Salman Rushdie | Salman Rushdie delivers his Auditorium Spea… | Flickr

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Salman Rushdie on 12 August, politicians and newspapers fell over themselves to praise the author for risking his own life in the cause of freedom of expression.
How different from February 1989, when the fatwa was announced on account of The Satanic Verses.

Then Britain didn’t even break off diplomatic relations with Tehran, and the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, told the World Service that he could “understand why [the book] had been criticised”. He added: “The British government, the British people have no affection for the book”, not least because it is “extremely critical, rude about us”. He claimed, entirely wrongly, that “it compares Britain to Hitler’s Germany” and added: “We do not like that any more than the people of Muslim faith like the attacks on their faith contained in the book”. His remarks were echoed by the home secretary, Douglas Hurd, the foreign office minister, William Waldegrave, and indeed Mrs Thatcher herself.

To begin with, this pusillanimity was attributable partly to the government’s desire to secure freedom for Terry Waite, who was being held hostage in Lebanon by forces related to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and partly out of concern for the businessman Roger Cooper, who had been found guilty of spying in Iran. But it was also trying to engineer better relations with the country via its more pragmatic elements led by likely presidential candidate, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  And this was motivated as much by desire to increase trade as concern with the fates of Waite and Cooper. In the years following their release, this motivation was to become paramount, as is amply apparent from remarks in Parliament by anti-Rushdie lobbyists such as Emma Nicholson and Peter Temple-Morris, which were faithfully echoed and amplified in papers such as the Mail.

“An outstanding villain”

But there was also the distinct impression emanating from certain quarters that Rushdie was the author of his own misfortunes, and not worthy of protection at public expense.

Notoriously Norman Tebbit in the Independent called Rushdie “an outstanding villain”, a man whose “public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”. Similar sentiments were voiced in the press by the likes of Hugh Trevor-Roper (also in the Independent), Roald Dahl and Auberon Waugh.

The venom of such attacks increased when Rushdie met prime minister John Major in 1993 and foreign secretary Robin Cook in 1997, reaching their apogee in 2007 when he was knighted. Inevitably the Mail, which Rushdie in his memoir Joseph Anton refers to throughout as the Daily Insult, was invariably at the forefront of this squalid campaign. In the Atlantic Magazine, March 1994, Geoffrey Wheatcroft described such reactions as “naked schadenfreude” and “malicious glee run riot”, and in the Guardian, 2 February 1993, Melvyn Bragg, noted not only the racism of these attacks but also “the baying of brute philistinism, and a poverty-stricken inability to recognise and support the call to a noble cause – the defence, in this country, of freedom of speech within the law”.

Weaponising Rushdie

So why the volte-face by the forces of the Right in 2022? The simple answer is because they could weaponise Rushdie in their obsessive culture war against “woke” and “cancel culture”.

Freedom, Censorship, and Charlie Hebdo - Humanities CenterIn 2015, Rushdie had criticised those authors who had withdrawn from the PEN American Center gala in protest at PEN’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo. This was because they considered offensive to Muslims the cartoons which had motivated two Islamist extremists to murder many of its staff. At which point he suddenly he became an icon of free speech for exactly the same kind of people who were utterly indifferent to his exercising this right in 1989 and to the personal consequences of steadfastly defending it in the decades following.

At this point the term “woke” had not yet been mobilised as a term of abuse by the Right, but the 2022 attack on Rushdie provided the press with a field day in their culture war. Immediately following the attempted murder, J. K. Rowling tweeted:  “Horrifying news. Feeling very sick right now. Let him be OK”, and Meer Asif Aziz, a student political activist based in Karachi, responded: “Don’t worry you are next” and described the attacker as a “revolutionary Shia fighter”.

There is not the slightest reason to think that Aziz’s threat had anything remotely to do with Rowling’s views on gender and sexuality, of which he was probably entirely ignorant, but nonetheless sections of the press instantly co-opted Rushdie to their cause. For example, the Mail, 15 August, enquired in its Comment column: “What’s the difference between an Islamist fundamentalist and a trans rights extremist? Not as much as we may have thought, it seems. Where crushing free speech is concerned, they are very much on the same page”. In the same day’s MailOnline Frank Furedi attacked “the cowardice of leftists who fail to defend free speech” and Dan Wootton argued that: “It’s the same type of organisations and individuals who bravely backed Rushdie back then who now so casually call for the cancellation of Rowling in 2022”. Two days later in the MailOnline, Gillian Philip, in an article headed “It’s a bitter irony: how the literati pledging support for Rushdie are too often cheerleaders of woke censorship”, alleged that “the cracks in the liberal façade of resolution” showed almost as soon as the fatwa was pronounced” and that “even at the time there were many public figures who equivocated or even sided with the bigots and book burners”. However, the only specific liberal at whom she points the finger – Baroness Shirley Williams – made the remarks to which she takes such exception in 2007: a mere eighteen years after the fatwa was pronounced!

Rewriting history

What is happening here, and in similar articles in other right-wing papers, is that history is quite simply being rewritten. It was predominantly forces on the Right that refused to support Rushdie in 1989 and, in some cases, bitterly attacked him in his plight. There were certainly a few liberal or left voices that were unsupportive – for example, Germaine Greer, John le Carré and John Berger – but no paper has offered a shred of proof that any specific person or organisation that supported Rushdie in 1989 and thereafter is now engaging in calling for the censorship of those with whom they disagree. But, of course, the reason for that is that “cancel culture” is largely a figment of their fevered imaginings.

Instead, papers such as the Mail have both drawn a veil over their own malign role in the original Satanic Verses affair and engaged in a defence of freedom of speech which extends only to the expression of sentiments of which they approve or which they can mould to suit their own ideological purposes. This is neither a right nor a freedom which has the slightest shred of ethical validity.

However, this is an area in which both the press and politicians have previous form.

Death of a Principle

In April 1980 the ITV company ATV showed Anthony Thomas’s documentary-drama, Death of Princess, based on the true story of a Saudi princess and her lover who were  publicly executed for adultery. King Khaled of Saudi Arabia was furious and pressured ATV not to show the film, as well requesting the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, to have it banned. The latter was also enraged, as he’d recently enjoyed a successful trade-boosting visit to the kingdom. He communicated Khaled’s feelings to ATV, and both he and James Craig, Britain’s ambassador to Saudi, did their utmost to placate him by expressing their “profound regret”.

To begin with, various MPs and newspapers criticised what they regarded as Carrington’s grovelling attitude. However, there was also a marked tension in both the press and Parliament between the conflicting desires to champion media independence and to avoid alienating a valuable trading partner and Middle Eastern ally.

As the dispute progressed, fuelled by vast amounts of frequently lurid and speculative press coverage, often on the front pages, Saudi Arabia announced that it was requesting the withdrawal of the British Ambassador to Jeddah, delaying the appointment of its new Ambassador to London and reviewing its trading position with Britain.  But although much of the press was highly critical of the film (which it frequently misrepresented) it did at least continue to defend its right to be shown.

However, a worrying number of politicians began to take a very different line, thus clearly prefiguring the attitude of some of their number to Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. For example, the Tory MP Nicholas Winterton accused Thomas of having “a history of producing inaccurate and biased films” and urged Sir Ian Gilmour, Lord Carrington’s deputy, to make approaches to the television regulator the Independent Broadcasting Authority “to ensure that these left-wingers do not have the power to undermine the best interests of the United Kingdom”.  For Labour, Lord Jacques wondered if “the time not come that, when you have a film which is so against our national interest, its display should be prohibited by a Resolution of the House of Commons, confirmed by this House”. Meanwhile the Tory Lord Boothby made a plea for self-censorship. In his view, if “the late Lord Reith had still been in charge of radio and television in this country nobody would have dared even to mention, still less to show him” the offending film, and thus he suggested looking for a similar figure “who could be relied upon to discharge his duties at a time of international crisis … without any necessity for Government legislation

Breath-taking hypocrisy

However, in February 2006 press concern with freedom of expression did not extend to republishing any of the controversial Jyllands-Posten cartoons, as did many European papers in a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered Danish publisher. Of course, many may feel that they were quite right not to reprint them, but specifically in the case of those newspapers which have long made a speciality out of representing Muslims and Islam in a highly negative light, the hypocrisy on display was quite breath-taking.

Thus the Sun, 3 February, announced that it could “see no justification for causing deliberate offence to our much-valued Muslim readers”, the same day’s Telegraph stated that “we prefer not to cause gratuitous offence to some of our readers”, the Mail argued that although freedom of speech is a treasured characteristic of a civilised society, “an obligation of free speech is that you do not gratuitously insult those with whom you disagree”. Finally, Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times, 5 February, dismissed the cartoons as “offensive and inflammatory” and their republication elsewhere in the EU as “the idiot antics of a few continental journalists”.

Presumably those papers normally only too happy to heap opprobrium on the heads of Muslims decided on this occasion to self-censor themselves for fear of reprisals. It’s one thing to spew out anti-Islamic sentiment to no-one but those whom you assume to be your like-minded readers, but quite another to do so in the full glare of the global media spotlight, and when you’re well aware of the treatment meted out to those papers that, for whatever reasons, did re-publish the cartoons. Such a stance would have required both consistency and courage, two qualities conspicuously lacking in Britain’s right-wing press, which is always perfectly happy to attack the weak as long as there’s no chance of their retaliating. As Gary Younge pointed out in the Guardian, 4 February: “If newspapers have the right to offend then surely their targets have the right to be offended. Moreover, if you are bold enough to knowingly offend a community, then you should be bold enough to withstand the consequences, so long as that community expresses displeasure within the law”.

Grotesque double standards

These are exactly the same papers which, just five years later, would be endlessly singing the praises of press freedom and lambasting the Leveson Inquiry for allegedly endangering it.  Which, sixteen years later, would be caricaturing as “woke censorship” and “cancel culture” any concern with giving offence to minority groups such as Muslims. Which, even at the time, were routinely dismissing such concerns as “political correctness” or obsessions of the “loony left”.

Accusing these papers of rank hypocrisy hardly does justice to the grotesque double standards on display here, and one can only wonder what Salman Rushdie would make of their volte-face in his defence. But it is surely extraordinarily unlikely that he would welcome them as allies.

Back in September 1993 Mary Kenny in the Mail complained of, inter alia, Rushdie’s “bad manners and sullen gracelessness”, criticised his “ungracious and unattractive behaviour” and also called him “small-minded”, “arrogant” and “egocentric”. Rushdie himself was granted a vanishingly rare right of reply (which is reprinted in his 2002 collection Step across This Line) in which he stated that:

The real arrogance lies in assuming, as the Daily Mail and its columnists assume, that their view of this country, “their Britain”, is the only legitimate one; the real bad mannered behaviour is that of a paper which daily reviles and bullies all those who don’t fit into its narrow-minded, complacent world view.

Let us sincerely hope that when he recovers, he returns in the same combative spirit to this particular fray.

Julian Petley is emeritus and honorary professor of journalism at Brunel University London His most recent book is the second edition of Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left (Routledge 2019), co-written with James Curran and Ivor Gaber. He is a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review and the principal editor of the Journal of British Cinema and Television. A former print journalist, he now contributes to online publications such as InforrmByline Times and openDemocracy.