The media column - Peter Wilby

To judge from my e-mails, a fair number of people believe I have been "fomenting, justifying or glor

I do not think I have ever been guilty of "fomenting, justifying or glorifying terrorism". But, to judge from my e-mails, a fair number of people believe I have. If I were a foreign-born Muslim, they would no doubt accuse me of what Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, categorises as "unacceptable behaviours" and demand that he kick me out of the country.

I am as English as John Major's bicycling old maids, however. In any case, I have known Clarke for 30 years and have confidence in his underlying decency and liberalism. It wasn't until I read John Rentoul in the Independent on 25 August that shivers began to run down my spine.

Rentoul, normally a columnist for the Indie's Sunday sister, has written a reverential biography of Tony Blair, and even the former Guardian (now Times) columnist David Aaronovitch must concede to him the palm for unstinting support of new Labour. I know Rentoul only slightly and he has never done me any harm. But I cannot help feeling that, if the knock at dawn ever came, and I were taken to an anonymous building and then led down long corridors to a barely furnished room, it would be Rentoul sitting behind the desk, waiting to question me beneath the glare of a naked light bulb.

His 25 August column argued that Clarke's proposals "have a symbolic value that goes beyond strict enforceability". They reminded us all that citizenship involves responsibilities as well as rights. The 7 July bombers "enjoyed soft gradations of support within the British population . . . from the apparent copycat attempts of 21 July to the underbelly of apologists and half-apologists among some Muslims and some sections of the political left". Since I have argued, along with many others, that if we bomb Iraq we shouldn't be too surprised when people bomb us, I'd guess that Rentoul would include me at least among the half-apologists.

It's hard to tell exactly what Rentoul has in mind for me. But I suspect he wants Britain to adopt an American approach to freedom of speech. Many people imagine that such freedom is absolute in the US, and it is true that the legal ban the British government proposes to slap on organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir is inconceivable across the Atlantic. You can say or write what you like in America and nobody will arrest you. Nor will the state impose direct censorship. The pressures are more subtle. "Anti-American" opinions, it is widely agreed, should not be held or expressed by those in positions of influence and authority. They can be hounded out of work and the law offers little protection. This explains why McCarthyism - directed particularly against "reds" in Hollywood, which was then even more influential in forming American values and culture than it is now - could flourish in the 1950s, and why the US press was so supine in its coverage of the Afghan and Iraq wars.

I fully understood all this only when, immediately after 9/11, I wrote a now notorious New Statesman editorial that was widely judged to make "excuses" for the Bin Laden-inspired attacks. I received a denunciatory fax (or "faxwa", as I called it) from Irwin Stelzer, a US economist who writes for the Sunday Times and acts as a sort of intellectual frontman for Rupert Murdoch. He said I should be sacked as editor of the NS and that he would make this view widely known in the proper circles. This was more disturbing than it may seem because Stelzer, despite his hardline neoliberal views, is well connected to new Labour and, unaccountably, particularly close to Gordon Brown. One thing should be clear, Stelzer wrote. He was not disputing that I was entitled to hold my views; it was just that they should not be expressed by someone in my position.

Stelzer was as good as his word. In the following months, I heard, he buttonholed anybody who would listen and put the case against me.

As it was nearly four years before the axe finally fell, I think it fair to say he failed. If Rentoul had his way, perhaps I would not be so lucky.

Writing here about coverage of the Live 8 concert in July, I noted the appearance, in the Sunday Telegraph, of what was probably the first picture of a full-frontal, male-on-male kiss (Sir Elton John and Pete Doherty) in either of the Telegraphs. Now I have spotted what may be the first appearance of the word "fucking". Well, almost. The paper's edition of 28 August carried a full-page feature on an Austrian village, founded by a 6th-century Bavarian noble called Focko. It is plagued by British tourists because it is called, yes, Fucking. Toby Harnden's report contained the obligatory asterisks (39 of them in all) while the pictures cleverly featured the road sign at the village exit which, as usual on the Continent, has a cross through the name. Parts of the "uck", the letters normally asterisked, were clearly visible, however. I congratulate the new Sunday Telegraph editor, Sarah Sands, on her daring.

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