We've been here before. From 1988-94, after a long period in which Northern Ireland broadcast material was banned in various legitimate and illegitimate ways, the Conservative Government decided that Sinn Féin – a legal political party which contested elections in Northern Ireland – was 'extremist' and should be denied the oxygen of publicity. Having failed to ban it, they hit on the wheeze of forcing broadcasters to dub their spokesmen's voices: you could hear their exact words, and see their mouths move, but not hear their actual voices: those were provided by actors (except during election campaigns). I know this sounds like the policy of someone on all the drugs but it really happened. If I'd been in charge of the news I'd have trolled the government royally by dubbing Gerry Adams with a Margaret Thatcher impersonator (or more subtly, a Gerry Adams impersonator) but they lacked the gumption.
which led to Chris Morris and Steve Coogan's parody (thanks to Andrew Bailey / @scopperil for reminding me of it):
It wasn't just news either - documentaries, dramas and even a Pogues song about the (innocent) Birmingham Six was banned because it expressed 'general disagreement with the way in which the British government responds to, and the courts deal with, the terrorist threat in the UK'. That's right, disagreement.
Fast forward twenty years and here we are again: a politician proclaiming 'British values' of (as usual) fair play etc. etc. etc. while announcing the kind of powers usually associated with the most authoritarian regimes, as even Tory MP Sajid Javid asserted.
It may not surprise you to learn that we've been here before: but not on such a scale since, um, 1643. That's right: Theresa May's big plan to silence 'extremists' is a re-hash of the Licensing Order, which the Commonwealth of Britain brought in once it realised that those old monarchs were onto something back in the day. Beset by Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists Quakers and others on the left, and by Royalists on the right, all printing Broadsides in secret, Cromwell's government decided that the stability of the state depended on the ability to pre-authorise newspapers. Instead of publishing what you wanted and then facing the wrath of the courts afterwards, you were meant to hand in your draft for the government to approve.
Whereas divers good Orders have bin lately made by both Houses of Parliament, for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and government. Which orders (notwithstanding the diligence of the Company of Stationers, to put them in full execution) have taken little or no effect…
It is therefore Ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, That no Order or Declaration of both, or either House of Parliament shall be printed by any, but by order of one or both the said Houses: Nor other Book, Pamphlet, paper, nor part of any such Book, Pamphlet, or paper, shall from henceforth be printed, bound, stitched or put to sale by any person or persons whatsoever, unlesse the same be first approved of and licensed under the hands of such person or persons as both, or either of the said Houses shall appoint for the licensing of the same, and entred in the Register Book of the Company of Stationers, according to Ancient custom, and the Printer therof to put his name thereto.The Guardian might recognise too some of the thinking behind the Order, having had its computers smashed up by MI5 (which appears not to know about cloud computing):
the Gentleman Usher of the House of Peers, the Sergeant of the Commons House and their deputies, together with the persons formerly appointed by the Committee of the House of Commons for Examinations, are hereby Authorized and required, from time to time, to make diligent search in all places where they shall think meete, for all unlicensed Printing Presses, and all Presses any way imployed in the printing of scandalous or un licensed Papers, Pamphlets, Books, or any Copies of Books belonging to the said Company, or any members thereof, without their approbation and consents, and to seize and carry away such printing Presses Letters, together with the Nut, Spindle, and other materialls of every such irregular Printer, which they find so misimployed, unto the Common Hall of said Company, there to be defaced and made unserviceable according to Ancient CustomPoet and high-ranking government functionary John Milton was not impressed. No liberal, he nevertheless felt that true freedom resided in the full expression of all views (except perhaps those of Catholics because Catholicism is itself tyrannical) as long as the publishers and authors were ready to face legal trial, torture and/or execution afterwards. All this is expressed in Areopagitica (1644):
Mr. JOHN MILTON
For the Liberty of UNLICENC'D PRINTING,
To the PARLAMENT of ENGLAND.
No society is perfect, he argues, and a society which suppresses opposition is one which can never be reformed:
For this is not the liberty which wee can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth, that let no man in this World expect; but when complaints are freely heard, deeply consider'd and speedily reform'd, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain'd, that wise men looke for.There's more we can learn, he says, from the circulation of ideas, even if they're wrong (clearly an early dialectician, our John): a licensing scheme will only reinforce what's already thought to be true
it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civill Wisdome.
unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.Milton's keen to demonstrate that while he opposes Licencing, he's no fan of 'licence' either, and takes the reader on a learned tour of Classical censorship. Philosophers weren't received particularly well by the Greeks and Romans at times, he says, though the Romans were quite happy for saucy material like Catullus's poems to circulate. While poets might have been banished, he says,
Books were neither banisht nor call'd in.…at least until the Republic became the Empire as you Star Wars fans will understand. Under early Christian rule, censorship was only fitful: a lot of the time books were denounced as heretical but there were few attempts at censorship or proscription until the Popes achieved tyrannical status:
engrossing what they pleas'd of Politicall rule into their owne hands, extended their dominion over mens eyes, as they had before over their judgements, burning and prohibiting to be read, what they fancied notuntil eventually
their last invention was to ordain that no Book, pamphlet, or paper should be Printed (as if St. Peter had bequeath'd them the keys of the Presse also out of Paradise) unlesse it were approv'd and licenc't under the hands of 2 or 3 glutton Friers.Like the Popes and Bishops, Theresa May no doubt feels that censorship isn't a problem as long as it's conducted for the right purpose: I read recently of a new government in the 1970s bringing back censorship. Challenged about it, the minister replied that under the old regime, bad people were condemning good books for bad reasons: under the new government, good people were condemning bad books for good reasons. Milton was way ahead of them.
But some will say, What though the inventors were bad, the thing for all that may be good? It may be so… I am of those who beleeve, it will be a harder alchymy then Lullius ever knew, to sublimat any good use out of such an invention.Milton then launches into a long and learned defence of reading books in general, drawing mostly on the early Church Fathers. St Paul, he said, would quote from the heathen Greek poets, whereas Julian the Apostate banned Christians from reading non-Christian texts. In modern terms, it's the equivalent of May telling us that hearing the arguments of those we fear or disagree with will hurt us. It assumes that only people like us have access to truth, and yet we're so weak that just being exposed to falsehood will destroy society as we know it.
In fact, says John, banning the works of the Greeks just made the Christians dumber and more vulnerable:
So great an injury they then held it to be depriv'd of Hellenick learning; and thought it a persecution more undermining, and secretly decaying the Church, thenthe open cruelty of Decius or Dioclesian.Instead, he says, learn from the vision of Dionysius Alexandrinos, to whom God appeared in a vision after a priest accused him of defiling himself by reading pagan books:
Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter. To this revelation he assented the sooner, as he confesses, because it was answerable to that of the Apostle to the Thessalonians, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. And he might have added another remarkable saying of the same Author; To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil'd.We, however, are considered not sufficient to judge aright the words of Anjem Choudhury or whomever is nominated Demon of the Week.
Theresa May thinks we're so stupid that we need protection, while others think we should only read 'improving' material: my parents, never fiction readers, would rip books out of my hands when I was growing up, convinced on the flimsiest evidence that most of it was corrupting. If only they, the Tories and their equally authoritarian Labour counterparts had read Areopagitica:
bad books… to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.If only I'd thought of that argument back in the day.
For Milton, true freedom resides in the exercise of the independent intellect.
God committs the managing so great a trust, without particular Law or prescription, wholly to the demeanour of every grown man…God uses not to captivat under a perpetuall childhood of prescription, but trusts him with the gift of reason to be his own chooser; there were but little work left for preaching, if law and compulsion should grow so fast upon those things which hertoforewere govern'd only by exhortation.It's a key theme of the Protestant Reformation: sweep away the Latin Bible explicated only by priests and bishops to their own advantage - read it yourself, at home, and draw your own conclusions. Four hundred years later, clearly we're considered far too untrustworthy to experience uncensored speech.
Furthermore, how can we tell what is seditious or un-British speech (how I hate this appropriation of Britishness)? May assumes that it's easy: she'll have some experts with a list. Milton thinks this in utter nonsense: good and evil often look alike superficially, he says: Adam and Eve ate of the fruit because it looked good:
Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv'd and interwoven with the knowledge of evillAdam, he says, learned what's good by doing evil. We aren't going to get that chance. Instead, we're to be preserved in a state of what Milton calls an 'excrementall whiteness': untested, unthinking, never exposed to a single unsettling thought
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary. That vertue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evill, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank vertue, not a pure; her whitenesse is but an excrementall whitenesseMay thinks that if we hear bad thoughts, we'll all run off and join Isis. Not right-thinking people of course: in common with all moral panics, she's only concerned for the weak-minded mob who might be infected. Really? says Milton: you'd better ban the Bible too – it's full of filth and heresy.
for that oftimes relates blasphemy not nicely, it describes the carnall sense of wicked men not unelegantly, it brings in holiest men passionately murmuring against providence through all the arguments of Epicurus: in other great disputes it answers dubiously and darkly to the common readerIf we ban exposure to bad books, he says, it's the end of learning too because the boffins aren't exempt:
books, & those in great abundance which are likeliest to taint both life and doctrine, cannot be suppresstwithout the fall of learning, and of all ability in disputation, and that these books of either sort are most and soonest catching to the learned, from whom to the common people whatever is hereticall or dissolute may quickly be convey'd, and that evillmanners are as perfectly learnt without books a thousand other ways which cannot be stopt, and evill doctrine not with books can propagate, except a teacher guide, which he might also doe without writing, and so beyond prohibiting, I am not able to unfold, how this cautelous enterprise of licencing can be exempted from the number of vain and impossible attempts.No doubt lots of us are thinking that May's censorship of TV is ludicrous anyway: it'll stop the rigorous public examination of ideas on the freely available airwaves, while millions watch Youtube clips, Vines, discussion boards and the like far from public view, and free from any kind of informed challenge. Milton's there too: pre-licencing print media is like
the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his ParkgateWhat's the effect of banning speech? It makes the speaker cool. It gives him or her cachet. 'The man they tried to ban'. Rather than ridiculing a bad argument, we're conferring martyr status on any old demagogue. Imagine George Galloway's reaction if he was banned from the airwaves! He'd love it, and so would his fans, proved right again that the System is scared of him. Again, Milton knows:
instead of suppressing sects and schisms, it raises them and invests them with a reputation: The punishing of wits enhaunces their autority, saith the Vicount St. Albans, and a forbidd'n writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seeke to tread it out.I've detained you long enough (as no Home Secretary ever said). Milton goes on to expound many, many more arguments against this pernicious system, all of which are relevant to this latest version. I'll leave you with one more. A society, he says, which assumes that all the good ideas have already been discovered, is a dying society. To wilfully close one's ears to different and new perspectives is to be intellectually dead.
Henceforth let no man care to learn, or care to be more then worldly wise; for certainly in higher matters to be ignorant and slothfull, to be a common stedfast dunce will be the only pleasant life, and only in request.
Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz'd and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the Land, to mark and licence it like our broad cloath, and our wooll packs. What is it but a servitude like that impos'd by the Philistines, not to be allow'd the sharpning of our own axes and coulters, but we must repair from all quarters to twenty licencing forges.Where would our own society be if this course had been adopted long-term? We might never have overthrown the monarchy (sadly temporarily). Slavery would be legal, democracy would not. Capital punishment would be rife, and education a hollow shell. Human rights would be a fantasy…oh wait, that's coming too.
Would Milton be allowed on the news under the Tories' new law? I doubt it.