Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Names have been suppressed
Attempts to encourage censorship and deliberate amnesia seldom work

Soon after a maniacal gun nut slaughtered and maimed numerous concertgoers in Las Vegas, the idealists proposed a solution.

Expunge the killer from history, they pleaded: never let his name be spoken, deny him the notoriety he clearly craves. Given that he was already dead, he was unlikely to be enjoying a lot of notoriety anyway, but there was perhaps an argument to limit the publicity in an attempt to deter the copycat mass murderers who apparently infest the United States.

However, it was an argument based on both wishful and wistful thinking: once the twitterati got their thumbs around their mobile phones, Stephen Paddock became a household name within seconds. Suppression, censorship and deliberate amnesia obviously do not work in the digital age, and in fact there is compelling evidence that they never have.

Certainly journalists indulge in self-censorship occasionally; there was a time when the private affairs (and particularly the sexual ones) of politicians were regarded as off limits, although this practice has fallen into abeyance – the turning point probably came when Laurie Oakes made public what insiders had known for months: that Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot were getting it on.

But even then, attempts to enforce silence from the authorities were seldom effective. My favourite Australian example is from the 1969 election campaign, in which the Adelaide backbencher Andrew Jones had made a name for himself as a brash and outspoken newcomer. After a heavy evening at the pub with some journalists, he tried to drive home and was arrested for drunk-driving.

Given the sensitivity involved in efforts to retain a very marginal seat, a compliant judge agreed to withhold his name from the media. However the beak’s writ ran only to the South Australian border, and next morning the Melbourne Age ran the triumphant poster: “Andrew Jones’ Name Suppressed.” It need hardly be added that the case became a matter of gossip and hilarity and Jones duly lost his seat.

A trivial business, and one not strictly relevant to the horrors of Nevada, but it is a salient warning about the dangers of a cover-up: any attempt from the authorities to try to induce deliberate amnesia among a curious population almost invariably makes things worse.

And there is a far more pressing analogy that goes back to 356BC, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. Near the sacred city of Ephesus, a deranged arsonist torched one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the Artemision, better known as the Temple of Diana. It was said that he hoped to earn himself enduring fame from this act of senseless vandalism.

The enraged locals reacted to this barbarism by not only summarily executing the perpetrator, but by passing a law that forbade identifying him in any way: he was to be stricken from the record, never mentioned again. Well intentioned, no doubt, but utterly futile. His name has never been forgotten: it was – and is – Herostratus.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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