Censorship comes in many forms. Perhaps the burning of books that don’t fit the regime’s world view, as in Nazi Germany, or maybe the simple banning of the book and imprisonment of the author, as in the Russia of the Soviet era. Or the refusal to permit stage performances that were regarded by the authority as likely to subvert public morals, as in the UK in the era before the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s responsibility for public performance in 1968.
But whatever the method used, the purpose is the same. The authority – government – has the power to decide what the populace should or should not see or read. In principle, that seems to me to be a bad idea, since we don’t elect politicians so that they can dictate our cultural or leisure choices. In democracies, it’s mostly faded away, with the proviso that there are protections for children, and it’s generally accepted that certain extremes of violence, sexual perversion and the like should not be permitted. I would hazard a guess that most thinking people – me included – would agree that the balance we have reached is pretty reasonable. (Just as an aside, I can remember how delighted we were – teenage schoolboys – when the Lord Chamberlain’s rule evaporated and “Hair” appeared on our stages; some of the music was quite good, too…)
However, there is a different kind of censorship – for want of a better word – which is currently in vogue. It’s driven by the culture of ‘wokeness’, and looks at the issues of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, whoever and whoever. Now I’m not going to get into a discussion of that, because it is way outside my comfort zone of knowledge, but I started thinking about how we do or do not differentiate the artist from the work; frankly, my thoughts started simply because there is one thing at the moment that I want to see, and currently I am not able to do so in the UK.
Period matters here; those who behaved badly a long time ago seem to get a bit of a free pass. François Villon was vagabond, almost certainly thief, most likely murderer: but he wrote (amongst many others) the sublime “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”, and I’ve never come across any suggestion that his dubious character should be used as a reason to censor his work. Ah, but it was in the fifteenth century – they did things differently then. Or what about the Marquis de Sade? He was a pretty nasty piece of work, with more of the kind of Weinstein stuff about him. But his work is still published freely and read, even if it doesn’t actually make a great read. I could mention other examples, but these will do; my point is that we are able to separate the character of the artist from the quality of the work, and that bad issues in the former do not of themselves prevent enjoyment of the latter.
Five or six years ago, Robert Harris wrote a book called “An Officer and a Spy”, based on the Dreyfus Affair of the late nineteenth and very early twentieth century. Last year, it was made into a film, which won awards in France (where it was released under the title “J’Accuse”, after the famous open letter Emile Zola wrote in defence of Dreyfus) and Venice. It’s playing successfully – everywhere except the UK and the US. The distributors won’t release it in those two markets (which, given that it is an English-language film, based on a book by a major UK novelist would presumably be of serious financial significance), because of the director. He is Roman Polanski, known for very many highly successful films, but also for skipping the US ahead of sentencing for a very serious child sex abuse crime back in 1977. All pretty nasty, but this is the first time since then that one of his films has been treated in this way.
Now, I’m not making a case for or against Polanski; the facts that came out in court can do that. But I’m just surprised that we seem to be looking at a form of censorship by social pressure on a film distribution company creeping in. Also, it’s a bit pointless. The film will undoubtedly be released on dvd, so the geographic barrier will disappear anyway. And we can all see it next time we’re in France. I find it rather puzzling.
Apologies for not writing about financial markets this week. I’m working on the basis that if I don’t look at the coronavirus-inspired equity market collapse, perhaps it will go away…………