The Truth Won’t Out

Review of You Can’t Read This Book
By Sonia Purnell
Literary Review

NICK COHEN’S book opens with a quotation from the late Christopher Hitchens about how ‘ideas and books have to be formulated and written by individuals’. It is just as well that we have individuals such as Cohen, who are sufficiently bloody minded – as Hitchens himself was – to strike out against conventional wisdoms and a wilful collective complacency. As Cohen’s work amply demonstrates, we in the West believe ourselves to be free but when it comes to freedom of speech we are anything but. Even legitimate criticism can leave us financially ruined or dead.
After Parliament gave judges the power to develop a right to privacy in 2000, the judiciary saw fit to reject England’s tradition of open justice with a breathtaking disdain for the past. They built a wedding cake of suffocating injunctions and superinjunctions, to the point, Cohen observes, that ‘the censors censored the fact of censorship’. Fred Goodwin, now stripped of his knighthood because of the way he disastrously steered the Royal Bank of Scotland to near collapse, was able to persuade a court to suppress reporting of his extra-marital affair with a subordinate. Although he was in charge of a publicly traded bank employing tens of thousands of people and responsible for the savings and prospects of many more, the courts ruled that the relationship was private and could not be revealed without fear of going to jail.
Once, England and her thinkers, such as John Milton or John Stuart Mill, were known as passionate defenders of freedom. Yet now our courts’ reputation overseas is for their eagerness to prevent unwelcome truths about the wealthy and the powerful from being aired. No wonder foreigners flock to these shores for our particularly alarming brand of rich man’s justice. When a wealthy footballer can gag a beauty queen from revealing their affair on the astonishingly self-serving grounds that it would damage his image as a loyal husband and wholesome sporting role mode, why wouldn’t they? English privacy rights and libel laws allow tyrants and oligarchs to come here in order to suppress criticisms, even when the criticisms are true. Money buys silence.
Rumours about Ryan Giggs’s indiscretions soon started circulating on Twitter, however. The law was not only acting like an ass, it was rapidly being made to look like one. In the end a Liberal Democrat MP ended the farce by identifying Giggs on the floor of the Commons, where he enjoyed protection from the privacy obsessed judges. It was a victory not only for common sense but also for the Internet because, although Giggs’s lawyers announced that they would take legal action against Twitter to force it to release the names of tweeters who had identified their client, as Cohen notes, ‘they might as well have sued the sky because they did not like the weather…How can a judge punish a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand/ If the Web has a soul, then a loathing for censorship stirs it.’
And so the Giggs saga went well beyond the sheet-billowing antics of one Premiership footballer to be hailed as the harbinger of a revolution of unstoppable flows of information. But as Cohen shows all too well, the Internet can free, yes, but it can also be used to suppress. One such example is that passport control at Tehran airport will not only question Iranians leaving the country – possibly to seek political exile abroad – but will also note down the names of their friends on Facebook. Covert, surveillance, informants and a labyrinth of dusty files are no longer necessary – as suspected dissident’s details are all there for governments to inspect on emails and social networks. Spying on citizens has never been easier.
There is perhaps an even greater threat to freedom of speech – the implacable forces of hardline religion. Salman Rushdie ‘s experiences from the late 1980s at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists – but also at the hands of so-called Western liberals – demonstrate all too well ‘that we were freer to challenge religions that claimed dominion over men’s minds and women’s bodies thirty years ago than we are now’. Just as the Interent crosses boundaries, so did the religious fatwa issued against Rushdie after he wrote The Satanic Verses, a novel asking modern questions about the story of the founding of Islam. Now London, New York, Paris and Copenhagen could no longer be safe havens for writers tackling religious themes. Death, violent mobs, firebombings and threats stalked practically every country and put liberals and their apparent devotion to free speech on the spot. When fellow citizens were threatening the murder of publishers and booksellers as well as novelists, would liberals stick to their principles and defend Rushdie no matter what the consequences?
No. The bitter truth is that many academics, journalists, broadcasters and publishers ‘stayed silent as murderers threatened the basic standards of intellectual life’. Their – or perhaps I should say our – fear paralysed our best instincts. Those westerners who admirably stood up for Rushdie – including the staff and directors of Penguin, his publishers – also suffered for their steadfastness. Penguin’s chief executive, Peter Mayer, not only received continual death threats from Islamists but endured the heartache of seeing his daughter’s classmates’ parents seeking to expel her. What if the Iranian assassins went to the school and killed the wrong child, they argued. Wrong child? The ‘Rushdie affair’ was to blame for all this unpleasantness, the argument ran, and so were the people therefore, who made it happen. Murders were now the responsibility of the publishers of such material, rather than the murderers.
Cohen’s work is called You Can’t Read This Book. Not only can you read what he has to say about our failure to defend free speech, but if you care about liberal principles or freedoms at all, you must.