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.
Challenging writing about economic crises is 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.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
A very important and revealing short piece on media freedom by Nick Cohen deserves a high profile -