Mission critical

If we have learned one thing in recent weeks, it is that the period ahead is going to be challenging. In the past seven days, the US President has implemented a temporary ban on travel into the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, while in the UK, MPs have voted (despite the clear reservations many had) to allow Brexit to proceed. Did I say challenging? I meant frightening, demoralising and—ultimately—enraging.

But there are positives. In the week of the release of the film “Denial”—based on the 1996 libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving against author Deborah Lipstadt and her then-publisher Penguin—it is worth remembering publishing’s vital role in defending the truth, establishing fact and codifying history. Underpinning all of this is the freedom to speak, disseminate information and receive it—actions that at times like this can feel like acts of defiance. As an editor’s letter published by US trade paper Publishers Weekly (under the arresting headline “Standing Up to President Trump”) put it recently: “No principle is more important to book publishing than freedom of speech. To help ensure that authors and publishers will remain unafraid to publish works that they believe in, no matter where the subject matter falls on the political spectrum, will require a strong commitment by individuals, companies and organisations to protecting free speech.” Vital, too, is the free flow of ideas across borders and the ability of people of all types from all nations to travel. The opposition to the US restrictions by global giants such as Amazon, Pearson and Google, as well as authors like Malorie Blackman and a vast number of public demonstrators, shows that that there is a personal and business cost to all this—and an urgent need to push back.

In the aftermath of the Brexit result on 24th June, I wrote that publishing would need to step up to have a defining role creating whatever comes next. This may no longer be enough. Publishing will need to sharpen its elbows and foster a spirit of indomitableness, particularly at the corporate level, as it both records current events and finds a way to spread its core messages of tolerance and understanding. It will also need to refocus on its own values, to reach out better to marginalised authors
and readers, and cultivate creative relationships that can withstand proscription from wherever it may come. Last, it will need to entertain—soothe brows, spread joy.

This will not be easy. Some may call it unneccessary and say that comments such as this are hyperbolic. I hope they are right: that the US does not become intolerant; that Brexit does not mean isolationism. We are fortunate to work in a sector where we can do something. The challenge is to carry on, even when we don’t feel calm.

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.