SoA response to inaccuracies in Private Eye article (Issue 1557)

29 September 2021

The Books & Bookmen article in this week’s Private Eye has a number of factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated and defamatory inferences.

Firstly, Joanne Harris’ assertion that the article in Issue 1556, (which claimed that Philip Pullman was “sentenced to undergo urgent re-education”) is “rubbish” is absolutely correct.

The columnist repeats their incorrect claim in Issue 1557, saying that the Society of Authors (SoA) and its Management Committee on 9 September  “ordered” that Philip Pullman take part in unconscious bias training. In fact, the training had been booked for months. Philip was invited to join it, along with all SoA staff, directors and group committee members.  As the SoA works towards becoming a more inclusive and reflective organisation this training is an important part of that process. The training, attended by more than 40 people actually took place on 9 September, the day that Private Eye says the “order” was made.

It is true that the SoA’s Management Committee discussed recent events and complaints made to the SoA and continues to do so. Of course they did that. They are the directors of the organisation. They have a duty of care towards the trade union and its members. It would have been negligent of them to do otherwise. They have no power to “order” the SoA’s President to do anything, and did not do so.

To be clear about the SoA’s structure: the SoA is a democratic organisation governed by its Members. Day-to-day activities including communications and its Twitter account are managed by the staff team. The SoA’s  overall strategic direction is set by a Management Committee, elected democratically by the SoA’s Members, making majority decisions in regular meetings held every two months. Joanne Harris is the Current Chair of that Management Committee. She cannot act alone. A Council of senior members is responsible for electing a President (currently Philip Pullman), who acts as an ambassador and spokesperson.

The article suggests that Joanne Harris chooses sometimes to block people on Twitter. As is true of all the SoA’s Management Committee, Council and other volunteer committee members, Joanne tweets as an individual. The only voice of the SoA on Twitter is its own account at @Soc_of_Authors Joanne is of course entitled to her own personal opinions and to follow or block whomsoever she chooses.

The article implies that the SoA did not offer support to Gillian Philip. Had she approached the SoA at the time, they would have supported her as they would any author facing contractual issues. As Gillian herself confirmed on Twitter on 21 September 2021 she chose not to do that.

It is true that the SoA Twitter account blocked Gillian Philip. Gillian Philip is entitled to voice her opinion and that is not why the organisation blocked her. She is no longer a member of the SoA and her tweets triggered several relentless waves of ‘echoing’ from her supporters and followers. Many of these were trolling, some of them abusive, all of them negative. The SoA took the decision that there was no need for staff who monitor the organisation’s social media accounts to deal with these, particularly when the organisation has nothing more to add publicly.

The SoA absolutely stands by its commitment to freedom of expression. This includes the organisation having the freedom not to follow or engage in debates which detract from its core purpose of protecting the rights and furthering the interests of every author.

The SoA believes the inaccuracies in the article are defamatory and asks Private Eye to correct them, and to apologise personally to Joanne Harris.