Cyber-stalking, harassment and its survivors – some thoughts

I’m so pleased that Newsweek allowed me to write such a long piece on cyber-stalking, which you can read at :

I’m also honoured that so many survivors of this crime talked to me about its aftermath – not only those mentioned and written about in the article, such as Leandra Ramm, who has done so much to campaign against this crime – and whose book, Stalking A Diva, is well worth a read, and Alexis Bowater and Ann Moulds, who have campaigned to change the law in Europe, but other survivors, whose stories must remain anonymous, for now, because their cases are still on-going, or they just don’t feel safe enough to go public.

I would also like to thank the Roma, Gypsies and Travellers who are also cyber-harassed and whose cases I was unable to tell, because of length reasons, in the piece. The communities face endemic levels of prejudice online, says Damian Le Bas, an English Gypsy and editor of Travellers Times. Planning disputes raise hundreds of objections letters, sometimes with racist epithets all over the UK, are all visible online. Mr Le Bas observes: “The vast majority of statements about us on the internet are offensive and stick to racist terminology; anything that even comes close to neutral in its tone is a rarity.” The communities tend to ignore the harassment, although recently the Traveller Movement and individuals have challenged some examples of questionable online harassment. Facebook has been particularly responsive in removing anti-Roma pages.
It’s also worth noting that other groups also get harassed on the Internet – Muslims, Jews, and other minority ethnic groups and faiths.

Indeed, at times, it can seem as if social media is full of bile. But I am optimistic that this is a snapshot of social media at the moment, in certain countries – and with the right tools, things can change for the better. Indeed, as younger people privatise their use of social media, things are already changing.

And survivors of cyber-stalking and harassment have already put in place protective measures that are making the Internet a safer place for people to work and socialise. It doesn’t have to be a place where people who feel different are routinely harassed. The measures that the Council of Europe have taken, on cyber-harassment, will make European citizens safer – they will be able to demand more action of local criminal justice systems, and cross-border action too. So this is not a time for pessimism – but I think it is also a time for personal responsibility. We can, for instance, all take action ourselves to maintain a certain etiquette on the Internet, in our dealings with other real people. This is, of course, as well as putting pressure on platforms to do their bit.

Princip cover 2

Gavrilo Princip and my great-grandfather, who may have blessed his bloody enterprise


This new short story, published as a Thistle Single on Amazon:

is my third Single, as they are now called, to come out in the last couple of years. The first was an exploration of my search for my Iranian birth father, Blood and Water. The second was a short story, loosely fictionalised, about filming in Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide, called Aftermath. This is the second in my very loose family trilogy – this time a story about my mother’s family history (my adoptive mother), who is half Serbian, Spanish and a little bit English (less than me, as she delights in saying). This story is about her Bosnian Serb grandfather, Dean Kosta Bozic, who was rumoured to have known, and blessed Gavrilo Princip, if not his bloody enterprise, just before the fateful assassination in 1914 that became the trigger for the First World War. We do not know if this is true, but my grandmother always used to say that there was, somewhere, a photo of Kosta Bozic and Gavrilo Princip together. It is true, Tim Butcher, the brilliant author of The Trigger told me, that Princip lodged with members of the Bozic family – whether they were close relatives of Kosta is also not recorded. Kosta was also arrested, in 1916, charged and found guilty of high treason. Like Princip he contracted TB and died of it – in his case, just after leaving prison. It is also true that he is buried, and then dug up to be buried again with greater ceremony by a grateful Serb nation. It was then found that his right arm was miraculously whole – the rest of him was bones. This was probably due to the aromatic spices in the censer he swung, day in, day out, as an Orthodox priest, and which preserved the flesh, but was hailed as a kind of miracle.

Anyway, I have taken the ‘facts’, as related to me by my grandmother, researched historical facts, and fused them into this short story. I hope it works. The next and last part of the trilogy is my dad’s story (my adoptive dad), who is from Yorkshire farming and hunting stock. His family, from way back, used to be keepers of hounds for hunting folk. They were the Smith family, and I will be telling their story, with much embroidery, and bodice ripping (and some real diary entries, honest), next. My dad is quaking in his boots and keeps on trying to divert me to other stories….


Hate crime, Norway, and a Scandi crime thriller

I took off for a quick trip to Norway last week, at the kind invitation of the Norwegian Network on Disability, to talk about my journalism uncovering disability hate crime way back in 2007 – though of course it’s an ongoing project – with the help of many activists, journalists and a few senior police officers who believed that disabled people were getting a very raw deal from the British legal system.

I don’t think I could have done that job without the help of two disabled feminists, Ruth Bashall and Anne Novis, whose understanding of gender based violence had underpinned their own grasp of disability hate crime. My own journey too started with the women’s movement, with the understanding that wherever you have an imbalance of power someone will abuse it (you can see that dynamic in care homes right now – read Goffman if you really need to understand the theory behind it). What the women’s movement did, brilliantly, was link activism and evidence to practice – and change how the legal system treated women affected by domestic violence and rape, to name but two gendered crimes. What we did with disability hate crime was shot through with the same anger and the same understanding that you have to have your evidence – your ducks in a row – before you can get change. Ruth and Anne had some of that evidence – my job as a journalist, along with my great friend, John Pring, at Disability Now, and a team of young disabled journalists, was to marshall so much that there had to be action and change.

Now, in Norway, in 2014, journalists and activists are asking  – how do they go about creating that same process of change? As Berit Vegheim, a prominent disabled activist told me, she is coming across the very same disbelief that I encountered in 2007 – every time she finds a disability hate crime in Norway in her research, the police find an excuse as to why it was treated as something else (their hate crime law dates from just last year) – youthful high spirits, or motiveless malice – anything but disability hostility. (Katherine Runswick-Cole, from Manchester Metropolitan University also gave a presentation on disability in the time of austerity in the UK – I wish I had been able to stay for that.) There is a real unwillingness to accept that some people dislike and fear disabled people. But they do. Now Norwegian journalists and disabled people are putting together their own project to map disability hate crime there. I wish them all the best. I wish it wasn’t necessary. But I’m glad they have the laws, and really glad that the British experience is of some use. After all we all love a good Scandi thriller when it’s fictional – but it’s not so fun to star in one, unwillingly, as the victim.



Some thoughts on human rights reporting and its discontents

This is a longer version of the blog I wrote for the Oxford Human Rights Hub, which you can see here, on the hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting:

This followed on from my talk for Wadham College, Oxford University, on human rights journalism generally, and how it is evolving in the age of the Internet.

Whilst I applaud so much of the human rights reporting that takes place in the world, it paints on a large canvas. We think of it being about combating the death penalty, pointing out human rights violations in combat zones and protecting the rights of asylum seekers – all noble aims that I fully support. But when human rights journalism – and human rights – inconvenience us or affect our property rights, things become a little more uncomfortable. So here’s my thoughts on that – comments please. 

Is there a hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting?

Looking back over my many years of writing and making films about human rights issues, I’m struck by which stories and groups get the most publicity and which stories are more difficult to fund, write and make. I believe that just as there is a hierarchy of rights, as discussed by human rights scholars for many decades, there is also a hierarchy of human rights reporting.


War reporting and the human rights violations that occur in conflict zones, are seen as what one might call ‘classic’ human rights journalism. It’s dangerous work. Last year, the International Federation of Journalists estimated that over 100 journalists and media workers were directly killed because of their work – and around half of that number were engaged in human rights reporting.


I was one of the many journalists who travelled to Rwanda after the genocide that killed at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. (It’s noteworthy that the killing of the Pygmy people, the Twa, was far less covered.) I was there in 1997, to record the aftermath, with BBC Panorama and the film we made, Valentina’s Story, produced by Mike Robinson and reported by Fergal Keane, is a classic piece of human rights reporting. It drew attention to the genocide through the eyes of one child survivor. In 1999 I went back with Fergal, as a BBC Newsnight producer, to make two more classic human rights films, gathering evidence on rights violations during the genocide that could be forwarded to the Arusha War Crimes Tribunal. This kind of journalism is done today by dedicated correspondents throughout the world – from CNN to Al Jazeera, to the BBC and to PBS, in war and conflict zones as various as the Central Africa Republic, Syria and many areas of the Middle East. It’s crucial that such journalism continues.


I have moved on to smaller scale, intimate human rights journalism that I also consider important, but which is far less well funded and at times controversial. I think this is because the very rights of those under fire are seen as questionable and not mainstream – even by those inside the human rights field. This means that the funding for reporting on them, and the importance ascribed to them is far less – what one might call inconvenient and unpopular human rights journalism. I think this is a pity.


In 2012 I looked at how human rights organisations wrote and campaigned on disability rights for Amnesty International’s magazine. I found that few saw them as central to their work – in fact, in the drop-down menu of rights on the Amnesty International’s website, disability was not mentioned as a category – unlike childrens’ rights, gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights and refugee rights. Happily, at the annual general meeting last year, it was overwhelmingly decided to remedy this. Disabled peoples’ rights are still seen as segregated from other rights – as if human rights groups mirror some of the divisions between disabled people and non-disabled people in Britain today. During the Leveson Inquiry, similarly, despite a campaign by disabled people and their organisations, none were called to give oral evidence on how they were treated in the media, something I and many others wrote and campaigned about at the time.


 Leveson did, however, take oral evidence from women’s rights organizations, transgender organizations, and refugee organisations – something I completely agreed with – but I did not agree with the lack of oral evidence from disabled peoples’ organisations. Eventually, some campaigners (I was one of them) were invited to give written evidence, but it is disappointing that this division was so evident in such a key inquiry, when the stereotyping of disabled people by certain sections of the media, especially around benefit cuts, is clearly evidenced to have caused a worsening of public attitudes towards them.


This lack of understanding of the discrimination faced by disabled people meant that it took many years for me and others to get the real and pressing issue of disability hate crime recognized. The key intervention of Lord Ken Macdonald, then the Director of Public Prosecutions, who called disability hate crime a ‘scar on the conscience’ of the criminal justice system was one of the reasons why that change happened – but it was a long time coming, and human rights organisations are still playing catch-up when it comes to integrating disability rights into a wider rights agenda.


Disability rights can be seen as inconvenient to the general public (think of wheelchair spaces on buses, and how they become contested spaces with parents with pushchairs, for example) and this attitude is mirrored in journalism itself.


Lastly, we come on to unpopular human rights journalism – and this is where I would place the rights of Britain’s nomads, which come into conflict with another highly cherished set of British rights – property rights. Essentially the rights of Britain’s nomads to enjoy a life free from discrimination, to enjoy the right to family life, the right to education, the right to vote, the right to a decent standard of living and housing come into conflict with British planning law. This was played out in Court 76 of the High Court on October 12, 2011, as I reported for the Economist, when the Dale Farm Irish Traveller residents lost a crucial legal battle against their eviction.  I wrote at the time: “Dale Farm has become a symbol of an increasingly bitter dispute about the rights of Gypsies and Travellers, around a fifth of whom have nowhere legal to live. Basildon council argues that it is simply enforcing planning law, by which all citizens must abide. This was echoed by Mr Justice Ouseley. He said that there must be “public respect for and confidence in” planning law, and that although Basildon council had not identified alternative pitches where the travellers could live, those deemed homeless had been offered “bricks and mortar” accommodation. The decision by Dale Farm residents to decline such housing, due to their “cultural aversion” to it, he said, was their own responsibility. He pointed out that the Travellers were breaching the law by remaining on site.”


The eviction of Dale Farm left some 86 families without a secure home, and cost Basildon Council millions of pounds. Many of the families still live roadside, in poor conditions. Basildon was right in legal terms, but who has won? Children are no longer in school, mothers are on anti-depressants, families do not have running water and local tax-payers are footing an enormous bill. There has to be a better way of honouring property rights than creating a situation in which the human rights of these particular Traveller families are so completely ignored, three years on. But such views are unpopular, and the rights of Britain’s nomads are questioned, constantly. Those who seek to defend their rights find it hard to get commissions. This is unpopular human rights journalism – but it is important, all the same.


I am grateful for all the journalism I’ve been able to do, over so many years – from Rwanda to Dale Farm, to small-scale human rights stories for Private Eye. That’s our job and it’s worthwhile – at all its levels: popular, unpopular, inconvenient and small scale. But the hierarchy does make me uncomfortable.






Wadham Human Rights Forum talk

I enjoyed doing my talk at the Wadham Human Rights Forum at Oxford University, on how human rights journalism is evolving in the age of the Internet – and how to fund the new human rights journalism. The Forum has had some wonderful thinkers visit – from Clive Stafford-Smith to James Harding, former editor of the Times and some great human rights scholars. I was honoured to be one of their number. 

Lord Macdonald, who is now the Warden of Wadham, is also the former Director of Public Prosecutions and a really doughty defender of human rights. His work within the criminal justice system, to uphold the rights of the individual against the state, remains so important and ground-breaking. Now, at Wadham, he is encouraging young people from modest backgrounds to aspire to Oxbridge – also a radical aim – and also encouraging disabled students to reach high.

You can see it here – I’ve also suggested some links to some interesting thinkers on the future – both journalists and techies.



No Place to Call Home – Award news

I was really pleased to hear that No Place to Call Home has been shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2014. 

Trustee for the Bread & Roses Nik Górecki says: 

“We had a record number of submissions this year, and from an ever-growing range of publishers, which has made for a very strong shortlist. I’m delighted to see the prize growing in recognition.” 

This award recognises books that “celebrate excellence in the field of radical political non-fiction”. 

The Shortlist
‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’
by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
(Faber and Faber, 2013)

‘Soldier Box: Why I Won’t Return to the War on Terror’
by Joe Glenton
(Verso, 2013)

‘Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973′
by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera
(Bloomsbury, 2013)

‘Who Needs the Cuts? : Myths of the Economic Crisis’
by Barry Kushner and Saville Kushner
(Hesperus Press, 2013)

‘No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers’
by Katharine Quarmby
(Oneworld, 2013)

‘Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity’
by Andrew Simms
(Little, Brown, 2013)

‘Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain’
by Imogen Tyler
(Zed Books, 2013)

Congratulations to all the other authors on the shortlist, particularly those whose work I have followed and admired for some time, including Imogen Tyler and Rob Evans (I’ve even collaborated with Rob in the past). 

The winner will be announced on 10th May at a ceremony at the Bishopsgate  Institute, during the London Radical Bookfair 

Thanks to my publishers, my agent, the Society of Authors (who gave me a grant to help me finish the book) and the many Romani, Roma and Traveller families I interviewed for the book. 

More info on the award here:





Speaking engagements 2014

I’ll keep adding to the list, but here’s a few engagements I’m doing in the next few months:

March 4, 2014: – free event on disability hate crime in Mattishall, Norfolk: 9-1.30pm

March 11, 2014: – Wadham College, Oxford: 5.30pm I’ll be talking about human rights journalism as part of their Human Rights Forum series

May 5-6, 2014 – Lillehammer, Norway – I’ll be giving a key note speech on media reporting of disability hate crime to the Norwegian Network of Disability

May 27, 2014 (tbc) – Hay Festival, Herefordshire – event with Travellers Times editor, writer and poet  Damian Le Bas and Marcel Berlins

June 4 2014 (tbc) – Holloway Festival, London – Connecting Conversations – Meet Your Neighbours – in conversation with psychoanalyst Valerie Sinason

Word Festival, 2014 (dates tbc) – performances of Rosy Gets the Plot with the Little Angel Puppet Theatre, based on my original text of the same name

22 November 2014, 5pm- Law Faculty, Oxford University: Panel discussion: Building on the Paralympic Legacy: Equal Rights, Autonomy and Participation in Public Life. Moderated by Lord Macdonald QC.