Terence Blacker: The price we pay for freedom of speech

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The Independent Online

If Tony Blair needs a small reminder as to how complicated life can become once a government starts prosecuting writers for expressing their opinions, he has only to look to the country which has just assumed the presidency of the European Union. In Austria, holding court from his Viennese jail, the right-wing fathead David Irving has been having a lovely time.

Irving was arrested in December for breaking a law which, under Austria's constitution, bans the incitement to neo-Nazi activity, public denial of the crimes of National Socialism or the glorification of its ideology. On a visit to Vienna in 1989, it is claimed that Irving denied that gas chambers of Auschwitz had existed. His trial takes place on 20 February.

In the meantime, this unpleasant man has been enjoying a publicity bonanza beyond his wildest dreams. His case has been reported around the world. Writers and intellectuals have, doubtless through gritted teeth, been obliged to speak up for him.

Profiled by the German academic Malte Herwig in a double-page spread for this Sunday's Observer, he was given the opportunity to do more damage than he would have managed in a whole decade of denying the Holocaust to audiences of knucklehead Nazis.

He was able to boast (wrongly) that his book on Hitler had been in the prison library, to describe Hitler as "good in parts", and to claim that his books have been burnt (they were pulped and for legal reasons). Nauseatingly, he portrays himself as a plucky Brit fighting the forces of repression. "I'm from a family of officers, and I'm an Englishman," he told Herwig. "We march toward the gunfire."

The interviewer played his part in this revolting charade, arguing primly that it was no coincidence that Irving came from a country where "jokes about the 'Führer' are still beloved by the tabloid press and where what passes for polite society enjoys cracking jokes about Hitler."

Irving, Herwig noted, "thrives on the tolerance of the liberal majority, who tolerate the most tastelessness of statements in the name of free speech."

How embarrassing it is under these circumstances to feel a faint a stirring of national pride. It is true that the British can still make silly, inappropriate jokes with impunity, that tastelessness is tolerated as the price one pays for freedom of speech - but maybe not for long. Those words "incitement", "glorification", are now to be heard in the context of religious hatred and terrorism.

We have David Irving to thank for one thing only. At a time when the swelling ranks of the offended are finding common cause with the Government, and the smell of censorship and criminalisation is in the air, the loathsome views that he has expressed, and our response to them, are a salutary reminder that free speech is not an easy matter. There is more to it than signing petitions in support of people and views around the world with whom we agree.

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear," reads the George Orwell quote on the cover of the new anthology from English PEN, Free Expression Is No Offence.

The less heroic inversion of this view, in which liberty involves hearing views we would prefer suppressed, can be more difficult to uphold.

A class act, beaten but unbowed

Only the most irredeemably trivial-minded - people like me - will be interested by the news that Dai Llewellyn, or as he likes to be known, "the Seducer of the Valleys", is to get married. For many years, Dai, right, has been a regular fixture in places like The Daily Mail where a particularly naff kind of class snobbery lives on, but he is also that rare thing, a professional upper-class twit on the media rent-a-prat circuit who turns out to be the real thing.

Many years ago, Dai, his brother Roddy and I attended a miserable prep school where we were regularly thrashed by its discipline-junkie of a headmaster. Years later, doing an interview for a women's magazine, Dai mentioned this fact and then made the mistake of writing a grovelling letter of pre-emptive apology to the headmaster before the piece was published. The old whacker stirred himself once more and, brandishing this confession, took the Seducer of the Valleys to court, where a £10,000 payment in damages was agreed.

* Visitors from Planet Paranoia might be excused for seeing a sinister pattern in the latest news from the High Street. First there was the announcement that the Government's pensions payment contract with the Post Office would not be renewed in four years' time, accelerating the demise of village post offices.

Now we hear that 50 local libraries may close and that, according to the libraries minister Andrew Crisp, research is taking place into whether supermarkets could lend books. How soon will it be before, in some parts of the country, the Post Office, the library, the shop, perhaps even local government are entirely in the control of those caring people from Tesco, Waitrose, Morrisons and Asda?