In his discussion of secrecy and the media, Neal Ascherson describes how the state maintains control over the flow of information to the public through a variety of formal and informal mechanisms: the lobby system of unattributable briefings to pliant journalists, the Privy Council oath, the Official Secrets Act and the informal pressures exerted by the security services (LRB, 2 April). Oddly, he doesn’t mention the D-Notice. The Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee (as it is called today) has for more than a hundred years survived all embarrassments and half-hearted attempts at reform. Set up in 1912 to buttress the Official Secrets Act, it is funded and run by the Ministry of Defence; the secretary is invariably a ‘retired’ military man, and the ‘advisory’ notices it issues periodically have not an ounce of legal weight. But they work.
The most brilliant aspect of the D-Notice system – as far as the state is concerned – is that the BBC, ITV, the national and provincial newspaper industry and magazine publishers all willingly go along with this peculiarly British form of censorship. They send executives to sit as members of the committee, and invariably comply with its ‘advice’ – though they do not mention this to their readers and viewers. The very existence of the D-Notice committee remained hidden from public knowledge until the 1950s and it wasn’t until 1967 that Lord Radcliffe – who had been Britain’s censor-in-chief during the Second World War – carried out an inquiry into an alleged breach of a D-Notice by the Daily Express. Radcliffe later told the House of Lords: ‘Governments always tend to want not really a free press but a managed or well-conducted press.’
The D-Notice committee has been used in an effort to suppress a vast array of information: about Kim Philby; the fact that GCHQ monitored cables leaving Britain (now also emails, presumably); the Nigerian civil war; books by people who had signed the Official Secrets Act forty years earlier; and television programmes, including one about the Zircon spy satellite that Ascherson mentions. In a more recent instance, two D-Notices were issued in 2018 after the Salisbury Novichok poisoning.
Neal Ascherson’s list of egregious government cover-ups should include the Pan Am Flight 103 (Lockerbie) affair. Torrents of evidence expose the insufficiency of the official line. To Ascherson’s ‘exotic dialect of evasion’ might be added the sentence ‘It would not be appropriate.’ This is what Gordon Brown said, fending off the prospect of a public inquiry into Lockerbie in 2009: mandarin for ‘We don’t need to give reasons to the likes of you.’
Luc Sante writes that the humiliation of the Fashoda Incident, which took place when Charles de Gaulle was eight, festered in his heart for seventy years, and implies that it was this which caused him ‘to block the UK’s entrance to the Common Market’ (LRB, 5 March) While it’s true that de Gaulle describes the Fashoda Incident in his memoirs as a humiliation not to be repeated, a far more likely explanation for his position on the UK can be detected in his criticism of what he called the ‘American protectorate’ – otherwise known as American hegemony – and Britain’s adherence, if not subservience, to it. In this light, de Gaulle’s action should be regarded not as the petty nurturing of an ancient grudge, but as the conviction of a visionary leader that the UK could not be counted on to uphold its obligations to an organisation such as the Common Market. Was he wrong?
Luc Sante writes that Joris-Karl Huysmans’s decadent 1884 novel À rebours, cited in The Picture of Dorian Gray, came up in Wilde’s second trial at the Old Bailey in 1895 as a “sodomitical” book.’ It’s true that the barrister Edward Carson denounced À rebours as ‘sodomitical’ – but he did so during Wilde’s first trial: the libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry. And though that courtroom exchange has embedded the link between the books in our minds, À rebours was never ‘cited’ in Dorian Gray. Wilde’s narrator used only the epithet ‘poisonous’, as in ‘a poisonous book’.
David Runciman writes that Boris Johnson ‘chided those who felt that travelling on public transport was intolerable in 40°C heat. It might be a little “muggy”, he said, but people should just get on with it. You know what he was thinking: don’t be such wusses’ (LRB, 2 April). Johnson has form in recklessly underestimating the danger to the public caused by government inaction. On the matter of cyclists’ safety, in November 2011, when he was the mayor of London, he told a London Assembly meeting that ‘if you keep your wits about you, Elephant and Castle [gyratory] is perfectly negotiable.’ Two people were killed cycling through Elephant’s two roundabouts during his mayoral term, one of them after he made this statement. In the two years before, 89 people had been killed or seriously injured as a result of collisions around the gyratory. Research published in 2004 by the London Accident Analysis Unit, part of Transport for London, showed that almost every cyclist killed in London was hit, usually by a heavy goods vehicle, at or near a junction, with intense hotspots around bigger junctions such as Elephant and Castle or Old Street roundabout.
Johnson may have made many statements about how wonderful cycling is, but he wasn’t keen to do much to protect cyclists from potentially dangerous interactions with HGVs, other than to put miles of blue paint on the roads and call them ‘cycle superhighways’. (Klaus Bondam, the former deputy mayor of Copenhagen, dismissed this approach as ‘just paint’ in an interview he gave me for the Bike Show podcast in July 2014.) Instead of addressing the actual dangers on London’s roads, Johnson prioritised removing ‘bendy buses’, falsely claiming that they were ‘cyclist-killing’, and commissioned a new double-decker, derided ever since. (The bendy buses were sold to Malta for buttons; they are now rusting in a field somewhere near Valletta.)
The danger to cyclists on London’s roads became front-page news after 2011 when the Times journalist Mary Bowers suffered brain damage after a collision with a lorry. In his 2012 re-election campaign Johnson promised to do more to protect cyclists. The first segregated cycle track opened in 2016, just weeks before the end of his second term as mayor. After a carefully planned intervention by Transport for London, the Elephant and Castle gyratory has been partly pedestrianised and there are segregated cycle tracks. The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured is down and continues to fall.
Paul Cartledge writes that the Arcadians were dismissed as ‘acorn-eaters’ by the priestess of Delphi and regarded as barbarians by the Greeks (Letters, 2 April). Plato lamented the loss of the Arcadian landscape that preceded the advent of the cereal-farming Greeks:
There is left from then to now only the bones of a sick body, all the fat and soft of the earth having fallen away, only the bare body of the place. But then it was intact and the mountains were high earth hills and the plains now called Phelleos were full of fat earth, and there was much woodland in the mountains.
The Arcadians’ staple food was the nutrient-rich acorn, gathered in the oak forests that covered Greece. The Greeks cleared those forests and planted cereal grains that required annual ploughing and cultivation of the soil, leading to the erosion and permanent loss of the fat, soft earth that Plato describes. Harvesting acorns was a communal activity and did not involve disputes over land-use rights. The nymphs and shepherds of Arcadia lived a life in harmony with their natural woodland environment.
Hastings, East Sussex
Meehan Crist mentions the research being carried out at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on an extracorporeal device, the ‘biobag’, which imitates the environment of the womb during pregnancy (LRB, 5 March). She writes that ‘in the future some version is likely to be used with late-term human foetuses. This could be an early step towards a more complex artificial womb capable of handling human foetuses at an even earlier stage.’ The implication is that women could, in the words of Shulamith Firestone, one day be freed from the ‘tyranny of their biology’ In fact the research at CHOP is directed towards transforming the handling of extremely premature births, starting at 23 weeks’ gestation. The ‘biobag’ will be a bridge to carry these newborns to the equivalent of 28 weeks’ gestation, when morbidity and mortality rates improve. If results with animals can be replicated in clinical care, the innovation is about ten years away. The leader of the study, Alan Flake, has stressed that the aim is not to extend viability to a period earlier than 23 weeks. Before that point, the limitations on physical size and physiological functioning would impose unacceptably high risks.
I have long admired the work of Peter Reddaway, so was disappointed with his mistaken assertion that ‘the Western journalists [in Moscow] who wrote about dissidents did so only occasionally’ (Letters, 5 March). He should know better. It is true that the correspondents for some of the major American and European newspapers hadn’t much of an appetite for reporting on dissidents. But that was hardly the case for all Western journalists. During the four years I spent in Moscow (1970-74), we in the AP bureau consistently covered dissident news, as did the Reuters bureau and the Scandinavian news agency. How could we not? It was one of the most important and revealing stories of the day.
Our sources were sometimes samizdat accounts of official abuses, including the Chronicle of Current Events, which Reddaway was to memorialise faithfully in Uncensored Russia. Usually we relied on the dissidents themselves: for example, the tragic Pyotr Yakir, the surprisingly accessible Andrei Sakharov, the troubled Vladimir Bukovsky, the enigmatic nationalist Vladimir Osipov, and the distant Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These were just a few of the people with whom we were in contact who dared challenge the values of the Soviet system. There were also outspoken refuseniks, Jews who faced momentary persecution, as it turned out, because they had applied to emigrate to Israel.
Hugh Epstein writes of Conrad and Hardy, ‘It would seem hard to find two contemporary great writers less inclined to acknowledge each other directly’ (Letters, 2 April). Well, there is also the case of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who for many years lived close to each other and apparently never met.
Julian Barnes writes that John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo ‘still pleases crowds at the Frick’ in New York (LRB, 2 April). In fact it hangs, a bit out of the way at the end of a dark though quite beautiful passageway, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Beverly Cove, Massachusetts
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