I hadn’t actually heard about this incident until I spotted an article on it while leafing through a recent copy of PR Week, but it certainly raises issues over freedom of expression and where the boundary lines ought to lie.
A couple of weeks ago, a Waterstone’s branch in Cardiff decided to cancel a book-signing by poet Patrick Jones, the brother of Manic Street Preachers member Nicky Wire. The move came after the campaign group ‘Christian Voice’ described the book-Darkness Is Where the Stars Are- as “obscene and blasphemous” and protested at the shop in question. The national director of Christian Voice, Stephen Green, said the decision to cancel the event was a triumph “for the Lord, not for us. The Lord had not even showed me what we should do at Waterstone's, only that it should be Christlike.”
In response, two Members of the Welsh Assembly have invited the poet to read his work at the Assembly next month. Mr Green isn’t too pleased at this latest development, saying: “It’s a disgrace this should be happening in the Assembly. Peter Black [one of the AMs involved] has alienated all his Christian constituents. He has made it official Lib Dem policy to insult Jesus Christ.”
Christian Voice first came to prominence in 2004 when they launched a vociferous campaign against the BBC screening of ‘Jerry Springer the Musical’. At the time, the BBC refused to back down, saying that the artistic merit of the show outweighed any offence it may cause.
It’s a pity Waterstone’s didn’t take a similar stance.
Notwithstanding the content of the book- which I haven’t read- throughout the history of modern literature, the medium has been about creativity, breaking new ground and challenging people’s views.
That Waterstone’s waved the white flag so willingly on this issue sets a dangerous precedent. They say that they will continue to sell the book in their stores, but obviously weren’t prepared to stand by it when the heat was on.
Waterstone’s need to make up their mind where they stand on the issue of literary freedom- they can’t have it both ways.
And there’s another thing that should be borne in mind. The people who are protesting against this publication aren’t its target audience. It’s one thing being offended; it’s quite another to seek out offence.
Clearly there is a place for intervention when something is so repulsive to a significant chunk of society, or where there is a strong chance that it could incite crime for instance, that to do nothing would be bad judgement or negligent. However, to acquiesce at the first sign of issue being taken by a small, vocal group of protestors is nothing short of censorship and challenges the concept of freedom of expression.
Waterstone’s make their money by selling readers the literary creations of authors. Perhaps they should have taken this into consideration before turning their backs on Patrick Jones and his fans.