Saturday, February 25, 2006

Holocaust denial and the frailties of the media

Finding myself on the opposite side of a debate from Alex Wilcock (see comments on previous posts) gives me pause for thought and before moving on to pleasanter matters I will try to bash back a couple of the objections to my arguments and perhaps even end on slightly conciliatory note.

First it is a myth to think that exposure to public debate automatically exposes dishonest or fallacious arguments. In reality figures who don’t play by the normal rules, such as Irving or representatives of Northern Ireland paramilitary groups, frequently get the better of interviewers on radio or television. Listen carefully next time a Sinn Fein spokesperson is interviewed on the Today programme if you don’t believe me.

There are a number of reasons for this and for present purposes I’ll stick to the Irving example. Irving’s dishonesty and lack of scholarly standards were only fully exposed several decades into his publishing career, through the work of a team of scholars, led by Professor Richard Evans, who produced a report several hundred pages long as part of Deborah Lipstadt’s defence case. This exposed how Irving systematically manipulated source materials to exonerate Hitler and present the Jews in a bad light and ultimately to deny the holocaust. During the course of the trial Evans, under cross-examination from Irving, ended up refusing to accept without referring to the original source, any quotation made by Irving from documents that were before the court. The judge was initially exasperated by this insistence but as the sheer scale of Irving’s misquoting and attempted manipulation of evidence became apparent, he became rather more understanding of the difficulties faced in dealing with Irving’s modus operandi. Nothing Irving says about Nazi Germany can be relied upon.

Such things may be brought out in a long trial, but they make poor television or radio. As a result, Irving will get a better deal than he deserves from broadcast interviews. There are various scenarios that present themselves. He might be interviewed by a John Humphrys type, whose detailed knowledge of Nazi Germany will inevitably be far less than Irving’s. The interviewer will be in no position to spot or expose Irving’s lies and distortions. Or the broadcasters might persuade one of the few expert historians whose knowledge is as detailed as Irving’s to debate with him. But there are problems here too. The format for such things is that the presenter acts as neutral referee between two antagonists who are presented as having equally valid viewpoints. I doubt if any programme would open by saying ‘In the studio we have Professor X representing genuine historians and right-thinking people everywhere and David Irving, proven charlatan who is known for spreading a message of hate against Jewish people.’

And that, I suppose, is why a Richard Evans would not want to go on the Today programme to debate against Irving. The latter speaks confidently, with an air of authority and comes across as an avuncular, old-fashioned English gentleman. Any historian debating him on air would have to be very sure of their own broadcasting skills. Next, debates are normally conducted between intellectual and moral equals. Any reputable historian who agreed to debate Irving would be implicitly conceding a degree of parity between him and them. The listener/viewer is therefore presented with two scholars disagreeing, rather than a historian exposing the lies of an intellectual fraud. And lastly, to agree to debate with someone is to agree that there is a point at issue that is worth discussing. Debating with Irving gives the impression that there are two legitimate points of view: one that the holocaust in its essential details with which we are familiar happened, and one that it didn’t. This again concedes ground to Irving.

As a result of all these things, media exposure for Irving does not result in him being subjected to the full glare of intellectual scrutiny and revealed as a fraud, but rather affords him credibility. I say all this not to advocate censorship, but to say that those of us who defend free speech have to be aware that it is not all a bed of roses.

Which brings me on to my final, and I hope more conciliatory point. Ideally, perhaps, holocaust denial should not be a crime and I don’t see any need to make it illegal in Britain. Indeed on a purist Millite reading, maybe we should permit total free speech unless it is direct incitement or conspiracy to commit criminal acts. But in response to specific contemporary or historical circumstances, even democracies that uphold free speech will have difficult issues to confront at the margins. Even for Millites it is hard to judge at exactly what point someone is indeed ‘shouting "Fire" in a crowded theatre’.

For (serious, not silly) reasons, to do with its history and the need to protect its democracy from a far-right resurgence, Austria does have laws against holocaust denial. Irving deliberately breached such laws when addressing a far-right rally many years ago. He knew that by making his recent trip to Austria he might well be arrested. It was a deliberately provocative act, in which Irving took a gamble that he would either not be prosecuted or not be convicted and in either case he would have a major propaganda coup. Instead the Austrians held their nerve and Irving is now in prison. Given the situation the Austrian authorities found themselves in and the resurgence of overt holocaust denial in various parts of the world, I am convinced that they chose the lesser of evils. In this case, I can’t bring myself to regret the verdict or sentence. In the circumstances a failure to act by the Austrian authorities would have been worse. Much worse!

POSTSCRIPT: Irving himself of course goes to great length to suppress free speech by exploiting Britain's draconian libel laws to threaten legal action against historians who dare to criticise him. Even after the Lipstadt case, Richard J Evans had difficulty finding a publisher for his book based on his report presented at the trial, because of the risk of Irving suing. Possibly by adding to Irving's disgrace, the Austrian courts will, paradoxically, enhance free speech for genuine historians by making it easier for them to publish the truth about holocaust denial.


Joe Otten said...

" agree to debate with someone is to agree that there is a point at issue that is worth discussing."

This reminds me of the Creationism / Intelligent Design slogan: Teach the Controversy.

In both cases, how does one discuss whether there is a point at issue without discussing the point at issue, I wonder.

And in both cases it took a court to show that there wasn't a point at issue - that the holocaust deniers and Intelligent Designers were lying.

Liberal Neil said...

I think you are right to point out that simply assuming that those talking nonsense will be easily shown up in debate is not a good enough response to people like Irving.

However what posting misses is for me the bigger issue of any state attempting to limit what views people are allowed to advocate.

A line has to be drawn somewhere, and for me it has to be drawn at incitement to commit criminal acts. Any further and the dangers of state control outwiegh the risks of freedom of speech.

Angus J Huck said...

Iain, again you are wrong on a number of points.

It was not several decades into Irving's publishing career that his incompetence was fully exposed, but actually rather near the beginning.

I refer to the case of Captain Broome, a naval officer whom Irving accused of scuttling the Atlantic convoy under his command as a result of his own incompetence rather than following superior orders.

Broome sued, and won. The trial was well publicised, as were Lord Denning's criticisms of Irving on appeal. The case went to the House of Lords on the narrow issue of the court's jurisdiction to award exemplary damages (which Denning would have done) and is reported as Broome v Cassel & Co [1971] 1 All.E.R. 262.

When Irving is challenged by TV interviewers, he usually wilts. It happened when he appeared on Newsnight immediately after the Penguin Books trial. Unable to muster a single argument in his defence, he accused Jeremy Paxman of being Jewish. And it happened when he was interviewed in Hyde Park some time before the trial. Nervous, and fumbling for something to say, he claimed that the holocaust is glue which keeps the Jews together, and that it is the only interesting thing which has happened to them in 1,000 years.

The notion that academics are entitled to avoid public debate with people they do not regard as intellectual equals, or whose opinions they consider contemptible, is extremely dangerous. It is precisely by this means that the godfathers of corporate science, like Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert, are able to deny the reality of the paranormal unchallenged.

Austria adopted its holocaust denial law, not for the reasons you give, but as a panic response to the attack made on its President, Dr Kurt Waldheim, by the self-appointed Judaeo-centrist advocacy group calling itself the "World Jewish Congress".

Waldheim is a conservative Roman Catholic, not a Nazi. He never was a war criminal, merely a junior officer in the Wehrmacht, who had been conscripted like most men of his age. No evidence to the contrary was ever adduced.

The "World Jewish Congress" persuaded the world's media otherwise, and attempted to place Austria in the dock as a morally reprehensible hotbed of unreconstructed Nazism and anti-Semitism.

The holocaust denial law, and the rise of Jorg Haider, are both consequences of this despicable attempt to destabilise Austrian society.