Sunday, March 09, 2008
I spent this morning driving to County Down to pick up a very expensive bottle of whiskey from two lovely older gay gentlemen, then delivering it to Skinner Senior.
This was justifiable for two reasons - firstly, because you don't come across Old Comber Whiskey very often these days, and secondly because you can't beat driving through South Down on a Sunday morning for that sense of emulating a car advert (winding country roads, all but empty, surrounded by lush green fields and all bathed in glorious sunshine.)
What wasn't justifiable was the lunacy I ended up subjecting myself to on Newstalk radio while driving.
Karen Coleman - the former RTE hack that George Dubya hated - has a current affairs round-up show which is normally pretty good.
What let her down was her sudden loss of journalistic objectivity when David Irving (above), the historian associated with denying the commonly accepted scale of the Holocaust, appeared as a guest on her show.
Now, in the week that Irving (not for the first time) was denied a platform to speak in Ireland by people who think issuing death threats against others is a defence of civilised values and free speech, for Coleman to get him live on air was a bit of a coup.
Teaming him up with his long-term critic, Deborah Lipstadt was a second stroke of potential broadcasting genius.
So what went wrong? Well, Coleman lost sight of her journalistic objectivity, and rather than quizzing Irving hard on his beliefs, asking for him to support his controversial assertions and conclusions about the Second World War, instead she simply sided with Lipstadt, who one would have thought was well able to defend herself against Irving, having won a libel action he took against her.
In short, the presenter tag-teamed her guest with another guest whose sole reason for being on the show was to refute, ridicule and condemn the guest who was actually newsworthy.
That's not good journalism, and Coleman is experienced enough to know much better.
But in another sense, one can't blame Coleman for doing what she did. Any broadcaster who could even be (mis)interpreted as sympathising with someone like Irving runs the risk of being tarred themselves as a holocaust denier, a fellow traveller with fascists and far-right nutters. It's career suicide for a mainstream broadcaster like Coleman. And she's too experienced not to know that.
But once again, I was left pondering the irony of how people who defend their actions in terms of freedom of speech are happy to stifle the voices of those whom they find offensive.
Lipstadt refused to debate Irving directly, which is her decision. But one would have thought that the best way to refute his conclusions is to present him with contradictory evidence.
She also accused him of being a would-be censor for taking a libel action against her book, wherein she accused Irving of being a holocaust denier. As Irving pointed out, seeking to injunct the book would have been an attempt to silence, whereas permitting publication then suing for libel to preserve your reputation was not.
But Lipstadt is entitled to her position, as she earned it in court. On the other hand, Irving has also earned his right in court to present his historical analysis. His conviction and incarceration in Austria on charges of denying the holocaust is one of the great stains on the Voltairian tradition of freedom of speech in Europe.
Of course, those who protest David Irving's speaking engagements, just like the BBC when they dubbed Sinn Fein spokesmen, argue that with freedom of speech comes responsibilities, and that no absolute right to free speech exists (known commonly as the 'Don't shout FIRE! in a crowded cinema for no reason' rule).
However, the irony here is that this is simply fascism with another face. Deny anyone free speech, and you become the jackboot, the oppressor.
The way to deal with Irving is with facts. Cold, hard, irrefutable facts. Not with inane questions like 'Do you agree that the Nazis were evil?' And certainly not the way Lipstadt, a woman qualified to discuss the known facts of the Second World War, did, by simply dismissing everything Irving said as 'silly' without bothering to present evidence refuting it.
For the record, since Irving did not get to speak in Ireland, he does not deny the holocaust. He queries the accepted facts of it and the scale of it. He believes it happened primarily on the Eastern front, and without Hitler's knowledge or approval.
This may well be a profoundly silly position for a historian to assume. If so, then all it requires is refutation. Lipstadt could and should have spoken directly to Irving and cited documents to prove him the liar she claims he is.
But more importantly, Carol Coleman should have assumed the critical perspective of journalism she knows well, by quizzing Irving closely on his beliefs without permitting her own evident distaste to colour and distort the interview.
What came across on radio was exactly what Irving wants - the sound of an elderly patrician gentleman speaking quietly in reasonable tones while being ambushed by two women competing in shrillness.
Anyone with an Armenian background, anyone from Rwanda older than fourteen, anyone with a Roma background, anyone familiar with the mid-century history of European homosexuality has already got good reason to query the consensus explanation of the holocaust as a solely Jewish tragedy that is somehow elevated above all other historical events of suffering.
There have been other holocausts, and more than Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Irving cleverly uses these self-evident facts to gain leverage against the monolithic sacrosanct concept of The Holocaust as a unique event that solely hurt Jews. Arabs in particular feel that this interpretation is often used as justification for the Zionist state.
Now, there's no doubt Irving is dubious. His association with Neo-Nazis betrays his true sympathies and casts a shadow over his position as a historian of the Nazi era. He has been refuted factually in relation to his Dresden death tolls, and the reasons for the destruction of convoy PQ-17.
On the other hand, he was instrumental in uncovering the truth of the Hitler diary forgeries, and has repeatedly been praised, albeit with reservations, by other historians who patently do not share his political sympathies. He has also been the target of dirty tricks and silencing tactics by the far-left for over 40 years. That lineage continued this week in Cork, with death threats issuing against Irving over the internet from far left sources.
It seems to me that dealing with Irving's work requires careful sifting of his evidence, and conscious consideration of his political sympathies when examining his conclusions. But permitting Irving to present himself, accurately, as someone who does not get a fair hearing only opens the door wider for people to consider his views more seriously and much less critically.
If people wished genuinely to discredit Irving and deny his ideas a platform, they ought to simply disprove them with supporting evidence. That would shut him up for good. But it's not that simple. A lot of David Irving's work has worth. It's perfectly possible to examine it and come to objective conclusions based on facts. Wikipedia managed it. Why couldn't Karen Coleman?
Calling him a holocaust denier when he doesn't deny that the holocaust occurred merely erodes the credibility of those who say so. Locking him up in Austria as a holocaust denier merely made a martyr of the man.
Irving says the holocaust happened differently to the consensus understanding of the event. That's his interpretation as a historian. And it should be refuted as such, with historically verifiable and irrefutable data and evidence, not with childish namecalling that merely adds substance to Irving's line that he is the ongoing victim of censorship.
Calling him silly is not a refutation of his argument. And without factual refutation, it will only gain in influence.