Friday, August 24, 2012

You Can't Read This Book by Nick Cohen

This review appears in today's Liberal Democrat News. There are three more points I would have made if space had allowed.
  • Secular politicians can find it useful to deploy the concept of religious offence. Pussy Riot, whose real crime was surely to attack Vladimir Putin, were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" - a charge that manages to combined elements of Soviet and Tsarist tyranny.
  • Nick Cohen quotes the observation of Chris Dillow that those who are convinced that a secretive centralised state is bound to be inefficient are nevertheless convinced that style is the best way to run a private company.
  • Even if we Liberal Democrats expect less from the Coalition than we did even a few months ago, it is vital that the bill to reform libel law promised in the last Queen's Speech is passed.

You Can’t Read This Book
Nick Cohen
Fourth Estate, 2012, £12.99

Whether it is a collection of columns or original work like this, a new book by Nick Cohen is an event. During the Blair years his journalism made him the most effective critic of Labour’s assault on our liberties and accommodation with right-wing populism – so much so that it was a little hard to understand his outrage when the British people decided to vote for other parties at the last general election.

You Can’t Read This Book deals with the threats to free expression in the modern world. Cohen looks at the conflict between religion and free expression, the power of the wealthy to silence their critics and the determination of dictators to persecute dissidents.

The threat to freedom of expression posed by religion is fuelled by the concept of ‘offence’. Causing offence is one of the few sins that secularists still recognise and, as Cohen explains, much modern journalism consists precisely in manufacturing that offence:
We come across a fact we suspect will outrage a pressure group/political party/guardian of the nation’s morals. We call the pressure group/political party/guardian of the nation’s morals and ask, “Are you outraged?” “Yes we are,” the pressure group/political party/guardian of the nation’s morals replies, allowing us to generate the headline “Pressure Group/Political Party/Guardian of the Nation’s Morals Outraged by …”
Cohen is rightly hard on the many Western intellectuals who found excuses for not supporting Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses and he deals with less well-known cases such as that of Maqbal Fida Husain, the Indian artist who had an exhibition in London cancelled because of protests from Hindu activists.

You Can’t Read This Book goes on to look at the way British libel law insulates the rich and powerful from legitimate criticism. That law reverses the usual burden of proof and it has been used, for instance, against people raising legitimate questions about the claims made by ‘alternative’ medical practitioners. Above this, the generous interpretation that judges here make of what constitutes publication in Britain means many foreign oligarchs pursue their critics in our courts. The result is that a number of books on the financing or terrorism that are freely available in the US cannot be bought in Britain.

Cohen’s third theme is the power of the state, and here he is critical of those who think that those social media have fundamentally altered the balance of power in favour of the individual citizen. He asks why this should be the case with Twitter and Facebook when it was not with the printing press.

One thing these three threats have in common is that they are exercised in an almost random way. We are not living in a totalitarian world, but individuals can suddenly find their lives have been wrecked.

It is impossible to know in advance if a work of art will arouse the ire of religious extremists, while a libel action – which could lose you everything you own – is a worry for many more of us in a world where so many of us now publish our thoughts through blogs or social media. And Cohen likens this tactic to the way that authoritarian states periodically treat minor critics with extreme harshness to make every other dissident nervous. 

One final point… It is good to see Nick Cohen citing John Stuart Mill, but there is much more to On Liberty than the ‘harm principle’. Mill’s great work is a hymn to individuality – something that would fit Cohen’s theme in You Can’t Say That very well.


peezedtee said...

By "bill to reform liberal law" I think you mean "bill to reform libel law".

Jonathan Calder said...

I did. Thanks.