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Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas

27 May 2008

I’m finding it a bit rough going after a holiday weekend, but I think this review will suffice.

Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas

Nearly 40 years ago, a young scholar named Donald Thomas wrote a book called A Long Time Burning: A History of Literary Censorship in England. Based on Thomas’s PhD work, the book was a sweeping overview of four centuries of prosecutions for the publication of seditious, obscene, or blasphemous literature in England, spanning the late 1400s through the 1890s. Yet during the publication process of his own book, Thomas learned that he and his publishers might very well face charges under the Obscene Publications Act for reprinting some of the troublesome passages that had come up before the magistrates in the past. Even cited in their historical context and treated as scholarly material, some works were still not considered fit for public eyes. Although Thomas and Routledge Press were never brought to court for A Long Time Burning (a fact which actually surprised a few of the book’s reviewers), the possibility of a book on censorship itself being censored prompted Thomas to consider the history of censorship in a far more recent time.

As the title indicates, Freedom’s Frontier looks at the history of censorship in twentieth-century (and early twenty-first century) Britain. Thomas focuses primarily on the censorship of printed texts, from the attempts to ban Oscar Wilde’s various writings, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, to the classic case study of Regina v. Penguin Books (the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial) to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Outside of the literary scene, Thomas occasionally broadens his scope to take in other kinds of censorship. He includes accounts of government-ordered prosecutions in the interests of national security, such as the banning of the Communist Daily Worker during World War II and various attempts to suppress the publication of news stories and political memoirs under the tenets of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) and the Official Secrets Act. He also looks at theatre censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the public outcry against the violence and sadism of American ‘pulp mags’ and horror comics, the creation of the British Board of Film Censors (later the British Board of Film Classification), and recent attempts to pass legislation against speech or writings that promote racial or religious hatred. Few details escape Thomas’s notice, particularly those that have a touch of humour or absurdity to them, and the wide variety of materials he covers provides a catalogue of the challenges to freedom of speech and expressions.

The research in Freedom’s Frontier is unquestionably good, solid and thorough and designed to pique the reader’s interest. One point of concern in the book’s organisation is that it starts to run into a few difficulties in the second half. Thomas begins Freedom’s Frontier by looking at the history in semi-chronological stages, breaking down his overviews into recognisable dividing lines — pre-World War I, World War I, the interwar period, the run-up to World War II. After World War II, though, he mostly shifts his approach into separate sections by genre (literature, government/defence, and so on), and then runs with the section almost up to the present day. The genre approach has its merits, particularly when there is a lot of material to cover, but after the smooth single narrative of the chronological sections it feels very jarring to have to break off and jump back half a century with each succeeding chapter in order to tackle the next genre.

The new censorship challenges of this century have much to do with the power of technology — such as the projects by China and other countries to restrict their citizens’ ability to view specific Internet sites — but the old arguments about the potential limits of the free expression of ideas have not greatly changed. The main targets of official censorship may have changed over the past century, but in many ways governments are still relying on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tactics used to implement it, rewriting old laws to tackle new foes. Freedom’s Frontier, more often than not, is the story of how modern legal battles over censorship have forced society to confront attitudes and values, matters of personal taste and individual judgment, that it had not thought to question. It is a story worth telling, and worth reading.

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