It has never been a worse time to be a journalist. Falling print subscriptions aside, in Russia and many other totalitarian or oligarchic states, discovering news instead of merely repeating party lines leads easily to murder. Across the Middle East, journalists are now a primary target for kidnap and execution. And if people wonder why the descent of Libya into lawless jihad-dominated chaos has not had much publicity, the answer is largely that today few journalists dare enter the country. Journalism is at a strange place as a profession, and our global political focus is affected as a result. Today the wars that get the most coverage are the ones that aren’t particularly dangerous (Israel and Hamas for instance). Meantime the worst battlegrounds and events of our time (Libya, Syria, Mosul, to name just a few) can be reported on only at a distance, with considerable resulting inaccuracy.
But in this terrible picture of what free expression looks like throughout the world today, there remains one form of censorship more rife than any other in the West. That is the censorship we impose upon ourselves.
Self-censorship is a notoriously tricky subject precisely because people are so loath to talk about it. We will never know the books that might have been written had The Satanic Verses affair not blown up, nor will we ever see the plays, films, or cartoons which never got further than their creator’s lips—and perhaps not even there—before their originators decided on reflection that it wasn’t worth their while. I will never forget the Dutch academic with whom I spoke after the murder of Theo van Gogh. Why had he shut up? Why had he gone silent? “I have three daughters” was his unanswerable reply.
But self-censorship isn’t just found in the somewhat extreme situation in which critics of radical Islam find themselves. It is often found in the everyday stories which—precisely because they are not life-and-death issues, or issues we would go to the block over—are where the censors best turn all of us into self-censors.
The way in which self-censorship works in modern Britain might best be illustrated by the power of what has become known as the “Twittermob.” If you are of the left and you discover that you have been “trending” on Twitter your reaction will be joyous: a stream of praise will have propelled you into one of the most discussed subjects of the day. If, however, you are seen as being on the “right” of the political consensus, the news that you are “trending” will be received in quite another way. It means you have enraged the mob. There are of course reasons why media like Twitter are so left-wing, not least that conservatives are busy trying to get on with their lives, rather than trying to police opinion of which they disapprove. But while the occurrences of Twitter backlash are legion, the causes all boil down to the same subjects. The perfect Twitterstorm is caused by a perceived act of racism. But perceived homophobia will do just as well, as will almost any comment by a man about a woman.
In January 2013, a writer called Suzanne Moore stumbled upon the fact that “transphobia” has also become a contemporary sin. Buried deep in a piece on feminism in the New Statesman, which somebody must have read, Ms. Moore made the comment that: “We [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly, and not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
Even if we disagreed with this statement, it should surely have been well within the parameters of free discourse. Except that it turned out that the mores of our time are shifting not just on female body image but on transsexualism. And, whatever else they do or do not have, every transsexual in Britain turned out to have a Twitter account. For that passing remark, Moore was hounded on Twitter as her article was passed around by people and to people who would never read the New Statesman. There were serious efforts to have her editor sack her. On the left in particular these moments of perceived heresy are dangerous. The Observer subsequently gave some column inches to a friend of Suzanne Moore’s, Julie Burchill, to give political cover for her friend. Burchill rightly pointed out that Moore was one of the few other working-class women in British journalism, and she would be damned if she was going to see her dragged back down by a Twitter mob.
Anyone familiar with Julie Burchill’s work will know that the words “Julie Burchill column” and “helping the situation” rarely go together. It is one of the joys of her work. Burchill’s reply column included the ripe observation: “We [real women] know that everything we have, we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”
Julie Burchill again delivered what she is famous for—the 950-word op-ed equivalent of a petrol bomb. But it was the resulting fall-out that was most interesting. Lynne Featherstone, a junior Liberal Democrat minister in the Home Office with responsibility for “equality” (think on that for a moment if you dare), called publicly for Burchill and the editor of The Observer to lose their jobs. Duly cowed, The Observer issued an apology and unpublished the article from its own website.
Duly cowed, The Observer issued an apology and unpublished the article from its own website.
There is still no law under which you can be prosecuted for making a comment about the body shape of women or transsexuals. But reaction like this—and a reaction from a government minister in particular—is in some ways more efficient than any law. Everyone else learns the lesson and another subject is added to the list of things about which it would be unwise to write. And there you see one of the most effective forms of censorship, caused by the simple, if often sublimated, realization that we can’t be bothered with the ensuing hassle.
I discovered this for myself some years back when I tried to point out a problem. Before going any further let me issue a disclaimer. What follows is a joke. It is not a good joke, but it is a joke. As they say, if you do not want to see the joke, look away now. The joke is this: “A man walked into a Dublin bar and saw a friend sitting with an empty glass. ‘Paddy, can I get you another?’ he asked, to which Paddy replied—‘Now what would I be wanting with another empty glass?’ ”
The joke is not mine. All complaints can be sent to one Councillor Ken Bamber who sits on the local council in Medway, Kent. Cllr. Bamber told the aforementioned joke during a Medway council social event in 2007. Unfortunately, another individual present was a Mr. Brian Kelly, a Unison representative. Mr. Kelly claimed that he had Irish lineage and as such found the joke offensive. A complaint was launched and a lengthy legal process ensued at the end of which Representative Kelly was awarded many thousands of pounds in compensation, paid to him by the Council and Cllr. Bamber. Those of us who pay our taxes in the U.K. naturally covered the costs of proceedings.
Now, when I read about this in the news- in-brief section of my newspaper I had a few thoughts of my own and wrote a short piece. Among other things, I reflected on the abysmal pay given to our armed forces and compared it to the munificent payout to Representative Kelly. I said that, in my opinion, there was something seriously wrong with a society in which our soldiers in Afghanistan got paid just over £1,000 a month for facing incoming fire from the Taliban, while Unison Rep. Kelly gets many times that for risking an incoming joke in Kent.
I signed off in the spirit of “they can’t take us all” by saying that readers should send in their own Irish jokes and help defeat this compensation-culture menace. If I remember correctly, the piece was originally, and perhaps over-eagerly, titled “Anyone know any Irish jokes.” At which point, I had not only walked onto the crime scene, but become a crime scene myself—and apparently incited others to do the same.
Before I knew it I was in the middle of what one journalist described as “a minor international incident.” The phone began to ring with predominantly Irish journalists requesting comment. Lead editorials were written on the case of the Scottish-named man who had incited jokes against the Irish. The Irish embassy issued a statement and the Irish “Department of Foreign Affairs” proclaimed that it was precisely because of articles like mine that hate-speech laws existed and must be enforced. And of course some self-appointed harpy who claimed to be an Irish “community leader” reported me to the Press Complaints Commission and the police. Hate crime complaints, as other writers in this organ have discovered, are like hydras: attempt to chop up one and you find yourself facing two.
I dredge up this otherwise obscure subject to make a confession. Which is that it works. Even the fairly minimal processes we have in modern Britain make these things areas you do not wish to wade into again. The mob really can work. And where the barrier for the mob used to be really quite high—involving people actually turning up at your front door with pitchforks—today they can wave the pitchforks from their armchairs but have an effect which can end up being quite as damaging to your career.
Shortly after the Irish episode, I made a comment on a radio program about what a ghastly institution the devolved Scottish Parliament is, and there was a moment when it looked as though I might have to fight on every Celtic front. It isn’t a particularly noble fact, but I realize, looking back, that I simply decided it wasn’t worth getting into these subjects again. True, I have other battles I’m happy and eager to sustain. But when it came to a variety of Celtic grievances—not least their move from proud peoples to purveyors of a mawkish sentimentality—the game no longer seemed worth the candle.
Of course, there are subjects that are. But when you look at writers today, the effects of modern media are the same on many vital and ephemeral subjects. The ability and apparent aim of the instant mob is to whittle down the acceptable parameters of debate. This whittling is done from all sides but with a particular effect on the right. That is, that it offers a tempting opportunity for many conservatives to curry favor with their political opponents. They can become “the good conservative” or “the Tory with a conscience.” So if someone on the right says something that is deemed politically incorrect, other conservatives have a choice. In the near past they might have just stayed silent. Now Twitter prods and provokes them. Some public figure on the right will be asked, “Why have you not yet condemned the latest outrageous comments by X?” If you do not condemn them, then the impression will be given that you are supporting the outrage. Thus the onus on the right is either to hang together or to throw everyone of your own political persuasion under a left-leaning bus.
“Why have you not yet condemned the latest outrageous comments by X?”
I am on Twitter but choose not to engage with people on it. But I get the prods. And not only comments, but silence has also become unforgivable in this Twittering age. Tony Blair—ever able on such matters—picked up on this early. And if I had to trace the moment at which it all went wrong—when silence changed from being golden to being deadly—it would be the moment in 2004 when the popular disc jockey John Peel died. Within minutes of his death being announced, a release from Downing Street said how hard the death had hit the Prime Minister. I thought then, and think now, that the statement was gratuitous. One foundation of polite society is the presumption that when a celebrated disc jockey dies, the Prime Minister of the day does not secretly punch the air and shout, “Yes! We’ve got another one.” Though this presumption may turn out to be wrong, now that all British disc jockeys who aren’t dead are in prison or awaiting sentence.
Of course Mr. Blair was then hoisted with his own petard. Soon, every time anybody died, he was forced to deliver an encomium. Sometime later, a vast tsunami killed many thousands of people in the Far East. For the span of some hours, no message of sadness was forthcoming from Number 10. The public was uncertain. Was the Prime Minister pro- or anti-tsunami, they were forced to wonder? After too many hours, a press release was unveiled revealing that Mr. Blair was very anti-tsunami and regretted the loss of life. Since then, more and more people, encouraged by the introspective narcissism of social media, have become mini-Tony Blairs, emoting and making grandstanding comment on the whole parade of human events and folly. And neither the facts nor the significance of the holder count, but rather the beauty and apparent virtue of the adopted posture.
The effect of Twitter is to whittle down the edges of debate. The process of whittling would appear to go on until there is essentially only one article on any subject; it will be carefully written and carefully nuanced. It will be an article that could have been written by committee, it would offend no one, would be weighed down by no uncomfortable facts and, of course, would be utterly unreadable.
There is also a striking dissatisfaction with self-censorship’s consequences, which has crept up on us. It is the same conundrum all Western democracies currently have with their politicians. The public complains that all politicians speak in the same way, say the same things, and speak the same dull political language. “They’re all the same” we cry. “Where are the mavericks of the past?” we lament. And the answer is, of course, that we lost them because we hounded them out. We lost them when we decided that straight talking constituted a “gaffe.” We lost them when we decided that any eccentricity or oddity in a politician needed flattening out. We lost them when we decided that looking the part was more important than doing the job well. We lost them when we decided that everyone in politics must look a certain way, speak a certain way, think a certain way, and emote a certain way. And so in politics, as in the media, everything remarkable risks being sifted out until our representatives all bear a hideous resemblance to a junior Liberal Democrat equality enforcement officer. It is the same thing with the free media.
The strangest thing about this is that we live in an age of amazing richness of subject matter for writers and politicians. Today a whole slew of issues are open as they have not been for years. I spend a lot of my time criticizing Islamists and some of the sources of Islam. I’m not especially worried when I find myself metaphorically and sometimes actually chased by the jihadists. But even I found it off-putting to be pursued not only by the jihadists, but by transsexuals and the Irish to boot.
Self-censorship is one of the few types of censorships we can actually address.
Though I shamefacedly admit that I have avoided some of this terrain, there are just so many areas of interest that young people should step into. I would love to see a discussion of transsexualism that isn’t turned into a “phobia” around the edges. In 2013, a young Belgian man who believed he was a woman was given a sex change by the Belgian health service. He was not happy with the result and was subsequently euthanized by the state on the same health service. How rich a subject is that? Which bit would you dare to enter into first? In the situation we are setting up it would have to be done with almost unimaginable care and concern. And of course the public square cannot be effective if it is so careful and concerned. It must also be robust, rebarbative, and even rude at times. The risk of being offended is the same chance that one must take to be informed. A proponent of gay marriage, I still think it amazing that there has been almost no serious public discussion on the question of who should and should not create and bring up children, anymore than there has been any serious discussion of what is now presented as the last glorious right among all our acquired rights: the “right” to die.
Today there is an added problem. Which is that many of us in Europe have looked to America as our lodestar of free speech. And it is with astonishment that we watch cases like that against Mark Steyn brought by Michael Mann. This was precisely the sort of thing that we thought didn’t happen in America. But the truth is that censorship begins at home. We all have things we self-censor. My own self-censorship may be the other way round, or wildly different from other peoples’. And some of it may be politeness. But today in the public square, much of what people call politeness is simply not wanting the hassle or the hatred of the instant mob.
Of course there are solutions to this. Self-censorship is one of the few types of censorships we can actually address. The best way it can be changed is by magazines like The New Criterion and Standpoint. In my experience, leftists try to do something to those of us on the right when they disagree with us that we would never do to them. They don’t just try to put our opinions down—they try to get us criminalized and very often they try to get us sacked. The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that the best way to avoid self-censorship is to have better-funded, larger, and more solid institutions on the political right which offer the prospect of support and comparative safety for the heretics of our time. In an age of media uncertainty and declining wages, we are going to have to somehow encourage again a class of person who does not care much about what other people think and does not rely on the mob for his wage. It is not an easy proposition. But what we desperately need now is a class of person who is willing to speak his mind in the knowledge that the fury of the mob is, after all, not always the most terrible thing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 16
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