Nick Cohen

George Clooney understands the new age of censorship better than giggling journalists

George Clooney understands the new age of censorship better than giggling journalists
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It says much about the dismal state of journalism that George Clooney, who is paid to act, has a far better grasp of modern threats to freedom of speech, than writers, who depend on free speech for their livelihoods.

Journalists thought the real story was that leaked emails showed  Sony executives called Angelina Jolie 'minimally talented spoiled brat' –  as if you, me or anyone else wouldn’t find careless insults if we could read what others said about us in private. As I began this piece yesterday, some jerk from the BBC on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House was still holding his sides and guffawing a fortnight after the affair began. He called in to his studio a clueless British director, who assured us that 'the fear is completely disproportionate.' Sony executives were merely worried about leaked emails threatening their careers – the selfish little hysterics. The rest of us could snigger at their embarrassment.

It was left to Clooney explain that a hostile foreign power, and one of the cruellest tyrannies on earth, had succeed in stopping the release of a satire of North Korea’s supreme leader. And as it turned up the pressure, the Western media were more interested in pointing at Jolie, or judging whether a Sony executive had been racist or shouting 'ooh, look, they’re thinking of casting a black James Bond'.

While they gossiped, Clooney made three essential points

  • The banning of The Interview is extra-territorial state censorship – 'we’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have'.

  • The attack on Sony does not just threaten one feeble comedy about Kim Jong-un – at least I assume it is feeble, a combination of Korean dictators and Hollywood directors have prevented me from knowing for sure. 'What happens,' Clooney continued, 'if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it?'

  • The chilling effect is already spreading. Before Sony folded, Clooney revealed that he had sent a petition to most of the senior figures in Hollywood asking them to condemn the theft of the social security numbers, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and emails of tens of thousands of Sony employees. He wanted Hollywood to speak with one voice and urge Sony not to submit to North Korea’s demands. 'Nobody wanted to be the first to sign,' he said.

    The last observation is the most ominous. Other studios feared that, if they stood up for freedom of expression, they would be hacked too. So they stayed silent. Cinemas feared that if – by some extraordinary fluke – terrorists attacked the audience – they would be liable. (This is America remember, land of the lawyer.) So they banned the film.

    In an attempt to shake them out of their funk, the Washington Post invoked the name of Salman Rushdie. In 1989 when Iran threatened to murder him and everyone else associated with The Satanic Verses for blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad, it said:

    'Much of the free world — although certainly not all — defended Rushdie’s right to write a satirical, even inflammatory, book about Islam and its prophet.

    'Yet when faced with the Sony movie “The Interview,” the reaction has been much different. After the largest U.S. theater chains said they would delay the film’s opening, Sony announced that it would officially cancel the Dec. 25 release. Other movie studios did not rally behind Sony. (In fact, Deadline magazine reported Wednesday that another movie set in North Korea, a thriller starring Steve Carell, had been cancelled.”'

    How disgraceful! How far we have fallen from the brave days of our forefathers!

    The Washington Post’s memory of the Rushdie affair is only half the story, however, and from the vantage point of the 21st century, the least relevant half. True the publishing industry united to defend The Satanic Verses. But once the struggle was over, the liberal world decided never to put itself through such a trauma again. There was no discussion. No announcement. It just decided that it could not face the bombs and assassination attempts a second time around.

    As I say in my history of modern censorship – You Can’t Read This Book  – a little fear goes a long way in Western democracies:

    'The attack on The Satanic Verses appalled liberals. The fight to defend it exhausted them. Knowing what they now knew, few wanted to put themselves through what Rushdie and Penguin had been through. ….If they had discovered a general resolve to take on militant religion, then writers and editors might have found safety in numbers. Instead, they were united by their fear. An inversion of the usual processes of publishing began. In normal circumstances, publishers look for controversy the way boozers look for brawls. Nothing delights them more than an author or newspaper columnist who arouses anger. After Rushdie, the smart business move was for a publishing house to turn down books that might offend religious zealots. Publishers knew that their business rivals would not pick up the discarded title; they would be equally frightened, and no more inclined to run risks. A cost-benefit analysis lay behind their calculations. Authors can be touchy creatures: vain, grasping and needy. But say what you must about us, no author has ever murdered an editor for not printing a book, or bombed the home of a television commissioning editor for not broadcasting a drama.'

    It is for this reason that you can go to a theatre and see the Book of Mormon or click on Amazon and buy the Life of Brian, but you will never see a mainstream satire of the life of Muhammad.

    The only difference between then and now is that modern Hollywood did not even make a brief defence of free speech. It went straight from ignorance of the threat from North Korea to capitulation before it, and missed the intervening stage of token resistance.

    Working in a Britain where not one newspaper dared print the Danish cartoons, I can hardly denoucne them. What I said about authors and publishers after the Rushdie applies equally to filmmakers today.

    'Whatever radical postures they strike, writers and journalists in Western countries are not the equivalents of soldiers or police officers. Nor are they members of a revolutionary underground. They do not begin an artistic or journalistic career expecting to risk their lives. They do not work in well-protected police stations or military bases alongside colleagues who have access to firearms. They work in university campuses or offices, or, in the case of many authors, at home surrounded by their families.'

    True, having all your personal and commercial secrets dumped on line is not the same as having an Islamist kill you. But it is still a potential personal and commercial disaster and the same cost-benefit analysis applies. I am sure that actors and directors can be touchy creatures as well: vain, grasping and needy. But they are not going to imitate North Korea and harm Sony’s senior managemers if they do not release the film.

    It’s not just Hollywood which is now under threat. As Clooney asked what about news organisations and human rights groups? Suppose they want to write about the torture, starvation and executions in North Korea; the mass incarceration, not just of political prisoners, but their parents, husbands, wives and children. Do they pause now, wonder if they want their systems hacked, and change the subject?

    And what of the lessons other regimes and criminal organisations have learned? The Russian Mafia, perhaps, or indeed the Russian state? Most news organisations can cope with denial of service attacks but they could not cope with all their confidential information being sprayed over the Web.

    I am not sure it helps if the FBI is wrong and the North Korean state is innocent, as is just about possible. Subjects would still become as dangerous as criticising Muhammad after the Fatwa if the attackers are Western hackers whose political justification is of the “how dare a Western entertainment corporation criticise North Korea when America is just as bad” variety. You would still have fear of attack placing subjects off limits.

    I have no idea what should be done. Inviting national security agencies in to improve firewalls risks giving them access to organisations that should be scrutinising national security agencies. Perhaps the Sony case will force us to acknowledge a truth we should have recognised years ago. The Internet is not only a revolutionary communications system. Unlike the printing press, telephone cinema, radio, television, and all other communications systems, the Web is also a weapon of war

    If you don’t want the weapon turned on you, it may be an idea not to put confidential information on the Web in the first place. Otherwise we are moving into a world where criminals can be neither satirised or exposed and the prudent course is to blabber about Angleina Jolie instead.

    Written byNick Cohen

    Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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