Two years ago, an entrepreneur, Imran Akram, decided to launch a new set of awards – the Brit Writers’ Awards – aimed squarely at the first time writer. In the words of the BWA’s website:
“The Brit Writers’ Awards was launched in 2009 by Imran Akram, the founder of the now internationally acclaimed Muslim Writers’ Awards (MWA).
Having achieved great things with MWA in just a few years, BWA is now sharing the energy, excitement and community-building potential of a huge writing competition with the rest of the world. In line with our vision, we’ve created an international writing awards event that accepts entries from people of all backgrounds and all ages. Our first ever competition attracted over 21,000 entries from Brits in 92 different countries.
At an early stage, we were reasonably helpful to Imran and the BWA, supplying numerous judges for his first set of awards and helping to connect the Muslim Writers’ Awards with the (excellent) Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. Over time, we rather lost contact, while the BWA’s activities have expanded in a number of new directions, including a publishing initiative and an ‘agents division’.
As some readers will already know, there has been some concern raised on the Word Cloud about whether the various services and awards offered by the Brit Writers team are of real value or not. I simply don’t have an opinion on this score – I don’t know nearly enough about it. I do, however, know that the Word Cloud has always been intended as a place where writers could share thoughts and concerns and, by pooling advice, be stronger and wiser. I think those things are important.
I was therefore rather surprised when I received a letter from the BWA’s solicitors ordering me to remove all references to the BWA (including a good number of complimentary ones) from the Word Cloud, on pain of legal action. I was not told which statements were deemed to be defamatory, nor given the true facts of the matter in question (not that I even know what the matter in question was). I was not personally contacted by either Imran or his co-director Zareen Ahmed, which seems a little harsh, given that the last time I saw them I was giving them tea in my garden. There may even have been – I can’t be sure about this – biscuits.
When I started looking further into the activities of the BWA, I came to understand the concerns of the Word Clouders. It’s not that the BWA is clearly doing something wrong – on the contrary: the whole problem is a deep lack of clarity, which inevitably gives rise to doubts in the minds of first time writers. Those doubts are perfectly understandable, but they’re doubts, not certainties.
Rather than allow this unhappy situation to endure, I concluded that I might as well list the questions that needed to be answered and seek clarification directly from the BWA. This morning, I sent a list of those questions, together with some of the allegations which prompted them to the BWA. I should add that those allegations are unproven and are (as I understand it) being vigorously contested by the BWA.
I also told the BWA that I would publish that list of questions on this blog tomorrow morning (Wednesday), together with their responses. To be crystal clear about this: I’m seeking clarity, not punishment.
This evening, at 5.30pm, I received a letter, by email, from the BWA’s solicitors. The key excerpt from that letter reads as follows:
‘You have prepared a draft article that you intend to publish.
The article itself, whilst at face value appears to be inquistory in nature, appears to start from the premise that our client is answerable to you for alleged misconduct or wrongdoing.
We take the view that the very tone of your article reads within the mind of the reader to conclude that our clients have or are in the process of committing dishonest acts or certainly conduct that is dishonourable in some way.
Our clients of course accept that there is a balance that needs to be struck between those matters that are legitimately in the public interest and our clients have no intention of being evasive.
We confirm that we are in the process of confirming instructions from our client on the various questions you have posed and we anticipate that a response will be given to you very shortly. We can tell you that our client does not accept any of the inferences and/or suggestions that you make to their integrity and honesty. If you proceed to publish your article without affording our client a proper right of reply to the issues you have raised, then you will of course be liable to our client in damages and legal costs.’
In reply I said:
“You are wrong that I am seeking to imply that your client is acting dishonestly or dishonourably. I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t. Indeed, I mean precisely what I say in the article: the BWA may very well have excellent and honourable answers to all the questions I’ve raised. If so, we’d like to know them.
This need for clarity is all the more urgent, given the concern about the BWA that has become widespread amongst the community of new writers and those authoritative voices who comment on the industry.
I’m hoping that, rather than let those concerns fester, we can simply encourage a full and open statement of the facts, so that everyone can make up their own minds about whether the BWA’s services are right for them. I would also hope that such a process will nudge the BWA into realising that threatening legal action against those who raise honest doubts in legitimate forums is not a way to win hearts and minds. Indeed, I find it inexcusable – the one item on my list of questions where I feel the BWA is entirely in the wrong.
Finally, you state in your letter: “If you proceed to publish your article without affording our client [the BWA] a proper right of reply to the issues that you have raised, then you will of course be liable to our client in damages and legal costs.”
This is a curious statement, given than I have afforded you a right of reply. You have had all day to consider your reply and you come back to me at the close of business with no information beyond a blanket denial and a further threat of legal action. No newspaper journalist would have given you as lenient a deadline, or allowed you to read, in full and un-edited, the draft article. You cannot possibly claim that I have not invited a full response from you, nor given you ample opportunity to construct one.
At 2.30pm tomorrow, I will publish my article. If I have had a reply from you by then, I will do my best to reflect that reply in the article. I also undertake to publish every statement and letter from you and your client in full on my website, so that the truth – finally – can emerge from the secrecy.”
And that’s it: where we stand right now. The BWA may be doing truly wonderful work and if so, I’m happy to sing its praises. But we need to know what it is doing in enough detail that it’s possible to make a sensible judgment.
I would also strongly, strongly recommend that the BWA drops the legal thuggery and starts to engage constructively and wisely with new writers and those who represent them. And, you know what?, an apology would be nice. I gave them tea.