Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Why I'm not celebrating Thatcher's death

It was the American news channel CNN which – no doubt in all ignorance – broadcast one of the most telling items. Maggie was barely cold before her picture appeared on screen, trading smiles with Jimmy Savile.
Both were wearing big NSPCC badges – and we know now just where Savile really stood on preventing cruelty to children.
About the same place Mrs T stood on British industry, social housing, the railways, vital services such as power, water and telecoms, Scotland, Wales, the north of England, football fans and the working class in general.
Unlike many people I know, however, I couldn’t celebrate her demise.
I wish she had merely slipped away quietly, unnoticed. Without pomp, ceremony or sickening eulogies of a life that did so much harm to so many others.
Her death is nothing to celebrate while the pernicious, divisive and destructive principles she instilled live on in government. While her successors work on doing to health and welfare what she did to mining, shipbuilding and steel.
The death of the woman should be a private affair. The death of her ideas – now that would be something to celebrate.


There is a popular belief in Britain that our (unwritten) constitution gives us a right to something called “free speech”.
This belief could be variously described as quaint, wishful, or just plain wrong.
In a world where public servants can be forced from their jobs for making politically inexpedient remarks on Twitter, “free speech” isn’t worth the mobile device it’s written on.
In fact, certain currents at work in government – and, ironically, in some parts of the press – would make social media a tool of social control that Hitler and Stalin might envy.
Along with the fiction of “free speech” there is an associated belief that we have a “free press”. This too is a delusion.
Like any journalist worth their salt, I’ve sometimes been prevented for legal reasons from saying something I believed to be true. Usually the censorship is self-imposed.
Which is, in fact, how censorship nearly always works. Fearing the law, you bend over backwards not to risk even appearing to break it.
In the case of newspapers, the law concerned is usually the one of libel.
It’s the only British law that lays the burden of proof on the accused. It exists only to protect the powerful and rich.
And it’s not only journalists who have to watch what they say or print.
A new book, “Waiting To Be Heard”, is due for publication at the end of this month in the USA, Canada and Australia.
It’s the story, in her own words, of Amanda Knox, the American woman who was jailed in 2009 in Italy for the murder of English student Meredith Kercher. Acquitted on appeal in 2011, she is now awaiting a retrial after the acquittal was also overturned.
The Italian legal system, you may conclude, is even more bizarrely knotty than our own.
But Knox will have to go on waiting to be heard here because m’learned friend has advised publisher Harper Collins that a book which is fit to be sold everywhere else in the English-speaking world may not be safe against UK law.
You may not think it too dreadful to be denied what will no doubt be a pretty juicy read. But there is a much more serious recent case of a book freely available in the US and Europe being denied a British readership by its publisher’s fear of legal action.
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief” is a history and investigation of the controversial American church by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and lawyer Lawrence Wright. It’s considered legally safe in the homeland of its subjects Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but not here.
Archaic and restrictive as they are, our defamation laws are long overdue the reform which is being debated in Parliament today. It remains to be seen how much better the new will be than the old. I’m not holding my breath.


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