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The Crisis at Index on Censorship

31 March 2014

Index on Censorship, once home to the most important defenders of free speech in Britain, is falling apart. Seventeen full-time staff members in place when Kirsty Hughes, a former European Commission bureaucrat, took over as chief executive in 2012 have been fired or resigned.

Among the recipients of redundancy notices are Padraig Reidy who was Index’s public face and its most thoughtful writer, and Michael Harris, who organised the lobbying to reform England’s repressive libel laws, the most successful free speech campaign since the fight to overturn the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960s.  The board, headed by David Aaronovitch of the Times and filled with Matthew Parris and other worthies – most of whom I should say I know and admire – has neither stopped the purge nor reversed Index’s new aversion to tough fights for human rights.

They fear that what once seemed almost an honorary post, may ruin them. Under its old CEO, John Kampfner, Index overextended its budget, not hugely but by enough. Charity law holds that trustees can be ‘personally liable for any debts or losses’ if their organisation goes bust. The Charity Commission says that ‘personal liability of this kind is very rare’. But in theory board members could lose their homes. Index’s failure to take out insurance to indemnify trustees against losses has only heightened the nervousness.

Fair enough, outsiders might say. You must make cuts to save an institution from bankruptcy. But Index’s staff volunteered to cover all the losses by taking a pay cut and working a four-day week. The Board rejected their self-sacrificing offer for fear of undermining their manager. (In Index, as in so many failed British institutions, the cult of the supreme manager, who must be protected and obeyed, stopped sensible compromises.)

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Nor can financial constraints explain why the new managers have turned Index from a fearless campaign group into an organisation that emits windy platitudes and little else. ‘We’ve become a wonkish think tank rather than an organisation that fights for freedom,’ one staffer told me. ‘We never stick our neck out on the big issues now.’

Others criticised Hughes’s micro-management. I don’t know how seriously to take this, you can always get people to bitch about the boss. What is undeniable, however, is Index’s disgraceful treatment of writers suffering under dictatorial regimes abroad. Stephen Spender founded Index in 1972, in response to an appeal from writers in the old Soviet empire. Index is now abandoning their successors. Earlier this year, Hughes cut all funding for underground journalists in Belarus – Europe’s last dictatorship. Andrei Aliaksandrau, a Belarusian journalist based in London, who organised a programme to help opposition writers expose the dictatorship on the Web, is one of the many people walking away. Index’s behaviour appears particularly mean-spirited, as it did not even help Belarusian journalists from its own funds. It just managed an aid scheme. Now it has abandoned reporters, who relied on the programme Index organised. They can’t get jobs in the state media, because the secret police have blacklisted them, and the opposition press is too harried and impoverished to hire them.

The situation is as bad at home. My sources say Index could ‘never again’ repeat its campaign against the Azerbaijani dictatorship, or successes in stopping RBS selling Belarusian government bonds. ‘We have no capacity to take on 2014’s classic liberal issues: mass surveillance by the security services or the threat of state interference in the press after Leveson.’

I know from long and painful conversations that the world of free speech campaigning has become a little fraught of late. The Index board had to announce that Hughes had ‘resigned to write books’ after Ian Hislop, a patron of Index, said he would resign unless there were changes.

Aaronovitch tells me he’s spending every spare minute trying to sort out the mess. I hope he succeeds. Because, if he does not, British culture will suffer. If you watch the television news, you will and see that every time there’s a threat to free speech, a spokesman or woman from Index pops up to put the case for liberty. You may assume they are an efficient and well-financed lobby group. In reality, there are a tiny number of people in ramshackle offices desperately trying to cope with all the threats from the state, religious fanatics, the politically correct, business and Hacked Off. If they go, there’s no one to replace them.

And go they may. You cannot preside over a shambles like the Index fiasco and expect that no one will notice. Fritford, a Norwegian free speech foundation, has already cut its grants to Index.  Other funders are noticing too that Index is an insipid imitation of its former self. To put it another way, David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris may be reduced to selling the Big Issue outside Wapping station after all.

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  • Nick

    The questions which surely beg answering is: who exactly is Kirsty Hughes and more importantly who appointed her

  • Dogzzz

    Your are free to say what we tell you. The left wing version of free speech under Aaranovitch et al.

  • Catherine Fitzpatrick

    I’m glad you’ve called all this out — the shafting of the Belarusians is especially disgraceful after all the work Index had done for them before that — and as you said, they only had to manage aid. Ditto on Azerbaijan and other class free speech issues.

    But as others have mentioned here, you didn’t call out their unconscionable failure to take on the Islamists.

    And I’ll go you one better — the disgraceful embracing of first WikiLeaks and Assange, then the fashionable but entirely misplaced cause of Edward Snowden as a “whistleblower” or surveillance issues as “freedom of expression” issues — when not a single journalist or blogger or person of any kind anywhere has been silenced due to Snowden’s revelations — except possibly his critics.

    Index has become like Amnesty — a caricature of its former self — by indulging in all the same shameful one-sided and myopic obsessions of the British left.

    The leadership has to stick to the basics — freedom of expression in the classic sense, when states or non-state actors suppress speech. Not contrived notions of related to the legitimate need of states to monitor and stop terrorism or counter hostile states like Russia. When it sticks to the basics, and refuses to give into the infantilism of the hard left — which is seldom as powerful as imagined and never representative — the rest will follow.

  • Raw England

    We don’t NEED this weak ‘Free Speech Index’.

    Things have gone into extremely sinister territory now. We shouldn’t be pathetically ASKING for tiny morsels of our Free Speech birthright. WE SHOULD FUCKING JUST TAKE IT USING ALL MEANS.

    And I don’t mean just BITS of it. I’m talking about ABSOLUTE, unadulterated Free Speech.

  • Frank Fisher

    Well I worked there in the 90s and it was a bloody pointless disaster even then. A vanity project for grand luvvies funded by extremely dodgy money, always willing to bend a principle for cash and never willing to defend anyone other than Leftie fellow-travellers.

    Not to mention inviting us to applaud the murder of Theo Van Gogh and delighting in the closure of titles it disagreed with, like LM.

    So it’s going down the tubes now? Good. It’s done nothing to defend free speech in the UK for decades.

  • roman_column

    Twenty years ago Index on Censorship were an outstanding organisation, but (H/T to Mr Grumpy below) they have been absorbed in the Blob. Very much the same with Private Eye, who under Ian Hislop has turned into a bland, BBC-friendly, pro-EU non-descript publication.

    Both organisations ignore appalling human rights abuses carried out in the UK (female genital mutilation – first prosecution in 25 years after tens of thousands of girls and women suffered unspeakable pain and humiliation), the AGW aka Climate Change hoax and the absolute censorship of anyone who does not toe the line, the Labour Party’s (no longer secret) policy of unlimited immigration, the fanatical support for the EU despite all the evidence that it is a malign organisation with nefarious objectives, the way in which the government has pushed through the gay marriage act without an electoral mandate and against massive public opposition (including choosing to ignore a 500,000 strong petition), I could go on, and this is only in the UK.

    The world is more corrupt than ever, governments all around the world are curtailing freedoms for their citizens in unprecedented ways, and the Index on Censorship gets as leader a former EU apparatchik ???

    • Mr Grumpy

      H/T to Mr Gove of course, but the educational Blob is indeed but part of a greater whole. The Omniblob?

  • sarahsmith232

    nick cohen always hightlights these little known goings on. good read, depressing. what’s the tale behind the overspend, did the person Kamfker know full well he’d be jeopodising the whole shebang.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Hmmm, looks suspiciously like a fake charity. The bulk of their funding is channelled through something called Writers & Scholars International Ltd, which conveniently does not have to deposit accounts with the Charity Commission. Any information you’d like to share with us, Nick?

    Oh yes, and they also get a substantial grant from Google. And another from that fearless defender of free speech of the right kind, the Arts Council.

    • MeNotPadraigReidy

      The parent charity is registered as Writers & Scholars Educational Trust; Writers & Scholars International Ltd is its subsidiary sister limited company maintained for purposes of campaigning – the UK charities act limits political activities, even in support of human rights like free expression

      • Mr Grumpy

        So why do the charity’s accounts show the limited company as its chief source of funding? And where can I find out where the limited company gets its cash from?

        • MeNotPadraigReidy

          The charities commission website has consolidated accounts of both charity and company, as though certain activities have to be dealt with by one or the other, in operational overall terms it’s more or less the same thing. donors and individuals prefer to give to the charity, but the bigger national funders – UK FCO, Norwegian government, EC, Swedish foreign ministry etc – are happy to give operational project funds to the limited company. Index usually puts a full list of donors, major gifts and sponsorships in their annual report, which doubles as a programme for their annual awards in March each year. I dare say they will send you a copy if you ask.

          • Mr Grumpy

            Thanks for the info. So this “charity” is in essence a Euro-quango. Individual donations to the charity are peanuts in comparison.
            If I had the job of rescuing it I’d cut not fewer but more jobs – to the point where it could stand on its own two feet without the state and corporate donors. And I’d sack the armchair generals from the liberal establishment like Parris and Aaronovitch and try to recruit some people who’ve actually put their lives on the line for free speech.

            • MrVeryAngry

              You’re just ‘grumpy’ about this. I am very angry…

              • Mr Grumpy

                I think I could manage ‘distinctly peeved’ in this instance.

            • MeNotPadraigReidy

              Yes, that’s it, more or less. In common with all donor financed UK NGOs, from index to Oxfam, because they have been co-opted into global agendas set by states, they have become implementing agencies, as you say, quangos. Their staff do good work, better than you’d think, at great personal physical risk sometimes, But they eventually end up unable to choose their own paths, saddled with the demands of donors and the huge costs of sustaining their own organisation. The failings are only more evident when you compare these UK groups to the incredibly self-reliant and professional human rights defenders outside Europe

    • Frank Fisher

      Stephen Spender took funding from the CIA….

      • Mr Grumpy

        He edited a magazine which was covertly funded by the CIA but resigned when this was revealed. Nothing to do with Index on Censorship.

        • Frank Fisher

          He absolutely did not resign as a result of CIA funding becoming known! Index’s own funding has long been a source of interest to me – some of the same conduits known to have channelled CIA money in the 1960s, for example, the Ford Foundation. And of course, Index has long taken money from the British Government, from the European Commission, from Soros.

  • sarah_13

    Are there no wealthy donors reading this?!! Surely their money would be much appreciated and there is no better cause than Free Speech!

  • Robin Tudge

    SEVENTEEN staff? That’s a massacre. You need the ‘confidence’ of a First World War general to stay in charge after that
    Index is where I started out, in Angel in the 90s, the best introduction to journalism a writer could have.

  • Hippograd

    I know from long and painful conversations that the world of free speech campaigning has become a little fraught of late.

    It has indeed. The free-speech warrior who wrote this review of Nick’s book on free speech — “In the end, Cohen rightly argues, we have to assert the Enlightenment
    values of both Voltaire and Mill as they argued for free speech.” — has gone to jail: Denis MacShane ‘like William Roache’ after leaving jail over fraud

    Before that, MacShane had been involved in another free-speech campaign:

    Lessons should be learned from this sorry saga. We greatly regret that the case was ever brought. At heart, it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means. It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated… We are also troubled by the implications of the claim. Underlying it we sense a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.

    UCU cleared of antisemitism

    What was Denis’s role in this sorry saga?

    A lengthy legal battle between the University and College Union (UCU) and Ronnie Fraser, a college lecturer and 50 percent of pro-Israel pressure couple Academic Friends of Israel, has ended with a complete victory for UCU. Fraser, represented by lawyer and prominent Engage-nik Anthony Julius… Both gave glib evidence, appearing supremely confident of the rightness of their positions. For Dr MacShane, it seemed that all answers lay in the MacPherson Report (the effect of which he appeared to misunderstand)…

    The MacPherson report recommended making “hate speech” in private homes a crime. MacShane also chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, which recommended that downloading “racist” material be made a crime. Anthony Julius also wrote a highly positive review of Nick’s book: “Cohen celebrates Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) and Mill’s On Liberty (1859). His own book <a href=""stands alongside them.” I suspect that they are not really fans of free speech. Which makes me wonder about their comrade Nick Cohen too.

  • Liz

    “To put it another way, David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris may be reduced to selling the Big Issue outside Wapping station after all.”

    They’ll be reduced to using twitter and WordPress like the rest of us. Free speech.

  • ttretwergfdc

    “Index’s staff volunteered to cover all the losses by taking a pay cut
    and working a four-day week. The Board rejected their self-sacrificing
    offer for fear of undermining their manager.”

    i think this needs a little bit more evidence to convince. From the sounds of it they’re really in serious trouble – staff dropping a day a week each and taking a ‘pay cut’ (how much?) is unlikely to save nearly enough, if they’re instead sacking almost all their staff.

    Stop parroting your sources (it’s very obvious your only source here is Padraig Reidy, who is a personal friend of yours) and do some proper reporting.

  • Daedalus

    Former Eurocrat??? Maybe she does not want Index performing like it used to. It might jeopardise the pension if it brings up things someone does not want bringing up.

  • SpookySpook

    The trustees aren’t liable as long as they don’t trade while insolvent. As long as they do their jobs properly, even if the organisation goes bust they’ll not be liable.

    • MeNotPadraigReidy

      Nick’s wrong on the insurance point anyway. The trustees did have insurance, as there was a chance that a disgruntled oligarch might try to pin personal liability.on them, given the greater personal exposure that comes with being a trustee rather than a limited company director. More to the point it was not strictly necessary, as the magazine was produced by the charity’s sister limited company, which employed the staff and published by an educational publisher, who had their own insurance as well.

  • JoeDM

    Mmm…. No mention of the disgraceful lack of criticism by Index on Censorship on censorship and human rights issues in islamic countries.

    • gelert

      They know how the easily offended followers of the Religion of Peace react to criticism. They don’t want a fatwa, or worse, happening to them.

      • MeNotPadraigReidy

        That was more or less true too.

    • MeNotPadraigReidy

      I think it’s fair to say that Index wasn’t really interested in UK free speech issues until John Kampfner arrived. Until then what mattered was what happened abroad. Yet while it was dismissive of the whole jihadi threat to the UK, it was spending close to a quarter of its annual turnover between 2003 and 2012 on direct work in support of secular Muslim journalists and human rights activists in the Middle East, in Iraq mainly, then in pre-Arab Spring Tunisia and after that across the region, including Bahrain, where it did some great work. That had an impact on how it approached the Islamist debate in the UK as well, I suspect

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