Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Not So Wholly Free

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Not So Wholly Free

Article excerpt


YOU CAN'T READ THIS BOOK: CENSORSHIP IN AN AGE OF FREEDOM by Nick Cohen (Fourth Estate, [pounds sterling]12.99)

AGLANCE at the British media and at publishing might suggest that on liberty of expression we have never had it so good. Look again, Nick Cohen writes in this lively, entertaining polemic.

A chapter recalling The Satanic Verses affair sets the tone. The courage of Penguin books under its CEO Peter Mayer contrasts, Cohen reminds us, with the shameful record of "comfortable English intellectuals", notably John le Carre, whose criticisms focused rather more on the victim of the fatwa than on those calling for his death. There was "no law in life or in nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity," wrote le Carre. Unless, one assumes, that religion is Christianity.

Richard Dawkins is quoted in defence of the scientific ideal of openness, yet compare the volume of the atheist preacher man's anathemas on Christians (Cohen might have added) with his relative reticence on Islamism, surely a more obscurantist creed? Grayson Perry is disarmingly honest on the matter: "The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art," said the author of blasphemous images of the Virgin Mary, "is because I feel the real fear that someone will slit my throat."

A chapter named Manufacturing Offence argues that fairness towards ethnic or gay people must involve treating them as grown-ups who can handle robust argument, rather than as children "who need to be told fairy stories". The defenders of self-censorship and indirect repression turn out all too frequently to be liberal academics and university authorities, and on campus Cohen finds more cowardice, conformism and self-delusion than moral courage.

"The censor in a suit" -- the hard-faced business manager with a way of dissuading whistleblowers -- is another target. Conservatives who abhor centrally planned economies are less quick to denounce the censorship imposed by hierarchical, centrally managed corporations.

"The bullying is all I remember about him," said an employee of Sir Frederick Anderson Goodwin, tyrant of all he surveyed at the grossly overblown Royal Bank of Scotland until there was little left to look at, because Fred the Shred was fonder of firing staff than listening to them. …

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