As regular readers of this column know, I am careful to keep my writing life distinct from my ‘other’ life as a United Nations official, where I currently toil as Director of Communications in the Office of the Secretary-General. But today I am making an exception, and it is all The Express’ own fault. Seeing this very paper give credence to a canard that has been spread by the Western press, about an entirely non-existent ‘row’ between Salman Rushdie and Kofi Annan, has goaded me to address a subject I would rather have avoided in this space.
It all started in that venerable bastion of the Anglo-Saxon media, the London Times. I was appalled that a paper as reputable as The Times could print the falsehoods which appeared in its Diary on October 12, 1999, under the oh-so-cute headline ‘Kofi Bar’ (I am developing the theory that a weak pun in a newspaper headline is a guarantee of lack of substance). The item alleged that Secretary-General Annan attempted to censor a chapter written by Rushdie for a book on population control, and, ‘furious’ at having failed to do so, insisted that his own contribution, of a preface to the book, be removed.
Not one allegation in this account is true. The Secretary-General was not aware of the proposed book, a project supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). At no time, therefore, could he have sought to censor Rushdie. At no time did he insist that his contribution be withdrawn. The paper quoted a ‘UN insider’ that Annan was ‘furious’ because ‘‘Rushdie’s views would take precedence over his’’; if such a person exists at all, which I very frankly doubt, he (or she) is not much of an insider, because she (or he) clearly knows neither the Secretary-General nor the details of this unfortunate episode.
These are as follows. The Secretary-General had nothing to do with the proposed book on population, but at UNFPA’s request I agreed, on his behalf, to contribute a preface in his name, as is customary with many UN publications. When UNFPA, for reasons relating in part to the contents of the book (including direct attacks by Rushdie on Muslim countries he named), decided to withdraw from its publication, it ceased to be a UN project, and a preface by the Secretary-General was no longer required. Neither the initial proposal for a preface nor its subsequent removal — both routine matters — was brought to the attention of Secretary-General Annan, who learned of the episode only when allegations of a ‘row’ were made to the press by the book’s publisher, in time for its commercial release.
To make matters worse, The Times then carried a letter from Salman Rushdie himself, explaining that he, too, was misquoted and misrepresented in the article — no small accomplishment for The Times’ imaginative diarist. Rushdie had apparently been informed (no doubt by the same enterprising publisher) that his contribution had been solicited ‘personally’ by Kofi Annan himself. To Kofi Annan, who has somewhat weightier matters on his desk than a publication on population, this came as somewhat bewildering news. I have (as Salman Rushdie knows from my many reviews of his books) profound admiration for Rushdie’s literary writings, so I hope it will not disappoint him too much to learn that the Secretary-General had no part whatsoever in this affair. The purported ‘‘personal invitation’’ from Mr Annan is a piece of magical unrealism.
Rushdie, in his letter to The Times, found all this ‘‘a perturbing indication of the UN’s censoriousness’’. Not so. It is true that the UN withdrew from the project: an organisation of member states cannot easily associate itself with attacks on its members. But the UN does not promote censorship. Rather, we chose to step aside and leave the pleasures of free expression to those who are freer to express themselves. No doubt all the controversy has been energetically fuelled by the book’s Dutch publishers, Podium, who have garnered acres of free publicity for a volume that might not otherwise have moved very rapidly off the shelves. So perhaps some good will have come out of this unprincipled assault on an innocent public figure. Still, it is ironic that the self-proclaimed advocates of free expression should show so little regard for something as basic to our freedom as the truth.
Why am I inflicting all this on Express readers? For the simple reason that this paper repeated The Times’ falsehoods uncritically, even carrying a photograph of Annan alongside the story. And also because I hope The Express has higher ethical standards than The Times, which has refused to print the UN’s side of this widely-circulated, and totally untrue, story.