Britain – or more accurately, England – is not a great place for freedom of speech, or freedom of any kind, right now. You have UK Home Secretary Theresa May pushing to pre-emptively censor British broadcasting in cases of “extremism.” You have similar logic being spouted by Prime Minister David Cameron in moves to target supposed radicalization, arguing that: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.” And, alas, you have more private realms of English law being used to silence individuals even from speaking out about their own past history of abuse.
One case where such curbs have actually been circumvented is that of English pianist James Rhodes, who was the subject of a bizarre legal challenge by his ex-wife to the publication of his memoir Instrumental. The press release from his publisher Canongate, explaining the circumstances, reads as follows:
In August 2014, the Court of Appeal imposed a highly unusual and much criticised ban on publication of the book, gagged James Rhodes from repeating certain parts of it and anonymised the parties. This followed proceedings issued in March 2014 in which James Rhodes’ ex wife applied for a ban on his memoir on the basis that it could harm their son who now lives abroad.
A complete statement is here, but note that this was not in the context of any alleged defamation or slander: the abuse Rhodes was talking about was what had been done to him, and the culprit was apparently long dead. The UK Supreme Court’s verdict on the case, as quoted by Canongate, was that “freedom to report the truth is a basic right … There can be no justification for keeping secret the information contained in this book…the only proper conclusion is that there is every justification for the publication.”
Such is the capriciousness of a UK legal system unconstrained by fundamental constitutional principles on the American model – principles such as free speech. And remember that this is the same political and legal establishment that apparently engaged in organized child abuse on an horrific scale.
Rhodes’ recent interview published in The Independent goes into great detail on both the abuse itself and the legal drama around the memoir, instigated by his ex-wife’s lawyers “on the basis that an obscure 1897 tort could be argued to apply in this case. The tort, never used in publishing before, relates to the intentional infliction of emotional harm. The lawyers’ argument was that, by publishing a truthful account of things that had happened to me many years ago, I intended to cause harm to my son (who wasn’t even alive at the time).”
As Canongate’s solicitor, Martin Soames of Simons Muirhead & Burton, also said in the publisher’s statement: “This is a significant decision for freedom of speech and for all publishers. Had the injunction been maintained it would have had a serious chilling effect on the publication of any contentious non-fiction. People need to be able to tell the truth about themselves, but their stories would remain unheard if publishers were unwilling to take the risk of publishing them.”
Rhodes also emphasizes “the trauma and cost of protracted litigation,” and concludes by saying “if it took me – with my privilege, famous friends, healthy bank balance, semi-public voice and team of psychiatric experts – over a YEAR to be allowed to speak out; and only then after hearings in the three courts, thousands of emails, 4,000 pages of dense statements and arguments, and hundreds of thousands of pounds, then what kind of chance does someone from Rotherham or Kincora or Rochdale have of ever being heard?”
Further UK government moves to cut legal aid reinforce that concern. It seems England may be turning into a country where free speech may soon be only for the rich and powerful, while everyone else has to … well, take their abuse and shut up about it.