From The Berlin Wall To Brexit: Why Politics Needs A Free Press

“The impulse to suppress freedom of speech is never holy, even if it has taken many centuries for both church and state to admit as much. And that unholy impulse will re-emerge unless we are vigilant.”

Vaclav Havel addresses the multitudes in Wenceslas Square from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house, November 1989 (©LUBOMIR KOTEK/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-seven years ago, I stood in Wenceslas Square as Vaclav Havel, speaking from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house and surrounded by a sea of 300,000 demonstrators, announced to the world the creation of “a free, democratic and prosperous Czechoslovakia”. He declared that the newly-formed Civic Forum had spontaneously become “the real representative of the will of the people” and would immediately commence a dialogue with the Communist leadership to bring about “real paths toward change in the political and economic conditions in our country”. What struck me as a journalist at the time was that Havel, a writer whose sole authority depended on the written and spoken word, had in effect made himself the leader of the Czech people. If anybody else had done this, the regime might have crushed him. But he had seized the day by invoking the most precious of all liberties, the freedom to speak truth to power; so when he promised that the country would never return to totalitarianism, everybody believed him. It was a dramatic demonstration of the power of the free press.

I had arrived a couple of days after the violent suppression of student protests on November 17, 1989. By this time Alexander Dubcek had also appeared on the balcony in Wenceslas Square, leading many to expect that the hero of the Prague Spring would now make a comeback. I knew better, having followed Havel’s emergence as a focus of the underground university in Prague, but my superiors at the Daily Telegraph were incredulous at the notion of a playwright as president. Of course, the idea of Dubcek as a transitional president was not a bad one, and would have been unthinkable even a few days before; but in a revolution, events follow thick and fast as time seems to accelerate. Days, hours, minutes, even seconds acquire overwhelming importance.

Soon after I arrived in Prague, the crowd was chanting “Havel to the Castle”. Within a day or two, we journalists were introduced by Havel to the Civic Forum’s economic adviser, a formidable economist from the Institute for Prognostics who would soon become first finance minister, later prime minister and finally Havel’s successor as president — Vaclav Klaus. So the whole history of the Czech Republic was somehow telescoped into those few days of the Velvet Revolution. Not all the journalists covering these tumultuous events managed to keep up. Even as power was visibly ebbing away from the Communist party, a correspondent at The Times, who shall remain nameless, wrote an op-ed proclaiming that the ideal man to unify a divided Czechoslovakia was the arch-villain of the Prague Spring — Gustav Husak.

In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, it was said that Stadtluft macht frei: “City air makes you free.” I am a Londoner, and no city on earth has done more in the cause of freedom, especially the freedom of the press. In the great city of Prague, sometime imperial capital, freedom has also been in the air for many centuries. In the reign of Charles IV, who first established Prague as the intellectual heart of central Europe, humanists converged from across the Continent to admire Charles University, the first one east of Italy. Even Petrarch corresponded with Charles, begging the Emperor to rescue Italy from chaos. A century later, it was a rector of Charles University, Jan Hus, who — inspired by an Englishman, John Wycliffe — defied the authorities in the name of liberty by appealing above the Pope to Jesus Christ himself as his judge. Both Wycliffe and Hus believed that the Bible should be accessible in the vernacular: a free press is of no value to those who cannot read learned languages.

As a Catholic, I must acknowledge with shame the terrible fact that Hus was burned at the stake in Constance as a “heresiarch” for teaching and writing doctrines that the Church condemned and which his conscience did not allow him to recant. When an old woman threw sticks on the pyre to make it burn, Hus is said to have cried, “Sancta Simplicitas!” This is the most charitable description of all those, from popes to presidents, who have failed to defend the freedom of the press. Simple-minded conformity, along with fear and ignorance, are often powerful motives for our acquiescence in censorship. But the impulse to suppress freedom of speech is never holy, even if it has taken many centuries for both church and state to admit as much. And that unholy impulse will re-emerge unless we are vigilant.

Indeed, I am deeply conscious that this hard-won freedom of the press is only just over quarter of a century old in the Czech Republic. When I first visited Prague in 1975, it was impossible not to notice the oppressive atmosphere, the silence that greeted political questions, the absence of news or debate outside approved limits laid down by the Communist party. Only later did I learn of the existence of dissident networks, of an underground university, of the playwright Vaclav Havel, who was in and out of prison throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

I owed much of what I learned to our family friendship with Tom Stoppard, who had been born in Zlin during the 1930s when the Czechoslovak Republic was the only democracy in Central Europe, and emigrated to England via Singapore and India. Stoppard not only translated Havel’s Largo Desolato but set two of his own plays, Professional Foul and Rock ’n’ Roll, in Prague under Communism. It was Tom Stoppard, who had begun his life as a journalist on a local newspaper, who opened my eyes, not only to the cruel price being paid by countless Czech intellectuals and others for the absence of a free press, but also to the ease with which people in the West turned a blind eye to such tyranny. He dedicated another play, Night and Day, to my father, Paul Johnson, whose courage as a journalist he admired. That play, set in postcolonial Africa, encapsulates his contemporaries’ ambiguous attitude to British journalism when one of the characters remarks: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

We British have complained about the newspapers ever since they first emerged in 17th-century London. Though heretics were no longer burnt, books still were: as late as 1683, the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Milton were symbolically incinerated in the quadrangle of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, although the damage was ameliorated by the ingenuity of the librarian, Thomas Rouse, a friend of Milton, who omitted from the catalogue the precious copies of his books donated by the poet, thereby saving them from the flames. There is a certain irony in the fact that Milton, whose Areopagitica is the greatest of all apologias for the free press, was condemned alongside Hobbes, to whose Leviathan the very idea of such liberties is alien.

The legal weapon of choice against mere journalists was not the bonfire but a system of censorship, which required publishers to obtain a licence. The licensing system was backed up by the criminal charge of seditious libel, for which courts could impose unlimited fines and imprisonment. Those suspected of such libels could find their homes and offices searched and papers confiscated, enabling the authorities to prosecute them even for private writings — in other words, for “thought crime”. It was not until the mid-18th century that a series of court cases established the right to “publish and be damned”, without fear of such draconian punishments — though editors do occasionally still go to prison: Andy Coulson served five months for phone-hacking while editor of the now defunct News of the World.

It was, of course, this history of antagonism between press and government in the mother country that persuaded the founding fathers of the United States to protect freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Europeans still have no equivalent protection. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights does guarantee freedom of expression, but exempts state broadcasting monopolies. It also warns that the “duties and responsibilities” of the press require a long list of limitations on its freedom. The most important of these has in practice been the protection of privacy, particularly the privacy of politicians and celebrities.

In Britain one of the greatest assaults on the press in modern times was carried out in the name of privacy: the “phone-hacking scandal”. Apart from the collateral damage — one newspaper closed and hundreds of journalists’ lives ruined — the result was a new system of regulation and the precedent of a police investigation that involved trawling through the computers of the country’s largest newspaper group — the modern equivalent of the 18th-century general search and confiscation of papers. The fear that such searches might be repeated has undoubtedly had a chilling effect on the press — and hence on civil society. The authorities realised that while the great British public was all for freedom of the press, it was indeed the newspapers we couldn’t stand.

Yet it is the job of a free press to make trouble — including trouble for itself. To be a journalist of integrity means taking risks: not only of being ridiculed or sued by members of the public, prosecuted or imprisoned by governments — but also intimidated and assassinated by the enemies of freedom. As an editor, I have often had to ask myself: do I dare to publish an article that challenges fashionable assumptions, is critical of powerful individuals, or questions some aspect of a religion, particularly Islam? It is safe to warn against terrorism. But to identify the source of that threat in a particular community is riskier. Riskiest of all, are references to Muhammad. However Islamic the source, it is still perilous to mention the Prophet, particularly in a context critical of Islamists. In the wider media, a niche journal can be killed by silence — todschweigen, as the German expression has it. We have suffered such attempts to ignore us, particularly by the BBC, but we have not been killed by it. The survival of Standpoint as a print magazine for eight years above all bears witness to our stubborn refusal to be ignored.

For all the risks attendant on such decisions, it is rare that the full force of the law is deployed against editors or other journalists in Britain. In Germany, however, the spectacle of the satirist Jan Böhmermann’s investigation by the state prosecutor at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has acceded to the demands of President Erdogan of Turkey, is a dramatic reminder of the limitations on free speech in Continental Europe. Mrs Merkel has since conceded that she made “a mistake”, even if only in suggesting that the poem recited by Böhmermann was “bewusst verletztend” (“deliberately offensive”) and thereby implying that her opinion had a material bearing on the judicial process. As her justification for letting the prosecution go ahead is supposedly to protect the independence of the judiciary, such political interference undermines her case. But everybody in Germany believes that her decision is motivated by her desire to appease the Turkish president, with whom she has struck an unholy bargain to restrict the flow of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, in return for allowing Turks visa-free access to the European Union, and (perhaps) eventual full membership. The role of the satirist and the press have complicated her diplomatic calculations. Realpolitik is a German concept and in this case Mrs Merkel has shown herself as ruthless a practitioner as her predecessor, Bismarck.

It has been widely claimed that this prosecution is taking place under an “obscure” or “arcane” law. That is nonsense. The law in question is Paragraph 103 of the Strafgesetzbuch, the Federal German Penal Code, which dates back to 1871. I have checked this paragraph: the ban on insulting foreign heads of state, which carries a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment, was inserted into the code by Bismarck to protect the crowned heads of Europe. The words have not changed in 145 years, through world war and revolution, Nazi and Communist dictatorships. No German lawyer or politician could possibly have been ignorant of this law, including its harsh penalty. Despite the fact that both the German Federal Basic Law and the European Convention supposedly guarantee free speech and a free press, this vile law has never been repealed. Why not? Partly because it suited politicians to keep it in force, to deter the press from getting ideas above their station; partly also because it never occurred to them that such an odious deterrent may have been worthy of Bismarck’s authoritarian Reich but hardly of a modern liberal democracy. Mrs Merkel has been rightly denounced for her craven “kowtow” to Erdogan, but the real problem lies with a stifling culture of conformity, inimical to the English notion of a free press, that afflicts not only Germany but Europe.

The problem goes back to the first great flowering of the London press in the early 19th century. Robert Mudie, a Scottish writer whose description of London, Babylon the Great, in 1825 is a forgotten classic, devoted more space to the metropolitan press than anything else — not just because he earned his precarious living as a journalist, but because he saw that nothing like “that mightiest of intellectual engines . . . the most invincible auxiliary of improvement and liberty” had been seen before. For Mudie, “the press, even amid a great deal of erroneous opinion and angry practice on the part of those by whom it has been conducted, has contributed, more perhaps than anything else, to raise England to her present condition.” Neither Europe nor America, he contended, had anything comparable to the London press — in view of which “you cease to wonder why an Englishman feels so very uncomfortable when deprived of his newspaper . . . a much more valuable library than all that ever poet sung or philosopher speculated.”

For Mudie’s contemporaries, the press was superior to any declaration of liberty or human rights: “One may, without much fear of contradiction, pronounce that while the same assiduity, the same intelligence, and the same boldness, which at present send all public and many private transactions in England instantly before a jury of the whole country, without any sophist to darken them or any special pleader to bend them to a side, the intelligence, the freedom, and the consequent prosperity and security of the country rest upon a far firmer basis, than if a constitution of the most Utopian purity were established and placed beyond the possibility of theoretical corruption.”

There speaks a very British contempt for written constitutions and an equally British reverence for the court of public opinion. One may smile at such an idealised conception of the vocation of the journalist. The circulation even of the greatest paper of the day, The Times, was only 5,000 in 1815. Yet with the help of new steam-driven rotary presses, introduced by the paper’s first great editor, Thomas Barnes, that circulation had risen tenfold to 50,000 by 1850. However much hyperbole Mudie deploys in his praise of the press, he does not idealise his fellow journalists. Here is his description of them at work: “In the apartment — and it is sometimes neither a very large nor a very wholesome apartment — where the reports are written out, it may happen that there are ten individuals all writing at the same instant; and so mingling their voices in jokes, tales, inquiries after quotations, and so breaking the eloquence with pauses for tankards of ale, and basins of tea, and mutton chops, and German sausages, and all other materials for supporting and strengthening the carnal man, that it would puzzle all the conjurors in the world, except those conjurors at the waving of whose wands the printed eloquence makes its appearance, to find out how any work of any kind could be done amid a confusion of sound and of circumstances so perfectly Babylonian.”

That is a pretty fair account of the Fleet Street I knew in the 1980s — except that Telegraph hacks usually went next door to the King and Keys pub for their tankards of ale. The financial conjurors who have taken over the papers were certainly puzzled by the creative process; some disapproved. Newspaper offices are now much more wholesome, but the magic has undoubtedly gone.

Still, even today there is a world of difference between the role of the press in Britain and that in, for example, Germany. Even in Germany’s most liberal period, the mid-19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer always preferred to read The Times at his café in Frankfurt; the philosopher liked poodles, but only as pets. He preferred his papers to be independent. The German press was treated with contempt by German chancellors from Bismarck to Hitler. In transforming the print and broadcast media into the main tools of his propaganda, Joseph Goebbels met astonishingly little resistance. In the post-war Federal Republic, academics such as Jürgen Habermas have written countless volumes on the importance of public opinion (which they like to call, with that very German predilection for abstract nouns, die Öffentlichkeit, rather than the more literal translation, öffentliche Meinung). Yet, perhaps because Hitler left Germans with a mortal fear of “populism”, they do not accept that public opinion should be the opinion of the public rather than that of cultural and political elites. The post-war German press was largely the creation of the British, who encouraged the creation of national rather than regional organs, originally based in British-occupied Hamburg: Die Zeit, Die Welt, Bild and Der Spiegel.

These titles have flourished, later joined by others that have transcended their regional roots, such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine and Süddeutsche Zeitung. But when I was a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Bonn during the 1980s, the contrast with Fleet Street could scarcely have been greater. The German (and foreign) press were all based in a purpose-built Pressehaus, given privileges and generally treated like minor officials. Just as Continental parliaments are organised in semi-circular chambers arranged from Left to Right, based on the French Revolutionary assembly, so the press behave as trusted lieutenants of the parties and the state. The private lives of politicians were off-limits. Nobody wrote about Willy Brandt’s sex life until he was brought down by the Guillaume spy affair. They never wrote about Helmut Schmidt’s Jewish origins, nor about Helmut Kohl’s finances.

I quickly irritated the government bureaucrats: I refused to drop the British adversarial attitude of press to politicians. For example, I outraged the late Hans-Dietrich Genscher, then Foreign Minister, by confronting him in public about Bonn’s complicity in the notorious Colonia Dignidad in Chile, a German cult where torture and paedophilia were rife — now the subject of a film, Colonia, starring Emma Watson. I later discovered that I had been classified as persona non grata, which meant that no officials talked to me. That suited me fine, as I had no desire to be a mouthpiece anyway. Some of my colleagues on newpapers more to the taste of the German elite were doing that quite nicely already.

Despite my ostracism in the claustrophobic world of Bonn politics, I was destined to play a part on the larger stage of the Cold War. In 1989 I was transferred to cover what we still called Eastern Europe, based in London. I have already talked about the Velvet Revolution, but a fortnight before parachuting into Prague I took myself off to Berlin, where the German Democratic Republic — the most unpopular and least democratic of all the people’s democracies — was in an unfortunate predicament. Despite the best efforts of the Stasi — the most formidable apparatus of surveillance and control ever devised, apart from the only comparably divided nation, the People’s Republic of North Korea — young citizens were voting with their feet to leave. In particular, they had been besieging the West German embassy in Prague, which was easily accessible from by Trabant. Since September some 4,500 had been camping out in the embassy gardens; but even the splendid Lobkowicz Palace could not accommodate them all. Once the Czech authorities let them go, in a matter of days 50,000 crossed the Bavarian border.

Once in Berlin, I attended the press conference given by the East German party spokesman, the late Günter Schabowski, on November 9. After an hour of tedious proceedings of the central committee, Schabowski produced his Zettel, the scrap of paper with its plan to allow limited travel through the Berlin Wall, on the success of which rested the rescue of the regime. What happened in the next two or three minutes decided the fate, not only of the German socialist experiment, but of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the world.

Neither Schabowski nor any of his colleagues had ever before given a press conference to the foreign media that would be broadcast live, in prime time (it finished at 7 pm) to a large proportion of the East German and especially East Berlin population. It was an extremely risky thing for a totalitarian regime to do, and it would never have happened if they had not been desperate. They knew — as the people did not — that force was no longer an option. They were at the mercy of a more powerful force than either Nato or the Warsaw Pact — the power of the free press. Even so, it still strikes me as remarkable that Schabowski conducted the press conference with such apparent insouciance. He took the trouble to plant a question about the refugee question with a foreign journalist, but seemed to think that we had all been issued with the document from which he then read. He told us that exit visas would be granted on demand, but did not anticipate the next question, which was shouted by a journalist whose identity is disputed to this day.

Asked to explain when it would come into force, he made one of the great mistakes of history — the one for which he will always be remembered — by replying “Sofort — unverzüglich” (“immediately — without delay”). In those days it wasn’t easy for journalists to replay his words, to make sure that they had heard correctly. But the atmosphere, already electric, became frenetic — one or two wire reporters ran out of the room. But it fell to me to ask what proved to be the final question. I wanted above all to move the discussion about travel into the wider context of the Berlin Wall, which had not yet been explicitly mentioned. So I asked: “Herr Schabowski, was wird jetzt mit der Berlin Mauer geschehen?” (“Mr Schabowski, what will happen now to the Berlin Wall?”)

The response is, initially, silence. Schabowski seems at a loss for words. I have since come to the conclusion that he was indeed lost for words, for the very good reason that there was no good answer. If you were prepared to let your people go, why would you have a wall through the middle of your capital? Perhaps it dawned on him that what he and his comrades had just done might have sealed the fate of the regime. It is striking how much more eloquent Schabowski’s silence is than anything he subsequently says. At first, he plays for time: initially, by announcing that this would be the last question, then by repeating the question. When he finally attempts a response, he falls back on the euphemistic style he had temporarily forgotten — instead of “the Wall”, he speaks of “this fortified border”, supposedly built to defend the republic against fascists in the West. He enlarges on this fantasy by suggesting that the Wall might still remain unless and until Nato engaged in a serious disarmament process. Seemingly content with his pitiful exercise in obfuscation — the proper vocation of a party functionary — Schabowski closes the press conference.

But his propaganda has achieved the opposite of its purpose: the millions watching have seen how threadbare the regime’s self-justification really is. And so, after waiting for confirmation from the West German TV news, they go onto the streets, approach the checkpoints and demand to be let through. The border guards, abandoned by their political masters and left without orders, eventually let them go. The rest, as they say, is history — but the real story of that evening is the decisive role played by the free press. The greatest moment in modern German history, perhaps even in European history, came about because in the court of public opinion, the big lie does not survive.

What, though, has been the record of the British press in the history of Europe? In Prague, perhaps, those with long memories recall the infamous role of The Times in the Munich crisis of 1938, when the paper’s editor Geoffrey Dawson allowed his leader columns to be the tool of the Chamberlain government’s policy of appeasement. The Times floated the suggested “compromise” by which the Sudetenland would be handed over to Hitler. This example of Realpolitik would of course prove fatal for the first Czechoslovak Republic. It damaged the newspaper’s reputation for many years and when I worked there it was often cited as a warning against any sacrifice of editorial independence. In the present debate about the European Union and a possible Brexit, however, the accusation against the British press has been that it is too independent — indeed, too powerful altogether.

The British press has always been unpopular in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, where it is blamed for the rise of Anglo-Saxon Euroscepticism and feared for holding politicians to account. It is the British press that is blamed for encouraging Mrs Thatcher’s critique of Europe, for preventing Britain from joining the eurozone, and for pointing out its defects to others. In the migration crisis, the British press has again been in the dock, accused of xenophobia for not supporting the German policy of welcoming unlimited numbers of refugees and other migrants. In the Brexit debate, finally, the British press has been demonised again, first for having pushed David Cameron into holding a referendum at all, then for its supposed bias against what Germans like to describe as “the greatest peace project in history” — the European Union.

How fair are these accusations? Having served as a correspondent, columnist, comment editor and leader writer for two of the newspapers accused of “Europhobia”, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, I can say with some confidence that they are not guilty. None of the editors I worked for at either paper favoured Brexit at the time, and only one — Charles Moore — would certainly do so now. The criticisms British journalists have levelled at Europe over the years are the product of bitter experience and derive from an empirical sensibility for which the British have been famous at least since the 17th century. The present debate is being conducted in the media in a generally sober way that is certainly not hysterical, with due prominence given to the pro-European views of statesmen and nations, cultural and international organisations, the great and the good. The Times shocked many of its more sceptical readers by delivering a warning from the Treasury that Brexit would cost every household an average of £4,300.

A few days later it was the Telegraph’s turn to host President Obama in its pages, gently wagging his finger at his British “friends” for betraying the memory of Americans who died to save Europe in the Second World War and have been defending our democracy ever since. Actually, it was the British who stood alone against Hitler’s attempt to unite Europe, long before the United States entered the war; and when the Allies liberated the Continent, it was in the name of national self-determination, not European federalism. It did not help the Remain cause that Obama chose to bully British voters for exercising that right of national self-determination, by threatening that in post-Brexit trade negotiations with the US, Britain “would go to the back of the queue”. This was a tone more suited to a mafia boss than to the leader of the free world, but at his press conference with David Cameron nobody seems to have called Obama’s bluff. The president got off more lightly than he deserved, just as Angela Merkel generally gets a better press in Britain than she does at home. If the British press has a fault these days, it is that we have become too deferential — too “European”, dare I say — towards those in power.

In his 1958 play The Fire Raisers, Max Frisch depicts a respectable bourgeois businessman, appropriately named Biedermann. A stranger comes to the door and refuses to leave. The man, Schmitz, says he is a wrestler and, overcoming the host’s suspicions, makes himself at home. He later brings a friend, Eisenring, to stay as well. It gradually emerges that the uninvited guests are making careful preparations for arson, but Biedermann, by now under their spell, is unable to bring himself to evict them. Finally, the guests explain openly that they are fire raisers and the house is engulfed by an inferno. This allegory of the rise of the Nazis may be classic theatre of the absurd, but it has sinister echoes in today’s Europe. Who should have interrogated the fire raisers between the wars? Who will interrogate them today? Who will ask awkward questions at press conferences? Who will embarrass presidents and prime ministers? Who will investigate, castigate, cogitate and irritate? The free press must do all these things today, just as we have always done — only better.