Lawyers do not figure highly in the estimation of newspaper columnist Nick Cohen. His broadside at censorship in a liberal age paints solicitors, barristers and judges as the lackeys of oligarchs and snake-oil sellers and conspirators in liberal silence when the going gets tough.
According to Cohen, free speech in our supposedly tolerant, internet-enabled, chattering society is under threat from the state, money and religion. Of these, the state is the least-threatening force. The very fact that the ‘Twitter joke’ trial was itself an object of ridicule (though no joke for the chap in the dock) makes Cohen’s point that, in Britain today, journalists, satirists and activist lawyers are not afraid of the state.
Money buys a better class of gag. Cohen’s target is ‘a town called Sue’ (a Geoffrey Robertson line, I recall) – London and its readiness to deploy English libel law at the service of dubious characters in any corner of the world, serving the wealthy ‘as attentively as the shop girls in the Harrods food hall’. As many of the litigants that Cohen names are still living, wealthy and prickly, I won’t make work for the Gazette’s libel lawyer by identifying them here.
I’m going to be even more circumspect about Cohen’s third threat to free speech: God. Or rather, the self-censorship that surrounds any critical or humorous treatment of Islam since the Satanic Verses affair.
Anyone who read Cohen’s important 2007 polemic What’s Left? will have no doubt where he stands on the matter of, as he sees it, so-called liberals who will surrender their principles in the name of multiculturalism. When the lord chief justice and archbishop of Canterbury murmured in support of sharia law, Cohen notes: ‘Women lawyers at the bar, who complained so vociferously about the law’s glass ceiling, did not accuse the archbishop and the judge of sexism.’
The point is that, while a threat from the state will cause inconvenience and guarantee a certain celebrity, a gag from a wealthy libel litigant will cause bankruptcy, while being gagged by a religious fanatic may involve death threats, or even death. And the liberal establishment is likely to shuffle, embarrassed, away.
In his original preface to Animal Farm, Orwell wrote: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ That still stands.
Of course you can read Cohen’s book. But, if my explorations of lefty north London bookshops last weekend are anything to go by, you won’t find it very prominently displayed.
Michael Cross is news editor of the Law Society Gazette