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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)


25 Responses to Jonathan Dimbleby

  1. Pingback: Fear and Censorship | Ophelia Benson | NewsBag

  2. Mark

    21 February at 22:20

    Not to put too fine a point on it – this is disgraceful cowardice.

    Iranians risk death marching against theocratic fascism, Iraqis vote in the face mortal threats, Afghan women brave acid attacks and mortar fire to attend school so they can learn to read.

    To show solidarity with these people, to honour your British forebears who stood against tyranny – many of whom died doing so – it was required, only, that the members of IoC publish a cartoon.

    And yet you could not do even this. You arrogate to yourselves the moral authority of politically free people, and when there is a cost, you refuse to pay it.

    Your own personal comfort was more valuable than the freedom bequeathed to you by your forefathers.

    If there is any strength left in the West, it is surely not to be found in this den of lickspittles.

    Resign, and let better men than you defend your freedom.

  3. Robin Hilliard

    7 January at 12:02

    The Index On Censorship censors itself because of a threat it has not received?

    Truly, we live in strange times.

  4. Grant Rogerson

    28 December at 01:06

    Its a tough call. As an organization, you put everyone at risk of fire bombings, killings, and whatever else the extremists might offer up, right down to the guy who picks up the mail. Standing up as an individual, you risk only yourself. You may hold principles that are admirable and powerful, but should you require others to stand in the firing line with you for that reason alone?

  5. Tim Jackson

    23 December at 23:46

    What a weak decision. Index on Censorship has lost all authority to speak about the censorship of others. If the board had any decency they would go en masse.

  6. Bruce Gorton

    22 December at 13:41

    When people in third world countries risk their lives to fight censorship you laud them as heroes.

    When Zimbabwean reporters risked their lives to report what was happening in Zimbabwe over the elections, you wouldn’t say they should have shut up, you, as an organisation in favour of free speech would stand up and say Zimbabwe and the world as a whole need more like them.

    But when even the vaguest of possible, as yet unmade threats is directed your way? Well watch the yellow stain in your hypocritical pants. You have destroyed any credibility the index might have had, you have taken a champion of free speech and turned it into precisely the sort of thing it is supposed to oppose.


  7. Pingback: A Sorry Decision… « Back Towards The Locus

  8. Pingback: Index on Censorship & the Danish cartoons « Clive Davis Blog

  9. Stewart Macdonald

    20 December at 10:30

    A disgraceful decision and one of which the board should be ashamed. With the honourable exception of Kenan Malik you should resign.

  10. Russell Blackford

    20 December at 08:23

    To be fair, “In Defence of Self-Censorship” would be more accurate.

    What an own-goal, though! This is almost as disastrous to the organisation’s credibility as its initial reaction when Theo van Gogh was murdered.

    Here’s a hint that might be relevant to the present situation: if you oppose not only state censorship but also insidious kinds of self-censorship, try to avoid practising the latter yourself.

  11. Ophelia Benson

    19 December at 17:44

    Not going well, is it. It was always going to be a tough case to make – Index on Censorship is doing the right thing by censoring itself and then justifying self-censorship. Hmmmmmm…

    If the board doesn’t resign, surely it should re-name the organization? ‘In Defense of Censorship’ would fit.

  12. Helen M.

    19 December at 17:41

    This step was a catastrophe for the credibility of IOC – from now on, you can’t legitimately criticise self-censorship.

    The best and only efficient solution is that each and every newspaper publish the cartoons, so publishing the cartoons won’t give a basis for singling out any one’s staff.

  13. oliver

    19 December at 15:41

    Couldn’t agree more with the call for Mr Dimbleby to resign.

    IoC has finally faced a real, true-life test – the threat of potential sectarian violence as a result of publication – and has self-censored as a result.

    No amount of diversion can alter this fact. Meanwhile, Kenan Malik should be applauded for his courageous stand.

  14. Derek Pasquill

    19 December at 10:11

    The credibility of IoC is now badly damaged. The Board (with the exception of Kenan Malik of course) should resign.

  15. Pingback: Liberal Conspiracy » Index on Censorship mag quarrel over Danish cartoons

  16. Michael

    19 December at 02:12

    For shame. The board, in one deplorably timorous move, has damaged – perhaps irrevocably? – the credibility of the IoC to campaign against religious censorship. What a disgrace. I second David MWW’s request. If the reputation of the organisation is to be rescued, the resignation of the board (with the exception of Malik of course) is the only option.

  17. Nick

    19 December at 01:32

    This decision is so breathtaking in its pusillanimous irony that it fulfils Index on Censorship’s purported mission better than any positive action the journal has ever taken! It demonstrates once and for all that traditional methods of information dissemination are doomed as vessels for and guarantors of freedom, as are the petrified dinosaurs who so confusedly and timorously oversee them.

    “Lackey” and “Lickspittle” have rarely been more appropriately used than in describing Jonathan Dimbleby’s actions and weasly explications thereof. Once again, this insubstantial fruit of nepotism reveals himself rotten to the core. Resign in deserved shame!

  18. Josh

    19 December at 00:29

    Appalling. I second (or third) the calls for your resignation. If you cannot see the Orwellian/Kafkaesque situation you have put Index in, then you have no business on the organization’s board. My God – I never would have thought I’d see the day.

  19. Gordon Layton

    18 December at 23:41

    This is a wretched decision, motivated by fear. How can IoC credibly argue against censorship while practicing it?

    In many parts of the world, people take far, far greater risks to assert their right to free speech than anyone was asking IoC to. One is forced to conclude that most of the grandees who sit on the board of Index on Censorship want to bathe in the reflected glory of other peoples’ struggles while risking absolutely nothing themselves.

    To take the decision is shocking. To remain in situ having done so is inexcusable.

  20. Pingback: Censorship at Index on Censorship | MediaWatchWatch

  21. Sherry Jones

    18 December at 21:38

    The terrorists are winning the war against free speech, and you are fighting on their side with this decision. You are also contributing to intolerance of Muslims, which is most egregious.

    For the record, the attack over “The Jewel of Medina” was not a “firebombing.” It was an arson attack by three men who were not apparently linked to any terrorist organization, but were acting alone. And, since Scotland Yard knew about it in advance, no lives were endangered.

    Please see my blog post on this regrettable act of self-censorship: http://authorsherryjones.com/blogs/

    Sherry Jones
    author, “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina”

  22. DavidMWW

    18 December at 20:42

    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.

    Ah, so you are showing how easily and rapidly it can be eroded by example. How clever!

    Please resign.

  23. Eric MacDonald

    18 December at 20:10

    Jonathan Dimbleby says: “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.”

    How do you get beyond ‘a narrow obsession with those Danish cartoons’ by censoring them, since censorship is the issue? Then they become the matter at hand, and it becomes even more important to address them.

    Dimbleby’s reasoning is sadly deficient. Kenan Malik is right to dissent. Jonathan should think again. Just by saying this he has given permission to others to censor what they think is being obsessively discussed. Index on Censorship should revise its opinion, do what it should have done in the first place, and then get on with other things. With this in the way, how does Index on Censorship simply go on? Justice, they say, should be seen to be done. When the Index on Censorship censors, then it must be put on the Index too!

  24. Ophelia Benson

    18 December at 19:20

    “…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.”

    But the process by which Yale decided is the same as the process by which Index decided – the claim that there could be violent reactions and that therefore the safest course would be to censor the cartoons again.

    But it’s always the case that there could be violence – and allowing past violence to censor all publication of a particular item in perpetuity is surely not the job of Index on Censorship.

  25. Pingback: Index on Censorship » Blog Archive » From the magazine: see no evil

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