Philip Hensher: No one should be allowed to own ideas

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The Independent Online

It would be easy to laugh about the Da Vinci Code court case, and perhaps one shouldn't resist the temptation. Certainly the judge was barely restraining his own merriment this week, asking obviously ludicrous questions about what, in the event of the case succeeding, he might be asked to order.

In short, it is claimed that the author of that entirely preposterous thriller, Mr Dan Brown, took many ideas without acknowledgement from a work of "history" by a Mr Richard Leigh and a Michael Baigent. Both books argue that Jesus Christ didn't die on the cross, but ran away to France and married Mary Magdalene, or something.

Of course, ideas are not copyright, even very absurd ones. Mr Brown had obviously read the other book - actually, one of his characters is called Leigh Teabing in anagrammatic homage. Had he taken his history from a more orthodox work of scholarship, nobody could have complained, and Leigh and Teabing may be reduced to arguing that their ideas are so eccentric and possibly even invented that they effectively constitute works of the imagination, and belong exclusively to them.

An obviously amusing scenario. But there is, surely, a widespread phenomenon relating to the way we have started to think about ideas which we ought to be seriously concerned about. It used to be taken for granted that ideas per se were robust things. Whether they were true or false, they needed no special protection and had no particular ownership, and in most cases no plausible originators.

The case of Milton's Areopagitica, that truth is a sufficient defence against the existence of falsehoods, no longer seems to hold any kind of power, and several cases recently showed to what extent we are prepared to go to protect ourselves from mere ideas. No legal force is required to protect us, surely, from believing Mr David Irving's ideas about the Holocaust, and, as the Today programme easily proved, locking him up offers him no incentive to change his mind, and rather provides him with a platform than deprives him of one.

That used to be an exclusively continental approach to free speech, but recently the Government has decided, in a way that does not reflect very flatteringly on its confidence in its own case, that some bodies of ideas need legal protection, as others need forceful suppression. Religious belief, for instance, though no more than an idea like any other, apparently needs to be protected by means of a religious offence bill. You might have thought, too, that it's not in anyone's interests to suppress the proponents of terrorism, but that falls into a category of ideas which we must be protected from, a universal rational revulsion apparently not being relied upon.

What the apparently trivial Da Vinci Code case shows us is that ideas, now, are easily thought of as being owned. Correct ideas are "owned" by society; incorrect ideas not just disowned, but sometimes actively outlawed. It may not seem the worst thing in the world if a rabid mullah is prosecuted for advocating mass murder. But the same phenomenon will lead to a suppression of debate, the insistence that society, say, may "own" religious beliefs; will, in some quarters, "disown" Darwin's ideas.

Ideas are not legitimate or illegitimate, permitted or forbidden; they have no possessors and cannot, of themselves, rather than in a characteristic expression, be lent or stolen; and in a free state, their substance should be allowed to contend freely.

Knock and, er, waddle

Childhood obesity is obviously a huge problem now. It's not just a present problem, either, but a colossal future one, as habits of unhealthy eating take hold.

The Government, rightly concerned, is embarking on a number of projects, though one might point out that it's much more the responsibility of parents than something which can be effectively addressed by authority. It's difficult to imagine the parent who would be indifferent to a child's evident obesity.

Still, let's look on the bright side. The other day, a child who had been told about the now obsolete game of Knock Down Ginger banged on my door and started to make off. As it happened, I was sitting by the door, and was outside to see a lard-arsed juvenile waddling off breathlessly. Even at my advanced age, I had little problem in catching up with the little fatty and giving him a piece of my mind. That wouldn't have happened with the whippet-like youth of yesteryear: let's give thanks for small mercies.

* The Power Commission, along with lots of sensible and interesting recommendations, has demanded, as part of a shake-up of political culture, that "the power of parliamentary Whips" be controlled.

Do we really want this? The Whips are much maligned, but the thought of a parliamentary culture without any check on the moral posturing of individual backbenchers is fairly horrific. If, too, the links between constituencies and individual members are weakened with the introduction of proportional representation, the loss of personal accountability, both to a specific group of electors and to parliamentary managers, will be substantial.

No, let's keep the Whips and their dark arts. They do a very good job of keeping members to an agreed, discussed position. To restrict their powers would lead to an entire generation of still more publicity-hungry members, rebelling ceaselessly just so that they could get their faces on Newsnight.