Boyd Tonkin: Room for freedom in a colder climate

The Week In Books
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Defenders of free speech often find they have to stand up for unsavoury or disreputable forms of expression. Without exceptions or provisos. So let me state that Egypt should not have banned the book and film of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, on the grounds that it offended the beliefs of Christians. Let's see how the authorities in Cairo get on with The Lost Symbol. In the meantime, champions of literary liberty should both applaud the launch of the Free Word Centre in London – and remember that the causes it will help to air often turn on material motives and messy ambiguities rather than a heroic march towards enlightenment.

The capital has innumerable venues for events devoted to the written and spoken word. But, until this week, it could boast no dedicated home for literature and literacy. Earlier this year, I visited the handsome House of Literature in Oslo – which drew more than a quarter-million visitors within its first year. I saw how quickly the idea of a busy and informal rendezvous for lovers of literature and debate can take root.

As it happens, it was a grant from the Norwegian foundation Fritt Ordd (Free Word) that helped bring the London project – steered since 2004 by Ursula Owen – to fruition. Now directed by Shreela Ghosh, and giving a headquarters to nine organisations including English PEN, Index on Censorship, Booktrust, Article 19 and Dalkey Archive Press, the centre opens with a festival that showcases the work of its tenants and the issues that motivate them: www.freewordonline.com.

Predictably, but still usefully, the inaugural jamboree finishes (7-9 October) with three discussions that dwell on giving – and taking – offence in the context of faith. We should not for a second imagine that these familiar quarrels have lost their turbulence or toxicity in many areas. Yale University Press, after all, has just announced it will publish a scholarly book on the Danish cartoons affair – but minus any images of the cartoons, which it takes around 10 seconds to locate on the net.

Still, I have the impression that many authors - and readers - have become a little bored with the sound of their own opinions on this score, and would rather move elsewhere. Witness the gratifying failure of a few desperate headline-writers to whip up any hint of an intellectual storm over the fact that Sebastian Faulks would not choose the Qur'an for his ideal bedtime reading. I've seen more ideological fury over the placing of commas. Thank goodness.

Although they offer fewer chances to cut a dash with a barnstorming manifesto, I hope that the centre makes plenty of time for the questions of law, cash and control that frame the literary life. We await the verdict in US courts on the "Google Settlement" over the digitisation of books . And a pincer movement between old English libel laws and new European privacy cases threatens to freeze British liberties. It's heartening to see that the centre has already sounded a warning about the chilling effects of London's reputation as the capital of "libel tourism".

Open access to expression often depends on contracts and copyrights as much as battles against censorship by statute or police. Without money to fund the time to think and write, without broadly-stocked physical or virtual outlets to disseminate ideas, without recourse to the rights that foster innovation, free speech is a dead letter.

Freedom can starve from hunger or neglect as well as burn in the fires of hatred. As non-bestseller authors drop off the radar of big publishers, and small ones struggle to survive in a winner-takes-all market, advocates of liberty in print should choose their targets carefully. Freedom, like justice, has to be seen to be done. So it could be that we have as much reason to fear the supermarket buyer as the pulpit-thumping extremist – or even the libel barrister. If you really seek to speak the truth to power, invite the guys from Asda and Tesco to the free-speech table.

P.S.Will Gompertz had better be damn good. A surprise choice as first Arts Editor for BBC News, the director of Tate Media and editor-in-chief of the Culture Critic website (left) beat a final shortlist of contenders which included one truly outstanding internal candidate. Does the newcomer's visual-arts background run the risk of perpetuating a massive failure of BBC terrestrial television over the past two decades: its clumsy, erratic and often downright negligent coverage of books and literature? While the sort of (ageing) YBA stunt that requires a single patron (Charles Saatchi, Nick Serota or Jay Jopling) seems to hog hours of airtime, books that open the purses and occupy the hours of millions struggle for a few minutes of attention. Radios 4 and 3, of course, always do readers and writers proud – but BBC TV needs to turn the page.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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