September 27, 2019

Some time ago, I bumped into an acquaintance of mine who is a theatre critic. I expressed, as I generally do, my admiration for his perseverance and toil in the coalmines of his craft. “I don’t know how you do it,” were among the admiring words that I uttered. (And if anyone responds that theatre criticism isn’t the harshest coalface a worker can be up against, I would simply say that such a person has clearly never had to sit through a new Caryl Churchill play at the Royal Court.)

Anyhow – I relate this conversation because of what my acquaintance said next. “The problem is, Douglas,” he replied, “the theatre is not the theatre.” This is the sort of thing that catches the attention.

“So what is it then?” I asked back.

“It thinks that it is a think tank,” he said. An insight that very much made my evening.

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Once you realise this, you can see why so many theatre people are involved in rather histrionic forms of politics (see Vanessa Redgrave, Mark Rylance et al). If you believe that you possess exceptionally important insights into political affairs, then it is possible that being restricted to a short run at a small and unpacked theatre may frustrate you. You may even come to ruminate that the medium through which you have chosen to communicate with the world is not the perfect medium for the transmission of political ideas.

It got me thinking about what else might be said to fall into a similar category — to consider which sectors are not doing what people on the outside think they are doing. I could reel off a long list of such institutions, but foremost among them is the publishing world.

It is perhaps inevitable that people see trends most clearly in sectors that they know. It is for that reason, among others, that I was not surprised to read that Professor James Flynn’s new book on free speech has been cancelled.

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Those interested in the full story can find Flynn’s own account published by the excellent Quillette. But the nuts and bolts are that Flynn had written what sounds like a rigorously scholarly work called In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor and Emerald Press had scheduled it for publication in its September 2019 catalogue.

There the publishers had said:

“In Defense of Free Speech surveys the underlying factors that circumscribe the ideas tolerated in our institutions of learning. James Flynn critically examines the way universities censor their teaching, how student activism tends to censor the opposing side and how academics censor themselves, and suggests that few, if any, universities can truly be seen as ‘good’.”

But, then, in June Professor Flynn received an email from his publisher saying that they were regretfully no longer able to publish his work.

“Emerald believes that its publication, in particular in the United Kingdom, would raise serious concerns. By the nature of its subject matter, the work addresses sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender. The challenging manner in which you handle these topics as author, particularly at the beginning of the work, whilst no doubt editorially powerful, increases the sensitivity and the risk of reaction and legal challenge.”

Emerald then gives two main reasons for refusing to publish the manuscript. First, that the work “could be seen to incite racial hatred and stir up religious hatred under United Kingdom law”. Though keen to stress that they were aware that there was no such intent on the part of the author, the publisher did add that because of “modern means of digital media expression…The potential for circulation of the more controversial passages of the manuscript online, without the wider intellectual context of the work as a whole and to a very broad audience — in a manner beyond our control —represents a material legal risk for Emerald.”

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That is an extraordinary thing in itself. For it is true that the online world can pick up a piece of anything and make it into a worldwide social media storm. But the simple job of all grown-ups — let alone grown-ups who believe in free speech — in such a situation is not to bow to the storm, but to say, “So what?”

Emerald had another justification at hand.

“Secondly, there are many instances in the manuscript where the actions, conversations and behaviour of identifiable individuals at specific named colleges are discussed in detail and at length in relation to controversial events. Given the sensitivity of the issues involved, there is both the potential for serious harm to Emerald’s reputation and the significant possibility of legal action.”

The only possible interpretation of these words is that in recounting the outrages at various colleges and universities in recent years (such as the assault and hospitalisation of Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College in 2017), some of the authorities who had culpability for such actions might have been named. And some of them might have minded being named. And some of them may have sued.

This is familiar terrain. In 2006, the book Alms for Jihad by Millard Burr and Robert O Collins was published in America but not in the UK; it was believed that Britain’s libel laws would make it possible for at least one of the wealthy individuals named in the book as having provided material support for terrorism to sue. That may have been a legitimate fear then (since the slight reform of the libel laws in Britain it is a slightly less serious fear today). And it may be an illegitimate fear now (just how many millions will an American academic be willing to burn in the UK courts to deny something that is true?). But it is also a pusillanimous decision and one which any publisher should be ashamed of themselves for conceding, let alone kow-towing to.

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But that returns me to the point I started off at. Which is that what Emerald’s weaselly communication actually offers is a weaselly reminder that to a great extent the publishing industry has stopped being a place for the fair and free exchange of ideas. It has instead, in significant part, become a body which believes that its job is in some way to hold the line on what is acceptable discussion and what is not.

If that line were put around, say, Holocaust denial materials (as it is) then that may be all well and good. But in recent years much of the publishing industry in countries such as the UK, US and Australia has seen fit to attempt to anathematise views which are held by large swathes – even majorities – in the general public.

I happen to be fortunate enough to be published by a publisher (Bloomsbury Continuum) which is most certainly not subject to such censorship or self-censorship. Indeed Bloomsbury publishes writers ranging from me to Laurie Penny, who could not in any way be described as bedfellows. Which is as it should be. But in the publishing industry this is no longer the norm.

When my book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islamwas published in 2017, I heard from a very wide range of people in the publishing business. One of the most telling (but not unusual) tales came from someone who worked at one of the other major publishing houses. This person asked their boss whether he had seen how well The Strange Death of Europe had been selling. Yes, he conceded that he had noticed. And did he remember this person mentioning to him some time before that they really should have published something on the immigration question? Yes, the boss conceded. But they still wouldn’t do so. Why, he was asked, since the profits were obviously there? “Because we,” he stressed, “wouldn’t want those readers.”

I suggested that this person tell their boss to inform their shareholders at the next shareholder meeting that they were not, in fact, running a ‘for-profit’ organisation but rather some sort of NGO which aimed to police the borders of the culture.

That is not the case with all publishers, thank goodness. But it is the case with some. And Professor Flynn seems to have had the misfortune to have been made vulnerable to one. May he be successful in finding another publisher who wishes to live up to that tradition of true dissent and dispute which is one of the finest traditions of all.