Bound & Gagged
The grand posture of writers in liberal democracies is that they are the moral equivalents of dissidents in repressive regimes. Loud-mouthed newspaper columnists claim to 'speak truth to power'. Novelists, artists, playwrights and comedians announce their willingness to transgress boundaries. Their publishers look for controversy like boozers look for brawls because they know that few marketing strategies beat the claim that a courageous iconoclast is challenging establishments and shattering taboos.
To maintain the illusion that they are part of some kind of radical underground, intellectuals must practise a deceit. They can never admit to their audience that fear of violent reprisals, ostracism or crippling financial penalties keeps them away from subjects that ought to concern them - and their fellow citizens.
Although it is impossible to count the books authors have abandoned, radical Islam is probably the greatest cause of self-censorship in the West today. When Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, censorship took the form of outright bans. Frightened publishers would not touch David Caute's novel satirising the Islamist reaction to The Satanic Verses, for instance. They ran away from histories and plays about the crisis as well because they did not want a repeat of the terror Rushdie and his publishers at Penguin had experienced.
Such overt censorship continues. In 2008, Random House in New York pulled The Jewel of Medina - a slightly syrupy and wholly inoffensive historical romance about Muhammad's child bride Aisha - after a neurotic professor claimed that it was 'explosive stuff ... a national security issue'. Most of the censorship religious violence inspires, however, is self-censorship. Writers put down their pens and turn to other subjects rather than risk a confrontation. So thoroughgoing is the evasion that when Grayson Perry, who produced what Catholics would consider to be blasphemous images of the Virgin Mary, said what everyone knew to be true in 2007, the media treated his candour as news. 'The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art,' said Perry, 'is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.'
We flatter ourselves into believing that we are more liberated than our stuffy ancestors. A sobering corrective to modern self-satisfaction is to realise that an ex-Muslim novelist would never now dare do what Salman Rushdie did with The Satanic Verses and write a book that said the life of Muhammad was less than exemplary. Even if he or she did, no one would dare publish it.
Challenging writing about economic crises is as rare. Diligent readers have every right to ask why so few financial writers warned them that the greatest crash since 1929 was on the way. As no less a personage than Her Majesty the Queen said to the academics at the London School of Economics, 'Did nobody notice?'
In Britain's case, any writer who had tried to research a book on the rapacious and authoritarian managers at the Royal Bank of Scotland or HBOS, for instance, or on the insanely reckless derivative swap and insurance markets in the London-based subsidiaries of Wall Street banks, would have run into the libel law. It is some barrier to overcome. The cost of a libel action in England and Wales is 140 times the European average. Contrary to common law and natural justice, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Even the few remaining wealthy newspapers, which have business models that have not yet been destroyed by the Internet, find it hard to afford a court case. For the publisher of a serious book, which would do well if it sold 50,000 copies, the idea of risking £1 million or more in a legal fight to defend it is close to unthinkable.
In 2006, the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet investigated the links between the Icelandic bank Kaupthing and tax havens. Kaupthing's managers did not like what they read, but failed to persuade the Danish press council that the paper had done anything wrong. The bank sued for libel in London instead. The newspaper pulled the articles and apologised because English lawyers ran up costs that were beyond its editor's worst nightmares - £1 million, and that was before a case had gone to court.
Kaupthing went for the paper in England not just because it wanted to kill the original story, but because it also wanted to deter others from spreading the idea that Iceland was not a safe place for investors. The English legal profession obliged. Newspapers' lawyers thought once, twice, one hundred times before authorising critical stories. A few months later Kaupthing collapsed - along with the other entrepreneurial, go-ahead Icelandic banks - and British depositors lost £3.5 billion. By allowing libel tourists to fly to London and use our repressive laws, the English legal profession had also stopped the British investors from learning of the danger in investing in the country's banks.
You no more hear writers and broadcasters admit that they are frightened of investigating investment banks than you hear them admit that they are frightened of challenging the founding myths of Islam. We cannot puncture our own myth that we are fearless seekers after truth, even though, if we honestly owned up to our limitations, we might force society to confront the fact that modern censorship does not conform to old models. It is a mistake to think of repression as repression by the state alone. In much of the world it still is, but in Britain, America and most of continental Europe the age of globalisation has done its work, and it is privatised rather than state forces that threaten freedom of speech.
Editors are no longer frightened of politicians but of Islamist violence, oligarchs and CEOs. They worry about libel and the ability of the wealthy to bend the ear of their proprietors or withdraw advertising. But they are not frightened about leaking the secrets or criticising the actions of elected governments.
We need new ways of thinking about censorship. The first step is the most essential. Only when we have the courage to admit that we are afraid can we begin the task of extending our freedoms.
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Nick Cohen's You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom is published by Fourth Estate. You can buy copies here or from the Literary Review Bookshop, on 0870 429 6608.