Sleepwalking into censorship

By Lewis G. Parker on October 21st, 2013

When I learned that Darren Cullen’s new comic book had been refused by the printers because they deemed it offensive, I was a little taken aback but not really surprised. Much like his previous works, Cullen’s latest is anything but conventional or tasteful: a single 1.48m folded piece of paper which, when unfurled, creates a Bayeau tapestry of violent colour on one side and 20 pages of hand-drawn comic strip on the other. Folded like a concertina leaflet, it wraps around a pack of stickers, adverts and posters which will drop out of the main body when opened, a bit like bombs dropping from a fighter jet.

The format alone limits production to the select few printers who have a hefty Xeikon press to handle a sheet that big. But that isn’t really the handicap. The first three printers Cullen approached accepted the work on spec. The real reason his comic got blown out, and the one that’s most troubling for any freedom-loving subject of the empire, is that his work was rejected for making a powerful institution look stupid: the British Armed Forces.

Included is a poster of a more realistic “Action Man”: both his legs have been amputated and he’s in a wheelchair.

(Don’t) Join The Army is a satirical “anti-army recruitment leaflet”. It depicts British soldiers who have been maimed, bombed and butchered in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in graphic parodies of army recruitment adverts. The Force’s advertising slogan, “Be the Best”, has been replaced with “Be the Meat”, as in dead meat. In Cullen’s version of the MoD holiday brochure, the force’s foreign adventure tour is “like prison but with more fighting”. It offers “free prosthetic limbs” to the poor buggers who get sucked in by such pettifoggery.

Included is a poster of a more realistic “Action Man”: both his legs have been amputated and he’s in a wheelchair.

actionman_poster_72dpi

If Cullen had wanted to publish his comic on the internet, nobody could have stopped him. He says: “If it hadn’t needed such specific machinery I’m sure I could have had it done here much easier. But when your options are limited in this way you’re at the mercy of the ideological whims of company directors.”

As I know from experience, it isn’t just company directors who have satirical bomb-throwers by the balls. Some of us think – rather naively, it has to be said – that our free speech is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, or the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But if you belong to an institution where you have to sign a contract to join, or if you’re compelled to abide by a vague, ill-defined code of behaviour – as you do in most institutions and companies, even those that claim to harness free thinking and critical thought – you are almost certainly, and often unwittingly, signing yourself up to be censored.

Meet the censors

When I was at university, my friends and I published a newspaper that made a lot of people angry. We libelled a fair few people who probably deserved it, some who didn’t, and made a lot of folks, who probably shouldn’t have been in higher education in the first place, believe some of the lies we published. Our front-page story about Gary Glitter playing at the student union was spectacularly misread, and the responses to that article alone only seemed to justify our actions.

Despite having a fair few copies ripped up in our faces, which we expected, we never imagined that our paper would land us in the trouble it did. After we published a piece that supposedly “glorified” child killers, which was picked up by the national press, my fellow editors and I were hauled in front of an official university disciplinary panel to have our bums smacked.

I didn’t remember signing it any more than I can now recall how many times I’ve clicked “Accept” on the iTunes T&Cs

If you’ve ever tried to explain a joke to somebody who doesn’t find it funny – or worse, if you’ve ever tried to justify a wise crack to a narrow-minded bigot who is predisposed not to find it amusing – you’ll understand where we’re coming from here. After hours of back and forth with a panel of gormless Middle Englanders, during which I tried to explain irony and making fun of the medium not the issue, the committee said in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t stop publishing the paper – which we were distributing in the streets, not even on their property – I would be kicked out of university and disqualified from my degree.

The reason? I had broken my contract with the university, which every student has to sign when they enroll. Of course, I didn’t remember signing it any more than I can now recall how many times I’ve clicked “Accept” on the iTunes T&Cs. But still, with the subsequent national press coverage of our joke – which we had never asked for, but was still held against us – we made them look weak. And like a controlling husband who doesn’t like being made to look impotent in public, the university vowed to slap us down.

The trouble anybody who enters an institution of higher education or workplace has is the same. There is no opt-out clause in the contract they get you to sign when you join. You have to like it or lump it, which isn’t really an option, given that there isn’t a university, college or corporate company – which is, sadly, what universities have become – that doesn’t require you to sign what can essentially become a gagging clause upon entry. The worst article, the one that would probably be found illegal if you had the will to challenge it in court, and which is in every contract of this kind that I’ve ever seen, is “the bringing your institution into disrepute” part, or words to that effect.

‘Bringing the university into disrepute’ is a deliberately vague and all-encompassing clause.

As was confirmed in the hearing, “Bringing the university into disrepute” is a deliberately vague and all-encompassing clause. It can mean anything the institution finds inconvenient, and you don’t even have to be on their property to be bringing them into “disrepute”, as we weren’t when we distributed our paper well outside their gates. Nor do you have to be guilty or even suspected of a criminal offence to bring the university into disrepute.

As it became clear throughout the hearing that this clause gives institutions carte blanche to discipline students for purely ideological reasons, I asked if a student who is revealed to practise occult rituals could, in theory, be banished on these grounds, providing it doesn’t impinge on her “religious freedoms” – and who’s to say if black magic and voodoo are technically religious or not, any more than satire?

And to take this reasoning to its logical conclusion, I asked my interlocutor to consider a student who is given a red card for a savage slide tackle while playing a football match in the Outer Hebrides, which is reported in the local and then national press, along with the name of the university he attends. Could this be seen to be bringing the university into disrepute, and could this lead to disciplinary procedures? She said yes, which is something to consider for all the satirists, bad tacklers and shaman out there.

It is obvious that the definition of “disrepute” centres on what a conservative panel of bureaucrats finds offensive. And ironically, stories such as ours may actually be to their benefit when trying to attractive prospective students in the university “market”, since there are plenty of people, particularly youngsters, who found what we did cool and funny. Also that in trying to block out free speech, the university was actually bringing itself into disrepute.

No, the worst thing about these reputation clauses is that you don’t even have to publish anything yourself to be caught in this net of transgression. And what you do publish is judged purely on the whimsical basis of how someone else, usually other newspapers, represent it, and how that ideologically loaded information is unpacked and interpreted by a panel of people whose minds may not be powerful enough to decode this complex web of ideology and bias.

I was only hauled into the interrogation room after the national press had taken issue with my article. Bringing the university into disrepute wasn’t a matter of what I had said or published as far as the university was concerned, but their outrage at its depiction – and laughably, its unapologetic reproduction – in other newspapers, who were the prima facie prosecutors of my case. This is obviously the kind of moral arbitration we were lampooning.

A lecturer who sat in the hearing almost broke down and wept before quoting a very apt passage from George Bernard Shaw, which includes the line, “The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” But no matter how much we argued or cried hypocrisy, attempted to decode the ideological forces at play, quoted Shaw, or the ECHR (which is enshrined in British law through the Human Rights Act), they wouldn’t budge.

Published and be damned

I found another kindred spirit the other day. A former student at Hampstead School was recently had the dirty done to him, and was reported as a terrorist threat, for his attempts at satire. Kudos!

By reporting Zaloom to the rozzers and his prospective university, which could yet cancel his offer to study, this pea-brained pedagogue is only proving his former student right.

Kinnan Zaloom, 19, a former student at Hampstead School in north London, was reported to the police and Glasgow University, where he is set to study, by his headmaster for publishing a blog that depicted the school regime as, among other things, overly censorial. The head ratted on his ex-student and banned him from the school grounds because he thought Zaloom, who bears an uncanny/unfortunate resemblance to Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, could be “developing into an anarchist”.

“I must do something,” said the head, Jacques Szemalikowski. “In the last year he has become more and more enchanted by anti-establishment ways of thinking and has even said that there is an inherent risk that every government is corrupt.”

Well written and researched, not to mention demonstrating a high level of critical thought, the Hampstead Trash blog criticises the school for spending too much money on public relations exercises, money it argues would be better spent on educating its students – and by the looks of things, its headmaster. One of the articles on the blog compares him rather beautifully, I think, to one of the pigs in Animal Farm.

By reporting Zaloom to the rozzers and his prospective university, which could yet cancel his offer to study, this pea-brained pedagogue is only proving his former student right. Any idiot can see this. My satire on the hysterical coverage of child killers in press was shown to be accurate by the outrage it elicited in the very same papers and the university bureaucrats who read them as gospel truth. And just as Darren Cullen’s artwork was pulled by printers for criticising a cherished institution whose propaganda goes largely unquestioned, the reaction proves the offending articles to be justifiably offensive.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan

This isn’t the first time Darren Cullen’s attempts at satire have been thwarted. For his final-year project at art school in Glasgow, Cullen created a poster that he intended to hang on a billboard outside a school. It said, “Santa gives more to rich kids than poor kids”. His college supported the project, and the company that owned the billboard was OK with it until they received a call from The Sun… after which the company informed Darren that they’d changed their minds: his work wouldn’t be published. In its article, The Sun claimed to have “saved Christmas” by prompting the withdrawal of the billboard.

Darren eventually found a billboard company to publish his Christmas poster. He has also found a printer for his anti-army recruitment comic – in Ireland, a country not unfamiliar with war and censorship. With articles such as this one, I hope it finds it a bigger readership.