It all started with a letter to the Times
Oliver Kamm: It all started with a letter to the Times
01 Mar 12

Reproduced with kind permission of The Times

The perils of opposing orthodoxy are a constant of history. As Voltaire wrote to Diderot in 1758: “We are compelled to lie, and then we are still persecuted for not having lied enough.” There is, however, a voice prepared to insist on the right of free expression for heretics. It is Index on Censorship, a pressure group that marks its 40th anniversary this year and whose founding was assisted by The Times.

In 1967 this newspaper published a long appeal by Pavel Litvinov, a Soviet dissident. His article drew attention to the plight of three Russians on trial for supporting the free speech of a samizdat literary magazine. Litvinov, the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, had been told by the Soviet security services that he would be held “criminally responsible” if his account of the trial was published. [The Times] published it. Litvinov’s plea gained support from prominent British writers, artists and intellectuals, including W. H. Auden, A. J. Ayer, Henry Moore, Iris Murdoch and Stephen Spender.

That campaign was the origin of Index. The group has lobbied for writers throughout the world whose words are suppressed, and it has recorded instances of political censorship. The roster of contributors to the magazine is of extraordinary quality. It includes Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing and Salman Rushdie. And while, like any campaigning organisation comprising independent minds and wills, it has had the occasional internal political argument, it remains an essential part of the cultural and political landscape.

Litvinov will be speaking at an event at the London School of Economics this evening alongside Michael Scammell, Index’s founding editor and the biographer of Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler. They will have much history to reflect on.

The inspiration for Index, the treatment by the Soviet Union of political dissent as criminal or insane, has been superseded by history. In his celebrated columns in The Times in the 1970s and 1980s, Bernard Levin gave support to Index’s campaigning and, with remarkable prescience, predicted the fall of the Soviet Union.

But with new forms of communication have come increased powers for autocratic governments to control dissent. And some regimes bear a striking similarity to autocracies of an earlier age. Index has made a point of defending the rights of free expression in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe, is resorting to familiar Stalinist methods of police violence and trumped-up charges against his opponents.

Threats to free speech come not only from malevolent regimes. The phenomenon of “libel tourism” in the UK and the creeping censorship of criticism of religion are newer issues that occupy free-speech campaigners. Their work is never complete; but what has been done merits recognition and admiration.

By Oliver Kamm

Oliver Kamm is an author and columnist for The Times.