossible.

Last edited 17 days ago by Arnold Grutt
Michael James
Michael James
17 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

The PEN statement also says:
‘Freedom of speech is not freedom from the responsibilities of speech. As such, we call on all our members to recall one of the foundations of the PEN Charter and ‘use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect.’
Being truthful risks reducing ‘mutual respect’. Writers should focus on ‘good understanding’ whatever the consequences for ‘respect’.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
17 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

The ‘tell their own stories’ usually means some sort of bow to the notion that only members of <pick some identity> should be allowed to write books with <that identity> as lead characters.

Adam McDermont
Adam McDermont
17 days ago

Compiling a list of anti-free speech zealots may ensure these orcs are countered more effectively. We so often here of freedom of speech restrictions imposed by this or that institution. However, the murky individuals operating in the shadows seem to be able to escape opprobrium. This must change. Such a development may ensure current discourse is less sterile, if nothing else.

https://theheritagesite.substack.com/

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
17 days ago
Reply to  Adam McDermont

Very good idea. We need to treat the woke scum the way they treat us. They’re the fascists, the racists, the misogynists and the homophobes, and it should be us shouting them down, hounding them out of their jobs, and driving them off social media.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
17 days ago

 “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.” 
The bureaucratic mindset always likes to have a code of conduct to maintain the high regard with which public supposedly holds the profession (whatever it is). In the case of Doctors taking drugs and having sex with your patients brings down the wrath of the BMA disciplinary committee on you. These restrictions are not really relevant to professional authors so they have to scrape around for some other transgressions that authors might be guilty of that could lower the profession in the minds of right thinking individuals if they were not stamped on by their professional body. Of course the only thing they could think of that an author might do to shock readers was to express non-woke thoughts. Hence, like the Society of Soviet Authors they have to stick to the Party line and not allow wrongthink to be expressed. I have no doubt George Orwell would have been sanctioned had he still been alive for failing to acknowledge that an intact man was not a woman should Winston Smith demand he acknowledged this irrefutable truth.