In a stirring and provocative speech at the Freedom of Expression awards, Sir David Hare presented a challenge for Index on Censorship, and all free speech advocates
Everyone’s in favour of freedom of speech, aren’t they? All right, to my shame I will confess my attitude to the founding of Index on Censorship in 1972 was one of intense suspicion. I believe I even refused it money. My fear was that it would be yet another anti-communist rag, like Encounter, no doubt, secretly financed by the CIA, culturally conservative and dedicated to prioritising freedom of speech over other essential freedoms, like freedom from exploitation, or freedom from poverty. I thought it would be a boasting bulletin for the superiority of the west. I had misgivings about freedom of speech being made the sole criterion of a free society. I still do. Well over a million of us, from all over the British Isles, marched to express dissent from an invasion of Iraq six years ago, an invasion forced on us by the conjoined political class. Yes, freedom of speech is an essential condition of democracy, but it isn’t democracy. And occupied Iraq soon proved that freedom without order was no kind of freedom at all.
So, anyway, I am happy to say that I was completely wrong –– let’s be clear: humiliatingly wrong –– and Index on Censorship has been, with well-publicised exceptions, pretty well even-handed. A lot has changed in the period the magazine has existed. Those countries in the European Eastern Bloc which claimed, however falsely, to prioritise social justice over personal freedom have been swept away; while many countries which prioritise personal freedom have shown even less concern for social justice than ever.
A few years ago I went to Uzbekistan with the film-maker Michael Winterbottom. We were planning to make a film about Craig Murray, the former British ambassador, who effectively ended his career in the Foreign Office by pointing out that, in the then-named war on terror, the British and American governments were using intelligence obtained by Uzbek torturers. The means were corrupt; the intelligence unreliable. The film was never made because Michael and I saw it so differently: he saw it as a farce, I saw it as a tragedy. The ambassador’s erotic involvement with an Uzbek pole-dancer didn’t clinch the argument either way. We arrived in Tashkent, pretending to be tourists, and we travelled around the country. For those of you who don’t believe that tyranny is a taste, a smell, a feeling that permeates a whole country, and rots every element within it, I recommend a trip along the golden road to Samarkand. Do not be diverted by the fact that President Islam Karimov, whose picture hangs in every cafe and office, is a dead ringer for the BBC newsreader Huw Edwards. This is a country in which a wrong word can cost you your life.
It’s hard to remember, but 2001 was advertised as the year in which everything would change. After the attack on the Twin Towers, America announced an end to the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger. The old Cambodian war criminal was no longer to be allowed to drive American foreign policy from the back seat, by belching out a belly-rumbling growl of dictator-appeasement. The NBC cash-hack was finally, after 35 years, to be booted decisively from influence. No longer were foreign bastards to be laid out on their backs and pleasured with lethal weapons and praise on the grounds that they were, at least, ‘our’ bastards. The Cold War habit of defining ‘good’ as pro-western and ‘bad’ as anti-western was finally discredited. A blanket war against all forms of insurgency could only be rationalised if right once more became right and wrong wrong. Now, we were told, at least there would be consistency.
Those of you who keep up with these things will know what Uzbekistan is no longer our ally. Now that Karimov no longer offers flight and re-fuelling facilities for American military missions in Afghanistan, you may even find the odd British government minister willing to concede, in private, the possibility that Tashkent did indeed extract information on behalf of the coalition by boiling its own citizens alive. Yet by drawing attention to western complicity, Craig Murray did what very few of us have had to do: he sacrificed his whole livelihood and career.
The conventional complaint against the liberal left is that it is selective. I cannot count the number of times this soiled charge has been advanced in both the broadsheet and the yellow press. We are repeatedly told that the left suffers from double standards –– willing to allow Venezuela or Cuba, say, what it condemns in Burma or Turkey. Yet what are we to make of our own government, supposedly committed to universal principles of freedom of speech, which rarely dares, even by implication, to speak out against repression of speech in China, repression in Saudi Arabia, or even very much against repression in Pakistan? What new era, exactly, was ushered in on 11 September? What new standards? Yes, those of us who campaign against some particular excess may be guilty of not covering the whole waterfront. But hypocrisy and double standards on the left now seem over-shadowed, dwarfed, obliterated by endemic, institutional hypocrisy on the right or, to put it another way, in government. Better, I think, to be a champagne socialist than a suppository-wielding, water-boarding capitalist.
In Howard Brenton’s play Weapons of Happiness, one character looks puzzled at another and declares: ‘You really are something of a perpetual absence, old man.’ I’m afraid this line of dialogue always pops into my mind when I catch a glimpse of our present Foreign Secretary David Miliband, a kind of flinching, nocturnal badger of human rights. Again, it’s difficult to recall that the Brown government arrived covertly flagging discontinuity. It was, we were told, full of people who in an epic act of loyalty had been willing to hide their misgivings about the supine antics of the Blair period. While nobody was going as far as to offer what Robin Cook was moved from office for suggesting –– an ethical foreign policy –– nevertheless there was, again, the feeling that a renewed defence of democracy might involve some public restating of absolutes. Do I need to observe no such restatement has followed? More accurately, nothing has followed, except reversion to tribal diplomatic loyalties, the old half-truths and half-lies rolled out on behalf of dodgy allies. In the last two editions of the New York Review of Books you may read Mark Danner’s authoritative accounts of systematic use of torture by the CIA. Humiliation, beatings by use of a collar, sleep deprivation, suffocation by water, kickings, confinement in a box, shackles, prolonged nudity. Strange: we await the appropriate moral outrage from Whitehall.
Well, this has been an odd decade and no mistake. You will reveal your politics by saying whether you believe the attack on the World Trade Center or the cynical misappropriation of that attack to justify western lawlessness has been its defining feature. But during such a period –– when so many become partisans and so many more manipulate fear –– nothing is more important than the patient work of discrimination done by those who bring us the news. In my lifetime in Britain, the word ‘reporter’ has signalled membership of one of the most noble professions on earth; the word ‘journalist’ membership of one of the most loathed.
I will move on to what I hope will be an unnecessary final word of caution. The election of a formidable intellectual to the White House has not only provided, hopefully, an opportunity for new attitudes in foreign relations. It has also, sadly, offered convenient cover for politicians wishing to indulge their favourite activity: what our Prime Minister, John Major used to call ‘drawing a line’. You may say that the one conviction which unites all politicians in office in western democracies is the certainty that bygones should at all times and under all circumstances be bygones. There is, we are told, an appropriate time limit on retrospective justice in public life, and that time limit is the blinking of an eye. And so politicians are also fond of observing after some particular event that lessons have been learnt –– without, you notice, ever being very keen to formulate too precise a sense of what those lessons might be.
Let me do that for them. The principal lesson of the new century is the following: that you must condemn censorship, intimidation, bullying, coercion, torture, encroachment on human rights and illegality in your friends with exactly the same rigour you bring to its condemnation in your enemies. Limitations on freedom of speech, from even the best reasons, are going to be ever more enthusiastically advanced. In the cause of pretending to protect the weak, an awful lot, as usual, is going to be fiddled on behalf of the strong. All sorts of wonderful reasons in all sorts of different cultures –– religious and non-religious –– are going to be given in the next 10 years, as they were given in the last, for why people should not say what they want, about what they want. In this atmosphere, we expect from Index on Censorship a consistency and an advocacy, a bias for freedom, that we do not find in our commercially prostituted press, or from our diplomatically prostituted government. ‘All the horrors of the Reign of Terror in France,’ wrote Tolstoy, ‘were based entirely on a solicitude for public tranquility.’ If ever there was a moment when this magazine had a job to do, it’s now.
This is an edited extract of a speech given by David Hare at last night’s Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. Also posted at Liberty Central