I’m not sure I can begin to put into words the feelings of outrage and despair which sweep over me as I read about the jailing of Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt. The enormity of what the Egyptian junta has done is scarcely comprehensible. Orwell and Kafka seem barely to have scraped the surface of man’s inhumanity to man.
‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’. John Milton wrote that in 1644. ‘The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.’ That was the Virginia radicals in 1776, limbering up for the American Declaration of Human Rights and its First Amendment. The French Revolutionaries committed themselves to freedom of speech as an inalienable human right, shortly before – and here’s the thing – coming over all Pol Pot and guillotining anyone who disagreed with them. I have any-number-of-great grandparents who risked arrest and capital charges of sedition rather than surrender their right to freely express their democratic opinions. They were brave, and because of them we have had the astonishing luxury of living in a society which, on the whole (Mary Whitehouse and a few very self-righteous and ill-educated people notwithstanding), expects the right to voice and publish opinions without fear of arrest, imprisonment, torture or execution. And the price we should expect to pay for that stupendous legacy of grace is to be prepared to speak out when free speech is suppressed.
Now is the time to honour the memory of John Lilburne. We should certainly celebrate ‘Free-born John’, as he became known, here in the North-East of England, because he was born and educated here. He was a life-long walker of that fine line between the brave and the barking – his father was the last man in England to claim his right to trial by combat, suggesting an hereditary disposition towards confrontation with authority – and nothing – nothing – ever persuaded him to swerve from his principles in favour of a quieter or less persecuted life. Lilburne was arrested for publishing pamphlets, most notably those of fellow-Radical William Prynne (with whom he later fell out hugely), and was endlessly subjected to trials that were a mockery of justice, appalling savage public whippings (the details are so vivid and so dreadful that I cannot bring myself to tell you), repeated imprisonment and mind-numbing barbarity. His response was to keep on publishing, only now he was distributing his own writings. The Work of the Beast, an account of his ordeal, gives you some idea of the rapture with which the State must have greeted his defiance. Lilburne became an eminent Leveller (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms). In other words, an intelligent man of principle, attempting to use rational debate and philosophy, became radicalised by an extremist State response. Sound familiar? I particularly want to ask you to stop for a moment and remember Elizabeth Dewell, who married Lilburne, stood by him for the rest of his life, suffered much as a result, and is a candidate for official Heroine status. And, if I have managed to stir your interest in the beginnings of English democracy, let me suggest you dip into the rousing words of the Putney Debates of 1647. Try The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill, greatest of the historians of the seventeenth century and much missed.
In the twentieth century, America contributed her fair share of champions of freedom of speech. Have we talked of H.L.Mencken before? An iconic wit, satirist and, above all, passionate, dedicated and brilliant journalist, he was, admittedly, the man who wrote, ‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard’; but he also said, ‘my belief in free speech is so profound that I am seldom tempted to deny it to the other fellow. Nor do I make any effort to differentiate between the other fellow right and that other fellow wrong, for I am convinced that free speech is worth nothing unless it includes a full franchise to be foolish and even […] malicious.’ Oh, and it was Mencken who said, ‘Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.’ I think I know a few politicians, in any number of countries, who believe in that doctrine as fervently as nicer people believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When I add that Mencken pointed out that ‘the fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth’, you will need no further urging to seek himself out for yourself and read everything he ever wrote.
This terrible travesty of justice in Egypt shows flagrant contempt for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also doomed to failure. As countless despots across the millennia have discovered, they will always be outnumbered by the brave, the fearless and the principled, no matter how great the personal cost. But that cost is heart-breaking. Please find whatever way fits with your conscience to protest against the imprisonment of the Al-Jazeera journalists. And never, ever, take your right to read and say whatever you like for granted.