British journalists pride themselves on their freedom to write without fear of censorship (but with due regard for good taste and our sometimes draconian libel laws). In a thoughtful posting on his blog, however, the Guardian‘s veteran political commentator Michael White wonders whether he and his fellow writers aren’t being too complacent. He starts out by examining a worrying crackdown on Turkish journalists by the country’s supposedly moderate Islamic government but broadens his argument to look at self-censorship closer to home. Read on to the end for a very honest exposure of the predictable targets that the Guardian‘s fearless writers habitually aim at, and the subjects that are traditionally taboo for them:
I was horrified yesterday to read that the supposedly moderate Islamic party now ruling Turkey has begun silencing critics. Not just its secular enemies, we knew about that, but previous sympathisers who nonetheless believe that governments should not be above the law or political accountability.
Older journalists and writers in Turkey recall the days when some subjects were simply taboo – criticising the all-powerful military or supporting communism. Suggesting that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians during World War I got no less a figure than Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk into trouble recently.
“I don’t remember a time when we were free in this country to write on anything … but we felt safer than today because we knew what to write and what was restricted. Now it’s more complicated,” the columnist Ismet Berkan told yesterday’s FT.
There’s a particular issue here – the future of Turkey, an important country – and the more general point about “what it’s safe to write about” – an issue that affects us all on the keyboard, even here in Britain. I’ll come back to that.
Given the dishonest way the European Union has treated the protracted, phoney negotiations for Turkish access to the EU, I have some sympathy for the resurgent nationalism that is tilting the Turks away from the secular west under the Justice and Development (AK) party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister.
My underdog’s impulse is accentuated by the snooty disdain with which Turkey’s secular elite, the commercial, intellectual, political and military types dominant in Istanbul and Ankara, seem to regard AK leaders, let alone their headscarf wearing supporters. The Times carried a feature last year whose well-heeled interviewees dripped with condescension.
But the Turkish government has been arresting ever-wider circles of “subversives” and “terrorists” as two inquiries into alleged coup plots – a military plot known as “Sledgehammer” and a network called “Ergenekon” – for four years now.
At one level this could be seen as an attempt to cleanse the “deep state” network that has had huge influence over the modern Turkey, which arose from the ruins of the Ottoman empire in 1918, one of the few post-Versailles states to thrive.
But the pace seems to have quickened as the next election approaches and, as so often, the revolution has started to devour its own children.
A journalist called Nedim Sener, best known for a book exposing police negligence in investigating the murder of an Armenian journalist, was arrested recently after receiving threats. So was Ahmet Sik, another writer – previously sympathetic to the Ergenekon inquiry – who had also criticised the prime minister.
It’s a bad sign, especially since Turkey is currently held up as a model that modernising Islam could follow elsewhere in the Middle East where Arab peoples have been overthrowing autocracies of varying shades of depravity in 2011.
What has Turkish press freedom to do with the rest of us? Well, I listened with one ear yesterday to colleagues discussing the half-hearted attempts by the Scottish football authorities to do something about the latest outburst of sectarian violence between Celtic and Rangers fans after last week’s Old Firm match, which Catholic Celtic won 1-0.
One of my chums, who used to work for a Scottish newspaper and grew up in those parts, said that one thing reporters were simply not allowed to do was to write that Scottish football had problems with sectarian violence.
What were the others? Apparently, you could never write in this particular paper that “Hogmanay is not as good as it used to be” or submit a disparaging review of a Scottish rock band. They were all brilliant and that was that, explained my friend, who had learned this lesson the hard way.
Food for thought there, too, but no grounds for complacency in England, either. On the train home I read the FT – my end-of-day read – and found columnist Philip Stephens tackling the Libyan-LSE connection in much the same way as I did here myself last week.
Fine. Except that Stephens went much further than I did in saying we Brits are, one way or another, all involved in shabby compromises with autocracy and should get used to it. London’s position as a crossroads for the world’s investments makes the capital a “global Laundromat” for all sorts of dirty money and its owners.
What’s more, the Laundromat is underpinned by a host of specialist skills – clever bankers, imaginative accountants, smooth PR executives – along with ancient and prestigious institutions that could also help cleanse money and reputation.
Stephens could have added lawyers and estate agents (those “hideously vulgar” new flats on Hyde Park symbolise what he means), though he did mention Wimbledon, Henley and Ascot, which all contribute to the mix.
That all sounds better coming from the FT than it would in the Guardian, since more of the FT’s readers fit that particular mould. Where he put me on the back foot was in pointing out that another attraction of London lies in its “draconian libel laws” and the battery of lawyers that polices them. “The media is muzzled” by threats and writs the moment it makes inquiries into dodgy-but-rich residents, the FT pundit writes.
Is it that bad? In today’s Guardian, doughty FoI campaigner Heather Brooke, herself a refugee from the land of the First Amendment, complains that the British royal family (“are we living in Thailand?”) is above criticism just because there are set procedures for MPs to criticise “Air Miles” Andy Windsor – part of our ancient historical settlement with the crown when parliament deposed it.
Though Brooke works herself up into a lather I’m not sure she’s on the right track here. Anyone who lives in Britain – Heather has been here a long time now – must have noticed that, for all their privileges, the royals are an easy target for media torment, tabloid and broadsheet.
Charlie Windsor’s clod-hopping forays into planning inquiries are both exposed and abused, not least by the Guardian.
Prince Andrew’s matrimonial woes have been the stuff of ridicule for years now. Only Wills and Kate (“Catherine”) are still on the upswing of the media cycle: it won’t last much beyond 29 April.
So it’s not the royals who are above criticism, let alone the local political elite, but rich foreign plutocrats – Mohammed Al Fayed, for example. I’d love to know more about his money and people like him. But it’s time-consuming and difficult work so Fleet St usually – not always – goes after the low-hanging fruit.
Randy vicars, greedy councillors, silly MPs – none of them can afford a decent City law firm with the meter running, so they all get a harder time than investment bankers do – even this week, when their egregious greed is again on display. The problem is not confined to Britain, of course.
In Ireland and France, our two near-neighbours, the rogues get away with it too often. And in all countries some of the rogues take the precaution of owning a newspaper or six. Happy birthday again, Rupert! Don’t eat too much over-rich cake, it can be dangerous at your age!
And self-censorship plays a part. What, even at the saintly Guardian? Sometimes, yes, I think. It’s not like working for one of Fleet St’s autocracies. No one writes deliberately to see their work end up on the electronic spike, so Murdoch staff find it easier to attack the BBC – often and at length – than explain the predatory tactics of Sky or why Chris Patten’s memoirs were ditched by HarperCollins.
At the Telegraph, you do not lightly write about publicity-shy, tax-lite owners of weird castles on the Channel Islands – it’s easier to accuse elected MPs of lesser follies. At the Daily Star, owned by Richard “Asian Babes” Desmond, you do not write about foul-mouthed porn barons. The Mail, well, it is a law unto itself and reflects the robust prejudices of its editor, Not-Sir-Paul-Dacre, who has not been in power for half as long as Colonel Gaddafi and its shows to his credit.
It is more heterodox than is widely appreciated by non-readers and has taken a strong stance against greedy bankers, who, by happy coincidence, prefer the more sympathetic FT. So do bank advertisers. But elected governments fear the Mail most.
And us? I have always sensed liberal, middle class ill-ease in going after stories about immigration, legal or otherwise, about welfare fraud or the less attractive tribal habits of the working class, which is more easily ignored altogether.
Toffs, including royal ones, Christians, especially popes, governments of Israel, and US Republicans are more straightforward targets. Why, Margaret Thatcher almost did not make the cut (so we read) in yesterday’s splendid G2 International Women’s Day anthology of 100 great gals. Amazing!
Nor has it been easy to smuggle anything creditable about Tony Blair into the paper for several years now, though tyrants with more convincing leftwing credentials sometimes get the benefit of the doubt.
So while we hacks do not fear the knock at the door in a Turkish dawn, we should not feel too pleased with ourselves. And remember, dear reader, that we are also striving much of the time to tell you what you’d rather know rather than challenge your prejudices and make you cross.
As the old saying goes, we are all guilty.