Friday, September 30, 2005

On the banning of books

This week the UK Labour Party has been having its annual conference; and an incident occurred there which is relevant, indirectly, to the process of trying to ban books.

What happened was this. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was making a speech about Iraq. As he did so, he was heckled from the back of the conference centre by an elderly man. 'Nonsense!' shouted the old man at one point. And 'That's a lie!' at another. Precisely the sort of thing that most people shout at their television sets whenever a politician comes on.

Well, naturally, new Labour does not take kindly to being heckled, and the elderly man was forcibly ejected from the hall, along with another man who tried to defend him. Both men were apparently banned from future attendance.

The man who carried out the forcible ejection, it now emerges, was a burly fellow who is described as 'a freelance car clamper, celebrity minder, and former nightclub bouncer.' How reassuring it is, to know that our governing party staffs its conferences with persons of such gentility, good sense, and tact.

And the gentleman who was heaved out turns out to be an 82-year old Jew called Walter Wolfgang, who came to England from Germany as a refugee in 1937 and has been an active member of the Labour Party since 1948.

The whole of this incident was filmed by the television cameras, and, as you would expect (and indeed hope), it was the subject of much comment.

Today the newspapers are full of it. What happened yesterday was that Mr Wolfgang received a personal apology from everyone in the Labour Party from Blair downwards (or possibly even upwards). What is more, the gentleman suddenly found himself being interviewed, at great length, by journalists who only two days earlier would not have given him the time of day had he asked.

According to the Times, Mr Wolfgang spent much of yesterday 'giving back-to-back media interviews in which he eloquently and lucidly denounced Labour's policies, leadership and culture.'

In short, what we have here is a massive cock-up and an own goal of legendary proportions. An attempt to stifle dissent has led, as such things almost invariably do, to the precisely opposite effect.

Which brings me to Banned Books Week and related matters. The Book Standard provides an introductory survey of Banned Books Week, which ends on 1 October and which is being marked, it seems, with a coordinated campaign in the United States if not elsewhere. Further details of the events et cetera can be found on the ALA site.

Even in the US (which has a written constitution which appears to say something about the freedom of speech), attempts are regularly made to have books banned. Usually on the grounds that they are sexually explicit. Though I did read that, in 1983, four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee tried to ban The Diary of Anne Frank on the grounds that it was 'a real downer'. Which is at least original.

If an attempt to ban a book is enforced with physical violence, e.g. by burning a few people at the stake to drive home the point, then it can be effective; if only temporarily. But in the long run, the final effect of censorship is to increase curiosity, arouse interest, stimulate the sale of bootleg copies, and all like that.

And if you want a case in point, consider what is happening in relation to Lady Colin Campbell's novel Empress Bianca. On 29 July I described how lawyers acting on behalf of a Mrs Lily Safra had initiated libel proceedings in relation to this book, claiming that it was a thinly disguised portrait of Mrs Safra. (The leading character in the book, by the way, murders a couple of husbands.)

The publishers of Empress Bianca, being small and impecunious, immediately gave in and had the book pulped.

Until Mrs Safra's highly paid rottweilers started chewing on the publisher's leg, virtually no one, I venture to suggest, had taken any serious notice of this novel. But once the news of the attempted banning of the book got out, everyone suddenly got interested. Even I, out here in darkest Wiltshire, got several emails from people in various parts of the world, asking how they could get hold of a copy. Some of these people, interestingly enough, wrote from legal firms of one sort or another.

And -- there is more. A few days ago a correspondent told me that the case of Empress Bianca had been discussed in two articles by Dominic Dunne, in the August and September issues of Vanity Fair. Unfortunately these are not available online, and I have not yet been able to track down copies. But if and when I do lay hands on them, I will let you know what they say.

Meanwhile I simply express the view that, if you are hoping to protect a client's reputation, having an alleged libel upon her discussed by Dominic Dunne in two articles in Vanity Fair is unlikely to help much.

Isn't wonderful what a few highly paid lawyers can do for you?


Bernita said...

Once had the pleasure as an occultologist of defending a challenged book. It was "Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher."
It is difficult, sometimes, to take book banners seriously, which is why, I suppose, they get as far as they do.

The Private intellectual. said...

One interesting point on Mr Wolfgang, which we got to hear about at some length in Germany and was picked up by several newspapers back in Blighty, is that he was detained by the police for several hourts after being ejected, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

It is fair zto say that, despite promises, the Act will be used for anything that the politicians find disagreeable, and not merely for preventing terrorism. It is understandable why Mr Wolfgang should attack the policies and politicians of New Labour when they push through a piece of legislation which effectively removes all the Rights and Freedoms of British citizens. Your reference to the Freedom of Speech enjoyed by the north Americans and guaranteed by their Constitution might just as easily pass in the United Kingdom too.