Taking the offensive: Defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK has been generously supported by Arts Council England. The conference was produced by Index on Censorship in association with Free Word and Southbank Centre.
Conference Report | May 2013 | Written by Julia Farrington
Freedom of expression is essential to the arts. It needs to be actively sustained at the heart of artistic practice and mission, or it risks being undermined and diminished by competing concerns. It is a contentious right that triggers often divisive debate about the responsibility of the artist to balance between respecting and challenging society’s sensibilities.
Censorship and self-censorship are significant influences in the arts, creating a complex picture of the different ways society controls expression. In contrast to conventional state sponsored censorship which is direct and clearly demarcated, contemporary censorship in the UK is the result of a wide range of competing interests–public safety and public order, religious sensibilities, corporate interests. These constraints are often implemented without clear guidance or legal basis.
A key focus of this report is on how self-censorship manifests in arts organisations and institutions. The causes of self-censorship range from the fear of causing offence, losing financial support, violent public reaction or media storm, police intervention, prejudice, managing diversity and the impact of risk aversion. Participants acknowledged that these considerations influence many decisions about what work is commissioned or produced. Fear of prosecution for expression that might be considered to be criminal was also cited. Many admitted that a lack of knowledge around legal limits contributed to self-censorship.
Juggling the expectations and rights of the artist with those of audiences, funders, sponsors, media and the general public emerged as a difficult and demanding task. Many speakers from the platform and the floor felt strongly that, to reinforce support for artistic freedom of expression, arts organisations will have to be more transparent about the dilemmas they face and more willing to open up dialogue about critical decisions. There was a range of thought about the benefits of providing guidelines or policies, though there was strong support for developing guidance around policing.
Representatives of arts organizations raised common themes that would benefit from further discussion. There should be more debate with the audience, general public and young people about the positive value of controversy, disagreement and diversity of opinion as a means of understanding ourselves and our society. There is unequal access to exercising the right to artistic freedom of expression, with artists from ethnic minorities encountering additional obstacles. The size and funding of organisations will be a determining factor in how far they can go to support challenging work. Support for artistic freedom of expression at senior management and board level is absolutely central to developing an ethos that is able to defend artistic freedom when challenged.
Censorship and self-censorship
This report distinguishes between censorship and self-censorship. Self-censorship is the suppression of ideas by artists or institutions. It refers to work that has not yet been made.Censorship is used to describe the silencing of work that has been made. This includes the removal of work that is on display or in performance or the vetting of finished work before it is displayed or performed.
Index on Censorship’s major conference ‘Taking the Offensive – defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK’ Southbank Centre, London, January 2013 was the first cross-art-form, sector- wide, national conference on artistic freedom in this country. It was held in partnership with Southbank Centre and Free Word Centre and was funded by Arts Council England. 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 and pressures including security issues, risk aversion and a growing sensitivity to ‘offence’. The conference discussed and debated how best to defend and push back the boundaries to free expression across the arts in the UK and how to build and reinforce support throughout the arts sector in defence of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
The conference was held mainly on the record with the goal of opening up debates within the arts sector first and then to take the debate to a wider public audience in the future. Jude Kelly, OBE, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, in her opening remarks identified the need for the sector to, “talk about how they would articulate, and defend freedom of expression and then how they can speak to media and their audiences …to articulate their position.” One of the triggers for the conference was to tackle the isolation that often accompanies controversy. Backlash around challenging work from audience members, board members, funders, sponsors, general public and media can be hard to handle and can leave those in the eye of the storm feeling isolated. Jude Kelly called for the sector to, “stand together and make a cogent and responsible and sophisticated fist of this debate. We will persuade the media and the public that this is an arena in which we have the right to determine how we operate.”
The conference painted a picture of contemporary censorship in the arts, made up of a wide range of constraints and pressures on arts organisations, and the audience heard how other cultural and media players experience and manage censorship. It also addressed practical means to tackle the pressures that can lead to censorship with the final panel looking at what practical steps are needed to address the problems raised. We hope the conference itself and this report will prove of value across the sector. It will inform Index on Censorship’s future work programme on promoting greater understanding and co-operation on how to defend and promote artistic freedom of expression.
The day-long conference was attended by an audience of 220 people from the cultural sector, law, funders, and religious groups. Full details of the programme and the audience evaluation are in the appendix.
In this report, we present the range of opinions and ideas voiced during the conference at the panels, plenaries and in the breakout sessions. The report considers the discussion under a series of headings, drawing together themes of debate, rather than following the format of the programme itself. In the opening section the report looks at a key issue – which generally gets assumed rather than talked about sufficiently – what is artistic freedom of expression and what status does it have in contemporary culture? The report then looks at the whole gamut of constraints, controls and suppression of artistic freedom that were identified during the day before drawing together the different strategies needed to reinforce support across the sector. The final section summarises some of the key conclusions including ways to take the debate forward.
What is artistic freedom of expression?
The premise for the conference was that whilst everybody in the arts would probably support artistic freedom of expression as an essential tenet of our cultural life, there has been little or no cross-sector discussion or debate about it and therefore no shared idea of what it is, or the many and complex challenges that are inherent in actively supporting it. Discussion of artistic freedoms inevitably opens up complex debate about competing rights and responsibilities. For this and other reasons that will be presented in this report, support for freedom of expression is in the main only discussed, as one speaker observed, when “things go wrong”.
A powerful yet vulnerable right
Our freedoms are, as Nicholas Serota, director of The Tate, said in his keynote speech, hard won and the struggle to support them is necessarily on-going as the conditions in society constantly change. They are vulnerable to being “usurped by special interests, misunderstandings or misapplication of the law” and the “pressures of mass communication and multiple cultures make the job of vigilance more important and complicated than ever before”. Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik said that freedom of expression is intrinsic to art, “without it art withers” and has to be sustained at the heart of artistic practice and at the core of artistic mission.
Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University described it as “our most valuable social tool”, allowing artists the freedom to be critics and commentators and express, as another speaker put it, “the values, urgencies and anxieties in society.” Film- director Penny Woolcock observed that it allows artists to enter into relationships with people or investigate areas of society that are closed off to other professionals. It allows for artists to challenge stereotypes and taboos and, as playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti stressed, it requires considerable personal courage on the part of the artist and those who provide the infrastructure to present work.
The right to shock
The right to freedom of expression is extended to opinion that is abhorrent, that shocks, disgusts and appals and causes offence. As Gurpreet said “it may not be pretty” and Sally Tallant, artistic director of Liverpool Biennial, reminded us that great art is often deeply shocking and very unpopular in the first instance and only later becomes iconic and loved. Some of the conditions in which artistic freedom thrives were described by various participants as: the willingness to embrace controversy and diversity of opinion, to maintain open debate and dialogue, to take risks and experiment.
With rights come responsibilities
Some felt that artists should be free to say what they like, while others stressed that artists should ‘act responsibly’ though there was a very broad spectrum of opinion about what acting responsibly means. Some believe it is an artist’s responsibility to challenge all and any boundaries, while others feel that being responsible means respecting boundaries and controlling their expression accordingly. This considerable range of interpretation of the word responsibility goes some way to explaining the polarisation and intensity of the debate on artists’ rights.
Inequality of access to this right
Several participants pointed out that access to this right is not equally distributed across society and that education, in particular of young people and audiences is very important to ensure that all people can access and exercise the right to freedom of expression. One artist pointed out that community artists work in a different world from major venues and established artists, who have freedoms that the majority of artists do not. Kenan Malik warned against artists being given special privileges to be freer than other people as this would diminish the right of non-artists; any defence of freedom of expression should encompass any form of expression.
The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, and in various international declarations to which the UK is a signatory. It is a fundamental not an absolute right, which is not without boundaries. In certain qualified circumstances, it can be argued that constraints should be placed on artistic expression.
What are the limits to freedom of artistic expression?
The legitimacy or acceptability of expression that is considered harmful, dangerous or offensive and “crosses the line” is the subject of continuing debate and the scope for disagreement on what can be considered necessary and proportionate constraints on that right is very wide. In the case of arts venues and institutions, judgments about where to draw the line are ultimately the responsibility of the artistic director. Nicholas Serota explained that trust and confidence lie at the heart of these decisions and are necessarily made on a case-by-case basis “with conviction, responsibly weighing consequences”. Trust has to be developed with many different agencies, funders, sponsors, artists, audiences and it is important that an institution or arts organisation can demonstrate how it made its decision to present contested work, in good faith and for the public interest.
This section summarises the day’s discussion about how artistic expression is controlled and silenced and by whom. The absence of direct state-sponsored, highly visible censorship, which prevails in many countries around the world, may contribute to the commonly held view that there is no censorship in this country and that it is not a problem. However speakers throughout the day from across the sector confirmed that censorship is a major issue for the arts, and that it comes in many different forms, both direct and indirect, some more subtle, some more overt making it hard to “find one’s bearings”. The lawyer Anthony Julius, Deputy Chairman, Mishcon de Reya, differentiated between the age-old paradigm of censorship of the arts as the confrontation between the artist and the authoritarian state, and contemporary UK censorship, which sits within a liberal democracy. Contemporary censorship he said “is a heterogeneous assemblage of agencies, individuals, confessional groups, spontaneous groups that come into existence in response to provocation”.
Human rights charters acknowledge the relatively narrow range of acceptable interventions on legal grounds – such as security and violence – but also open up a much broader set of public order and public morality issues which various actors and influencers can then use as justification when attempting to silence speech for social or moral reasons.
Institutional self-censorship, a term that was used for the first time in a public discussion at this conference, was seen as a key factor and accordingly a discussion of its causes and characteristics has a separate section devoted to it.
There are UK laws, both criminal and civil, that outlaw hate speech and criminalise, but do not define, certain forms of grossly offensive expression. Recent guidelines produced by the Crown Prosecution Service, as Sir Hugh Orde, President of Association of Chief Police Officers told us, attempt to rein in the growing number of social media prosecutions and give some indication of where the bar is set in terms of legally acceptable expression that might cause offence at least online. However as was pointed out several times, since there have been so few court cases concerning artistic expression, many agreed that the boundaries in the arts are controlled to a far greater extent by non-judicial considerations including public opinion and prevailing (and changeable) morality, taste, sensitivity.
CCensorship due to public influence happens when pressure on an art venue to remove work comes from members of the general public or special interest or religious groups. This can sometimes be the result of violent and disorderly protest or the threat of violence. The media plays an important role in influencing opinion, with some within it on occasion stirring public outrage about an artwork with the aim of having work removed. David Abraham described how public censorship of this kind is often led by elements within the media who encourage members of the public to complain to the police or to come out in protest against work, often involving people decrying work that they have not seen. The internet, social media and digital technology have made it easier for public outrage to gain momentum. This kind of moral outrage and public censorship, which can be hostile and sustained, is roused by work that is, for example, considered blasphemous, pornographic, appears exploitative of minors, or that portrays homosexuality especially in relation to religion. Some members of the public expect to influence decisions on what is acceptable, and public views on what is acceptable can have considerable impact on institutions presenting controversial work.
There was some discussion about the role of the police in directly censoring work, particularly in the artists’ breakout session. The police, as the arm of the law, have discretion to and can under certain circumstances intervene directly in the name of crime prevention, keeping the peace, or balancing the rights of other individuals or groups against the rights of the artist, to remove or stop artistic work. Sir Hugh Orde said that the police are often called in to manage “the fallout from artistic expression” which has the potential to be violent and can lead, as in the case of the play ‘Behzti’ by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, to the “unfortunate consequence” of legal artistic expression being suppressed due to concerns about public order or safety.
One participant in the artists’ breakout session said that in her experience the police were, “extremely over-cautious often resulting in de facto censorship or intimidation of artists.” Another artist with an experience of working in community settings and with marginalised communities said that people, “might be surprised at the significance of the role of the police” in deciding what kind of artistic expression is appropriate in public spaces, and another felt the police were “over-protective” and that, “audiences should be allowed to make up their own mind and not allow police officers to make it up for them.”
The future of internet governance and the control of online content is a major subject for debate around the world and will impact inevitably on artistic expression. As a private company Google, which owns Youtube, has to operate within the law, but they do have quite a lot of power to set standards for their online spaces. Bill Echikson, Google Head of Freedom of Expression Policy Europe, North Africa and Middle East, said they aim to, “err on the side of freedom of expression”. They were recently criticised, when they pre-emptively blocked the video clip ‘Innocence of Muslims’ in Egypt and Libya and when challenged about this decision, Echikson told the conference it was felt that the video represented a real and immediate threat to security and withdrew it on those grounds, though it was later reinstated.
According to Google, online censorship is on the increase around the world, as the amount of material uploaded increases year on year. Bill said that with 72 hours of content being uploaded every minute some governments are increasingly looking to whether and how to control digital freedom of expression. 10 years ago there were only six countries that patrolled the internet, but now 44 out of 78 countries studied by the Open Net Initiative filtered, censored or blocked content to some extent. At any one time, 30 of the 150 countries where Google is used, 30 are blocking or censoring products, including YouTube, Blogger and Search.
Some participants expressed concern that the government’s push for the arts to find financial support from private philanthropy and corporate sources may risk creating potential or actual obstacles to freedom of expression, threatening the independence and range of programming. One participant pointed out that smaller organisations and those in rural areas were most at risk of producing: “dull, safe and uncontentious work that is more easily fundable. The ripple down effect of self-censorship is the elephant in the room. It has the biggest potential impact on artistic freedom of expression”. (See following section for more discussion on financial pressures).
One speaker, in the break out session on this issue, voiced some concern that, increasingly, philanthropists are expressing the view that they would like to give money in return for some influence. Another speaker questioned how organisations can truly support freedom of expression when they are pressured to take money from major corporates with poor human rights records.
Larissa Sansour a Palestinian artist, whose proposed work for an art prize sponsored by Lacoste was censored, as it was deemed to be “too Palestinian”, said that corporations should not see artists as an extension of their advertising campaign, but should support artists to do their own work.
Censorship and fear of causing offence
The fear of causing offence, in particular to religious sensibilities, can be a very powerful factor in controlling speech and artists who are trying to tackle uncomfortable truths relating to religious issues and find they encounter censorship. Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programmes, National Coalition Against Censorship, asserted that suppression of speech is often done to protect vulnerable groups, but it should nevertheless be treated as a free speech issue and challenged.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti told how her radio play ‘The Heart of Darkness’ about a so called “honour” killing had recently had lines removed by the BBC Compliance Department1 to avoid offending the sensibilities of their Muslim audience. Kaur Bhatti told the conference how “the BBC said the lines were offensive but they absolutely were not. They were a crucial part of the story…We live in a fear-ridden culture.” Mona Siddiqui concurred that the BBC is extremely cautious about causing offence to religious sensibilities.
The group in the breakout session on self-censorship in the main accepted that a degree of self-censoring is part of everyday interaction in which we edit out expression that may be inappropriate, hurtful or offensive or out of a desire to be respectful or polite. This inevitably affects artists’ decision-making and it was pointed out that artists may avoid addressing certain subjects out of concern that they may offend their family, friends and neighbours and fear of being ostracised, more than being worried about dealing with hostility from the wider public. One participant felt that “there is uncertainty about what we say to each other, we’re not sure what is and isn’t offensive” and another said that uncertainty means we “lose out on the opportunity of understanding each other, by closing down expression and debate on complex issues”. Several speakers cited the fatwa against Salman Rushdie following the publication of the ‘The Satanic Verses’ as a significant turning point in UK cultural life, leading to greater self-censorship.
Regulation and classification
Channel 4 as a public broadcaster, is regulated by Ofcom. Channel 4 Chief Executive David Abraham believes this underpins their commitment to freedom of expression and increases public trust. The British Board of Film Classification is an independent body that regularly consults with the general public to set its standards on what is acceptable. When discussing how high the bar is set, Vice-President Gerard Lemos, alluded to examples of extreme violence and sexual sadism that are given an R18 classification indicating that in his view the bar is set high. A notion of harm, rather than offence, is the touchstone of their classification and, at times, censorship of film.
1 See Media Coverage section of Appendix I for links to press.
Making difficult choices about what work to produce is an essential part of the role of any programmer, commissioner or artistic director, and they have to take funders, sponsors, artists, audiences into account when making decisions. But self-censorship can be distinguished from other forms of editing, when the decision to drop a particular piece of work, or cut certain phrases, characters or aspects of a work is dictated by either fear of the consequences or triggered by prejudice. A key focus for the conference was to look at how self-censorship operates in arts organisations and institutions of all sizes, public authorities and other stakeholders. Strategies for tackling the causes of institutional self-censorship are discussed in the next section.
Fear of consequences
The term institutional self-censorship was used by several people, indicating that they felt self-censorship to be an established and pervasive factor in the cultural arena, but one that, because it is institutional behaviour, is largely invisible to those involved and is not openly discussed. The causes of institutional self- censorship were identified and discussed during the day. Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programmes, National Coalition Against Censorship, listed fear of litigation, PR backlash, loss of funding, violence and causing offence as typical triggers for institutional self-censorship. Where litigation was concerned, as one speaker pointed out, the fear of prosecution far out-stripped the reality, saying that “many arts producers – much more so than the artists themselves – were over fearful of the prospect of prosecution, when in nearly all incidents there were no reasonable grounds for bringing charges”.
The breakout session on the role of the board reported on how a preoccupation with risk assessment had led to a tendency to hypothesise and focus too heavily on “worse possible case scenarios”; the threat or possibility of an adverse reaction can therefore dictate the decision about what work to produce. There was also discussion about whether the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity2 could have an overly constraining effect on board members’ decisions, given that some risk taking is necessary to support artistic freedom of expression. It was noted that each organization is different and that boards must think about the guidance in relation to their own mission, but the limitations on certain sorts of activity should certainly not be used as a way to shut down debate about programming work with claims that “my board won’t like it”. There was concern that, when selecting an artistic director, trustees might decide to go for a ‘safe pair of hands’ rather than someone who might take ‘artistic risks’. It was noted that trustees on arts boards come from a wide range of business, legal and marketing backgrounds bringing a heightened awareness of reputational damage, relations with governments and corporates. This in turn feeds the culture of risk aversion that fuels self-censorship and one speaker claimed that “the greatest risk is to have an organisation that takes no risks”.
Being able to demonstrate positive economic impact of arts programming is nothing new. But in a recession this is more critical and as one speaker said “in vulnerable funding times, local authorities are finding it difficult to continue to make a cultural offer”. Especially hard hit is the infrastructure of smaller arts venues that foster emerging and diverse talent, risk and experimentation. One speaker wondered whether we “can afford to court controversy” when money is tight, and it is so costly and time-consuming to take on legal defence. Erica Whyman, Assistant Director Royal Shakespeare Company, said “market forces and the political climate have made us very nervous about making work that most people don’t like”. The director of a small arts organisation claimed that organisations like hers are amongst the least attractive to philanthropic giving, and so there is a real danger “that we self-censor and deliver up what the rich and the funding bodies find palatable and are not threatened by.”
Cultural diversity policies and prejudice
Kenan Malik observed that diversity policies have inadvertently fuelled institutional self- censorship. Rather than encouraging a true diversity of speech and expression, they have often been used to silence speech that might offend “in the name of diversity you can’t say that” or “because we live in a diverse society you can’t say that”. He observed that the tendency to homogenise minority communities has created significant obstacles for artists coming from ethnic minorities who may not conform to the idea of what is acceptable or expected by the mainstream. Jeanette Bain-Burnett, Artistic Director Association for Dance of the African Diaspora, concurred, describing a deep-seated prejudice in the UK that limits the range of work that ethnic minority artists are able to produce, based on specific yet unspoken expectations. Further addressing the stereotyping of ethnic minority artists, an artist wrote in his conference evaluation that “artists critiquing their own minority communities were more likely to get their work produced than artists critiquing the mainstream