On 6th May, a Zoom meeting for members of English PEN heard Daniel Gorman (Director) and Philippe Sands (President) in conversation. The primary focus of the discussion was on Human Rights in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they also referred to Philippe Sands’ new book, The Ratline. This is a summary of their discussion. It was followed by Q & A with members, not included here.
We’ve all heard NHS workers’ accounts of the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment for frontline and support workers during this pandemic. Those same news bulletins have told us that NHS workers, including doctors, have been asked to keep quiet about the conditions of their working lives. The NHS controls communication channels. In addition, there has been fierce government rebuttal of critical accounts of the UK’s response to the pandemic by e.g. The Times and The Independent. Meanwhile, the UK has slipped down the World Press Freedom Index.
- Even during a pandemic, we need to protect the ability of individuals to express themselves freely. However, there is a difficult balance to maintain. For example, Facebook’s recent decision to remove conspiracy theorist David Icke’s account raises questions: how do we balance the right to freedom of expression with the risks of spreading dangerous misinformation? If that free expression is causing harm, what then? These are urgent questions and need to be addressed.
- Testing and tracing are very important but Apps currently in development raise questions about privacy and surveillance. Tracing Apps will store data about contacts and movement: where and by whom will this data be stored? Who will be able to use it?
- There are very big questions about how and where this pandemic started. This is an absolute indicator that the absence of robust journalism is catastrophic; if word had come out earlier a lot of misery could have been avoided.
- Many issues that we haven’t even thought of yet are likely to arise.
The government is quick to take to the airwaves to stifle criticism but we need discussion; we need writers, journalists and thinkers to express their views so that we can evaluate available information and form our own ideas.
Daniel Gorman held up a copy of the PEN charter and said that he always goes back to it for guidance. It includes commitments that PEN members sign up to, such as dispelling hatred and a reminder that freedom entails exercising voluntary restraint.
Philippe Sands: Reasonable people can hold different views. An organisation like English PEN allows discussion – it’s not easy but … there are no black and white answers.
The arrival of the internet has been transformative, giving much access to information from many sources. There are downsides to it but upsides too: it opens new vistas, makes it easy to participate in online discussions like this one; it challenges us to expand and develop our frames of reference and our thinking.
One thing we’ve learned from this crisis is that government really matters; there are areas the markets cannot reach or deliver on. We need information, we need resources, we need organisation. We’ve seen underpaid and undervalued workers keeping everything going. We all hope that there will be consequent transformations in life and government as a result, when the crisis is over. Those discussions should start now. Clapping for three and a half minutes once a week to show appreciation is not enough.
We’ve also seen that people are willing to place their trust in government. The downside of that is that we may be inclined to turn a blind eye to government failings … this tendency can be exploited for less than positive reasons – hence the need for responsible independent journalism.
This is a difficult moment but also an opportunity. We need to reach across the spectrum, across boundaries of difference. PEN is not party political, we need to knock down barriers and work together, open up a space for intelligent, respectful discussions among members, who come from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. Coming up to the centenary (2021) this is a real opportunity to re-engage with members.
They talked about the origins and development of Philippe Sands’s most recent book The Ratline, which Daniel Gorman described as ‘a fitting follow-up to East West Street’. He asked if there had been any push-back to the book’s effect of humanising Nazi characters – Otto Von Wächter and his wife, Charlotte. Von Wächter was a committed Nazi, Governor of Kraców when the ghetto wall was built and later of Galicia. He was wanted by the Allies but survived in hiding for years before his sudden death in 1949. His family believe he was murdered.
The Ratline grew from a lecture Sands gave where he was introduced to Von Wächter’s son, Horst. Horst is not an apologist for Nazism. He was never a Nazi, but he wants to defend his father from the labels of ‘monster’ and war-criminal. He gave Sands access to his extensive archive of material, arguing that his father was also a good father and devoted husband. He wanted Sands to find out if his father was, in fact, murdered and by whom.
This, too, is dangerous territory but Sands doesn’t flinch. He tells us that it’s not right, or even useful, to dismiss people as monsters; Otto Von Wächter did monstrous things but he was also a husband, father, lover and writer. Charlotte is unique and passionate: an enabler, facilitator, anti-Semite but also a fantastic life-partner and strong mother.
We can only begin to understand how intelligent people can get involved with extreme movements and heinous acts if we try to see them in the round. We should step back and consider: What would we do?
Sands reminds us that readers are intelligent, acute people. The writer’s task is to lay out facts and information, not to impose our views. He talked about the overlapping questions of what constitutes memory, truth, invention, fact, fiction. He tells us that, as a lawyer, he often hears opposing counsel’s arguments and thinks: ‘good point’ or ‘fair argument’. There is no such thing as absolute truth. He has recently watched Rashomon and Run Lola Run. All the stories in those films are true and accurate but they differ according to who is doing the telling … this is a a great space for exploration and reflection.
On the English PEN website there is a disturbing article about Nurcan Baysal, Turkish journalist, writer and activist who has featured on this blog before. Nurcan was writer-in-residence at English PEN last October. Now back in Turkey, she is suffering renewed accusations and charges. (More information here)
There is also a request for messages of support for Ahmet Altan – author of the powerful I Will Never See the World Again – and other Turkish writers and journalists who have NOT been released from prison in response to Covid-19. If you haven’t read Altan’s book yet, do. It will give you a very different perspective on the concept of Lockdown.
English PEN, together with Reporters Without Borders and ALQST have been holding monthly vigils in solidarity with writers, journalists and activists who are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and to call for justice for Jamal Khashoggi. During the pandemic, these vigils will be held online. Check this link for the date of the next vigil: VIRTUAL VIGILS
If you would like to join future English PEN Zoom calls, join English PEN here.
(N.B. Irish PEN will be relaunched in the autumn when it amalgamates with the Freedom to Write Campaign)