ANOTHER VIEW : Freedom to get it wrong

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The Independent Online
Shortly before Christmas an article appeared in Scallywag entitled "Dirty Tricks Against Blair". It was one of our less controversial pieces, simply maintaining that the Conservative Party's deputy director of research, Dr Julian Lewis, was masterminding a covert information-gathering operation aimed at unseating various front-bench opposition MPs, in particular Tony Blair.

In the most determined campaign of suppression since Goldsmith versus Private Eye, Lewis, who claims our piece was libellous, has personally threatened wholesalers in Britain who handle Scallywag with litigation. Although no writ has yet been issued, he has succeeded in frightening off many news traders who once stocked Scallywag.

Thousands of copies rot in warehouses and wholesalers are vowing never to distribute the magazine again. Within 48 hours the bank foreclosed. The magazine was withdrawn throughout the country, the office was taken back by the landlord, telephone conversations were interrupted by phantom operators - who, according to BT, did not exist - and a destitute Scallywag staff was forced to salvage whatever production equipment it could. Conservative Central Office may have put us temporarily out of business, but the fight is not over yet.

This kind of conflict does tend to tax one's resolve. Gone are those cavalier days when a skeleton Scallywag staff took precocious delight in provoking the wrath of the establishment. Of late this Boys' Own escapade has descended into vicious trench welfare and perhaps, for the first time, we have reason to realise how poorly equipped we are to fight such a lengthy and arduous campaign. Now it is no fun at all.

No complaints. It was the height of naivety to presume that to invite this relentless onslaught from the establishment could be fun. A flimsy, impish pamphlet like Scallywag can't harangue the Fuhrer and not expect to be trampled under a stormtrooper's boot.

The party that promotes the free market has barred Scallywag from competing in the market. The party that advocated the reform of the libel laws is threatening to use these laws against those wholesalers, newsagents, printers and distributors who have backed the magazine.

Factions of the media may scoff that such a reputedly scurrilous, irresponsible publication deserves all it gets, but they are missing the point. No publication, however contentious, deserves to be censored. Scallywag is at the front line in publishing. OK, we don't always get it right, but other newspapers with much greater resources sometimes get it wrong, too. It is easy to feel secure in the newsrooms of Wapping. But if we allow extraneous publishing to be censored, the middle ground will be next.

It appears that people will march for veal, but not to defend indispensable democratic rights and liberties. Whatever you may think of Scallywag, this is not only our fight. If you value freedom of speech, it is your fight, too.

The writer is a co-editor of `Scallywag'.

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