I wonder what Lord Bell thinks of Sony’s decision to cancel screening of ‘The Interview’?
Earlier this year, the Tory peer said that author Hilary Mantel should be investigated by the police after she wrote a short story called (and about) ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983’.
It was a silly thing to say but free speech groups like English PEN (for whom I work) expressed concern at his words. Artists should be free to imagine and to fantasise, and equating a fictional murder of a head of state with actual incitement is not only fallacious, but gives dictators around the world yet another reason to shut down any kind of expression that portrays them in an impregnable light.
Which brings us on to The Interview, a comedy film in which Seth Rogan and James Franco star as two journalists who set out to assassinate Kim Jong Un. The government of North Korea called the film “an act of war” and threatened “bitter reprisals”. This week, Sony pictures announced that it would be withdrawing the release of The Interview after pro-regime activists calling themselves Guardians of the Peace hacked Sony’s computer systems, leaked embarrassing e-mails, and threatened attacks on cinemas showing the film.
Now, Lord Bell’s suggestion that Mantel receive a visit from the police is not equivalent to North Korean activists threatening violence. But Lord Bell’s idea – that fictionalised assassination of an already dead Maggie Thatcher is incitement, is surely equivalent to the idea that ‘The Interview’ is incitement. Of course, I think both ideas are false… but when a member of the House of Lords peddles the first idea, it rather gives credence to the second.
What could Sony have done differently?
Plenty of people have condemned Sony’s decision but there is no easy answer for a company faced with threats like this. North Korea and its leaders are often the butt of jokes, but the Sony hacking shows that they do have at least some international reach. The threats do have to be taken seriously.
If possible, a company can ensure extra security for its workforce. I recall that extra security measures were installed at Penguin’s head office during the Rushdie fatwa years, but the book was never withdrawn from publication. I wonder how many offices Sony has worldwide, and whether similar arrangements could be made?
If an organisation cannot guarantee the safety of its staff then they may reluctantly have to acquiesce to the threats of the violent censors. The Birmingham Rep Theatre had to cancel perfomances of Behzti in 2005 because protestors were throwing rocks at the theatre. Its difficult to know what could have been done differently in that situation. There was a suggestion that West Midlands Police should have provided more resources that would have guaranteed order and adherence to the rule of law, ensuring the safety of theatregoers. This was certainly a feasible (if expensive) option in the case of one theatre. It is probably not an option for local law enforcement to ensure the safety of every cinema in the USA.
And in the case of Sony, they also have to consider the safety of the punters. Apparently, the company did initially give cinemas the option of whether to screen it or not, and many movie threatres decided to opt-out of showing the film. My understanding is that now the film has been totally withdrawn. One independent cinema that did want to screen it has been told it cannot.
The Independent has a handy list of films that a centred around assassinations. They include Zoolander, Team America: World Police, The Naked Gun, The Manchurian Candidate and The Day of the Jackal. The paper doesn’t mention Kiefer Sutherland’s 24, which has several assassination attempts (half-spoiler alert: some of them entirely successful) of presidents and former presidents.
Other notables: Channel 4 created The Death of a President, an alternate history imagining of the assassination of George W Bush. Its political thriller Secret State begins with the killing of the British Prime Minister.
Are all these films incitements to violence? Sedition? Acts of war?