Posted Saturday, May 12, 2001

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In announcing the cancellation, the union's president, Amy Harland, said yesterday that she was angered at having to do so, and denounced union opponents of the event as cynical political-point-scorers -- Ned ("two bites at the cherry") Temko, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, in an OpEd in The Guardian
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London, May 10, 2001


Comment & Analysis:

The Oxford Union's invitation to David Irving to debate was a travesty. Thankfully, it's been dropped

Ned Temko

[Website note: we apologise for the ungrammatical use of the word "thankfully" in the headline. Mr Temko is foreign-born.]

ALL'S well, I suppose, that ends well. At the 11th hour, the "world's foremost debating society" -- as the Oxford Union grandly describes itself -- has abandoned plans to host an event so appallingly inappropriate that it could be explained only as a reflection of intellectual shallowness, a cynical pandering to racial bigotry, or both. Still, in announcing the cancellation, the union's president, Amy Harland, said yesterday that she was "angered" at having to do so, and denounced union opponents of the event as cynical political-point-scorers who did not have the wellbeing of Oxford students at heart.

At issue was an invitation to David Irving -- described in the union's internet publicity blurb as a "controversial military historian" who has "recently faced legal challenges over his denial of the Holocaust" -- to feature in a debate on whether it is right to "restrict the free speech of extremists". Whether Mr Irving was worth inviting at all is, as the union might put it, debatable. But Ms Harland's explanation for the invitation, the biographical spin placed on the event's intended star performer and the topic chosen for the evening raise wider issues.

First, to Mr Irving himself. Yes, he is a historian, and yes, he is controversial. But what of his "recent legal challenges over his denial of the Holocaust"? It may have escaped Ms Harland's attention, but he faced no such thing. In fact, it was David Irving who initiated British libel proceedings against an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt. This was over her contention in a book on Holocaust denial that he had deliberately twisted the historical record and had become "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial."

Sir Charles GrayIn the event, Mr Irving's "legal challenge" -- against someone else's freedom of speech, not vice versa -- ended in an unequivocal high court defeat. Indeed, so conclusive was the result that the presiding judge felt compelled publicly to clarify just what kind of man this "controversial military historian" is. David Irving, said Mr Justice Gray, (right) had "persistently and deliberately manipulated historical evidence". He was "anti-Semitic and racist", and he associated with "rightwing extremists who promote neo-Nazism".

It is, to put it mildly, puzzling that the world's foremost debating society appears to have been either unaware of or uninterested in the true nature of its guest and of his recent courtroom encounter. Whether out of ignorance or cynicism, however, the result of the planned debate would have been not only to lend the union's imprimatur to a racist, some of whose buddies peddle neo-Nazism, but in effect to promote him as a victim of freedom of speech constraints.

There is, of course, a potentially interesting and important debate to be had on freedom of expression and on how a democracy can or should reconcile it with the views of extremists. My own view -- as a newspaper editor and as an American raised on the secular sanctity of the first amendment -- is that freedom of speech must be a, if not the, core guarantor of any genuine democracy, a view which, more relevantly to the planned Oxford debate, Deborah Lipstadt has always shared.

Yes, there will very occasionally be a need to respond to the pressures of the real world by constraining this freedom. But the dividing line is not whether the words involved are odious: freedom of expression would lose all meaning if it protected only words with which a society's presumably tolerant and commonsensical majority agreed. The question is whether potentially danger ous words are apt to lead to dangerous acts.

In this context, the answer to the question the Oxford union ostensibly sought to answer seems to me straightforward. In David Irving's case, a democracy's best and surest response must be not to ban his words but to expose them, as did Mr Justice Gray, for what they, and he, are.

What is astonishing is that the union invitation came after he had been exposed. It is one thing not to constrain Irving's freedom of speech. It is quite another to go out of one's way to provide a platform for a man found during his high court battle to be a racist, an anti-Semite and a historian who has twisted the facts; to announce the event with a laundered description of its star performer and to misrepresent the nature of legal dispute; and to choose a topic for debate on which he is among the least qualified people to comment.

That Irving's misrepresentation of the Holocaust offends many people seems not to have concerned the organisers of the debate. Sad though that gross insensitivity may be, it is not, nor should it be, a crime in a free society. But the intellectual shoddiness which characterised nearly every aspect of the planning and marketing of the debate -- and Ms Harland's suggestion that its cancellation, itself, represents a danger to freedom of speech -- makes the union's website claim to be the world's leading debating society sound as skewed as its biographical notes on the "controversial historian" from whom it had apparently hoped to take its lessons on democracy.

Ned Temko is editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

Related items on this website:

 Jewish Chronicle gloats: Oxford bar on Irving applauded
 Jewish Chronicle: Missing the point
 Jewish Telegraph Agency (New York) kvells
  How Lipstadt and others secretly pressured St Martins Press to violate their publishing contracts with Mr Irving
 How an Oxford University professor of political science [Pulzer] secretly pressured Macmillan Ltd to violate their publishing contracts with Mr Irving
 How the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Holocaust Education Trust (Lord Janner) secretly plotted to pressure Macmillan Ltd to violate their publishing contracts with Mr Irving

The Guardian's notable contribution to a fair trial verdict. . .


Other examples, including The Guardian's special effort, an article entitled "The Bogeyman of the Nursery" illustrated by a whole page photo of Mr Irving, are not posted on this website; reference to them will be found in the court transcripts.

Interested legal question: Can newspapers have an "aggravated" death-wish?

HAVE YOU been wondering why the two best stallions in the Guardian Newspapers Ltd stable, The Observer and The Guardian, have had their knives out for David Irving throughout his lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt?

Well, here's a hint. Coming shortly: The next High Court action: David Irving vs. Guardian Newspapers and Gitta Sereny (left).

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