Homegrown: “Not enough has been said about the silencing of young artists”


Credit: Helen Maybanks / National Youth Theatre

“Do I believe this play was censored? I absolutely fucking do.” So said Madani Younis, artistic director of The Bush Theatre, on stage at a packed Conway Hall last night for a panel discussion on the controversial play about radicalisation Homegrown, which was cancelled in September 2015 just two weeks before it was due to open.

“And on what basis was it pulled? On some notion of what is artistically valid, which I don’t buy, by the way. I don’t buy it because if they questioned the artistic merit of the show, it would have never arrived in the rehearsal room in the first instance,” Younis added.

Last night’s event was hosted by Index on Censorship to celebrate the long-awaited release of the full script of Homegrown. The panel also included deputy editor of Spiked Tom Slater, TV and radio writer and director Clara Glynn, and professor of social and behavioural sciences at Kingston University Vron Ware. It was moderated by Hassan Mahamdallie, director of the Muslim Institute and playwright.

The National Youth Theatre approached Homegrown writer Omar El-Khairy to “respond to these ideas of radicalisation that he felt was happening out there in the ether”, Younis explained. Before rehearsals, NYT gave El-Khairy notes and Nadia Latif was enlisted to direct.

“NYT knew what they were subscribing too in my opinion,” Younis  added. “When you’ve green-lit a show into rehearsals, you’re kind of all in in that process.” Then the police got involved and questions were raised about the health and safety of the young people involved due to the subject matter of radicalisation, which seemed to spell the end of the play.

A short video provocation on the portrayal of muslims in mainstream media, including clips from Borat, Back to the Future and American Sniper, preceded the main discussion.

The cast of Homegrown, seated throughout the hall, surprised the audience with the performance of a excerpt of the play following calls for questions from the audience, after which they received a standing ovation.

The floor was then opened for reactions and discussion from the audience, cast and panel. Many admired the cast and directors for their hard work and dedication to the project despite their censorship woes. Others praised Homegrown’s ability to discuss such heavy subject matters in a tasteful and thought-provoking manner.

There was also debate around the extent of freedom of speech and censorship in society. “I don’t believe in absolute free speech…I don’t believe free speech is an absolute,” said Glynn, condemning hate speech. However, Slater argued that limiting such speech always ends in censorship. “I defend free speech no matter what is said,” Slater added.

The night concluded with closing remarks from Nadia and Omar, who also received a standing ovation and from the audience. “Not enough has been said about the silencing of the young artists,” said Nadia.

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The inconvenient Muslim: An evening to launch Homegrown


Couple (lapata, 2010) by Daisy Rockwell

“Muslims are only ever the object in an endless national conversation around Islam, rarely invited to define their own narratives. Homegrown probed, pushed back, and hoped to move representations of Muslims beyond simple caricatures and crude Orientalist fantasies. For trying to do that we feel we were censored.”

– Nadia Latif and Omar El-Khairy (artistic team Homegrown)

Due to high interest, the event has moved to Conway Hall.

Art dealing with “the Muslim problem” is branded “urgent”, “brave” and “provocative”. But who’s doing the provoking? Who’s getting provoked? And is such work helping move popular narratives beyond the confining parameters of Good Muslims and Bad Muslims?

These are some of the questions Nadia Latif, Omar El-Khairy and their cast sought to explore with the National Youth Theatre in the summer of 2015. They wanted to ask if programmes like Prevent are stopping people from getting drawn towards violence, or creating an environment which simply puts a whole community on the backfoot?

Their play was deemed inappropriate for public performance. Rehearsals were shut down amidst ambiguous circumstances. And when a publication of the script was proposed, publishers backed out.  

Now the artists have decided to go it alone. To celebrate the launch of Homegrown as a self-published play text, Index on Censorship hosts an evening to explore these questions with members of the original cast, creative team and an expert panel. Together they will ask, what needs to change?

Panelists include:

  • Clara Glynn, TV and Radio Writer/Director (credits including A World Elsewhere)
  • Madani Younis, Artistic Director of The Bush Theatre
  • Malia Bouattia, NUS President
  • Nazish Khan, Artistic Director of Quilliam
  • Tom Slater, Deputy editor Spiked
  • Hassan Mahamdallie, Director of the Muslim Institute/Playwright (chair)


When: 7.00pm-8:45pm, Monday 6 March
Where: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL (map)
Tickets: £5.90 via Eventbrite

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Julia Farrington: Tackling self-censorship in the arts community


Child Protection: PDF | web

Counter Terrorism: PDF | web

Obscene Publications: PDF | web

Public Order: PDF | web

Race and Religion: PDF | web

Case studies

Behud – Beyond Belief
Can We Talk About This?
Exhibit B
“The law is no less conceptual than fine art”
The Siege
Spiritual America 2014


Julia Farrington: Pre-emptive censorship by the police is a clear infringement of civil liberties
Julia Farrington: The arts, the law and freedom of speech
Ceciel Brouwer: Between art and exploitation
Tamsin Allen: Charging for police protection of the arts
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti: On Behzti
Daniel McClean: Testing artistic freedom of expression in UK courts

Reports and related information

WN-Ethics14-140What Next? Meeting Ethical and Reputational Challenges

Read the full report here or download in PDFTaking the offensive: Defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK (Also available as PDF)

Beyond Belief190x210Beyond belief: theatre, freedom of expression and public order – a case study

UN report on the right to artistic expression and creation
Behzti case study by Ben Payne
freeDimensional Resources for artists
Artlaw Legal resource for visual artists
NCAC Best practices for managing controversy
artsfreedom News and information about artistic freedom of expression

These information packs have been produced by Vivarta in partnership with Index on Censorship and Bindmans LLP.

The packs have been made possible by generous pro-bono support from lawyers at Bindmans LLP, Clifford Chance, Doughty Street Chambers, Matrix Chambers and Brick Court.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Julia Farrington, associate arts producer, Index on Censorship, participated in the Theatre UK 2016 conference on 12 May 2016. This is an adapted version of her presentation. 

In January 2013 I organised a conference called Taking the Offensive for Index on Censorship, in partnership with the Free Word Centre and Southbank Centre. The conference was held to debate the growth of self-censorship in contemporary culture, the social, political and legal challenges to artistic freedom of expression and the sources of these new challenges.

The report from the conference concluded that censorship and self-censorship are significant influences in the arts, creating a complex picture of the different ways society controls expression. Institutional self-censorship, which many acknowledged suppresses creativity and ideas, was openly discussed for the first time.

Lack of understanding and knowledge about rights and responsibilities relating to freedom of expression, worries about legal action, police intervention and loss of funding, health and safety regulations, concern about provoking negative media and social media reaction, and public protests are all causing cultural institutions to be overly cautious.

One speaker at Taking the Offensive suggested that we are fostering a culture where “art is not for debate, controversy and disagreement, but it is to please”.

There is above all, unequal access to exercising the right to artistic freedom of expression, with artists from black and minority ethnic encountering additional obstacles.

Many felt that far greater trust, transparency and honesty about the challenges being faced need to be developed across the sector; dilemmas should be recast as a necessary part of the creative process, to be shared and openly discussed, rather than something to keep behind closed doors. This will make it possible for organisations to come together when there is a crisis, rather than standing back and withholding support: “if we collectively don’t feel confident about the dilemmas we face how can we move on with the public?”

I think there have been significant changes in the three years since the conference and, whilst I think the same challenges persist, there have been some really positive moves to tackle self-censorship within the sector.  The growth of What Next? has created precisely the platform to debate and discuss the pressures, dilemmas and controversies that the conference identified. What Next? has produced guidance on navigating some of these issues and is developing more resources on how organisations can support each other when work is contested.

Index on Censorship responded to the clear call from the conference for the need for guidance about legal rights and responsibilities if we are to create a space where artists are free to take on complex issues that may be disturbing, divisive, shocking or offensive.

We have published information packs around five areas of law that impact on what is sayable in the arts: Public Order, Race and Religion, Counter Terrorism, Child Protection and Obscene Publications. They are available on the website under our campaign Art and Offence. These have been well received by the sector and read by CPS and police and we are developing a programme of training which will, if all goes well, include working with senior police officers.

At the same time, pressures from outside the sector have intensified.

The role of the police in managing the public space when controversial art leads to protest has come into sharp relief over the past two-three years where they have repeatedly “advised” venues to remove or cancel work that has caused protest or may cause protest.

I did a case study on the policing of the picket of Exhibit B at the Barbican in London which is available on the Index website; and in the same year, the Israeli hip hop opera the City was closed in Edinburgh on the advice of the police.

More worryingly the police “advice” has also led to the foreclosing of work that is potentially inflammatory – as in Isis Threaten Sylvannia an art installation by Mimsy, that was removed from an exhibition called Passion for Freedom from the Mall Gallery last year.

With the removal of Isis Threaten Sylvania, we see a shift from the police advising closure following protest to the police contributing indirectly or directly to the decision to remove work to avoid protest.

In this case freedom of expression was actually given a price — set at £7,200 per day for the five days of the exhibition — the price set by the police for their services to guarantee public safety.

The police took the view that a perfectly legal piece of art, which had already been displayed without incident earlier in the year, was inflammatory. And in the balance of things as they stand, this opinion outweighs:

  • the right of the artist to express him or herself;
  • the organisation’s right to present provocative political art;
  • the audience’s right to view it;
  • and those that protest against it, the right to say how much they hate it, including when that means that they want the art removed.

This new chapter in the policing of controversial art sets alarm bells ringing and represents a very dangerous precedent for foreclosing any work that the police don’t approve of.

But going against police advice is problematic.

In Index’s information pack on Public Order we asked our legal adviser, working pro bono, questions that many artists and arts managers are concerned about:

What happens if police advise you not to continue with presenting a piece of work because they have unspecified concerns about public safety – and yet tell you it is your choice and they can only advise you?
The artist would in principle be free to continue with the work. It would be advisable, however, to ensure that the reasons held by the police were understood. It may also be prudent to take professional advice…

And then what responsibilities for safety do employers have to staff and the public in relation to continuing with an artwork that has been contested by the police?
An organisation also has duties to their employees and members of the public on their premises. These duties may extend to making an organisation liable in the event of injury to a person resulting from the unlawful act of a third party if, for example, that unlawful act was plainly foreseeable – in other words the police have given their warning.

What are the options for an arts organisation to challenge police advice at the time of the protest itself?
If the organisation believes that it has grounds to challenge police directions to avoid a breach of the peace, it can seek to take legal action on an urgent basis. Realistically…legal action will not be determined until some time later and until it is determined by the courts, the organisation and/or its members or employees would risk arrest if they do not comply with police directions.

So – what starts out as police advice which implies genuine choice, on closer inspection transforms into a Hobson’s Choice where failure to follow that advice could lead to arrest.

On this evidence, both self-censorship and direct censorship are the undesirable outcomes of this as yet unchallenged area of policing.

But the Crown Prosecution Service has read and approved the packs and our law packs are in the system with the police.

The ideal policing scenario is to keep the space open for both the challenging political art and the protest it provokes. Both are about freedom of expression, what we have to avoid is the heckler’s veto prevailing.

Going back to other recent examples of censorship — questions remain about the role of the police in the decision to cancel Homegrown the National Youth Theatre production of a play about the radicalisation of young Muslims by writer Omar El-Khairy and director Nadia Latif. This was followed earlier this year by the presentation, without incident, of Another World: Losing our Children to Islamic State at the National Theatre, play on similar themes by Gillian Slovo and Nicolas Kent.

I mention Another World because it is important to state the obvious, that all the work that has been contested by the police and been cancelled, relates to work about race and religion and the majority of artists involved in work that has been foreclosed are from black and minority ethnic communities.

Looking through the lens of freedom of expression, each case of censorship gives a valuable opportunity to view a specific snapshot of relationships within society and to analyse the power dynamics operating there, both directly around the censored work — whose voices are and aren’t being heard in the work itself, and in the field and context in which the work is taking place and again looking at who is in control, who decides what voices are heard. I don’t have time here to go into an analysis of each case, but what emerges is that freedom of expression is, as it stands, a biased affair in the UK and I believe will remain so while our society and our culture are not equal.

As well as these new cases of censorship that we have seen since the 2013 conference, we have also seen new government policy, legislation and regulations which place increasingly explicit controls on what we can say and have a chilling effect on many areas of expression and communication, and interaction with government.

Many campaigners and charities see the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 as designed to deter charities from intervening in judicial reviews — the most important legal channel we have to call authorities to account; the Investigatory Powers Bill, better known as the Snoopers’ Charter gives the surveillance state more powers; the Prevent Strategy requires us to police each other – surveillance and policing our neighbours — two nasty authoritarian tactics, and most recently the anti-advocacy clause would effectively ban organisations from using government funds for lobbying — stifling dissent. It was due to come into law on 1 May but the consultation period was extended and it might be kicked into the long grass.

The government has made it clear that it wants us to see ourselves predominantly if not exclusively as businesses and in response we have successfully made the case that the arts contribute massively to the economy.

But we know we are so much more. The arts are a vital, at best magnificent and effective player in civil society — especially when you define civil society as “a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity”.

With our core values and freedoms under attack, the arts and other civil society bodies are responding. The discussion about the role of the artist in taking on the big issues in society — from climate change to the refugee crisis — has, from where I stand, definitely intensified and gone up the agenda over the past three years, both here and internationally, as the pressure on our freedoms and values also intensifies domestically and internationally.

To fully participate in society and to create art that calls power to account, we need to continue to identify, analyse and tackle the causes of self-censorship within the sector, and stand together to enter into dialogue with the various agents of control that we identify in the process.

Art can help us imagine and bring about a more equal and just future.

Index condemns removal of artwork from Passion for Freedom exhibition

Index condemns a decision to remove an artwork by the artist Mimsy showing Sylvanian Families toys being terrorised by Isis.

According to reports, Isis Threaten Sylvania, a series of seven satirical light box tableaux, was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the “potentially inflammatory content” of the work.

The removal highlights a worrying trend in which artistic or other work that addresses extremism has been shut down. Over the summer, the National Youth Theatre pulled a planned production of Homegrown, a play that examined Isis recruitment of young Britons just weeks before its scheduled start. Last week, Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born campaigner against religious laws, was blocked from visiting Warwick University after the student union said she violated its external speaker policy. That decision has since been overturned.

“Concerns over terror are being inflated to such an extent that perfectly legitimate, non-criminal expression, is being shut down across Britain: from university campuses, to theatre stages, to art galleries,” said Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “The upcoming extremism bill could worsen the situation further. In the case of the Sylvanian Families exhibit, we need to do more to ensure that police work with venues to promote freedom of expression, not stifle it.”

Index has produced a series of booklets on the UK’s legal framework and its impact on artistic freedom of expression for artists and arts organisations mounting challenging and controversial works.