Evgeny Lebedev

Russia has taught me the perils of censorship

Standard.co.uk Friday 21 September 2012

What a weird week or so in media land. First the royal treasures get snapped by a paparazzo in Provence, then a loony YouTube movie sparks a murderous rampage by Muslim extremists. And finally, a Parisian mag publishes a bunch of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Where to start? My default position on this stuff is that freedom of speech should be king. Coming from Russia, where my family’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper is the only one left brave enough to still challenge the powers that be, any censorship goes against the grain. But I’m also a strong believer in people’s rights to a private life — even if they are celebrities. Any intrusion into someone’s sex life, or long-lens photos on private property, can surely only be justified if clearly in the public interest. People say that’s an inconsistent approach — freedom of speech but respect for privacy — but I call it common sense. I saw enough dogma under communism as a child. Besides, newspapers are here to inform and scrutinise, not tyrannise.

In the case of the Duchess of Cambridge, there is clearly no public interest justification for publishing. The pictures proved nothing beyond the fact that Kate is a mammal, and a touch naïve — let’s face it, getting her kit off on a balcony was not her best idea. Clearly, despite its bluster about “highlighting security issues”, we all know the reason Closer published the pictures: profit. I’m really proud that no British publication printed them. I hope Fleet Street continues to hold the line even as more magazines abroad inevitably decide to print. And because it’s clearly right not to publish: not just because the Sword of Damocles of the Leveson Inquiry is hanging over them.

Banning art is banning thought

On the Muslim issue, I’d argue that judgment and common sense are as important in journalism as freedom of expression. I know my editors would not print cartoons mocking Christ, Mohammed, Buddha or even Scientology’s Lord Xenu (well, maybe Xenu’s fair game). I wouldn’t personally support a bonkers director making a trashy movie condemning the Prophet either. But those who do should be allowed to without the threat of being firebombed, shot at or killed. The reaction in the Middle East to the anti-Islamic film has been utterly revolting. We now have a situation where publishers fear to print anything even slightly negative about the world’s second biggest religion. Salman Rushdie said this week that no publisher would now have touched The Satanic Verses. That’s seriously depressing. If you start banning art, you start banning thought. We have fought long and hard, for centuries, to achieve our freedoms of speech and we must defend them with all our might. As my good friend Stephen Fry says: “To be offensive is not an offence.”

Supper with Shakespeare

Speaking of Stephen, late last year I mentioned to him in passing that I thought Mark Rylance was one of the greatest actors of his generation. Stephen immediately suggested we go and see the great man in Jerusalem together. Fine, I said, as long as we all go for dinner afterwards. This we duly did, but I was a little taken aback when, as I nursed a mineral water in Bocca di Lupo, an almighty row erupted between these two connoisseurs over whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare. I sat in awe as they discussed the intricacies of Elizabethan England to back their arguments. Finally, peace was declared, and Mark set Stephen a challenge: name the Shakespearean part that would pull him back onto the stage for the first time since his breakdown in 1995. “Malvolio,” Stephen said. And so, this weekend, Stephen is playing that very part in the reprisal of Twelfth Night at the Globe — his first stage performance for 17 years. Mark, ever the mischievous rogue, is to be Olivia, with whom Malvolio is hopelessly in love.

I can’t quite claim to be responsible for the chemistry on stage tomorrow, but I will feel a spot of pride while watching from the Lords Rooms. As to our dinner plans, I’m keeping an open mind …

Kitchen confidential

Forget the goings-on down the Queen Vic. It’s the shenanigans at a real East End boozer that’s been keeping me entertained. A year ago, I joined up with Sir Ian McKellan and the theatre director Sean Mathias to buy a pub in Limehouse. It’s called The Grapes, and we love the place. But it ain’t been easy. The latest drama has been about getting a decent chef. In the past six months or so, we’ve been through five — and interviewed twice as many more. The relief chef who replaced the last one at the weekend had to ask the manager what a “bisque” was. That didn’t bode well. Then, at 9pm, with the place full of hungry customers, he disappeared to catch a train. The previous bunch haven’t been much better. One left his shift early to go to hospital on account of his dodgy leg. Limping about the place like Long John Silver, he was. The thing is, we caught him on CCTV walking around as fit as a fiddle. I’m thinking of donning the whites myself this weekend. At least I can make a bisque. (It’s a soup, by the way.)

Twit of the week

I love Twitter, and always enjoy the feedback to these columns that I get there — particularly the more, how shall I say … eccentric tweets. But my Twitter account has been busier than ever before since we launched an equal marriage campaign on our new website Independent Voices this week. Here are a few of the choicest views: “Homosexuality is abnormal and can’t be the same level as marriage”, “I don’t like gay people at all” and, my favourite: “No disrespect but no gay should be allowed to do anythink (sic) let alone marry.” Great stuff! But it’s the ones attacking me personally that I particularly love. So, in an echo of the Reader’s Digest letters pages of yesteryear, I’ve decided to launch a new column: Twit of the Week. Here’s this week’s treasure, from @shakeir1: “Piss off faggot we don’t need loosers (sic) like you please kill yourself goodbye.” As Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying: It takes a lot to make me cry.