Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Interview, Spycatcher and freedom of speech

Sony has decided to release its reportedly rather tedious film, The Interview. 

An excellent move, a great victory for principle against threat. The attempt by, allegedly, North Korea to blackmail the company into not showing the film has been resisted. It’s a triumph for freedom of speech over one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. A salutary and uplifting restatement of some of the most important principles on which we base our lives in the West.

Kim Jong Un: satirised in the film he tried to block
Of course, it has to be said that the controversy hasn’t done the film much harm. An apparently inferior film, which perhaps deserved no better than limited exposure before fading into untroubled obscurity, has now been given the kind of publicity no money could buy. Why, you could almost feel it a democratic duty to watch the dreary thing.

It reminds me of the fuss that was made over Peter Wright’s book, Spycatcher. Wright claimed that he’d been given the task of unmasking a mole inside MI5, and found that it was the Director General, Roger Hollis.

Maggie Thatcher, then Prime Minister, displayed all the keen judgement and commitment to democratic values for which shes famed, by deciding that no one should read this book. She banned it in the UK. Well, not actually in the UK. Since the ban was decreed under English and Welsh law, it didn’t apply in Scotland, where the book was available.

It was published in Australia in 1987. This meant that Thatcher’s ban, based on the need to protect national security, prevented only readers in England and Wales from reading the book. It’s possible, I suppose, that no one in the Russian security apparatus – famed for its commitment to high standards of ethics and honour, epitomised by men like Vladimir Putin, a KGB apparatchik – ever read it, on the basis that it would be unfair to gain an unfair advantage that Thatcher wanted to deny them. Frankly, I’m inclined to doubt it.

So we were in the fabulous position of being protected by a government that could find no better way to assure our safety than to prevent our finding out information that was already in the possession of any enemy that might use it against us.

I was so irritated by this high-handed behaviour by the sainted Margaret that I contacted a friend in the US and asked him to get a copy for me and send it over. Which he did.

Having had that assistance, I felt duty bound to reach the book. And I did. With enormous difficulty. Over a very long time. It was one of the most turgid, uninspiring books I’d ever come across. If anything could persuade me of the innocence of Hollis, it was having to read such dismal material arguing the opposite. I’d cite examples of it, but quarter of a century on, all I can remember about it was the relief at finishing it and having no more to read.

That, frankly, makes me feel that I’ve done my bit in the way of consuming dullness in the name of protecting freedom of speech. It may indeed be my duty to watch The Interview, but I feel I’ve already given. Still, I’m glad to know that I have the choice.

That’s at least one oppressive act that neither Maggie Thatcher nor Kim Jong Un got away with.

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