CONVERSATION | Who made Leeds Council city censor?

The decision by Leeds City Council to redline an upcoming panel discussion about media coverage of the conflict in Syria sets a dangerous precedent, says PAUL THOMAS… 

On 3rd May, World Press Freedom Day, Leeds City Council cancelled a panel discussion to be held later in the month at Leeds City Museum on media coverage of the Syrian conflict.

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, the Council were responding to “concerns … raised about some of the speakers”; chiefly it seems by someone tweeting from Leeds Friends of Syria – an apparently dormant Leeds University society.

As a result, council officials responded: “Whilst the council and museum service are always in favour of promoting free speech and debate … we have decided that the museum is not an appropriate venue for this event…”.

This is very concerning, to say the least. First, since when did the council become city censor, and grant itself the power to decide what is appropriate to discuss, or who is appropriate to discuss it?

This was a public meeting, and if it was truly “always in favour of promoting free speech and debate”, it would not only have allowed the meeting to go ahead, but would have directed any critics to air their objections at it, rather than look to close the meeting down.

Instead, it has responded with the type of no-platforming tactic that student unions themselves have become increasingly and rightly criticised for.

Secondly, as I’ve written before on Culture Vulture, one of Leeds strengths’ is as a City of Debate. Leeds has many long-standing public discussion groups debating everything from politics to science and culture and which, by their very nature, often aim to challenge perceived orthodoxies or put forward alternative perspectives on an issue.

The idea that the council could step in to cancel a public debate on such subjective grounds that it, or others, don’t like the sound of it, runs counter to Leeds’ healthy culture of debate.

Firstly, it could make people think twice about hiring council venues to discuss any topic that might be considered ‘controversial’ for fear of cancellation.

However, more likely in our increasingly censorious times, this decision could further encourage anyone who objects to an issue or, as in this case, simply with the angle taken on it, to try and get other meetings closed-down.

As the council says, “events are subject to cancellation”, but you’d expect that to be for unavoidable circumstances, not for its own or third-party political objections.

Council premises are, after all, paid for through the rates and taxes we all pay, and people should be able to hire them to freely discuss any topic; regardless of how inappropriate the council, or “unacceptable” or others, may find the issue or the speakers.

Leeds City Council should have let this meeting go ahead as planned. The people of Leeds could have then listened to what the speakers had to say and challenged anything they disagreed with – that is, in the very spirit of what it means to promote free speech and debate.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon public discussion forum.

theCV is happy to offer Leeds City Council a right of reply. 

11 comments

  1. That’s so generous of you to offer a right of reply to Leeds City Council. We were offered no right of reply by the Yorkshire Post. It was only after badgering the author of the smear on the Media on Trial speakers by way of twitter, that the author of the piece Arj Singh, supposedly ‘updated’ his article with a few lines from the statement we had prepared. He kept the same title, the same content but added the few lines after Toby Dickinson’s comment. Mr. Dickinson was thrilled that the event had been cancelled. He had previously tweeted his outrage that the event was taking place – a tweet shared by Chris York of Huffington Post in his article on the proposed event. As co-organiser of the Media on Trial event, I applaud this article – we were not contacted for comment by any media organisation, or Leeds City Council itself, we were not advised or consulted with regard to the cancellation but merely handed a three line email informing us of it. This appalling and unprincipled behaviour and submission to pressure from the likes of Toby Dickinson, ‘Leeds Friends of Syria’ and Chris York of the Huffington Post is the thin end of the wedge for the erosion of freedom on speech in the UK and a sad indictment of good practice at local government level.

    1. It is only fair – and standard industry practice – in the case of such opinion pieces that we offered a right of reply to Leeds City Council. Paul was happy that we did so. We rarely get any official response, but it would have been wrong of us not to make the opportunity available. Alas we have no jurisdiction over how other news providers go about their business, but they too are invited to respond to the article or your comment should they feel so inclined…

  2. Several Leeds MPs recently voted to increase restrictions on the media (Leveson 2) so the idea that Leeds is a city of free debate is, er, debateable.

  3. Hello again Sour here.

    This article clearly needs some Sour remarks so here goes.

    I guess it’s fair to say that LCC can ban anyone from booking their rooms in certain circumstances e.g. where they anticipate the law will be broken by the people hiring the space or by their audience. We can also waffle on about their duty of care to historic building which might be damaged by inappropriate uses.

    In such circumstances it would be reasonable to assume that all this is done in advance of any meeting or event being advertised and that justifiable reasons will be given that can be challenged if necessary. All this allies with similar restrictions on public demonstrations and processions.

    The obvious flaw being around the accuracy or otherwise of any “anticipation”.
    What LCC manifestly ought not to do is what is has done in this case retrospectively stop a meeting going ahead based on spurious public complaint and presumably with no option of appeal.

    Just to open things up a little more I notice Paul’s article is couched in terms of “censorship” and “freedom of expression” this is fine, but I would like to use a slightly different phrase “the policing of ideas and expression”.

    From the three following case studies which I will give I would say although deplorable this is not the worst case of restriction on freedom of expression/ censorship/ policing of ideas we have seen in recent times imposed here in Leeds either by LCC or other agencies.

    First up I thought about the banning of films/ video’s which is not so much on the agenda today but still could emerge again. I first thought Clockwork Orange which I believe was banned in Leeds but watchable locally elsewhere. I couldn’t find the evidence to support my memory, but I did discover a messy case from 1999 where Lorna Cohen Chair of LCC’s Licensing Committee banned, without apparently seeing it the film “The Bride of Chucky” because she was on a “moral crusade” against it. The same source revealed LCC had banned “The Life of Brian” from screenings and had tried to stop the video release of “The Exorcist”. In those days local Cuncillors were obviously confident they had the duty and insight to protect us from our worst desires.

    Next was it two or three years ago? (I couldn’t be arsed to go back through the CV archives – No27 over to you) we had LCC ripping down posters put up around the city centre in self promotion by a local author. This was an interesting one because here the decision was taken on the basis not of any actual complaint but on the anticipation (that word again) that offence might be caused to persons unknown by the wording of the posters. I think this decision was officer-led in the first instance.

    Finally, I prefer to cast my net wider than “censorship” which basically covers the issue at hand and my first two cases because of a third arguably more sinister form of suppression where you may utter your words, hold a meeting or show a video but “what you say may be taken down and used in evidence”.

    Here I refer to the undercover surveillance operation which was conducted by “Lynne Watson” from 2004-2007 who was part of the now disbanded. National Public Order Intelligence Unit which was undertaken at the Common Place in the city centre. These practices are now the subject of a very slow moving public inquiry – the Mitting Inquiry – but the data collected on individuals still probably resides in the National Special Branch Intelligence System.

    My conclusion on the banning of the Syria meeting then is that though deplorable itself it is by no means not the worst process of “the policing of ideas and expression” we have seen in the city. Clearly each case catches the mood of the moment from situations of “moral repugnance”, through state paranoia, to what we have now the “no offence society” What is interesting to me is the transparency of the decision-making and the ability to reveal, embarrass or challenge the processes of the perpetrators.

    The case of the cancelled meeting ironically seems the most transparent in its abuse of power. We know to some extent who made the complaint to which our timid, yet authoritarian council responded, and the issue can now be viewed and challenged in the public arena. In past times and other circumstances this was and remains not the case.

    Kind regards

    Sour

      1. Spend time reading reports from the OPCW instead of supporting Fascist regimes and their vile spokespeople and paid liars. They have been given multiple opportunities to speak their dumbass lies whilst Syrians have been tortured and massacred over years.

    1. How do you know that the speakers at this event are as you assert. Did somebody tell you that and you believed it without checking. I once picked up a weapon on behalf of this nation and put my life at risk. I did so because it was a nation with values that I admired. This banning of free speech and the responses from narrow minded fools like you who lap up propaganda, make me realise how degraded our nation has become. But looking at your profile tends to make me think that you are propaganda bot.

      1. Read the OPCW reports. ‘The banning of free speech’ in Britain bothers you, but not in Syria? Where you risk torture if you don’t call Assad your God. Believe in free speech intelligently and save your anger for the mass murderers and torturers, and their spokespeople. These speakers want to speak out the lies and fantasies of a Fascist regime and it is no more to be regretted that a museum in Leeds didn’t host them than it would have been to read in the 1930s that Hitler and Goebbels had been prevented form speaking at a museum. Wise up FFS, your sort of political thinking is dragging us into tyrannies throughout Europe. Poland, Hungary, Italy – the moron ‘populist’, anti European Union Right Fascists are on the march. Neil Mudd is part of that moron stream. No, Im not a bot, Im a democratic Leftist and I despise the pro-Fascist drift.

        1. Why use cogent argument when name-calling and glib platitudes can do all the heavy lifting? Have you actually read or even understood Paul’s piece? He makes the perfectly valid point that the challenge and debate of uncomfortable and contradictory truths lay at the heart of any democratic Socialist response, and it is not the role of the LCC (or you for that matter) to stymie that discussion to begin with given such flimsy justification. Still it was worth reading your ill-informed polemic just for that brilliant quote. Have you been working on it all night? I’m flattered. I may even include it in my Twitter bio…

  4. We will not be approving Argieav’s follow up comment as it contained an unsubstantiated and defamatory assertion. That’s not being fascist, it’s a legal obligation on our part. Do we really have to remind people that ‘freedom of speech’ does not mean you can say what you like? We will no longer be approving any anonymous comments. If you are not able to own it, perhaps you should not be expressing it in the first place…

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