Dissent

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If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)

Terrorists don’t care about rights or laws so any debate about freedom of speech isn’t directed at them. I’d be more encouraged by the show of solidarity for dead cartoonists if I didn’t believe that many of those currently declaring their support will continue burning up social media in the next few months with demands that something be banned or stopped. We live in censorious times. Censorship (or the urge to see it enforced) never disappears, it migrates along with whatever happens to be taboo to current generations. In the 1970s much of the heat was around sexual content; today it’s predominantly about identity politics. Whatever the provocation, the results are the same: angry people step forward with a demand that something be forbidden. Last September a showing at the Barbican in London of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B was cancelled after a petition and a demonstration outside the venue. Bonnie Greer wanted to make up her own mind but she didn’t get the opportunity:

These people largely reacted from hearsay, ideology, photos and the reactions of others who had seen it—not their own experience. I’ve seen people like this before, self-appointed judges, roaming the internet in search of what displeases and offends them. One protester went so far as to issue an absurd analysis of the possible psychological damage Exhibit B could cause the actors involved. It was ignorant and insulting psychobabble.

I don’t want to be stopped from seeing a work because, in their opinion, it’s “inappropriate”, “incorrect” or “racist”—words which are, at best, moveable feasts. I want to think for myself.

You’ll be seeing more movable feasts in the next few days when Anglophone commenters begin to discover that Charlie Hebdo was a full-spectrum offender rather like my colleagues at Savoy Books. When David Britton’s novel Lord Horror was being subject to Crown Court disapproval in 1992 The Independent wrote a prissy editorial complaining that the novel and a death metal album by Dismember were hardly worth the trouble of defending. These things weren’t art, they were trash, something that one of the UK comics mags (I forget which one) also complained about when discussing the Meng & Ecker prosecution. You can defend the principle of freedom of speech (or art) without agreeing with anything that’s being said, but for some people this often seems to be a step too far. Lord Horror escaped the obscenity charge thanks to Geoffrey Robertson QC but Meng & Ecker didn’t (comics being deemed trashier than novels by the court); my artwork for Hard Core Horror #5 was deemed obscene three years later in a separate trial in which Savoy were also declared to be unworthy of trial by jury because they were “not a bona fide publisher”. We don’t have a freedom of speech defence in Britain which is why history continues to repeat itself.

In the end all discussion about censorship comes down to this: who decides what is art and what is trash, what should be defended and what should be thrown to the dogs (or the gunmen)? You? Me? The Pope? Some guy in a ski-mask? Is freedom of speech only for the responsible people, for you and your friends? Or does it also apply to the irresponsible, the contentious, the trashy and the downright offensive? If freedom isn’t for everyone then someone, somewhere is willing to decide it’s not for you.

The Trials of Oz

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If it’s a surprise to see Cockney geezer Phil Daniels masquerading as the erudite (and non-Cockney) Thomas De Quincey in The Art of Tripping, it’s even more of a surprise to see Hugh Grant in wig and hippy gear as Richard Neville in this 1991 dramatisation of the obscenity trial against Neville’s Oz magazine. Grant wasn’t exactly unknown when this was made but it was prior to Four Weddings and a Funeral so the casting didn’t seem very notable at the time.

The play was written by Geoffrey Robertson QC from the trial transcripts to observe the 20th anniversary of a lengthy and very public trial. Robertson in 1971 was an assistant to John Mortimer, the magazine’s lawyer, so the reconstruction may be taken to be an accurate one. In addition to Grant as Neville, Simon Callow plays Mortimer, Nigel Hawthorne is prosecutor Brian Leary, and Leslie Phillips is Judge Michael Argyle. Among the witnesses there’s Alfred Molina as George Melly (yet again; see yesterday’s post), and Nigel Planer as DJ John Peel, both of whom were called to testify that the notorious “School Kids” issue of Oz wasn’t an obscene publication. The trial, like the earlier drug busts against the Rolling Stones, was as much about the State trying to clobber a bunch of anarchist upstarts as anything that involved the pros and cons of antiquated laws. The three defendants—Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson—were also accused of “conspiring to corrupt public morals”; the obscenity issue was merely a pretext for getting the longhairs into the dock.

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Oz 28 (1970). Art by Raymond Bertrand.

This isn’t a lavish production—it’s stylised to the extent that the public gallery is made up of cardboard figures—but it’s good to know that there’s a (rough) copy out there after my tape of the original broadcast developed a fault. Not available, unfortunately, is the live studio discussion that followed in which Jonathan Dimbleby spoke to Geoffrey Robertson, Germaine Greer and others about the trial. The discussion featured a delicious moment when Dimbleby referred to Greer’s feminist issue (no. 29) as “C-Power Oz“. “Come on, Jonathan,” said Greer, “it was Cunt Power Oz!” Dimbleby then spluttered “Anyone can say ‘Cunt Power Oz‘…” and hastily moved on the discussion.

A year after his TV appearance Geoffrey Robertson was in Manchester Crown Court appealing an earlier ruling of obscenity against David Britton’s Lord Horror (1990) novel. I was in the public gallery on that occasion, and it was an education seeing how little had changed since the Oz trial, with a similarly Philistine and deeply ignorant judge presiding. Robertson overturned the ruling against the novel but a ruling against one of Savoy’s Meng & Ecker comics was upheld. In 1995 we were back in court attempting to argue for a jury trial against further rulings of obscenity, this time against one of my own comics, Hard Core Horror 5. (That issue is now the opening section of the Reverbstorm book.) We failed that time thanks to a magistrate who was even less inclined to listen to any argument.

The Oz trial may seem quaint and farcical today but the issues remain pertinent: some forms of art will always be in conflict with laws that are out-of-date, badly written or maliciously applied. And once you’re standing in a courtroom your opinion about the situation is of no consequence; you’re at the mercy of the people who make the rules.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Martin Sharp, 1942–2013
Raymond Bertrand paintings
Raymond Bertrand’s science fiction covers
The art of Bertrand
Oz magazine, 1967–73