laptop on desk

Presidential Report: Carl MacDougall

At the 2021 Scottish PEN AGM on Saturday 30th October, Carl MacDougall delivered his final report as President, before handing over to newly elected President and Chair of the Board of Trustees, Ricky Monahan Brown.

November 2, 2021

At the 2021 Scottish PEN AGM on Saturday 30th October, Carl MacDougall delivered his final report as President, before handing over to newly elected President and Chair of the Board of Trustees, Ricky Monahan Brown. Here is his report in full.

‘It goes without saying that this has been a busy year for Scottish PEN: like everyone else we have worked remotely through the pandemic, continuing work we regard as vital. 

The big news is that we achieved the key aim of our Defamation Reform Campaign when the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Defamation and Malicious Publications Act in March this year. This campaign began under Drew Campbell’s presidency and a short film of the journey and our involvement is on our website and will also be shared later in today’s agenda.

Since the last AGM we have funded eight sessions of the Scottish Black Writers Group. This project began when the Scottish BAME Writers’ Network approached us for funding and together we launched and funded the group who met monthly with a series of readings and workshops.  Our trial period was a complete success and they have since received further funding to continue and extend their work.

The Writers for Peace Committee inaugurated the annual Helen Cruickshank Lecture as a free online event with Professor Candice Goucher of Washington State University discussing women writers in history. And our Women’s Committee hosted an event marking International Women’s Day.

We launched our Poetic Offensive event at Paisley Book Festival where writers explored the themes of Offence and Censorship, and we have received funding from the Scottish Book Trust to continue this series in the coming months. We also hosted the online launch of our Declarations anthology celebrating the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. The event was  co-hosted by its editor Sir Tom Devine and Jenni Calder. One reviewer welcomed Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers as “… both a timeous and note-worthy achievement…The internationalism of this anthology is a fitting reminder of Scottish PEN’s outward, generous concern for fellow writers across the globe.”

In partnership with Take One Action, NUJ Scotland and  the PEN Chiapas centre in Mexico we hosted an online screening of the press freedom  documentary Radio Silence as well as publishing statements in support of writers and journalists in England, Gaza, India and Belarus. Individual cases involved writers whose reporting put them at risk of imprisonment or put their lives in danger, again highlighting the importance of defending freedom of expression. And, of course, we have published two issues of our on-line magazine, PENning as well as hosting the magazine’s online reading events featuring our members.

With Irish PEN and Wales PEN Cymru we also hosted a joint international event in support of the Indian revolutionary poet, Varavara Rao, whose case we mentioned at last year’s AGM and since then have continually highlighted on our website. The details of Varavara Rao’s case and circumstances, including the barbaric way he has been treated, along with the other imprisoned writers we sponsor and support, are, as I say, available on the website.

It stands to reason that if you occupy the territory we do, where we abide by the principles outlined in the PEN Charter and perhaps more especially in the PEN Women Writers Manifesto, we will obviously meet contention and frequently run into issues where individual standpoints are important.

Jenny Lindsay’s case came up at last year’s AGM and following a board meeting where the matter was discussed the Women Writer’s Committee decided to reach out to Jenny and invited her to give last year’s Naomi Mitchison Lecture.

But, for us, that wasn’t the end of the matter. Jenny Lindsay had been attacked and harassed on social media. We had offered our support and worked with Jenny on a joint statement outlining her difficulties.

Similarly, the actor and writer David Paisley asked for our help, having received legal threats from a Member of Parliament. We felt that the existing defamation laws should not be used by individuals in positions of power as a means of silencing fair comment and, again, we worked with David and published a joint statement.

At last year’s AGM I mentioned Amy Fenton’s case. We contacted English PEN and with other UK PEN centres and PEN International issued a joint statement highlighting the circumstances surrounding a journalist who had been forced to leave her home when she and her schoolgirl daughter  were  placed under police protection having received death threats.

Scottish PEN stands   with   her   and   the   many journalists in the UK who are facing increased levels of threats for doing their jobs.  We further call on the UK government to live up to its obligations under UK and international law to ensure journalists are protected and a free press can thrive.

Last year we contacted other UK PEN Centres and PEN International over reports that the Council of Europe had issued a media freedom alert over the UK   government’s blacklisting of investigative journalists. That report was followed in April this year by a further report from  the  Council   of  Europe’s  Safety of Journalists Platform that European government responses to the   COVID-19  pandemic have restricted the ability of journalists to report freely. The report claims that as a result of emergency regulations “extraordinary damage was inflicted on the practice of free and independent journalism”. Again, some of these laws infringed Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

So, in that context, how could we ignore what was happening in Scotland, though it has to be said that since we engaged in social media we have become aware that our point of view or our position is not necessarily the starting point for discussion.

Our Writers at Risk Committee, who, again let me remind you campaign on behalf of writers and journalists across the world, people who are often forced to  pay a price we can scarcely imagine, asked the board if we thought it was right that a Scottish writer should be imprisoned because of what he has written?

The matter was discussed at length and we published a statement on the decision to imprison Craig Murray and, more importantly, on the implications it carried and still carries for other writers. Our concern was that the sentence he received goes against the Scottish Government’s oft repeated policy statements regarding ineffective short prison terms and, given the fact that frequent surveys have shown the ways Scottish writers are intimidated by authorities in their various guises, we worried that this decision could have a chilling effect on writers, their work and their freedom to publish.

As you know, our statement   was   widely criticised, largely because it was interpreted as being in support of Craig Murray, rather than a writer being jailed for what he had written. It must be obvious that this was never our position, nor did we wish our statement to be interpreted in this way, but for us receiving this criticism was not and still is not the end of the matter; rather it was the start of further action. The board have spent considerable time and expense to get us all together in one room to prioritise how we make decisions and the ways we respond to criticism. This is an ongoing process.  We will be doing it again next month, taking time to ensure we reflect on these issues and not only to respond as a board, but also to consider the ways we respond.

It is worth pointing out that in each of these cases we have sought our response to be directed towards the principles of the matter, raising principles before personalities.

I began by implying that it isn’t easy being a charity in Scotland.  Our Defamation Campaign would not have been possible without support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Their funding comes to an end in December and we are looking for further core and project funding, including for a project we have been developing and have partially initiated with the Scottish Prisons Service and Fife College. I have already mentioned funding we received for short-term projects, but this is much more ambitious.

We are constantly working to develop a relationship with new partners, especially in the publishing industry, and are pleased to have established support from Canongate.  We are presently developing a proposal as to how this funding can be used to benefit writers across Scotland.

Since the last AGM, members of the Board have stepped down, and I’m pleased to note that we have received new nominations to join the Board today. I would also like to thank those who are moving on for the time they have been with us and for their service.

The other resignation I should mention is my own. I advised the Board of my intention to resign as president earlier this year. I am staying on the board and your new president is Rikki Monahan Brown, who will be taking over with the new Board nominees.

However, I want to thank the Board of Scottish PEN. They have helped and guided, supported me in ways I could barely imagine. I could easily embarrass some   individuals, especially one or two who might not be easily embarrassed, but I’ll let the opportunity pass. The miracle is not that the board co-operate and collaborate so well. The miracle is that they shouldn’t work at all.  Think of the usual picture of writers, especially Scottish writers and none of them fit. Try as I might, I cannot imagine any of them getting up in the morning and wondering, Which pair of opposites am I going to twin today?  The thing is they are fiercely individual, used to working on their own, of forming their own opinions and sticking to their guns, no matter what. Yet they are immediately open, generous, co-operative and wonderfully   imaginative in the best possible way. They have taught me by example, and I am very grateful.

Personally and on behalf of the Board, I want to thank our Project Manager, Lisa Clark. Since joining us she has earned our respect and admiration and I have more than once been grateful, not just for the way she works, for her diligence and consideration, but for the way she approaches her work.  Her thoroughness and diversity are simply impressive and it has been a pleasure working with her.

So why am I chucking it? Because I believe the job demands it, because I believe it constantly needs new thinking and new ideas as well as the ones that have served us so well, and personal circumstances have made it difficult for me to continue’.

Carl MacDougall