Publish and be damned
by Pamela Hansen
The famous quote by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, arose when the courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened to publish her memoirs and his letters.
Censorship has always caused controversy and debates everywhere. People tend to think that all those clamouring for censorship are right wing fuddy-duddies.
But there are also those on the left, notably feminists, though not all of them agree, that pornography, for example, should be censored.
In America, Congress and the media were startled to discover that an attempt to introduce federal anti-pornography legislation was opposed by some of the best-known names in modern feminism, ranging from Betty Friedan and Kate Millett to Karen DeCrow, Wendy Kaminer and Jamaica Kincaid.
It is also interesting to note that the first amendment of the United States of America’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press, was created to enable colonists to speak out against the British.
Governments usually impose censorship to stifle information, while religious leaders on the other hand seek censorship on the grounds of moral values.
Each individual holds his or her own moral values and they may or may not concur with governments and religious establishments.
That is why Church leaders here are always harping on that moral standards should not be set by the individual but should conform to what the Church dictates is the correct way to live.
Incidentally, a university academic, who happened to be a priest, sparked off the current censorship fuss here.
And censorship furores are nothing new here. We have had plays banned on religious and perceived indecent or blasphemous grounds.
The latest kerfuffle, which has had every armchair critic and his dog yapping on and on, was the publication of an allegedly very smutty story by Alex Vella Gera called Li Tkisser Sewwi in a leftist newspaper Ir-Realtà, last October.
The problem arose because the rag was being distributed on the university campus and, following a complaint, the rector called the police in.
This resulted in 21-year-old Mark Camilleri, a university history student and editor of the paper, being charged with distributing obscene or pornographic material and with injuring public morals or decency, under both the Criminal Code and the Press Act.
He faces a prison term of up to six months and/or a fine of up to €465.87 for the Criminal Code charge, while the Press Act contemplates a maximum of three months in prison and/or a fine.
The publicity got him interviewed on BBC Radio 5, which was discussing censorship around the world, especially the recent censorship clampdown on the Internet in China, which had much more serious implications than our little bit of bother.
He told the interviewer that he did not publish the story just to shock but because he honestly believed it had artistic value and literary merit.
The latter of course has been disputed – not by me, I might add. I have not, and have no inclination to, read the story.
When the story of the police action first hit the news, predictably everybody wanted to read the ‘offending’ story and some were very keen to distribute it online. That put me off rather than interested me in reading it. Sensational hype holds no allure for me.
The authors I will be referring to belong to a much more elevated league of writers. It is the censorship implications that interest me.
If morals are set by one’s conscience or ethical judgment, which is what I believe, can there can be legislation that rules on moral beliefs? Would that not infringe upon our right to freedom of expression?
The first article I had published in The Sunday Times of Malta in the early 1990s was about Salman Rushdie having to go into hiding because of the Fatwa, which condemned him to death, by the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the publication of Satanic Verses.
V.S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, described the Fatwa as “an extreme form of literary criticism”, and Naguib Mahfouz, who won the same prize in 1988, criticised Khomeini for “intellectual terrorism”.
Mahfouz however, later changed his view and said that Rushdie did not have “the right to insult anything, especially a prophet or anything considered holy”.
So who should set the standards of morality?
To censor means to suppress and involves control of the information and ideas that are circulated among the people within a society. It covers a wide variety of medium from the press and broadcasting to theatre, film, literature and the arts in general.
Incidentally, on Friday night I read, in a forward of a Graham Greene book I am rereading, a paragraph I would like to share: “The second sketch for a film entitled ‘Nobody to blame’ was written for my friend Cavalcanti.
“He liked the idea, but our work on it never began, for when he submitted it to the Board of Film Censors, he was told that they could not grant a certificate to a film making fun of the Secret Service… it emerged some 10 years later as a novel – ‘Our Man in Havana’.
“There is no censorship for novels, but MI5 suggested to MI6 that they should bring an action against the book for a breach of official secrets… luckily, the head of MI6 had a better sense of humour than his colleague in MI5, and he discouraged him from taking action.”
So it seems that sometimes censorship depends on the sense of humour of the person exercising it.
Then you got people like the late Mary Whitehouse, the British campaigner who fought for what she regarded to be Christian values of morality and decency in the 1970s and 1980s.
She had become such a bane to the BBC, complaining that productions including Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who demonstrated a decline in television standards and public morality, that the BBC had hit back and, together with Spitting Image Productions, produced a sketch comedy show spoofing her.
She could not understand, for example, the racist humour of Till Death Us Do Part, the main character of which, Alf Garnet, was a spoof of an ageing, jingoistic, male chauvinist.
Many people are for limiting what can be said or done on television, radio, movies and the papers. But most times it is a matter of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
But there are as many people who are against suppression. At the moment, the law seems powerless to punish flagrant breaches by Internet transgressors while it imposes draconian sentences on small-time publishers for committing much less serious abuse.
An excerpt from Rushdie’s 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, might give some insight on the current saga.
“Insults are mysteries. What seems to the bystander to be the cruellest, most destructive sledgehammer of an assault, ‘whore! slut! tart!’ can leave its target undamaged, while an apparently lesser gibe, ‘thank god you’re not my child’, can fatally penetrate the finest suits of armour – you’re nothing to me, you’re less than the dirt on the soles of my shoes – and strike directly at the heart.”