Lincoln Book Festival

Lincoln Book Festival
2017 Festival Programme

Friday, 16 October 2015

Censorship may not be new, but it is worrying

In my research for my forthcoming book, War on Wheels, on the story of the mechanisation of the army in WW2, I read many accounts of captivity written by those who had spent years as prisoners of war. They were allowed to write home, but in the knowledge that everything they wrote would be seen by their captors. The result was letters that revealed nothing of the dreadful conditions under which they were forced to live.

This is perhaps an extreme example, but, in a way, all writers self censor in the light of their audience, but for other reasons too.

At the recent Lincoln Book Festival we heard from Andrew Morton how the British press had censored themselves in holding back from reporting a good deal about the abdication crisis. Their motivation was loyalty; nevertheless the effect was to hold back important truths.

We then had a panel of journalists considering the whole question of press freedom and censorship. It became clear that, whilst legal guidelines are now quite clear and edicts from government are few and far between, censorship is a current reality.

An example would be the rejection by the newspaper of an article because it makes a point that runs counter to the newspaper’s ‘brand’. We perhaps don’t think too much of papers having brands, but they do. There is a distinctive ‘Daily Mail’ brand, a ‘Guardian’ brand. These come into sharp relief at election time when they offer their voting advice.

A more blatant form came in the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover where we heard that, as recently as the 1960s, an attempt was made to withdrawn this great novel from publication as being obscene.

There are then myths that become history and so censor other interpretations.

We listened to a talk on the Peasants Revolt only to discover that it was not the peasants who revolted but the emerging middle class. Juliet Barker’s painstaking research had turned upside down the assumptions of centuries. She also pointed out to me that we are quite wrong if we trace a line from Magna Carta to the Peasants Revolt; it is more closely linked in terms of documents with the Doomsday Book and was about the interaction of freedom and money. Our speaker for the children’s afternoon on Magna Carta pointed out just how often freedom is evidenced by people’s ability to deal freely with their own money.

There are also accepted truths which censor other opinions.

The Friday evening of the festival gave the audience the opportunity to dispel some myths about Islam and to understand better its origin and the way that it fitted with other contemporary religions.

The way Islam is reported is often to emphasise extremes. We heard of a faith that could hardly be more different, whose teaching builds on the Hebrew Bible and parallels much of Christianity. Yet, this is seldom if ever reported. It is hardly surprising perhaps that young Muslims become disenchanted.

If I look ahead, I wonder how the press will approach the European Referendum and whether both sides of the argument will receive a fair hearing.

The sort of censorship I have been talking about is perhaps inevitable in a free society. We just need to be aware of it. Having said this, we do in this country have a long and proud tradition of public service broadcasting. Perhaps one area for the new BBC charter would be a renewed commitment to give due space to views from across the spectrum.

Phil Hamlyn Williams - Trustee Lincoln Book Festival

Published in the Lincolnshire Echo 15 October 2015