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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.

marr.jpg
Andrew Marr's history of modern England: also withdrawn

(Hitchens caricature: Hitchens Watch)

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