A Week in Books: A glittering account of the diamond trade

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The Independent Culture

After Disney apparently refused to handle Michael Moore's celluloid polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11, the row over market censorship rumbled long and loud. That's America - and Hollywood - pundits over here might say. In Britain, and in the book world, we take such liberty for granted.

We can't, of course. Publishers' fear of libel suits - in particular, of "libel tourism" by foreign claimants - acts as an often-invisible brake on controversy. Mostly, it inhibits not vapid tittle-tattle about private lives but serious reportage. Take Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud, acclaimed in the US for a careful exposure of the close ties between the two first families. Here, Secker & Warburg announced the book but then failed to release it. In other cases, news of the suppression of books may emerge very late, or not at all. Thanks to an intrepid US firm, an extraordinary example has just come to light.

Disinformation, a New York outfit, has issued a formidably well-researched and widely-sourced account of the global diamond trade by the Australian-based investigative journalist Janine Roberts. Glitter and Greed (£16.99) is distributed here by Turnaround (020-8829 3000; or orders@turnaround-uk.com). It strikes this lay reader as one of the most dogged and damning exposés of a near-monopolistic industry to appear in years. The greater wonder is that it has appeared at all.

Roberts first began to unearth the stories of diamond miners and traders while reporting a clash between Aboriginal people and prospectors more than 20 years ago. The project meant, above all, following the trail of De Beers. In Africa, De Beers still mines "about 45 per cent by value of the total annual global diamond production". Through its selling arm, the Diamond Trading Company, it "markets some two-thirds of global supply". In partnership with the luxury-goods group LVMH, it is currently looking for new ways "to exploit the value of its brand". The quoted phrases don't come from Roberts's enthralling and alarming history of the company's activities. They appear on the official De Beers website.

Glitter and Greed records two decades of hair-raising research in Africa, Australia and India. It explores with - if anything - a surfeit of documentation the tangled links between diamond trading, civil strife, child labour and semi-slavery. As Roberts writes, "When Princess Diana met with Angolan land-mine victims, she met victims of the proceeds of diamond sales".

Many of Roberts's discoveries entered the public domain in a two-part BBC documentary, The Diamond Empire, screened (with cuts) in 1994. By that stage, she had also completed a book. Doubleday's reader called it "sensational, well-documented and very controversial". Too much so, it seems: the investigation featured in the catalogue but never appeared. Later, Little, Brown declined to publish, hoping that Roberts could find a "less cowardly" home. Now she has.

Fully updated, Glitter and Greed traces the radical overhaul in the diamond industry's image and practice over the past five years. De Beers itself now stands in the forefront of the campaign against "conflict diamonds" sold to fund civil war. Roberts follows the refinement of the "Kimberley Process" designed to certify that the rocks on your ring come from a clean source. She decides, with a wealth of evidence, that a "Kimberley" stone offers no guarantee that the diamond "will not have been cut illegally by a child" or "mined by a miner breathing asbestos dust". As a feat of investigation, her complex but gripping book for once merits that tarnished plaudit, "brilliant". As for the performance of British publishers faced with its revelations - "lacklustre" would be kind.