Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Keeping Politics out of the Library: Aristotle Would Not Be Amused - Ellen Renner

Yesterday, as I was filing my income tax, someone emailed to tell me about Sheffield City Council's decision this week to ban Ian McMillan. For those who don't know about this, Mr McMillan, a poet, broadcaster and comedian, was scheduled to run a children's creative writing workshop at Upperthorpe Library in Sheffield. The event was intended to highlight the value of libraries to their local community, in a time when, as we all know, both school and public libraries face massive cuts.

Apparently, the city council banned Mr McMillan because they feared that the event might be hijacked for the purpose of making 'political' comments. Hijacked by whom, or how, the article didn't make clear, but according to Sintoblog (sintoblogspot.com) the background to this is the fact that Sheffield council, although not currently proposing any library closures at present, is planning major cuts to the library budget which will have an inevitable knock-on to service provision.

There are two main points about this story that immediately caught my attention. First, the issue of censorship. What we seem to have here is a clear-cut case of a political body banning free speech because it might reflect negatively on their policies.

I don't know whether or not Mr McMillan was planning to be overtly political as he taught creative writing to the children (having done quite a few creative writing workshops with 8-12 year-olds, the mind boggles trying to figure out how exactly one might manage to slip a political agenda in there along with the zombies, vampires and alien invasions), but the issue here is surely whether or not a city council is entitled to ban the expression of opinions which might prove politically awkward.

Beyond the free speech implication, I was struck by the philosophical stance of Sheffield City Council not wanting libraries, of all things, to be used as a forum or focus for political comment. I find it surreal that politicians should not be aware of -- or should choose to ignore -- the fact that libraries are political in essence. Libraries, like hospitals and schools, are physical representations of the implied bargain between the citizen and the politician.

As many people (other than the members of Sheffield City Council) know, the word 'politics' is derived from the Greek word 'politika', famously used by Aristotle as the title of his work about ethics and political philosophy. Politics means 'affairs of the city'. It means the relationship between the citizen and the 'polis', or city, and their responsibilities to each other.

And this is the heart of the matter. I have a responsibility, like all citizens or residents, to pay my tax so that politicians can decide how to spend my money to keep the city, county or country running. That's what I did last night (a bit late, but 2011 is turning out to be my year for scary deadlines).

In return, politicians have a responsibility to the citizenry, which is to provide services, and to make politically accountable decisions about that provision. We elect politicians to make hard decisions. And if we disagree with the decisions they are making, we also have a responsibility to inform them of that fact. The debate about the provision of services in a time of financial constraint must be kept open and free-flowing, and Sheffield City Council needs to embrace its proper political role and reject the temptation of censorship.

19 comments:

Charlie Butler said...

This is outrageous, Ellen. The Stagirite would be staggered.

I suspect they'd say that the issue is not so much that it's taking place in a library as that Ian McMillan is addressing children, who should not be 'indoctrinated', except of course in offially-approved Citizenship classes. Frankly, that doesn't make it any better.

Leslie Wilson said...

Brilliant post, Ellen. Everything you say is true. But this government is bent on reneging on that responsibility - heaven help us. And to cancel his engagement just because of something he MIGHT say, has resonances of apartheid South Africa.
Oh, I know we're not there - but democracy needs maintenance and attention, just like a house. And there are things that need attention, like the way in which, if you speak the word 'terrorism' you can have people on control orders for years and years because telling them what the charges against them are becomes a security risk. As for what's happening to public protests - being charged by police horses, protesters being hit over the head by the plods, or ruthlessly kettled for hours -

Katherine Langrish said...

My God, Ellen! Free speech is clearly a perishable commodity. Let's all facebook & tweet about this outrageous decision.

Richie Brown said...

Now, surely the only fair reaction to this would be for the time this educational event would have taken place to be taken over by a group of well-meaning protestors.

Kathleen Jones said...

How I agree with you!!!!!! And how sad that the children were denied such a wonderful workshop for slimy political reasons. AS for democracy, I'm afraid it has been undercut by so much legislation generated by the Iraq War, it is tottering.

Penny Dolan said...

I heard about five years ago of librarians not being allowed to make comments or issue statements without the content being approved by or issued by the employing authority. The service no longer exists in that authority.

If it's still the case, and more widespread, must make it rather hard for library staff to speak up and defend the work of the libraries, I'd say.

Nick Cross said...

And somewhere in the middle are the library staff, who aren't allowed to speak out for fear of their livelihoods.

Besides, what's wrong with giving children the facts and letting them make up their own minds? Oh, wait a minute, because to a one they will tell you that library services shouldn't be cut! And that's something that neither the councils nor the government want to hear.

adele said...

A wonderful post! I hope very much that Ian McM, being the sort of chap he is, will get a LOT of publicity out of this which will do much to highlight the stupidity and shortsightedness of this silly and counterproductive decision.

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, Ellen. Reading your post, the following thought occurs to me:

THE LIBRARIES BELONG TO US! The Council's job is to take care of them for us, nothing more. The very idea that someone should be banned from one of our libraries because they might say something politically inconvenient is outrageous.

Lucy Coats said...

Utterly outrageous, depressing, and just plain WRONG. I'm sure this has already been tweeted, but I'll do it again so that as many people as possible know about this. These are the politics of fear--fear of the citizen and what he or she might say. And you are right, Ellen--we pay the damn taxes and keep our side of the contract. I am SO angry. And also sad.

Ellen Renner said...

I find Sheffield CC's action depressing and outrageous as well. But this also seems to be, based on the reports I've seen, a dangerous infringement of freedom of speech.

I want to thank John for drawing my attention to it in time to post here. And I totally agree with him that our public services belong to us, not to city councils or central government. Politicians are there to represent our views, after due consultation and through proper procedural means. Or we vote them out. Which, worryingly, is doubtless why the council took this decision: fear. We should indeed be worried if this becomes acceptable political behaviour in Britain.

Playing by the book said...

What a depressing post, but it would be good to contact the council and see what they have to say for themselves.

Nicky Schmidt (Absolute Vanilla) said...

How utterly mind-boggling and appalling! This kind of attitude and approach is the very sort that leads to the subjugation and domination of the masses, the destruction of all democratic values and principles. The big picture scenario of a move like this is positively sinister. The long term impact is potentially devastating.

kathryn evans said...

Am sadly not shocked by this, it's bloody exhausting trying to get through to people who don't want to listen...

Lady Damaris Eversley said...

Unbelievable! Putting aside the fact that IanMcM does his best to promote reading and the enjoyment of it, who on earth has the God given right to censor an author? This smacks of book-burning

carrot said...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2010/jun/17/david-mitchell-soap-box-references My friend sent me this in response to your blog post which I shared on Facebook. It's very relevant - and quite funny too.

Charlie Butler said...

And now The Guardian is running the story - but you heard it on ABBA first!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/culture-cuts-blog/2011/feb/01/ian-mcmillan-library-workshop

Charlie Butler said...

One of the comments to that article quotes the response of Sheffield City Council:

“We were approached by Library Workers for a Brighter Future, which is a group campaigning against library cuts locally and nationally. Our understanding was that they wanted to hold a workshop event in a library which would both celebrate libraries and be part of their campaign against cuts. We gave the advice that at this time, when Councillors haven’t made any decisions about funding for libraries in the coming year, it would not be appropriate to hold an event like this in a library."

Pretty pathetic, n'est-ce pas?

Ellen Renner said...

So they're saying open discussion isn't appropriate? It's censorship that isn't appropriate. Since when have politicians got the right to close down debate? Libraries are public spaces and would seem ideal venues for forums on local issues.