UK presenter forced out of Hugo Awards after Twitter hate campaign

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Mar 5, 2014, 2:48 PM EST (Updated)

Jonathan Ross is a popular U.K. television host with a slew of IMDB credits and more than one controversy to his name. But one credit he won't be able to claim is that of the Hugo Award presenter for the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), which will be held in London this August. That's because Ross has withdrawn after a Twitter campaign against him.

Ross backed out of his offer after multiple tweets calling into question not only his qualifications to present the Hugo Awards, given to the best science fiction writers of the year, but also his taste level, based on his history.

Typically, the emcee of the Hugo Awards is a well-known science fiction author who may have won the Hugo him- or herself. 

As for his qualifications, Ross is mostly known for his television work, but he has bona fide credentials as a comic-book writer. As a fan, he tweets about Doctor Who, the fabulous, long-running British comic book 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd) and the videogame Minecraft. As an actor, he has voiced characters for Halo 3 and Fable III.  Also, he hosted the Eisner Awards and sat on Neil Gaiman's panel at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con.

His wife's credentials are even more impressive. Jane Goldman has co-written the screenplays for Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and the highly anticipated X-Men: Days of Future Past.

At first glance, Internet indignation against Ross' presence seems a case of isolationism against people who weren't part of the community. The New Statesman put it in less-than-flattering terms,

[T]he SFF community became a childish clubhouse hurling abuse from a crack in the door because they thought he would be mean to them if they let him in. They thought he would make fat jokes, be rude to women, disrespect the community and – as punishment not only for previous gaffes but for gaffes not yet made – he didn’t deserve the honour. 

New Statesman's vitriol aside, there is a genuine concern about Ross' humor. But his is only one of the two sparks of this weekend's tweetstorm. It seems the way in which Ross was invited was cause for serious concern among members of LonCon 3 the volunteer committee that runs this year's Worldcon. (Worldcon locations, as well as their committes, change each year.) 

Ross was invited by the based on a recommendation his good friend Neil Gaiman ... with disregard to the procedure on how hosts are chosen.

LonCon 3 has since issued an apology to Ross on its Facebook page,

We invited him in good faith, as a creator and fan, and a high-profile member of our community, to be Master of Ceremonies at the Hugo Awards Ceremony, and he graciously accepted, offering us his services as a volunteer...

In hindsight, we did not consult widely or promptly enough within our own Committee or with external parties before making and publicising the decision. 

LonCon 3 has accepted responsibility for Ross' withdrawal. But that's not the only reason the science fiction community has reasons for concern. It's about timing. And as every comedian knows, timing is everything.

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is currently suffering multiple scandals involving sexism and off-color humor, and while SFWA does not run Worldcon, most people who are nominated for Hugo Awards for fiction writing are in fact SFWA members.

The controversies, one after the other -- the first involving the election of the current SFWA president and the second involving sexism in SFWA's quarterly magazine -- are very real. 

A comedian like Ross, who has been known to push boundaries, may not respect the feelings of SFWA members, many of whom populate the audience of the Hugo ceremonies.

According to author and Nebula-award nominee Ferrett Steinmetz,

That kind of influx of fans could be a good thing. If Jonathan Ross doesn't turn it into a "mock the nerds" punching bag. So while Charlie Stross has some valid concerns about the media attention Jonathan would draw as a con chair, you'd have to think: "Can I keep him from making off-color jokes? Is there a way to have him hold a respectful ceremony?" Because if he can, then we can really enlarge the audience of good science fiction.

Now, I don't know the answer to that question... There's a uniquely British style of comedian who seems to get off on public controversey, and in fact delight in tweaking the rules...and so I suspect telling him, "Okay, keep it respectful, toe the line" would just lead to him shrieking [obscenity] at the first available opportunity. Even if you can excuse his past history, I'd be leery of the future.

Kij Johnson, a Hugo-award winning author, said, "Five years from now, he might be a good choice. We might be better equipped to say, 'Just don't be a d**k, all right?'"

It's unfortunate that Ross has withdrawn. After all, he's a wildly successful comedian who is likely to attract attention to the many authors and artists who attend Worldcon. But the fact is, he was an imperfect choice at a bad time.

We look forward to seeing who LonCon 3 chooses as alternative host.

For more information on the controversy, please see the blogs of Foz Meadows and A-D Medievalist, who resigned from the Worldcon committee over Ross.