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Don't mess with the Hitch (or British libel law)

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 19, 2009 10:02 AM

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hitch101.jpgThe British philosopher John Gray took a swipe at Christopher Hitchens in the introduction to his forthcoming collection of essays, "Gray's Anatomy": Gray wrote that Hitchens has asserted that waterboarding did not amount to torture, that it was a legitimate tactic in the war against Al-Qaeda. (Hitchens famously subjected himself, briefly, to waterboarding in order to write about it for Vanity Fair.)

In fact, however, Hitchens has always said waterboarding is torture banned by human-rights laws, despite his generally hawkish views, and he promptly lodged a complaint with Gray and his publisher, Allen Lane. As a result, the book is being pulped and reprinted without the offending line. The book had reached reviewers but not stores.

Gray's editor told the Manchester Guardian that it was a "silly mistake," not a case of serious libel. But you don't mess around with libel accusations in England. This month, Pan Macmillan, another publisher, took the extraordinary step of withdrawing a book that was published two years ago and had already sold a reported quarter-million copies: "A History of Modern England," by Andrew Marr, a BBC "presenter." (I.e., a smarter version of Stone Phillips.) At first, all parties were silent about the reason, but it soon transpired that Marr had stated in passing -- in his 669 page broad-gauge opus -- that a feminist activist, Erin Pizzey, now 70, had ties in the 1970s to a terror group known as the Angry Brigade. The Angry Brigade engaged in a bombing campaign that caused substantial property damage but only one injury. Pizzey cried foul, and the publisher will withdraw unsold copies of the book and excise the offending line.

Andrew Marr's history of modern England: also withdrawn

(Hitchens caricature: Hitchens Watch)

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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