Do we have the right to spread lies freely? Or does the propagation of dangerous falsehoods limit our freedom?
Old questions of freedom of speech, which have reappeared in recent years under the sexier new title of “post-truth”.
The debate’s latest iteration is the discovery that large numbers of books containing extreme hate content are being sold by mainstream booksellers in Britain.
A two-week investigation by the anti-racism campaign group Hope Not Hate found numerous texts denying the Holocaust sold on the Waterstones, Foyles, WHSmith and Amazon websites.
The group has published its findings in a paper called “Turning the Page on Hate”, and is urging the retailers to remove these texts, which range from what are deemed “dangerous” to Holocaust denials to far right books. They include:
US neo-Nazi leader William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, which depicts a future race war against black people and Jewish politicians, and has inspired real-life hate crimes and terror attacks, like the Oklahoma City bomb.
The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – an old 1900s forgery, which tells of Jewish plans for world domination; Adolf Hitler read this in the 1920s, and it has been described as a “warrant for genocide”.
Numerous books that deny the Holocaust, by writers like David Irving, Germar Rudolf, Fred Leuchter, Carlo Mattogno, and Nick Kollerstrom whose claims include that there was an “elegant swimming pool at Auschwitz” where inmates would “sunbathe… on Saturday and Sunday afternoons while watching the water polo matches”.
All of Second World War British fascist and Holocaust denier Oswald Mosley’s works.
- Books by present-day white nationalists like the American alt-right figure Greg Johnson, who believes in creating an ethnostate only for white people.
You can read the whole list here.
Since the campaign began, Foyles appears to have removed numerous works from its website (including Fred Leuchter’s The Leuchter Reports: Critical Edition, Did Six Million Really Die? By Richard Verrall, Breaking The Spell by Nick Kollerstrom, Arthur R. Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry and many of Mattogno, Rudolf and Johnson’s works).
However, its chief executive Paul Currie tells me Foyles has not taken any books down from its website: “We have not removed any of these titles other that auto-cleansing.” (This is an automatic process, he explains, which “cleanses” inactive searches on its eight million-title database).
He warns against censorship:
“This is a difficult scenario for all booksellers given the width and scale of publishing and the perennial issue of censoring from all aspects of life what people can read.”
Currie told Hope Not Hate directly that Foyles does not stock the offending titles on its shelves, or promote them to customers, but filtering them would be “unmanageable”:
“We’ve found that the overwhelming majority of authors and titles listed are not available to order from our website – they simply appear as bibliographic records.”
WHSmith also appears to have removed some books from its website since the campaign launched (including The Turner Diaries, Did Six Million Really Die?, The Leuchter Reports, various works by Mattogno, and all books by Kollerstrom and Johnson). I asked the retailer if it removed these due to pressure from Hope Not Hate, but have received no response.
At the time of writing, Waterstones retains the works Hope Not Hate discovered it selling during its investigation, as does Amazon – although the latter has removed similar works from sale in the past.
Amazon has declined to comment.
In a letter responding to the campaign from Waterstones’ owner James Daunt to Hope Not Hate, seen by the New Statesman, the bookshop finds issues “partly philosophical and partly technical” with the urge to withdraw the books.
Daunt argued that such titles are simply pulled from the standard industry database onto Waterstones’ website. They are not stocked in their shops or warehouses, but they are also not screened if they come through established publishers and distributors.
“We offer only a passive ordering service to those who have precisely and actively searched for the title,” he wrote, saying Waterstones’ role is as a “bookseller that undertakes to supply any book that a customer orders from a supplier with whom we have a trading relationship”.
“What should we censor?” he asked rhetorically, refusing to remove the titles:
“It is not our position to censor this listing beyond the existing measures we take to exclude self-published books that may potentially be offensive.”
But Hope Not Hate rejects accusations of censorship. “We’re not asking for these books to be banned,” says Hope Not Hate’s campaign director Matthew McGregor. “People have a misconception or are deliberately misinterpreting what we’ve said.”
He argues that, “people have the right to write and publish books, even if we find those books abhorrent. But there’s no requirement on the part of the retailers to sell those books… By listing these books on their websites, these mainstream retailers are giving credibility to these books.”
There is an echo here of another recent campaign, Stop Funding Hate, which urges companies not to advertise in mainstream right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail. While there have been accusations of political censorship here too, others, like my colleague Jonn Elledge, argue that the decision to pull advertising is ultimately a business and reputational judgment rather than a free speech issue.
Yet stopping the spread of ideas we find abhorrent is an old tendency rather than a “new trend”, and not solved by making information inaccessible, argues the Index on Censorship’s chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “Encouraging bookshops not to stock certain content because it’s considered hateful I think is problematic,” she says.
“When you’re suggesting [the removal of books from] some of the largest bookshops in the country, which are the ones most people can access, then you are limiting people’s access to information… Anything that limits people’s ability to find out information is a threat to freedom of expression.”
Hope Not Hate argues that while these books should remain available, their ideas don’t deserve the veneer of respectability provided by trusted bookshops. “Outright Holocaust denial is not a point of debate; it’s not a philosophical question. These are books that argue something didn’t happen that did,” says McGregor.
Unless these titles are re-filed under “Fiction”, I can’t see a compromise between those warning against censorship and the urge to protect people from hate speech.