Sex, politics and censorship

DON'T GET me wrong. I am not turning into a follower of Peter Hitchens who, in his new, desperately nostalgic book, The Abolition of Britain, bemoans our descent into immorality and pornography, which started with the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover. "Batty" (according to Will Hutton) Hitchens longs for a return to good, old-fashioned censorship and reverence for establishment authority. I don't. But I do think that a society without any restraints becomes morally corrupt, and that "censorship" has become a meaningless word used in the same way as "Communism" in the United States .

Once something is denounced as "censorship", all intelligent discussion and dissent flee the arena. Have you ever had a serious debate with anyone on what "good" and necessary censorship might be? Or how political manipulation in this country is getting worse while we amuse ourselves with empty freedoms that allow us to watch sex and violence wherever we direct our eyes in public spaces? Or on the consequences of all this?

You only had to listen to that glib libertarian James Ferman, the outgoing director of the British Board of Film Classification, talking to John Humphrys on his radio series, On the Ropes, to realise that those who believe they are leading us to liberation have no idea about the coarse and unhappy prison they have put us into. In talking of his achievements, Ferman quite forgot to mention a speech he himself made to the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence that Pulp Fiction glamorised heroin so much that it might have increased usage.

I think it is time for us to tackle the issue of censorship with more maturity and to define the term with greater honesty. Censorship cannot exist without power. Those people who burnt The Satanic Verses in Bradford were accused of censorship when what they were doing was expressing their rage at their own lack of any power in this country.

I believe that any kind of political censorship is absolutely wrong. Until I was 23 I lived in a country, Uganda, where free political debates had never been allowed. On my first day in the UK, I watched some politician laying into Edward Heath, who was the Prime Minister in 1972. I started sweating, thinking the man was going to be arrested and killed when he left the studio.

So, relatively speaking we are free to question. But it is a freedom that is increasingly under threat. Spinning, cosy relationships between politicians and "friendly" opinion makers, press release journalism, are all making a new kind of "soft" censorship dangerously commonplace, and we should all be protesting more against it. Remember the words of Thomas Jefferson: "No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will."

I think we must become much less naive in other areas of public life, too. As the African academic Ali Mazrui points out: "Every day of the week something is censored in the British and American media. Programmes are denied funding for fear of offending advertisers, subscribers, patriots, mainstream religious zealots, powerful Jews, powerful gentiles. Publishers turn down manuscripts, edit out ideas or surgically remove chapters that are likely to offend powerful groups."

How many people know that in 1967 almost an entire print run of the Penguin edition of Massacre, a cartoon book by Sine, a French cartoonist, was burnt by its UK publisher because it was felt that the book was blasphemous?

It is important to remember how great works of art and literature, from The Canterbury Tales to Ulysses, have been subjected to intolerable censorship, and that this still goes on. In 1996, a school authority in the US banned Twelfth Night because it promotes "an alternative lifestyle". And what about gagging clauses in contracts, big business that hides behind confidentiality, the one-legged, slow and painful march towards greater freedom of information? Censorship in these areas is immensely harmful and needs to be resisted more.

But not in the name of absolute freedoms, or on the usual liberal grounds that truth and goodness will prevail in a free-market exchange of ideas. Some rights need to be protected, if necessary by sensible censorship. Some values, too. Racial and sexual equality and the lives of children are of greater importance than freedom of expression.

None of this is simple, and perhaps what we need is a national debate on the importance and the limits of freedom. And - to have any real credibility - the debate will have to include the likes of Peter Hitchens, who may sound batty, but who does speak for millions who have been silenced by fears that they will be accused of censorship.