In Defence Of “Free Speech”

"I could not be clearer about the threat that comes from what I call the assassin’s veto: people who say, 'If you say that, we will kill you'"

In the May issue of , Daniel Johnson devoted an entire editorial, modestly entitled “The Editor’s decision is final”, to attacking not just my book Free Speech: Ten Principles For a Connected World but me personally, while emphasising that he is one of my oldest friends. With friends like that, one is tempted to exclaim, who needs enemies?

His personal criticism is that I “gloss over” and do not recant some very ill-judged and soon notorious lines in a review of one of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books in the New York Review of Books in 2006. “In his new book, Garton Ash does not acknowledge his own part in one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of free speech,” chunters Johnson. “I am at a loss to explain my friend’s silence. All he had to do was to admit his error. To err is human. Only popes are infallible.”

Now of course one does not expect a busy magazine editor actually to read a book before attacking it, but even a hardened realist might expect him to take the few minutes required to look up the four references to “Hirsi Ali, Ayaan” in the index to Free Speech. After describing the ordeal Hirsi Ali has endured as a result of Islamist death threats, I refer explicitly to formulations in that New York Review essay “that I subsequently concluded were wrong, and disowned”. For I didn’t wait until 2016 to “admit my error”; I did so already in a public encounter with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2007. This has been acknowledged by John Lloyd, who chaired the encounter (and notes in his Financial Times review that I “forthrightly retracted”); by Nick Cohen, who has been one of my most persistent critics on this issue; by Niall Ferguson, who is married to Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and, surely most important of all,  by Ayaan herself.

They seem to take the old-fashioned view that if you get something wrong you should retract it, and apologise to the person concerned, but not then be expected to walk around in sackcloth and ashes ten years later, flogging your own bleeding back with a knotted whip and crying, “Peccavi! peccavi! Forgive me, oh Editor, for I have sinned.” But Johnson, the Savonarola of Standpoint, has more exacting standards than all those dangerously liberal wimps.

Over the decade I have been working on this book, the journalists of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered in cold blood; Chinese writers have been silenced by what is probably the largest apparatus of censorship in human history; Vladimir Putin’s critics have been brutally eliminated, while his television channels declare that war is peace and freedom is slavery; in Britain, plays like Behzti and exhibitions such as the Barbican’s Exhibit B have been closed down; journalists have been horribly persecuted in Turkey and Egypt. Those are all massively shameful recent episodes, on which neo-conservatives like the editor of Standpoint and lifelong John Stuart Mill-liberals like me should concentrate our joint fire — but no, for friend Johnson none compare for shame with some lines in a book review written ten years ago. This really is the world seen from the wrong end of a London literary drinks party.

That takes me to a larger point. Quoting my observation that “for Western societies, Muslim violent intimidation has been in a class of its own”, Johnson objects that “this cardinal fact is lost in hundreds of pages devoted to other aspects of the subject: all interesting and important, no doubt, but beside the point”. Beside what point, for whom? I could not be clearer about the threat that comes from what I call the assassin’s veto: people who say, “If you say that, we will kill you.” That is why the second of the ten principles which head the main book chapters is, “We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.” I write at length about how to combat such intimidation, reflecting on my experience last year when I tried to organise a coordinated republication of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, to demonstrate that the assassin’s veto would not prevail.

This is, however, a book about all the challenges to and new possibilities for free speech across a connected world. In China, for example, violent Islamist intimidation is not the biggest threat to free speech. Does Johnson want to tell the activists and bloggers silenced by Xi Jinping’s party-state that their struggle is “beside the point”? What a painfully parochial response that would be.

Even inside the West, there are multiple dangers. Johnson blithely asserts that defending a free press requires one also to defend “the right . . . to pry and to titillate”. Really? Does that include a right to expose intimate details of private lives when there is no genuine public interest in so doing? According to him “the hysteria over phone-hacking . . . seems one of the most sustained attempts by the authorities to intimidate the free press since Milton’s works were burned on Charles II’s orders in the quadrangle of the Old Bodleian”. Well, please don’t stint on the hyperbole.

There is a serious debate raging in Britain about the benefits and dangers of press regulation, with veteran friends of free speech on both sides, but I would like to see Johnson defend his “right to titillate” in a face-to-face conversation with the parents of murdered, phone-hacked Milly Dowler. Or, for that matter, with the philosopher Onora O’Neill, or Standpoint advisory board member Tom Stoppard, both of whom have identified the corrosive and intimidating effects of press intrusion.

It was once said of a prolific critic that if he were sent to hell, his punishment would be to read all the books he had reviewed. But there is still time for Johnson. To err is human. All my friend need do is repent. And read before reviewing.

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