Censorship is still in the script

In June 2015, a national newspaper in Britain started a campaign to have a play banned. This surprised me for two reasons. One: clearly no one had told the Daily Mirror about the Theatre Act 1968, which abolished the state’s censorship of the stage and did away with the quaintly repressive (if that’s not an oxymoron) notion of the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen. Two: the play in question was mine.

I wrote An Audience With Jimmy Savile to show how the late entertainer managed to get away with a lifetime of sexual offending. But despite the play’s very public service intentions, the Mirror started a petition to stop it. And so, for a moment, I found myself in some exalted, unwarranted company: Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw had plays banned (Ghosts and Mrs Warren’s Profession, respectively). Inevitably, however, the Mirror’s cack-handed attempt at censorship failed and the play went ahead.

The episode was instructive, however. Because while it’s true that “we” – that is, the British state – don’t ban plays any more, a powerful and unhealthy censorious reflex still exists and there are clear signs that the urge to stifle and to repress has been growing stronger over the last few years. That repression takes many forms: a social media backlash here, a not-very-subtle government threat there – but it’s real, it’s unhealthy and it’s profoundly worrying.

Censorship in the West is real

We are not, of course, in the same league as China – where a play bemoaning their treatment of Uyghur Muslims, for example, would never be officially sanctioned – but as playwright David Hare told me in an email exchange for this article, censorship in the West is real. It just isn’t called that anymore.

“Is there censorship in the sense that there is censorship in Iran, Russia or China? Of course not. Nobody’s physical survival is threatened,” he said.

But he does seem to say that the BBC has, in effect, become a censorious government’s useful idiot. (My phrase, not his.)

“The BBC has a current policy of deliberately not alienating the government,” he said. “They have chosen the path of ingratiation rather than asserting their independence. The result is, effectively, a range of subjects [which is] hopelessly narrowed. Hence the ubiquity of cop shows. Even medical dramas are forbidden if they stray into questions of ministerial health policy.”

Some might accuse Hare of pique, given that a TV adaptation of his most recent play, Beat the Devil, starring Ralph Fiennes, was turned down by the BBC. He says it was rejected because of the subject matter: Covid-19. (Hare became gravely ill with the virus and the play depicts him on his sickbed, despairing of the government’s response to the pandemic as they “stutter and stumble” on the airwaves.)
Indeed, when Hare went public with his attack on the corporation for turning him down, it refused to comment and the inference was that this was an editorial judgment and not a political one. But, says Hare, they would say that wouldn’t they?

“Censorship in the West,” he said, occurs “in the impossible grey area between editorial judgment and active prohibition.”

He’s right. The most egregious recent example of censorship-in-all-but-name occurred in 2015 when the National Youth Theatre (NYT) cancelled a production of the play Homegrown, about the radicalisation of young Muslims, two weeks before it was due to open. The executive who made the decision cited “editorial judgment” as a factor.

But, thanks to Freedom of Information requests from Index on Censorship, a fuller explanation emerged soon afterwards. An email from the NYT executive responsible for cancelling the production contained the following line: “At the end of the day we are simply ‘pulling a show’ … at a point that still saves us a lot of emotional, financial and critical fallout.”

In other words: “Yes, we might be censoring an important piece of work featuring the two most underrepresented groups on stage – Muslims and young people – because we are worried about defending ourselves from a backlash which hasn’t happened yet, but we don’t really fancy defending free speech and trying to ride out the storm because it’s too much hassle. So, let’s just cancel it and put it down to editorial judgment. Oh yeah – and safeguarding. Even though putting on work like this should be our raison d’etre.”

The director of the piece, Nadia Latif, was understandably shellshocked. A few weeks after the cancellation she said the creative team were “genuinely still reeling. The gesture of someone silencing you is a really profound one. You give your heart and soul to something, and someone comes and shuts it down. It’s like they’re saying my thoughts and feelings are no longer valid.”

And to refer the audience to my earlier point, it’s happening more and more. Albeit behind the scenes, and sometimes in ways you don’t get to hear about. There are two reasons for this: the pandemic and the nature of the current government.

Covid and censorship

The pandemic first. Although Hare’s Covid-19 polemic made it to the stage, that was the exception not the rule. I can’t find any other examples of plays critical of the current government being either staged or commissioned.

That would seem to be directly related to the fact that, during lockdown, every theatre in the country was desperate for financial assistance from the Treasury. So regrettably, but perhaps not surprisingly, few gave the go-ahead to works which bit, or even nibbled, the only hand that could feed them.

This isn’t speculation. When the producers of my play The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson – an unashamed takedown of the prime minister – tried to book it into theatres for a national tour post-pandemic, more than one theatre said, in effect: “We are worried we will lose our Covid grants if we put on a play like that.”

Which brings us on to the current Conservative government and its attempt to take a long march through our cultural, creative and editorial institutions.

When the Tories couldn’t get the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre installed as the new boss of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, they simply scrapped the selection process and ordered that it start again, putting Dacre’s name forward once more – even though, first time round, the selection panel described him as “not appointable”. Dacre has now voluntarily withdrawn and gone back to the Mail.

Someone who was appointable and acceptable, however – to the government, that is – was Nadine Dorries, the new secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport. Putting Dorries in charge at DCMS was a bit like getting Herod to run the local nursery. Within days of taking over she reportedly started issuing threats against our premier creative organisation – the BBC – which, in her view, was guilty of not sufficiently toeing the line.

After the BBC radio presenter Nick Robinson hectored Johnson in an interview – “Stop talking, prime minister” – it’s said that Dorries told her advisers that Robinson had “cost the BBC a lot of money”.
A bit like the take on Aids policy from the satricial show Brass Eye – is it Good Aids or Bad Aids? – there is Good Censorship and Bad Censorship. The decision to ban Homegrown falls into the latter category.

The social media backlash

But the act of self-editing – in effect, self-censorship – has more going for it. As Hare puts it: “There is all sorts of subject matter I wouldn’t tackle – but entirely because I’m not good enough. I have always refused anything which represents life in Nazi concentration camps, since I don’t trust myself to do it well enough to do justice to what happened. If I don’t think I can do justice to the real suffering of real people, then I avoid, [although] I take my hat off to great writers who are able to expand subject matter at a level where it vindicates the idea of writing about absolutely everything. More power to them.”

But it’s complicated, of course. The worry is that more and more writers, terrified of a vicious social media backlash, are self-editing to an extent that is unhealthy. There are few, for example, who would now dare to pen a play that took a critical, coolly objective look at both sides of the argument over transgender rights – even though tackling difficult subjects and representing “problematic” points of view is, arguably, one of theatre’s prime functions. What could be more relevant, and on point, than a play like that?

One playwright who did sail into these waters was Jo Clifford. Her play, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, casts Jesus as a trans woman. During its 2018 run at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, an online petition demanding the play be banned garnered a healthy – or rather unhealthy – 24,674 signatures. Soon after that she spoke of how artists and writers were “on the front line of a culture war that will only deepen and strengthen as the ecological and financial crisis worsens and the right feel more fearfully that they are losing their grip on power”.

So, at a time when writers and playwrights need to be bolder, the signs are that they’re becoming more and more cowed; hence Sebastian Faulks’s bizarre announcement that he will no longer physically describe female characters in his novels. Fortunately, most of his peers seem to disagree with him. A recent open letter signed by more than 150 eminent writers, artists and thinkers including JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem warned of “a fear spreading through arts and media”.

“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement,” it said.
Then again, not everyone agreed with the letter. Author Kaitlyn Greenidge said she was asked to sign it but refused, saying: “I do not subscribe to [its] concerns and do not believe this threat is real. Or at least I do not believe that being asked to consider the history of anti-blackness and white terrorism when writing a piece, after centuries of suppression of any other view in academia, is the equivalent of loss of institutional authority.”

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Promotional material for An Audience With Jimmy Savile. Photo: Boom Ents

The big question for writers, then, is this – if, like me, you believe that anything goes on stage, provided it’s not proscribed by law, how far should you go? Where do the (self-imposed) limits of free expression lie?

Those limits are different for each writer, of course. I would draw the line at, for example, depicting sexual assault on stage. My Jimmy Savile play showed the effects of it, clearly, on the main character – a young woman who’d been abused by him at Stoke Mandeville Hospital – but left the rest to the audience’s imagination. Sometimes it’s more powerful that way.

I would, however, defend the right of other playwrights to go further and include vivid scenes of sexual assault, provided it was for the “right” reasons. There would need to be a coherent dramatic justification for it and the creative team would be advised to have plenty of flak jackets ready. Anyone who tests the boundaries in this way will inevitably face accusations of prurience, unjustified provocation or worse.

The actor’s “thumb”

In 1980, when Howard Brenton showed a scene of homosexual rape in The Romans in Britain, the production found itself being prosecuted for gross indecency by Mary Whitehouse as part of her attempt to “clean up” Britain. (The prosecution failed when a key witness admitted that, from the back of stalls, what he thought was a penis might have been an actor’s thumb.)

A similar court case today would be unlikely. But then again there is always the Court of Public Opinion, powered by the rotten fuel of social media, which is arguably more scary and intimidating than the real thing.

I wouldn’t draw the line at giving free expression on stage to anti-Semitism, either. Sometimes the best way to destroy an argument is to bring it into the light. With one crucial proviso, which I will come to in a moment.

As a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust I am fascinated by the subject. I would love to see a play which explained where anti-Semitism came from. Or whether the definitions of it are justified. Are there internal contradictions there? (We fought the war to preserve our freedoms, but isn’t using the label “anti-Semitic” a destruction of one of our most cherished freedoms? As in, the freedom of speech?)

Any play which seeks to answer these questions would need characters espousing anti-Semitism – the more articulately the better, in my view – if they are to work properly.

My proviso would be that the anti-Semitism would need to be both contextualised and rigorously challenged. This could be done within the play – two characters arguing – or in the form of a post-show debate.

I would, for example, even have defended the right of writer Jim Allen and director Ken Loach to stage Perdition, their controversial 1987 play for the Royal Court, despite its disgusting anti-Semitic tropes.

The play accused Jews of “collaborating” with the Nazis during the Holocaust (is there a more loaded, insulting, inappropriate word in this context than “collaborated”?) and was based on the story of Rudolf Kastner, who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to let more than 1,600 Jews flee Hungary for the safety of Switzerland.

Kastner, it is argued, should have done more to warn more Jews (not just the 1,600 that he rescued) of what was happening. Hence Allen’s line: “To save your hides, you [a Jew] practically led them to the gas chambers.” Disgusting, misjudged and morally wrong.

In the resulting furore, the Royal Court cancelled the play. But the decision to ban it, paradoxically, only increased support for it, and the poison it contained. I would have let it go ahead but tried to persuade Allen to make editorial changes. And if that didn’t work (and I doubt it would have done, although some controversial lines were excised during rehearsals) then I would have staged a debate, forming part of the show, which allowed the Jewish community to explain why the play was so offensive and misjudged. Education beats defenestration, every time.

The stage would be the perfect place to explore the arguments on both sides, but in particular to highlight the muddy thinking of the anti-Israel lobby, as personified by Sally Rooney, who recently decided to punish the Jews by forbidding a Hebrew translation of her latest novel. (Although making them read it might have been a more effective punishment.)

British theatre is not in a good place today. Where are the revolutionaries? The new, angry young men and women, the new John Osbornes? We don’t need to Look Back In Anger: it’s all in front of us, now.

Would a film like 2009’s Four Lions, a deeply moral but, to some, hugely offensive Jihadi satire, get made today? I very much doubt it.

We – all of us: writers, commissioners and directors – need to be braver.

Index Index – International free speech round up 14/02/13

A Bahraini teenager has been killed by security forces today (14 February) during demonstrations to mark the second anniversary of the Bahrain revolution. Al Jazeeera reported the 16-year-old boy’s name as Ali Ahmed Ibrahim al-Jazeeri. He allegedly died from internationally banned exploding bullets after Bahraini authorities opened fire on the mounting crowds in Al DAih, near the capital Manama. The interior ministry announced a death on its Twitter this morning, but didn’t disclose any further details.

bahrain14feb bilad - Demotix

  — A child painted with the national colours of Bahrain during the uprisings second anniversary protests, in which a teenager was killed

Evidence given by Jeremy Paxman and a senior BBC official to the BBC internal inquiry into its handling of the Jimmy Savile affair will be removed from public transcripts detailing the investigations evidence. Lawyers examining the soon to be published transcripts said that evidence from the Newsnight presenter and global news director Peter Horrocks was potentially defamatory, and was particularly critical of how BBC management handled the criticism arising from the Savile scandal in Autumn last year. The findings of the inquiry, overseen by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard, were published by the BBC in December. The report examined the corporation’s handling of Newsnight’s dropped investigation into the case in 2011, and its later response after Savile was allegedly outed as a paedophile in October 2012. At the time the transcript was produced, those giving evidence reportedly didn’t know the report was to be made public. Overall, less than 10 per cent of the Pollard review transcripts will be redacted before publication.

A powerful new firewall used to censor online activity could be established in Pakistan within the next month. The Pakistani government has allegedly been working with the same technology companies that helped Iran, China and Libya curb online dissent, to allow authorities to block pornographic or blasphemous online content. Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik confirmed the reports on Twitter, saying The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) were in their final negotiations for obtaining the software. The PTA originally tried to introduce a similar $10million measure in 2012, which was quashed after being met with fierce public opposition. Whilst Pakistan claims to use the firewall to protect the country’s internet users from blasphemous and pornographic content, it has already blocked a number of unrelated sites, such as the US-based Buzzfeed.

An NHS whistleblower under investigation for high mortality rates has voiced concerns over patient safety despite a legal gag preventing him from speaking out. Gary Walker warned civil servants that he had been given the same choices that had resulted in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal. He was fired from his job as chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust in 2010 for gross professional misconduct, allegedly because he swore during a meeting. Walker claims he was fired for refusing to meet Whitehall targets for non-emergency patients and then gagged as part of a reported £500,000 settlement emerging from an unfair work dismissal tribunal. He said he was instructed by the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority to meet the 18-week non-emergency target “whatever the demand” and was told to resign when he refused to do so. East Midlands Strategic Health Authority refuted the claims. The Francis report published last week recommended that gagging orders on NHS staff be lifted, orders which Walker said were due to a “culture of fear” within the service. His case has been raised in the commons.

The Israeli government has admitted that “Prisoner X”, the mystery detainee who later committed suicide in solitary confinement, was in fact a spy for Israel. Ben Zygier, as he is now known from reports, was part of Israel’s external intelligence forces known as the Mossad and was arrested in 2010 for charges which still remain unspecified, though they were revealed to be serious. The detention of Australian-Israeli Zygier was reportedly enshrouded in such secrecy that even the prison guards didn’t know his true identity or alleged offence. The information was revealed after a gagging order which forbade the media in Israel from reporting on the case was partially lifted by the Israeli government on 13 February.

BBC stumbles, but will it fall?

You couldn’t make it up – and any 21st century Evelyn Waugh’s hoping to match his tales of journalistic folly must be wondering how art or the comic novelist can outdo reality. As George Entwistle becomes the second BBC Director General to resign in the last decade over the credibility of a key BBC news story, is the BBC really in crisis? Or can a rapid new appointment stop the rot?

In a nutshell, the BBC first spiked what by all accounts was a piece of very serious journalism on alleged child abuse by a leading national figure, Jimmy Savile — leaving rivals ITV to broadcast the story first — and then it let through a piece of shoddy journalism on child abuse wrongly implicating, albeit anonymously (’til Twitter got to work), another national figure. While some have suggested the second, lax editorial signoff two weeks ago may actually show that caution over the Savile story was appropriate, this looks like the wrong conclusion.

Only some insiders know the full story of both process and content. But we do know that in the Savile case substantial evidence had been gathered, and five women were interviewed on camera about their allegations. Whether there was pressure from above, fear of libel, a casual attitude to child abuse involving young teenage girls or all these and more, the decision not to broadcast looks wrong — and has led to a storm of criticism since the story broke at the start of October. The BBC’s subsequent crisis management was inept — Entwistle sounding inadequately informed and turning in a weak performance before MPs, while Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who shelved the programme, had to amend his blog post on how the decision was taken to correct inaccuracies.

A month after the Saville fiasco broke, Newsnight then broadcast its programme interviewing Steve Messham who alleged child abuse at a North Wales home in the 1970s by a senior Conservative politician. On Monday evening, the BBC issued a summary of its internal report confirming that Newsnight neither showed Messham a photo of the politician — nor put the allegations to that politician.  Lord McAlpine – mentioned in a series of tweets by a range of people after the Newsnight broadcast — has threatened legal action. Messham came out publicly after the programme and said McAlpine was not the person whose photo the police had shown him in the 1990s, and apologised. The BBC also apologised. Entwistle resigned, as did the director of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Iain Overton, the Bureau having been involved in making the programme.  As the summary BBC report says some “basic journalistic checks were not completed.”

Some suggest a libel action from McAlpine against Newsnight may fail, as the peer was not named in the programme. But wherever the legal case goes, the journalism looks shoddy and the editorial judgement in broadcasting the programme a bad call.

Perhaps one of the few brighter points of this dismal tale is that the most senior people in the two organisations resigned so fast — a lesson that ought not to be lost on hesitant politicians, heads of banks and others in recent years who have failed to step up and take responsibility for failures on their watch, or only reluctantly, slowly and after continuous pressure. But the large pay-off announced for Entwistle has rather diminished some of the impact of the honourable rapid resignation.

In a trenchant statement, Newsnight’s leading presenter, Jeremy Paxman blamed the post-Hutton inquiry BBC culture of appointing “biddable” people and “bloating” management at the expense of programme budgets. This sounds like the NHS, that other British icon, where years of changing reforms have repeatedly seemed to prioritise managers over medical staff. But if biddable managers is the problem, that can explain the Savile case — not taking a risk — but not the McAlpine case — taking a risk in spite of inadequate journalistic output. And it is how the BBC learns the lessons of these two opposite failures that will determine the eventual outcome of this crisis.

In the short term, the BBC will surely ride the crisis out. Chris Patten, heading up the BBC Trust, is right to be moving quickly to appoint what will have to be a top quality, credible new Director General.

But the BBC cannot afford another scandal of this sort soon. And the danger must be that serious, high quality, challenging journalism will be held back. If a battered, bruised and risk-averse BBC chooses to avoid any repetition of the second Newsnight weak journalism scandal, or holds back on anything risky as a second line of defence, then the crisis will have done real damage. If the BBC loses its courage on decent investigative journalism, this might create a false sense of calm for a while, but at the cost of undermining its reputation in the longer term. Steering between the twin hazards of weak editorial control and risk averse editorial control will be the test for the BBC and its next Director General.


Would it have been OK to hack Jimmy Savile's phone?

As already mentioned on this blog, at least one editor has said the libel laws made him nervous of printing allegations of broadcaster Jimmy Savile’s abuse of young girls. There are certainly more complex reasons behind the failure to properly report the story in the past, but it is worth looking at the broader ethical questions the case raises. Former trustee and long-time associate of Index on Censorship Mark Stephens has posed one such question on Twitter this morning.


Or, to generalise the question: what kind of issue justifies intrusion and subterfuge on the part of journalists? And what level of intrusion and subterfuge? It’s a problem Lord Justice Leveson’s panel of assessors is bound to be discussing. What do you think?