Why I don’t believe Penguin’s side of the story

Righty-ho. This is something I’ve been working on and off for about two months, and I’ve kept having to defer this as more urgent news, reviews and previews took precedence. As you will see, it’s taken quite a bit of work going back finding primary sources, scrutinising them, and then writing about what I found. But here it is at last: a follow-up to “On the Ladybird vs Elia spat” that I wrote back in January, concerning the needless row between an independent author and Penguin Random House over a parody of the Ladybird books, and subsequent arguments over who stole whose idea. At the time, I tried to avoid coming off the fence too strongly, because I wanted to make to point that it’s good to build on each other’s ideas, and – oddly enough –  I tried to suggest it was time to put the dispute behind them. But here’s where it ends. This is where I take sides and lay into Penguin.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead!

The reason I’m compelled to take sides is the attitude from a small but vocal number of people taking the line that Penguin is entirely blameless and it’s completely Miriam Elia’s fault. What’s more, the comments were a mixture of rude, aggressive, patronising, and – I suspect – attempts to intimidate people like me into deleting anything that might make Penguin look bad. So I had to go back and double-check the web pages where I got originally got my information from. And from there, I checked the primary sources cited. I thought I might come to some middle-of-the-road conclusion – perhaps Penguin merely mishandled things and allowed a misunderstanding to get out of hand, but I guessed wrongly. The evidence I’ve found overwhelmingly backs what Elia and others have been saying all along, and the claims made for Penguin stand up very poorly.

One important thing to say first is that this post does not cover every single point made in defence of Penguin – I could say more about this, but I want to concentrate on the big whoppers. Even so, this is going to be a long one, because sweeping statements are short and easy to make, and long and laborious to debunk. But read this you should, because this is quite possibly a large corporation abusing its position to try to silence artists they don’t like with legal threats they aren’t entitled to make. And that is something everyone in the arts world should worry about. Continue reading

On the Ladybird vs Elia spat

Page from "How it works: the Husband" on the left; page from "We go to the gallery" on the right.

This is my first two articles I wrote in the aftermath of the high-publicised row between Miriam Elia and Penguin Random House, when I still thought it was possible to calm down the hostilities. For the more up-to-date article following the online nastiness I got from Penguin supporters that prompted me to completely side against them, see Why I don’t believe Penguin’s side of the story.

COMMENT: The success story of the grown-up Ladybird books is overshadowed by an artist they took legal action against. Here’s why it’s time to make peace.

Over Christmas, a lot of you will have given or received any or all of the eight “Ladybird Books for grown-ups”. Just in case you’re one of the people who’s not heard of this, it was a brilliantly simple idea, sanctioned by Ladybird themselves, of writing new descriptions to illustrations from the classic children’s series Ladybird. Out goes the story from Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten, and it goes a tip from the Ladybird Guide to Dating as to how this woman pictured has been so busy running her online macaroon business she realises one day she’s forgotten to get married and sleeps on a torn mattress in the attic. This is largely the creation of Joel Morris and Jason Hazely, two writers who regularly contribute to Charlie Brooker’s wipes.

And this would be a lovely success story were it not for the allegations of plagiarism and legal shenanigans. The issue is that the year before, a small-time artist called Miriam Elia produced her own parody of a Ladybird book. That time, it was a parody of Peter and Jane where Mummy takes them to a modern art gallery; and it eviscerates the crap passed off as modern art, and also eviscerates the bollocks praise that people like Mummy lavish on the aforementioned crap. To the credit of many modern art galleries, they took this in good humour and some of them even stock the book. But Penguin, Publisher of Ladybird, claimed copyright, came to a settlement with Miriam Elia that involved pulping most of the books, and it wasn’t until this year – when the laws on copyright changed and parody was accepted as “fair use” of copyright material – that the books were reprinted. Continue reading

Kate Smurthwaite is no champion of free speech

Kate SmurthwaiteCOMMENT: It was wrong to call for Kate Smurthwaite’s gig at Goldsmith’s to be cancelled – but there’s little evidence that Smurthwaite’s own attitude to free speech is any better.

I know I’ve just done a comment post on freedom of speech, but since I decided I was going to write about David Greig’s “Welcome” to the “Fringe” scheme (punctuation mine), another show that’s the subject of censorship came to my attention. It’s Kate Smurthwaite’s The Wrong Sort of Feminist, and this all relates to a stupid incident earlier this year when a gig of hers was cancelled following a feminist protest to have her no platformed. Whether this feminist protest was actually behind the cancellation is a bit a puzzle – Goldsmith’s comedy society claims it was mainly down to poor ticket sales – but Smurthwaite has nonetheless chosen to wear this as a badge of honour and theme her 2015 Edinburgh Fringe show around it.

Frankie Boyle: I think ultimately, you come across as not only being hypocritical, but incompetent and mendacious. Good luck with that. Kate Smuthwaite: aww you sweet man, you knew I wanted a quote for my flyer! ((hugs))
FIGHT! (Full spat here.)

I would probably have taken no notice of this had I not been given one of her flyers. I found her level of self-promotion a little irksome (okay, Edinburgh Fringe publicity has to be self-promotional, but this was a tad too narcissistic for my liking), but that’s not the problem. The problem I really had was the way she used a recent Twitter spat with Frankie Boyle on her flyers, as if a derogatory tweet from him is a second badge of honour. That’s gone one step too far over the hypocrisy line.

The issue is that Smurthwaite’s proudly-publicised nemesis Frankie Boyle has himself been the recent target of a censorship campaign, this one a group who demanded that he be dropped from Féile, a popular comedy festival in West Belfast. And the two cases seem to have a lot in common. Both comedians are controversial and outspoken individuals. Both comedians have said things in the past that have made enemies. And both protests allegedly came from people who had no intention of going to these events but nonetheless wanted to stop other people seeing it. Continue reading

Welcome to the fringe? Pull the other one!

Demonstration outside Underbelly

COMMENT: There’s nothing wrong with supporting Palestinian artists coming to the Edinburgh Fringe. But don’t be fooled by this talk of “free Israeli voices”.

One theme that has kept cropping up in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is censorship. The University of Edinburgh has just held an event called “Theatre Censorship Now“, and Underbelly has programmed a series of plays Walking the Tightrope to discuss this very issue. I think we can safely assume that this is entirely in response to the protests that led to the cancellation of an Israeli play last year, because arts subsidies from the Israeli government is all sinister propaganda to make wars look good which is why all the UK artists nobly stuck by their principles and refused all money from the UK government. Possibly. I have already said what I think about the boycott, and what I think about the demonstrators demanding the boycott, and if you haven’t read those articles all you can probably guess how contemptuous my opinion is.

However, one supporter of the anti-Israel boycott I am taking seriously is playwright David Greig. When most of the supporters of this boycott were making excuses for the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, David Greig condemned it. When most of the demonstrators’ behaviour ranged from nastiness to borderline anti-Semitism, David Greig did at least attempt to say that wasn’t the tactics he liked to see. Now, a cynical interpretation is that David Greig is simply happy to allow other people to do the dirty work for him, but I prefer to take things in good faith where possible. So I am going to assume that David Greig’s own response to this event, his “Welcome to the Fringe” idea, is a genuine attempt to do some good and doesn’t have a hidden agenda. Continue reading

It’s time for zero tolerance to censorship through violence

Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo
Lots of people want this banned

COMMENT: Maybe Charlie Hebdo has racist content, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, responsibility for the massacre must be shared by the people who pandered to the kind of censorship preached by the killers.

So, just when I thought the attacks on freedom of speech couldn’t get any worse, they did. This time last year it was death threats against a politician who spoke out against censoring drawing of the prophet Mohammed. Then it was a hate campaign against a group of Israeli actors for coming to the fringe with the wrong nationality. Then it was threats of mass murder over a film that lampooned the leader of North Korea. And now, it’s actual mass murder, once again over some drawing of Mohammed.

Let us be in no doubt as to what happened on Tuesday. It was not just an attack on twelve innocent people. It was a fundamental attack on freedom of speech, a right we too often take for granted. On the murders themselves, there has been overwhelming condemnation across the world; that is the least that can be expected. But on the attacks on freedom of speech, I am sorry to say that’s a different matter. Collectively, we are not properly defending free speech from harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence. The blame for the murders lies first and foremost with the murderers, but after than, we have some serious questions to ask about our own responsibility in this.

First thing’s first: some people say it was pandering to censorship led to the attacks. I won’t make that claim, because we don’t know. To anyone with a shred of humanity, Al-Qaeda is a baffling ideology. They are not defenders of Muslims, unless you think that deliberately killing masses of innocent Muslims Iraqis in order to provoke sectarian violence with a death toll hundreds of thousands counts as defending Muslims, which I don’t. But they do, and with a moral justification that incomprehensible, God knows what else they were thinking. What we do know, however, is that Al Qaeda affiliates run a highly organised propaganda campaign of fear, so it’s a fair bet they’re happy to silence outspoken voices if they can. And that’s where we come in. Our message, time and time again, is that you can silence dissidents and get away with it. Our message is that when it comes to political and religious censorship, harassment works. And intimidation works. And violence works. Continue reading

The Incubator protests are not about justice for Palestine

Demonstration outside Underbelly

COMMENT: I’ve stopped believing the people protesting against Israeli theatre care that much about Gaza. The real motive is all about hate figures.

People who know will will be aware I have opinions on lots of things, not just theatre. I sometimes hint about my opinions in theatre reviews, and I sometimes speak out on wider issues which have relevance to arts. But, on the whole, I try to keep politics out of this blog – people should be able to enjoy theatre regardless of anyone’s political views. On this occasion, however, I’m left with no choice but to attack the politics of an unpleasant bunch I can no longer ignore: the protesters who want Israelis banned from the Edinburgh Fringe. So far, I’ve confined my views to my opposition to political censorship in theatre, but sadly, this isn’t enough. It seems that then people supporting these protests think that “justice for Palestine” is more important than freedom of speech, and therefore political censorship is okay. The reason they keep citing is that this is exactly how Apartheid was brought down in South Africa. That is bollocks for all sorts of reasons (for a start, every man and his dog claims credit for ending Apartheid), but that isn’t the point. I’m going to attack this argument at the source: I don’t believe these protests really care that much about Gaza.

Continue reading

Liz Lochhead, hang your head in shame

Scene from The City

COMMENT: High-profile artists are entitled to their opinions. To use their power and influence to politically censor small productions in an open arts festival is nothing short of disgraceful.

Tomorrow is the official start of the Edinburgh Fringe. Normally, I would make myself busy with recommendations of what plays to see. There would be the usual debates about whether the fringe is too expensive, too dominated by big name comedians, or too dominated by the super-venues. But this year, all of this has been eclipsed with one of the most disgraceful acts to ever occur at the Edinburgh Fringe: political censorship is back.

Early this year, I wrote about an attempt at censorship of a webcomic called Jesus and Mo, and a particularly nasty campaign against some individuals who said they didn’t find it offensive. That campaign thankfully failed, but at the time I asked how long it would be before we have another Behtzi? The answer, it turns out, is six months. Only this time the target for a hate mob, Incubator Theatre’s show The City, isn’t in the least bit offensive – their act is parody film noir with hip hop.

No, their only crime is that they are partly funded by an arts council, just like, um, thousands of other theatre companies who need to make ends meet. The difference that that they are Israelis, and therefore have to get their funding from Israel’s the ministry of culture, and this tenuous link to the war in Gaza is enough to call for a boycott. Except a boycott isn’t enough. People choose to see or not see shows for all sorts of reasons, and that’s fine at a fringe, but the people against this show want to deprive everyone else of this choice. So they held a big demonstration against Underbelly’s launch event, with disruption to public order, and Underbelly capitulated and pulled the show. For the first time in years, a group has been censored for political reasons.

Continue reading