Writers call for union to axe Joanne Harris amid Rowling controversy
16th August 2022

Best-selling feminist writers sign letter calling for Society of Authors to axe Joanne Harris as chair amid furious row after Chocolat novelist was accused of mocking JK Rowling with death threats poll

  • JK Rowling tweeted support for Sir Salman Rushdie in the wake of his stabbing in New York last Friday
  • But 57-year-old Harry Potter author then received this response: ‘Don’t worry, you are next’
  • Society of Authors chair Joanne Harris was accused of mocking her with Twitter poll about death threats
  • Rowling said she was ‘startled’ to learn of Harris’ remarks and Harris has not expressed ‘sympathy for her’
  • She said she has not helped women being ‘silenced and intimidated’ on gender beliefs and ‘betrayed’ them

Around 50 British authors ‘angry’ at Chocolat novelist Joanne Harris over a ‘flippiant’ tweet that has been seen as mocking JK Rowling’s death threat and ‘making light’ of the stabbing of Salman Rushdie have called for her resignation as chair of the Society of Authors today.

Radical feminist Julie Bindle, bestselling novelists’ Christina Dalcher, Anne Fine, Alex Marwood and Paula Byrne along with journalist Helen Joyce expressed their ‘deep disquiet’ in an open letter to the trade union for their ‘abject failure to speak out on violent threats towards its members’. 

The controversy began when Harris posted on social media following an ‘online threat’ made to the Harry Potter author on Saturday which police are investigating.

Rowling had been tweeting her support for Sir Salman in the wake of his on stage attack on Friday when she received the message saying: ‘Don’t worry, you are next’.

Harris, 58, who is an advocate of trans rights, then wrote: ‘Fellow-authors… have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise).’ 

The response options were  ‘Yes’, ‘Hell, yes’, ‘No, never’ and ‘Show me, dammit’, with some interpreting this as suggesting scepticism about how serious the threats were.

The author then deleted the tweet admitting she had ‘got the tone wrong’, she posted another poll with different options: ‘Yes’, ‘Yes, more than once’, ‘Never’ and ‘Just show me the result’. 

Today, Rowling claimed women, who disagree with Harris on gender identity, feel ‘betrayed’ by her for not showing ‘solidarity’ in her capacity as chair of the Society of Authors after being ‘silenced and intimidated’ over their beliefs.

And this afternoon, in an open letter the 50 authors told its chief executive Nicola Solomon: ‘This had turned into a polarised argument between supporters and detractors of Rowling, with many of the latter loudly complaining that the focus of discussion had shifted from Rushdie’s troubles to Rowling’s

‘To make matters worse, the poll also appeared to make light of the attack on Sir Salman Rushdie, even if not intended to do so.’

The Society of Authors, Britain’s largest trade union for professional writers, is made up of more than 11,800 voting members – including a management committee of 12 setting out its direction and governance.

The union was established in 1884 to advise its members and lobby for the interests of authors. It has since campaigned for authors’ rights including the protection of copyright the Public Lending Right – where writers are compensated for potential loss of sales from their work being made available in public libraries. 

JK Rowling, pictured in April 2018 at a premiere, has accused Chocolat novelist Joanne Harris of ‘betraying’ female writers after the Society of Authors chief posted a ‘tasteless’ Twitter poll about her death threats

Joanne Harris, 58, wrote in the poll: ‘Fellow-authors… have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)’

The poll was later deleted by Joanne Harris, who replaced it with an alternative version shown above

Harris (pictured in March 2017) 58, who has been critical of women who have been outspoken on the trans debate, like the best-selling author, wrote: ‘Fellow-authors… have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)

Christina Dalcher, who wrote bestselling feminist novel Vox, was among the writers to sign an open letter to the Society of Authors

Radical feminist Julie Bindle hit out at Harris, saying she had been ‘disgustingly inappropriate’

An Open Letter to the Society of Authors regarding Joanne Harris

Dear Ms Solomon,

In the light of the shocking attack on Sir Salman Rushdie, we, the undersigned writers and industry professionals, wish to express our deep disquiet and anger at the Society of Authors’ abject failure to speak out on violent threats towards its members, and the behaviour of Joanne Harris, the Chair of your Board of Management, on Twitter. We welcome the recent statement of 15 August but in many ways it is too little, too late.

Less than twenty-four hours after the stabbing in New York State, Joanne Harris published a Twitter poll asking if fellow authors had ‘ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)’. The four possible answers – ‘Yes’, ‘Hell, yes’, ‘No, never’ and ‘Show me, dammit’ – appeared to make light of the subject by treating it in a flippant way.

To many people involved in the Twitter debate, this appeared to be a sideswipe at JK Rowling, who had earlier that day received two more public death threats after tweeting her horror at what had happened to Sir Salman. This had turned into a polarised argument between supporters and detractors of Rowling, with many of the latter loudly complaining that the focus of discussion had shifted from Rushdie’s troubles to Rowling’s. To make matters worse, the poll also appeared to make light of the attack on Sir Salman Rushdie, even if not intended to do so.

Rowling is not the only author to have received death threats because of perceived wrong-think: Gillian Philip, Rachel Rooney, Kate Clanchy, Julie Bindel and Onjali Rauf among many others have also received them. Joanne Harris has given every indication of siding with those women’s critics. Again, the Society of Authors has failed to come to their defence.

Perhaps realising she had gone too far on this occasion, Joanne Harris deleted her Twitter poll, citing tonal problems. But rather than admit any culpability, she then tweeted a different, less light-hearted version of the poll, claiming she was simply trying to gather information.

Joanne Harris has since stated on Twitter, when asked to justify the Society’s conspicuous silence over the years at the unprecedented volume of violent threats towards JK Rowling, that, ‘When threats occur on a daily basis to many individuals, to single out one person for special mention isn’t helpful or democratic.’ In our opinion, to do so would be more than helpful. It would send a message to all authors that you, as our Society, stand in solidarity with us. By naming JK Rowling personally when asked many times before, you would have sent assurance that you stand for all authors regardless of their beliefs.

Over the last few years, it has been clear to many of us that the Society of Authors has been captured by gender ideologues who brook no debate and who are not prepared to support authors who fall foul of online bullies. Aside from the basic decency at stake, the recent rulings in the Forstater and Bailey cases make this stance no longer tenable and could potentially lead the Society into legal jeopardy.

It is now time for the Society of Authors to live according to its principle, clearly stated in the Where We Stand section of its website, of ‘protecting free speech’ and opposing ‘in the strongest terms any attempt to stifle or control the author’s voice whether by censorship, imprisonment, execution, hate speech or trolling’. It should go without saying that this opposition should not be contingent on individual members of the Board of Management’s political agreement with the person under attack, and for this reason we believe Joanne Harris’s position as Chair of the Management Committee is untenable.

You are our representatives. If, as your Chair has been quoted as saying, ‘The Society of Authors is there to defend authors’ contractual rights,’ then either reduce your remit to that alone, or start living up to your Where We Stand ethos.

Please note that we have included authors and professionals who are not or who are no longer members of the Society of Authors as signatories because the Society’s campaigns and lobbying do have an effect on authors in general. A small number of those who have signed this letter have felt the need to remain anonymous because they are concerned about the impact on their careers if they speak out publicly.

If you would like to add your name to this petition, please email us at: [email protected] 


After Harris sent her Tweet, other writers hit out at her including Julie Bindel who said it was ‘disgustingly inappropriate’. 

She and tens of authors also wrote in the open letter:  ‘We, the undersigned writers and industry professionals, wish to express our deep disquiet and anger at the Society of Authors’ abject failure to speak out on violent threats towards its members, and the behaviour of Joanne Harris, the Chair of your Board of Management, on Twitter.

‘We believe Joanne Harris’s position as Chair of the Management Committee is untenable.’

Novelist Simon Edge, who has written books on the trans debate, described the poll, which was later deleted and replaced with an alternative version, as ‘indefensible’ and said it’s ‘high time’ the Chocolat author stepped down from her Society of Authors role. He also signed the letter later today. 

Rowling told the Times: ‘I was startled to read this [..] as I’ve received no communication whatsoever from Harris expressing sympathy for the death and rape threats I’ve received.’  

She has since replied to Harris’ poll and said the author ‘consistently failed’ to defend female authors like Rachel Rooney and Gillian Philip who disagreed ‘with her personal position on gender identity ideology’. 

She also claimed Rooney and Philip suffered ‘severe personal and professional harm’ after they challenged ‘a fashionable ideology which has been remarkably successful in demonising those who protest against the current attack on women’s rights’.

Rowling added: ‘Harris has consistently failed to criticise tactics designed to silence and intimidate women who disagree with her personal position on gender identity ideology and has said publicly, “Cancel isn’t a dirty word. We habitually cancel things we no longer want”. 

‘I find it impossible to square the society’s stated position on freedom of speech with Harris’s public statements over the past two years and stand in solidarity with all female writers in the UK who currently feel betrayed by their professional body and its leader.’ 

Harris, who identifies as gender fluid and uses the pronouns she/they, told her followers on Twitter after Rowling’s remarks: ‘I support trans rights. I also have a son who came out as trans a few months ago. But my personal feelings about the gender-critical movement don’t affect my belief in free speech, or what I do for the Society of Authors. 

‘We vigorously promote free speech. But free speech comes with an equal right to a response.

She added: ‘JK Rowling has every right to her opinions. I may not share them, but that’s fine. And I totally condemn any threats to her, as I do to anyone. I think the literary world can do better than this fabricated culture war, and that’s what I’m trying to do. 

‘Sometimes, it’s exhausting. But just because I won’t take your side, or join your hashtag, or be in your gang, doesn’t mean your rights won’t be fought for as fiercely as anyone else’s. Because rights are more important than politics. We’re all in this together.’

She also earlier said: ‘I don’t hate JK Rowling, and have never said or implied as much.’ 

When Harris was asked for a comment, the Society of Authors replied and ‘reiterated’ its Commitment guidance on dealing with online abuse, harassment and bullying to Professional Behaviour in Publishing, Dignity and Respect policy and its unequivocal ‘condemnation of violence and the threat of violence’.

Authors to have signed the open letter include Christina Dalcher, who wrote bestselling feminist novel Vox and Helen Joyce, journalist and author of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality.

Bestselling and award winning children’s author Anne Fine OBE and novelist Amanda Craig also attached their names to the letter.

Ms Dalcher tweeted today: ‘Proud to sign this! Any authors’ union worth its salt should condemn threats against writers & also condemn making light of such threats.’ 

The death threat sent to Rowling came from an Iran-supporting Islamic extremist called Meer Asif Aziz, based in Karachi, who described himself on Twitter as a ‘student, social activist, political activist and research activist’. 

He has also made tasteless ‘jokes’ about how to destroy Israel and branded it a Vladimir Putin-savaged Ukraine – as well as Pakistan’s chief geopolitical rival India – ‘terrorist states’.

The 57-year-old Harry Potter writer had expressed her horror at the sickening attempt on Sir Salman’s life in upstate New York when she was sent the threat on Twitter.

She also revealed that after reporting the vile threat, the social media network responded decided that the extremist did not violate the rules. 

The email from Twitter read: ‘After reviewing the available information, we determined that there were no violations of the Twitter rules in the content you reported. We appreciate your help and encourage you to reach out again in the future if you see any potential violations.’ 

Rowling posted a screenshot of the response, commenting: ‘These are your guidelines, right? ‘Violence: You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence… ‘Terrorism/violent extremism: You may not threaten or promote terrorism’…’

Journalist and novelist Alex Marwood (pictured) has also signed the open letter calling on the Society of Authors chair to step down from her position

Writer Joanne Harris (left) was accused of mocking JK Rowling (right) with a ‘tasteless’ Twitter poll about death threats

The Harry Potter writer said on Twitter: ‘Horrifying news. Feeling very sick right now. Let him be ok’. She received the chilling reply: ‘Don’t worry you are next’

The Harry Potter writer had expressed her horror at the sickening attempt on Sir Salman’s life in upstate New York when she was issued with the threat on Twitter

Meer Asif Aziz describes as a ‘student, social activist, political activist and research activist’ based in Karachi

Aziz also appears to support the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who frequently rants about Israel in deranged, genocidal tweets. In one of Khamenei’s posts about the ‘oppressive Yazidis’, for instance, Aziz responded with a heart emoji. 

The full list of writers calling for Society of Authors to axe Joanne Harris as chair

Julia Williams, Simon Edge, Jane Harris, Julie Bindel, John Boyne, Anne Fine FRSL OBE, Amanda Craig, Prof David Wootton, Rachel Rooney, Gillian Philip, Carolyn Robertson, Christina Dalcher, Crime Writer, England, RW Johnson, Paola Diana, Catherine Czerkawska, Irina Filatova, Magi Gibson, Helen Joyce, Mystery and Suspense Writer, England, Paula Byrne, Che Golden, Mills and Boon author, England, Thriller Writer, England, Rebecca Johnson, Elizabeth Buchan, Production Editor, London, Victoria Smith, Abigail Rowland, Michelle Styles, Victoria Whitworth, Laura Vaughan, Lissa Evans, Alex Marwood, Kate Long, Literary Translator, England, Carol Lovekin, Trezza Azzopardi, Literary Festival Director, England, Ian Macpherson, Historical fiction author, Ireland, Milli Hill, Stuart A. Paterson, Polly Tuckett, LitFest Director, England, David Smith, Heather Welford, Anne Summers, Joolz Denby, Stella O’Malley, Gareth Roberts, Kathleen Stock, Claudia Clare, Helen Dale, Joanna Williams, Lucy Lethbridge, Graham Linehan, Novelist and non-fiction author, England, Caitlin Davies, Mark Sherry, Playwright and author, SoA member, England, Anna Wharton, Peter Raynard, Laura Dodsworth, Ophelia Benson, Sibyl Ruth, Magda Lamb, Jan Newton, Saga Novelist, England, Steve Tasane, Dr Cornelis J Schilt, Rohase Piercy, Dr Gary Cox, Tim Lott, Ellen Gunn

And responding to another tweet from the Iranian dictator, Aziz gushed: ‘Dear leader your struggle for Islamic world will not be wasted until we young generation are with you’. 

Rowling had posted about Sir Salman’s stabbing: ‘Horrifying news. Feeling very sick right now. Let him be ok’.

Aziz, who had described Sir Salman’s alleged attacker Hadi Matar, 24, as a ‘revolutionary Shia fighter’, then threatened: ‘Don’t worry you are next’. 

After sharing screenshots of the threatening tweet, Rowling said: ‘To all sending supportive messages: thank you Police are involved (were already involved on other threats).’

A Police Scotland spokesman said: ‘We have received a report of an online threat being made and officers are carrying out enquiries.’

Bosses at Warner Bros Discovery (WBD), the entertainment company behind the film adaptions of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, said they ‘strongly condemn’ the threats made against the author.

A spokesman for the media conglomerate added: ‘We stand with her and all the authors, storytellers and creators who bravely express their creativity and opinions.

‘WBD believes in freedom of expression, peaceful discourse and supporting those who offer their views in the public arena.

‘Our thoughts are with Sir Salman Rushdie and his family following the senseless act of violence in New York.

‘The company strongly condemns any form of threat, violence or intimidation when opinions, beliefs and thoughts might differ.’

Rowling is among the authors and notable faces who have voiced their dismay after Sir Salman’s stabbing.

The Indian-born British author, whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, 65 miles from Buffalo in New York state, when he was attacked.

Hadi Matar, 24, has been charged with the attempted murder and assault of author Salman Rushdie. Pictured arriving at Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, New York, on Saturday

Matar being escorted from the stage as people tend to author Sir Salman at the Chautauqua Institution kast Friday

On stage at the lecture theatre: Sir Salman Rushdie is seen on the left at the the Chautauqua Institution in Buffalo, New York

British-American writer Aatish Taseer said, in a since-deleted tweet, the 75-year-old was ‘off the ventilator and talking (and joking)’, which was then confirmed by the author’s agent Andrew Wylie.

Rushdie suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, according to Mr Wylie, and is likely to lose the eye. 

The man accused of stabbing him, 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges of attempted murder and assault, in what a prosecutor called a ‘pre-planned’ crime.

In a family statement posted on social media on Sunday, Sir Salman’s son Zafar Rushdie said: ‘Following the attack on Friday, my father remains in critical condition in hospital receiving extensive ongoing medical treatment.

‘We are extremely relieved that [Sunday] he was taken off the ventilator and additional oxygen and he was able to say a few words.

Blood was spattered on the wall behind where Sir Salman had been attacked, with some also seen on a chair. New York State Police confirmed that Sir Salman was stabbed in the neck

Law enforcement officers detaining Sir Salman’s suspected attacker Hadi Matar outside the Chautauqua Institution

‘Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty & defiant sense of humour remains intact.

‘We are so grateful to all the audience members who bravely leapt to his defence and administered first aid along with the police and doctors who have cared for him and for the outpouring of love and support from around the world.

‘We ask for continued patience and privacy as the family come together at his bedside to support and help him through this time.’

In 2020, 58 writers, journalists and actors signed a letter in the Sunday Times in support of Rowling, condemning the ‘onslaught of abuse’ she had received after expressing her views on gender.

Three days later, Miss Harris was among more than 200 figures who published a statement in support of trans and non-binary people and their rights.

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