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The best books on Freedom

recommended by John Kampfner

The veteran British journalist and chief executive of Index on Censorship  discusses five books that address concepts of democracy and freedom

  • 1

    Smoke and Mirrors
    by Pallavi Aiyar

  • 2

    Yeltsin
    by Timothy J Colton

  • 3

    Russia, Lost in Transition
    by Lilia Shevtsova

  • 4

    Freedom for the Thought That We Hate
    by Anthony Lewis

  • 5

    The Thing Around Your Neck
    by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The veteran British journalist and chief executive of Index on Censorship  discusses five books that address concepts of democracy and freedom

John Kampfner

John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship, a London-based organisation set up in 1972 by the poet Stephen Spender and a group of intellectuals, originally to campaign for freedom of speech and freedom of expression in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. After a career in political journalism at Reuters, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC and Financial Times, culminating in an award-winning three years as editor of the New Statesman, John joined Index in 2008. Most recently, he has spearheaded a campaign to reform the UK’s libel laws – laws which he says have made London courts a magnet for anyone with cash wishing to suppress inconvenient information.

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You begin with a book on China – Smoke and Mirrors by Pallavi Aiyar – which is often criticised in the West for denying liberty and human rights.

It is a matter of endless fascination for Indians and for Chinese and for others like myself to ask the great Chindia question: to what extent are these two countries similar and to what extent are they very different? Aiyar is a young Indian foreign correspondent based in Beijing. For me, it was fascinating to get a perspective on China from a non-Anglo Saxon and non-European perspective, yet from someone who is extraordinarily wedded to notions of Indian democracy and democracy in general.
There is one particular observation in this book that I found particularly appealing, and that is the different interpretations of political accountability. It goes roughly along these lines: in India political parties derive their legitimacy from victory at the ballot box and Indian elections are a boisterous and at the same time a wonderfully vivacious and refreshing exercise of democratic will. The problems, she says, then start immediately, in fact the day after. Indian governments then put their feet up, many politicians are on the make and put their hands in the till. Meanwhile, delivery of the most basic public services only continues in the most desultory way.
There is a pact between the Indian middle class and the business and political elite – the middle class pretty much opts out of everything in the public sector. Pretty much everything is only delivered to the rest of society. Whether it is your electric generator, your water supply, education, health, everything you get in the middle-class world is provided for you outside the state sector. And if anybody from the state gives you any hassle you just bribe them and they go away.
Meanwhile you leave the politicians alone and they leave you alone and the country remains in the absolutely abject state it is in in terms of public service delivery to everyone else. Aiyar compares that with the fact that at the same time notionally, and constitutionally, India is an extremely healthy democracy. There are obviously flaws – there are flaws in free expression, issues such as newspapers quite openly mixing advertorial with news, the descent of so much of Indian media into covering B and C list Bollywood and cricket celebrity. You are quite pushed to find hard news stories in the mainstream media. But yes, it is still healthy and the most populous democracy in the world – which is a cause for celebration in such a disparate country with so many different ethnicities and so much potential for combustibility.
She compares this version of legitimacy with China, where there are no elections, and the Chinese version of accountability is different. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has no democratic mandate, so it spends all its time seeking to produce the public services to keep a critical mass of the population sweet. In many ways it is the reverse of everything Indian. The Chinese pact is to keep the middle class and those that aspire to the middle class in increasing material comfort so that they don’t give the ruling party any hassle. That trade-off is at the heart of my book, and in a sense it is why the eight per cent growth target in 2009 at the height of the global financial crisis was so important. By fair means or foul, they had to make this target in order to keep the people confident that the country was continuing to grow – and all the predictions of social unrest faded away because the ruling elite managed to deliver material comfort. So hers is a very interesting analysis, and many of her points elided with my own theories about material comforts offsetting failures in democracy

So what of the infringements of liberty which we hear so much about: for example, internet censorship?

The key to controlling the message is controlling the internet: hence the Chinese being extremely exercised about what was appearing both before the Olympics and afterwards. And yet at the same time the Chinese have realised that you can’t turn the tap off completely – that’s the old ways of North Korea and Burma, it doesn’t work in a country of the size of China and it can’t work if you are seeking to ensure material comforts and to allow freedom of travel and all those sorts of things. This is the challenge of 21st century authoritarian states, which are different from 20th century totalitarian states.
It’s a constant push-pull in China: what you get away with on a Tuesday might not be what you get away with on the Wednesday. The Chinese have a real middle-class obsession with golf, and they call this out-of-bounds markers: if you hit the ball out of bounds you have to start again. But these out-of-bounds markers are quite indiscernible: how do you tell when there are markers and when there are none, and who decides whether and where they are? So (and this is the Singapore model, too) it is perfectly fine to criticise corruption in your local council: ‘Why haven’t they collected my rubbish and why are the roads in such a bad state? It must be because someone is on the take.’ But it is absolutely not fine to name somebody and it is certainly not fine to criticise the national government. There is this constant push-pull and it is kept deliberately vague so that people self-censor.
But yet it is utterly false to say that modern China is anything even resembling the Mao era. The conversations I had there were extremely candid and gossipy. People know roughly how far you can go but not clearly.

Does it not mean, though, that if people are testing boundaries all the time, that those boundaries get pushed further?

Not necessarily, the markers can be put back again. There was an assumption that when they pulled back freedoms during the build-up to the Olympics people would be happy just to draw in for patriotic purposes, not to humiliate the country for those six weeks in the expectation that afterwards the authorities would loosen up again. But they didn’t, or only a little bit. So it is constantly changing. Part of this is deliberate and part of it is that the authorities themselves don’t know how far you can go. There is a great arbitrariness about punishment for dissent.

Which is psychologically clever: like the rats in the famous experiment who became anxious and ill when they were sometimes given cake and sometimes an electric shock after approaching a ringing bell.

It is psychologically clever but I don’t believe always deliberate. In my book I differentiate between private and public freedoms. Private freedom is the freedom to lead your life unencumbered by authority. You can speak as you want to in your own home, wear the clothes you wish, pursue your own private and sex life as you wish, educate your children where you wish, travel – basically you, your family and your friends, your atomised existence, you are left alone. The state doesn’t mess with you and in return you don’t enter into the public realm, you don’t mess with the state. You don’t publicly criticise, you don’t agitate, you don’t engage. The public freedoms are freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, political plurality.
My thesis is that over the last 20 years of globalised consumption, the most important private freedom has become the freedom to make and spend your money. And the private freedoms have been elevated at the expense of public freedoms.
In the West, we enjoy both, but the balance has just gone in one direction as we cede public freedoms. And I regard our culpability as great, because we have had both and we know both. In the former totalitarian states such as Russia and China it’s more understandable – if you are offered one thing, one thing is better than nothing. And if you were in China wearing Mao’s boiler suits and if you were in Russia and you could only travel as part of an official trade union delegation, then the idea that you can go on holiday to Cap Ferrat or to the beach in Turkey is extremely enticing, and if the price demanded for that is just to be cautious and not to slag off Putin or your local authorities, then that is a price most people are willing to pay.
Because how many people do actually want to cause trouble or to engage with the public realm? It’s extremely few: journalists, lawyers, NGOs, activists, lawyers who agitate for them and defend them. It’s a tiny proportion – the vast majority just work in factories or offices and just want to get on with their life.

Doesn’t that repression of the small minority who want to engage impact on other groups? Refugee charities say doctors get tortured and often flee because they see things they shouldn’t and insist on looking after others who might be in trouble.

Yes, there is a grey area, and these cases are the most interesting ones: whistle-blowing against corruption in an organisation, for example, where it isn’t necessarily anti-state, it is trying to improve accountability. But if you give people private freedoms, they are enormous and they matter a lot. You can have lunch with someone and take the mickey out of some prominent man and you are not going to be denounced, Stalin-style. It takes an active effort to enter into a public role, that’s the point; you are consciously doing it, not by accident. And it’s at that point that the state then seeks its redress.

Your next book, Yeltsin: A Life, addresses this.

Yes, that is the fascinating angle of this account by Timothy Colton. He had amazing access as a journalist and academic to Yeltsin and his entourage, his daughter and his daughter’s husband. In the years before Yeltsin stood down, they ran the Kremlin like this tsarist fiefdom. I lived in Russia from 1990 to 1994 and I was there during the most exciting parts of the collapse of communism and the demise of the Soviet Union, the failed coup and the astonishing rise of unbridled democracy. It was amazing, it was a free for all, pretty much everything that could be said was said in the newspapers for several years. It was extremely exciting.
For various reasons it all came unstuck, one of which was the terrible arrogance of Western advisers. I remember sitting at press conferences with the ministry of finance and the Russian ministers were just regarded as puppets, doing the bidding of the IMF types and others, who I think were well intentioned but totally insensitive to the pride of a great country. I don’t believe in great conspiracy theories. It did, though, obey the law of unintended consequence. At the same time, much of the infrastructure went down the tubes, including financial management. If you have huge numbers of public sector workers who are literally not being paid, particularly army, doctors, teachers, police, train drivers, you have a recipe for absolute disaster.

What does your second book on Russia, Lost in Transition, tell us about the disaster that ensued?

Lilia Shevtsova is fascinating on this. She is a great democrat, who works for the Carnegie Endowment, which exists quite happily in Russia. She traces the reasons behind Yeltsin-style pseudo-democracy and the rise of Putin-style authoritarianism. A lot of it can be attributed to the second election in 1996, which Yeltsin effectively gerrymandered and bought the election. Some of the great TV journalists of that time, who had been really fearless in the early 1990s, also allowed themselves to be bought by Yeltsin. Part of that was well intentioned because it was ‘the means justify the ends’. It was either going to be Yeltsin or the resurgent communists, and do we really want that? We’ll suspend democracy in the short term to save democracy in the long term.

We’ll destroy the village to liberate the village?

Exactly. And it’s a classic non-starter but kind of understandable at the time, but in so doing they undermined democracy fatally. And it all started to unravel quite quickly, and there was Yeltsin’s drunkenness.
Putin had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted to do – of course a lot of it was determined by events and no politician has absolute clarity, but he very early on cracked down on the only very critical TV station, he started cracking down on Radio Free Europe and on particular journalists, and then there was famous arrest of Khodorkovsky in 2003, which was designed to encourage the others [oligarchs] to stay in line.
Putin’s relations with the oligarchs is endlessly fascinating because they then saw the writing on the wall and they accepted the terms of the trade, which were absolute political non-engagement in terms of criticism plus lining some people’s pockets where required in return for relative security. But they never got total security, which is why most of their money is now kept in London where it is indulgently laundered by the British government. And Shevtsova traces how Putin did this incrementally, and his popularity.
But again it falls into the theory of the trade-off. Putin did not mess with people’s private freedoms. Private freedoms were flourishing: the best sushi in the world outside Japan is in Moscow. My Russian friends, the people who climbed on to the tanks in 1991, they have an expression which is that there are only three Cs that matter: Courchevel, Chelsea and Cartier. And if you give people those three, they will be fine. But again it falls into the theory of the trade-off.
I remember two years ago or so, Chelsea [football club] playing Manchester United in Moscow in the Champions League final. Chelsea, of course, is owned by a Russian. And all these English football fans were there playing football in Red Square. Saying ‘What’s the problem, this is a great country?’ And the Chelsea ticket touts who are normally on the Fulham Road outside the Chelsea grounds, were standing in Red Square touting tickets right in front of the Russian police and offering them up in dollars, sterling, roubles or euros. That is the ultimate image and metaphor of modern authoritarianism, which is you allow people to express themselves in their private arena, defined as anything that doesn’t affect the state.
Today that is the great challenge for civil liberties groups, to combat the idea that private freedoms are enough, are all that matter. You have to come to terms with this challenge. In Russia you have all the same Saturday night TV shows syndicated – Who wants to be a Millionaire, Russia’s Got Talent, it’s all the same – and the TV news has very high production values but they only report certain things.

What do you do, then, if you are agitating for public freedom? How do you build an appetite if populations are happy with this ‘bread and circuses’ diet?

The trade-off will only really work if there is no arbitrariness, if it is all codified and if you know where you stand. And the fact is that it doesn’t, particularly in Russia on the question of property rights. In my view a properly successful 21st century authoritarian state needs to establish a properly codified set of laws that ensure that your company and your house and your business will not be raided by the tax police just because you have got on the wrong side of the local chieftain. Can you achieve that where you don’t have transparency? Well, it’s hugely doubtful. But Singapore argues that it has achieved just that – to build the ultimate authoritarian state that is very uncorrupt and guarantees these private freedoms.

Tell me about your next choice, a ‘biography’ of the First Amendment?

The last two books are about America. The Anthony Lewis book is a history of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which is a subject of endless fascination with me. At Index on Censorship we have been fighting hard for freedom of speech and freedom of the press since the autumn, when we published our proposals for changing English libel law to stop libel tourists using the courts here. What is fascinating, when you read Lewis’s book, is the extent to which the way people look at freedom of expression in the US is fundamentally different: this is reinforced whenever you discuss the issue with anyone in America. The idea of the constitutional right is inculcated from elementary school – an absolute guarantee of freedom of speech circumscribed only in extremis. In Britain we talk about a balance of competing forces, which is quite different. But if you start from the American perspective, which is that freedom of speech is paramount, with the exception of shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, or whatever your own ‘Yes, but’ is. Even freedom advocates, everybody in fact, has their own ‘Yes, but’. Whether it is the fire shout in the theatre, or whatever. My own ‘Yes, but’ is clear and present danger. In my view the idea of giving offence as a reason for limiting freedom of expression has gone completely crazy in Britain. Comedians are very good at working away at this, though.

That may be true, but it is painful having to sit through an hour of a comedian making a point about his right to be as offensive as possible.

But that’s just a matter of taste. I’m not requiring that everybody appreciates what somebody says. If you don’t like it you can go. The point is that person has a perfect right to carry on with it. I was looking at censorship in the arts for the Arts Council just over a year ago, and indeed at self-censorship. And I was shocked, really shocked, when a theatre manager in the regions told me that when they are putting together their programme for the forthcoming season or year they have a focus group of local stakeholders and they run it past them, asking, ‘Is there anything in this programme that could remotely cause you offence?’ I mean, there is no constitutional right not to be offended, but there ought to be a constitutional right to freedom of expression. For me, there are issues, for example, if an artwork is sexually explicit, you have absolute right to display it but it should be in a place where people make an active choice to go in and view. You have to give people the opportunity to say no. Anything that actively threatens or incites violence against specific people, to me that is beyond the pale, but it has to be very clearly demarcated. So that is where the First Amendment begins, and Lewis’s is a brilliant account.

You have decided to end with fiction, The Thing Around Your Neck.

This is an extremely evocative book. Chimamanda, a young Nigerian author who has spent some time in America and some time in England, did a previous novel on the Biafran war. But this is a beautiful set of short stories on what it is like for young immigrants to experience democracy, warts and all, for the first time, and to negotiate these new freedoms. It’s a very personalised journey through free expression, through greater religious tolerance, through sexual freedom and exploitation, through the minimum wage and economic exploitation. It’s a journey through the various isms rather than using an ism. And it is very compelling. As so many people observe, often the messages are best delivered through narrative.

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John Kampfner

John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship, a London-based organisation set up in 1972 by the poet Stephen Spender and a group of intellectuals, originally to campaign for freedom of speech and freedom of expression in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. After a career in political journalism at Reuters, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC and Financial Times, culminating in an award-winning three years as editor of the New Statesman, John joined Index in 2008. Most recently, he has spearheaded a campaign to reform the UK’s libel laws – laws which he says have made London courts a magnet for anyone with cash wishing to suppress inconvenient information.

John Kampfner's Homepage
John Kampfner on Wikipedia
John Kampfner at the Guardian