Can’t stand free speech? You’re fired!

19 June 2020

10:54 PM

19 June 2020

10:54 PM

Since the whole world is in crisis, a crisis in the world of publishing might seem like a niche issue. But something that has been going on at the publishers Hachette is worth noting. Not least as it may be a portent of worse things to come elsewhere.

Earlier this month the publishing house was thrown into turmoil after its most famous author, J.K. Rowling stirred up the most demented people in our society. Rowling — whose Harry Potter series was all published by Bloomsbury — has written a number of book for Hachette, most recently a scheduled book for children called The Ickabog.

But earlier this month, Rowling objected on Twitter to a headline which used the words ‘people who menstruate’ in order to get around having to say ‘women’. Rowling rightly pointed out that we used to have a word for these people. She was correct, and she and many women like her are perfectly within their rights to be offended by this sort of terminology, forced on people as it increasingly is by the most impossible-to-satisfy people in the land. By which I mean those trans and non-trans people (who fancy themselves ‘allies’) who think that women like Rowling do not have a right to say what they think. People who think that women should be happy to be erased. People who pretend that saying that there are two sexes (‘men’ and ‘women’) is not just hate speech but actual violence.

Until fairly recently, the heady cocktail of stupidity and sensitivity required to imagine that J.K. Rowling is some anti-trans bigot would have been confined to a few campuses. But as I wrote in The Spectator’s UK cover piece last week, today the illiberal youth the campuses have created have poured into the professions, where they imagine their role is to educate people far more knowledgeable than themselves.

No sector suffers from these presumptuous puritans more than the worlds of publishing and journalism. It is what has done for the New York Times, and it is what has made legacy media publications like ‘the Independent’ and ‘PinkNews’ into nasty, shouty little defamation sites.

As soon as the Rowling tweet went out there was an online firestorm. The long and sensitive blog which Rowling subsequently published (in which she also bravely spoke about her own experience of domestic abuse) seemed only to make the mob angrier still. And then — almost as if to keep the story going — some staff at Hachette threatened to down tools and refuse to work on Rowling’s new book, The Ickabog.

As a result Hachette’s CEO, David Shelley, apparently felt the need to address this whole issue at a townhall-style event held last week for the company’s staff.

Accounts of the meeting that I have heard show he did a stellar job. He talked about his pride in the company and the great tradition of free speech and publishing in this country. Apparently he talked, among other things, about my late friend George Weidenfeld, one of the greatest publishers of the twentieth century. As Shelley said to his staff, George fled the Nazis from his native Austria, and made it to Great Britain where he and his family made their life anew. If anyone had reason to be sensitive to the horrors of extremism then George did. But George had such confidence in the free exchange of ideas that he was perfectly content to publish books he didn’t agree with. Indeed he published books by Nazis. The fact that he made a lot of money for his publishing house by doing so was one fine revenge. But George’s view was that the world needed to know as much as possible about what happened and how it happened, and that books, and words and ideas were the lifeblood of a society that wished to remain free and liberal.

It would seem that Shelley’s summoning of such a deeply missed, truly liberal spirit fell on at least some decidedly deaf ears. After the meeting there was a letter of criticism about this very meeting. I understand that over 100 members of staff at Hachette signed this letter of denunciation. In yet another vindication of Bari Weiss’s observation about the cut-off date of the new authoritarians, the vast majority of the signatories are reportedly from that under-30 segment of the Hachette staff.

There have been a number of failures throughout this episode. None, so far as I can see, committed by David Shelley who has stood up for his authors and a free press as well as anybody could. The failures have been in the failure of legacy organizations like the increasingly pointless PEN to say anything at all during this episode. Most of all, of course, the failure has been of the relevant staff at Hachette. Specifically their failure to understand anything at all about the business they are in.

Because let us remember, these are people so unfit to play any meaningful role in the adult world that they are currently railing and crying and kicking their feet at the prospect of having to be in a publishing company that would dare to publish a children’s book. They have not been forced to publish Rowling’s collected blogs. They are not being forced to work on ‘J.K. Rowling’s Big Book of Trans’. No, these people are furious because they work in a publishing house which is publishing The Ickabog, and that the book’s author has said something which even if it were not true and agreed on by the majority of the general public (which it is) should still be permissible to say in a free society.

So here is an idea — and I give it out there for free. One of the great moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency was his firing of the airline traffic controllers. In August 1981, these federal employees held the public of the United States government and public hostage. Their unreasonable demands were jeopardizing the American public’s travel plans at peak holiday travel season. In one of the great stands of his presidency, Reagan overnight fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who had refused to return to work unless their demands were met. New, non-recalcitrant staff were immediately brought in to replace the deeply replaceable workers and business soon returned to normal. The President also instituted a lifetime ban on rehiring of these workers.

If publishing house after publishing house and paper after paper is going to be held hostage by the young army of bigots like the anti-Rowling brigade it is high time that somebody made an example of them. The people who cannot bear to work at a publishing house that publishes The Ickabog are a very good and agreeable place to start. There are at least 100 people at Hachette who have now identified themselves as ignorant of the tenets of a free society and utterly unsuited to the industry they have chosen to work in.

I don’t know that there should be a lifetime ban on them working in the publishing industry. Some among their number might grow up. But there should certainly be a large number of much-desired job vacancies coming up at Hachette soon.

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