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London, February 28, 2006

No point arguing with deluded minds

Gillian Reynolds on radio

YOU know when your mother made you a special dinner and you didn't eat all of it? Remember how guilty you felt. That was me on Sunday evening, listening to a special programme put on by Radio 4 in response to one of last week's big news stories.

The story was David Irving's three-year jail sentence by an Austrian court for holocaust denial. The sentence was passed on Monday and the news sequences and phone-ins that day and thereafter gave it a lot of attention. Radio 5 Live buzzed with it.

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David Irving comments:

MISS Reynolds reports, in her penultimate paragraph, "This newspaper [The Daily Telegraph], I seem to remember, took the decision not to describe [David Irving] as a "historian" some years ago."
   Yes, so much for objectivity. It was at the time of the Rolf Hochhuth controversy, in 1967. (That dates ya, Gillian!).
   Maurice Green, their managing editor, had just assured me in a private letter that they were evenhanded as between the warring parties, when Private Eye discovered and gleefully reported that the newspaper's house style-book instructed, "David Irving, in the Hochhuth controversy, is not to be referred to as 'the historian', but as a writer."
   I wrote at once to Green that I cared not what term they used to describe me, my books would speak for themselves; they might call me a council dustman if they liked. He made a very clever reply, so clever that I have long since forgotten it.

The World at One carried a reactive interview with Deborah Lipstadt, the American author sued in 2000 by Irving for libel. In a book first published in America and then in the UK, she had called him a holocaust denier, a falsifier of history. He had lost that case, too. On The World at One last week, she said the Austrian sentence risks turning Irving into a martyr.

Michael Cockerell made a documentary after the Lipstadt trial, telling its inside story, with rare testimony from those involved, including the judge, the defence counsel, Lipstadt, who did not take the stand, and Irving, who represented himself. This updated version, from the independent producer Bruce Hyman, who also happens to be a practising barrister, went back to its fascinatingly contrasted accounts of what had happened back then.

Lipstadt didn't think it would go to trial. She had taken a harsh view of Irving, she said, but not as strong as others already in print. Irving said he thought it was time to fight back, that there was "international Jewish backing" for her "campaign", that it was "part of an international conspiracy to destroy him". Cockerell's narration said this trial was about history, how it is written and what we can believe.

Astonishingly, Penguin, the British publisher, had never read Lipstadt's book for libel before bringing it out. When Irving brought his suit, Lipstadt reckoned Irving didn't think she'd fight it, but, she said, she couldn't not fight it. Irving said he had to represent himself, partly because he had written the book on his own and chosen to mount this battle, partly because he couldn't afford what it would cost, half a million pounds for counsel, from £2 million to £6 million in all. Anthony Julius, the royal solicitor, volunteered to take on Lipstadt's representation for no fee.

It took two years for the case to come to court. The defence prepared by bringing in an expert team to read Irving's work, line by line, for evidence of falsification. Lipstadt's barrister taught himself German to read the Nazi documents in the original.

The judge, having put in six weeks of solid reading beforehand, said Irving handled his case "with great skill and ability" and took a month to reach a verdict in which he called Irving an anti-Semite and a racist. Irving called the expert witness[es] ignorant, said the judge had a thick skull and that defence counsel was "operating in the pay of a foreign power".

There was much here I didn't know or hadn't remembered. So why, if the material was gripping enough for me to make four pages of notes, and given that I am an admirer of both Cockerell's and Hyman's work, did I feel this programme seemed out of place?

Perhaps if it had happened on Monday or Tuesday night, I wouldn't have. By Sunday, the story had had a lot of coverage and analysis. People, from Monday onwards, were saying that for an Austrian court to bring to trial an offence committed 17 years ago was dubious. This is not an argument I, personally, accept. If a law is broken, the culprit should be tried and, if guilty, sentenced.

My big reservation is about something different from timing. This was a good programme, dispassionately presented, but could anyone listen to it and be convinced that Irving was anything other than deluded? This newspaper, I seem to remember, took the decision not to describe him as a "historian" some years ago.

But if there really are political parties or religious activists who take him seriously and, like him, deny the existence or the record of the Nazi death camps, would they be persuaded otherwise by Cockerell's account of his humiliation in court six years ago? I doubt their response would be the one Radio 4 was seeking.

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