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Jonathan Dimbleby

By Index on Censorship / 18 December, 2009

It was a straightforward choice but not an easy decision. By tradition — and properly — the board does not readily interfere in the day-to-day editorial decisions taken by the Index on Censorship staff. Our job is to define the strategic objectives and the framework within which these are delivered. Of course matters that are likely to prove controversial will be brought to our attention and we may express a view about the wisdom of this or that proposed course of action. But beyond that, our commitment to freedom of expression applies as much to Index as anywhere else.

But this case was different. When John Kampfner alerted me to the prospective publication of an interview with Jytte Klausen and to our editor’s wish to illustrate it with the “offending” cartoons, it was plainly a matter for the board to determine. Any other course would have been irresponsible and a neglect of our fiduciary responsibility.

A year earlier, in September 2008, four men had been arrested for allegedly fire-bombing the North London home of the publisher of Gibson Books who had proposed publishing The Jewel of Medina. Only the most cavalier attitude towards the safety and security of those directly and indirectly involved in the publication of the Index interview would have failed to note that outrage.

The board’s main concern was both for individual members of the Index staff and those who worked for the seven other organisations which share our Free Word premises in Farringdon Road, and who would have been equally on the receiving end of any attack aimed at Index. Nonetheless, a decision to prevent the re-publication of the cartoons (Index had decided against their publication in the magazine when the worldwide protests erupted in 2005) could not be taken lightly by those responsible for leading an organisation whose very essence is to protect and enhance freedom of expression in a world where the rich and powerful are busy eroding what ought to be a fundamental right in any civilised society.

For this reason I consulted the Index editor and established that, in her view, publication of the cartoons — though very desirable — was not crucial to an interview which did not focus on the cartoons themselves but on the process by which Yale decided against their publication.

Against that background, I consulted every colleague (including those who had not been able to attend the relevant board meeting). With the exception of two board members (one of whom was content to abide by the overwhelming majority view) my colleagues argued strongly against publication. To summarise our common view: re-publication of the cartoons would put at risk the security of our staff and others which, on balance, could not be justified on “freedom of expression” grounds alone. The idea that no one except a handful of like-minded anoraks would notice their appearance in Index seemed to us to be at best naïve.

Index is not a coterie of fundamentalists who enjoy preaching to the converted in a vacuum of purist invisibility. We have a greater vision and purpose, which is to reach out to those in the United Kingdom and elsewhere who are not yet aware of how vital freedom of expression is to an open society and how easily and rapidly it can be eroded.

For myself, I hope that by taking the unusual step of sharing publicly what would normally be a matter for confidential debate we will get beyond a narrow obsession with those Danish cartoons and engage a much bigger audience in this great debate.

Jonathan Dimbleby (Chair, Index On Censorship)

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