March 15, 2012

New censorship is about money, not ethics

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As is regularly discussed on MobyLives, publishing is awash with instances of arbitrary censorship.  For example, here by Apple and here by Paypal.  It’s apparent that journalists and editors are no longer afraid of big government, but quake before big business and big money.  Private bodies whose influence is both far-reaching and hard to predict.

Nick Cohen argues in The Literary Review for a new way of thinking about censorship.  To begin with, Cohen asks why challenging writing about economic crises is so rare, given there are thousands of articles about the foibles of politicians.

“You no more hear writers and broadcasters admit that they are frightened of investigating investment banks than you hear them admit that they are frightened of challenging the founding myths of Islam. We cannot puncture our own myth that we are fearless seekers after truth, even though, if we honestly owned up to our limitations, we might force society to confront the fact that modern censorship does not conform to old models. It is a mistake to think of repression as repression by the state alone. In much of the world it still is, but in Britain, America and most of continental Europe the age of globalisation has done its work, and it is privatised rather than state forces that threaten freedom of speech.”

Earlier in the year, when Smashwords succumbed to Paypal’s demand that they not sell erotica, it was the unpredictable combination of law and money that stymied free speech.  Smashwords could not afford to lose Paypal. Even in Europe, the problem exists. Cohen cites the statistic that the cost of a libel action in the UK is 140 times the European average, and that the burden of proof is on the defendant.

“In 2006, the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet investigated the links between the Icelandic bank Kaupthing and tax havens. Kaupthing’s managers did not like what they read, but failed to persuade the Danish press council that the paper had done anything wrong. The bank sued for libel in London instead. The newspaper pulled the articles and apologised because English lawyers ran up costs that were beyond its editor’s worst nightmares – £1 million, and that was before a case had gone to court.”

While in the United States and Western Europe it is apparent that government and politicians are no longer sacred topics for the journalist or crusading author, Cohen makes it clear that those who arguably wield greater power remain sanctified, simply by access to cash, which in turn facilitates access to the law.

Providing another example of this new censorship, Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald reported back in February 2012 that billionaire CEO and Romney donor, Frank VanderSloot, was using threats of lawsuits against magazines, journalists and bloggers, to keep them silent about his extensive political influence. According to Greenwald, VanderSloot is the largest donor to the pro-Romney SuperPAC, “Restore our Future” and is also the national finance co-chair of Romney’s presidential campaign.

Greenwald reported that the billionaire has been successful in forcing Forbes, Mother Jones and an Idaho blogger to remove articles that were critical of his political and business practices, by simply sending a letter that threatened legal action.  There has been no assessment of whether such suits would ever be successful.

Cohen concludes, “Editors are no longer frightened of politicians but of Islamist violence, oligarchs and CEOs. They worry about libel and the ability of the wealthy to bend the ear of their proprietors or withdraw advertising. But they are not frightened about leaking the secrets or criticising the actions of elected governments.”  Rather, they are afraid of a private entity withholding an integral service, in the case of Paypal and Smashwords, or of the prudery of a nameless Apple employee’s reaction to male nudity in The Importance of Being Earnest.  To echo Cohen’s call, we need a new way of talking about censorship.

NB. Paypal has issued a statement clarifying it’s stance on erotica here.

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

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