Monday, 11 February 2013

The Mutation of Time: How A Story Changed in the Telling

Leah Goodman wrote:

"The chain bookstores in Jersey occasionally receive directives that certain books are not allowed for sale on the island. To name a recent one, a memoir by a man named Robbie Garner called "Nobody Came," detailing the abuse, torture and murder of children that he and his brothers witnessed at Jersey orphanage Haut de la Garenne, was banned from stores on the island. Waterstones told me they'd actually ordered it anyway, but the Jersey post would not deliver it. Because it is an island, it is harder to get things without the complicity government-run institutions like the postal service. As it happens, it is also harder to escape an orphanage."

"Seeing as you have a lovely library at Halkett Place (where I have a library card) clearly ALL books are not banned from Jersey. Anyone who says otherwise did not watch my interview on the Keiser Report. One book recently banned from your island was "Nobody Came" by Robbie Garner. It was Mr. Garner's first-person account of how he and his little brother were raped and tortured at Haut de la Garenne. (His brother beaten until brain dead, actually.) Garner witnessed the deaths of several young boys, from suicide to murder."

"Extremely sad story and not one people in Jersey could buy from the bookshops when it came out because the shops were not allowed to ship the book to the island or sell it. I spoke to them myself. They told me they had ordered it, but it never arrived. They checked to see why and it turned out to be a commercial ban on the title by the island's authorities. There are a few copies at the library, however."

It's interesting how stories can develop and change over time.

The origins in the story come with the publisher's Harper Collins, who decided that as the investigations were ongoing at Haut de La Garenne, that it might be wiser for the book not to be sold to outlets in Jersey. There could be legal implications for any trial, and the possibility of contempt of court. In the same way, the law stops the JEP from printing some things in the paper while court cases are ongoing.

Of course, that didn't mean that the publishers might not have had any communication with, for instance, Jersey's Attorney-General, who may have warned them of potential pitfalls, but there is no evidence of that; the publishers themselves haven't said as much. That won't stop conspiracy theorists from constructing mountains out of molehills, but it is, I think, important to establish what is speculative, with no evidence, and what can be proven. And in any case, the story as told was to do with a commercial ban by the Island's authorities, not a publisher's decision to to sell to a jurisdiction.

They have told journalist Lucy Stephenson that the embargo applied to Island booksellers, and included Amazon selling to Jersey. How one could prevent Amazon from selling is doubtful; they stock books and then sell them on to whoever buys them online. At reception of the books for sale, they have no idea where they might be sold.

Harper Collins may have told Amazon that they didn't want the book sold to Jersey, but that didn't happen. I know for certain, because I have a copy bought from Amazon, and thanks to the history of previous sales facility, I know when it was bought - "You purchased this item on 22 Dec 2008". That was a pre-order, and the book duly shipped, as again I can see on publication in June 2009. No ban there!

It was the difficulties in getting hold of this book that prompted the comment by Leah Goodman that some books are banned in Jersey by Government directives to Jersey Post. In Ms Goodman's comments this became plural - "books banned", although in fact she never cited any other books at all.

But there were no directives from the Government to Jersey Post; it was a decision by the publisher. In fact there are no laws which would allow the Government to take such action, although material which was illegal or pornographic related for paedophiles, for example, would not be sold by Jersey bookshops because that would be breaking the law, and it might well be seized by customs. Nothing like that happened; it was a decision by the publishers to embargoe Jersey on a temporary basis while there was a potential for matters being sub judice.

Once that ended, the publishers had no problems selling the book in Jersey, which would hardly be the case with a secret government directive. Why lift it? But it makes very good sense that once the court proceedings relating to Haut de La Garrenne were complete, that there were no legal problems, and the book was soon stocked in Jersey library. There are four copies, one at Les Quennevais Branch library, two to borrow from St Helier, and one in the reference section in St Helier. That's quite a good stock for a book about Jersey.

As both Lucy Stephenson (mentioned on her Twitter account) and I have found (independently by contacting Waterstones), they stock the book. When I contacted them, they told me that they have both sold five copies recently and are currently ordering more; there are no problems, and they had never heard of any directives concerning Jersey Post. As most books come in as part of a large pallets, they were at a loss to see how on earth that would work anyway. Certainly no one has opened any pallets and removed books according to some "directive".

So when Sam Mezec said on Twitter:

SamMezec @Boffology "Nobody Came" by Robbie Garner had a commercial ban and shops here could not supply it, from what I'm told. She was right on that.

He was only partly right. The ban was by the publisher, not by the States of Jersey, and there were no "directives" or for that matter any other books mentioned. The phrase "wild generalisation" would be just as apt.

Incidentally, one book banned in the UK was for sale in Jersey. Peter Wright's "Spycatcher" was banned on Margeret Thatcher's orders from being published and sold in the UK, but I remember that the bookshops in Jersey were openly flaunting its status over her during the summer to tourists - "Buy the book they banned in the UK." Mrs Thatcher never attempted to stop that, although, as is well known, she did try to prevent publication in Australia, where the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, notoriously sunk the Governments case with his phrase that he was "just being economical with the truth". But if there had been the opportunity for a "commercial ban" by the States, you would have thought it might have happened here to help the UK government. But it didn't.

There is also a mythology about the film "Life of Brian" being banned, which again Sam thinks was the case. It was not as simple as that. The Bailiff of the time, and the Island Wiki has it as:

"Sir Frank Ereaut, the Bailiff who banned Monty Python's Life of Brian"

In fact this wasn't the whole truth and the Python Wiki page gets it right:

"It was not shown in Jersey until 2001 (despite having been shown on several occasions prior on Channel 4 - a British TV network available in Jersey); the Bailiff of Jersey, Frank Ereaut's government, wanted it to be watched only by adults, even though the BBFC rated it suitable for those aged 14 or over."

In other words, it could have been shown here if it had been agreed to give it an X certificate for the Channel Islands. On this, the Pythons themselves refused to budge, so that it was effectively banned by default. It caused such a furore over the decision by the Bailiff and whether such an individual, who might be still "living in the past century" could by themselves decide, not to ban a film, but on the rating of a film. The result was the establishment of the Bailiff's Advisory Panel, a sounding board to ensure a wide range of views was available. Indeed, former Senator Stuart Syvret was himself a member, showing how it was important for it to represent a diversity of opinion. In fact, the reason why it was not shown in Jersey until much later in 2001 was more to do with the fact that cinemas usually show current films rather than historical ones; when the matter arose again, there was no trouble showing it.

So, there were no banned books, only a publisher's decision on one particular contemporary book, lifted once it was apparent that there were no more legal ramifications. And there were no secret directives from the Government.

In the course of time, stories, like living entities, mutate and change. Leah Goodman was reporting what she had gleaned, and also quite possibly exaggerating for effect ("banned book became books"); it is quite likely that some of her sources had very lurid conspiracy theories about Jersey. I would respectfully suggest that she takes a slightly more critical stance in the future about all sources of information, however friendly they may be towards her.

That's not to say that there was not horrific abuse at Haut de la Garenne; there clearly was. I also happen to believe that if the law had been changed to allow a discretion to be made about cautioning the jury regarding sole witnesses, that more prosecutions could have gone ahead. It is shameful that change in the law only came about after the prosecutions had been taken forward or dropped. The Jersey authorities handling of the Haut de La Garenne and historic child abuse has been, on the whole, very poor; it has appeared to be concerned more with reputation and protecting decisions made, although in that it does not differ that much from the failings of authorities in other jurisdictions. I myself have also been critical of the recent comments on the terms of reference of the inquiry made by the Attorney General.

But it is also the case that an overarching conspiracy theory can distort historical judgments, and the case of the banned books is a case in point.

Just one final note. Leah writes: "Garner witnessed the deaths of several young boys, from suicide to murder". This is not the case. There are unexplained disappearances of children that Garner witnessed, but whether those extended to murder, it is not possible to say. As one reviewer noted:

"There may not be compelling evidence of such crimes, but that is very far from proof that no murder happened, especially when complete records of the children taken into care appear not to have been kept." (1)

But to say he actually witnessed murder - as Leah Goodman states - is not true; another example of the mutation of a story with time.



Anonymous said...

This is quite an important and informative piece of work Tony.

It seems to me that, because our Ministers and Law Officers are so habitually evasive in answering legitimate questions, it is all too easy to believe that there's a conspiracy in just about everything that anyone does.

Disinformation is damaging to everyone. The sooner our government and justice system realise that more transparency is essential the better. Always assuming, of course, that they have nothing to hide!

Anonymous said...

I too am extremely impressed by your research. I'm going to write a more detailed comment later- Well done.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, well researched piece. Silenced a lot of people!

Anonymous said...

I share the opinion that this is quite an important and informative piece of work.
I'm someone who went along with this banned books 'conspiracy' and I will admit from what I have read on this post, I'm inclined to suspect that on this occasion, it is likely I was wrong to support it.

That said, I have to also agree with the first comment that partial blame should be aportioned to the Jersey government and the legal department in particular, due to their endless evasiveness and lack of transparency. These are key factors that must not be over-looked. The handling of the 'historic' child abuse has been poor from day 1.

If you can produce convincing research that disproves a cover up by the authorities , I will admit that I got that wrong too. Somehow, I don’t think you'll be able to as the Establishment have never put forward any counter arguments to disprove the theories of the excellent local bloggers. And if you did provide convincing research which points the finger at the authorities, do you think they, like me will say "I got it wrong" - I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I share the opinion that this is quite an important and informative piece of work.
I'm someone who went along with this banned books 'conspiracy' and I will admit from what I have read on this post, I'm inclined to suspect that on this occasion, it is likely I was wrong to support it.

That said, I have to also agree with the first comment that partial blame should be aportioned to the Jersey government and the legal department in particular, due to their endless evasiveness and lack of transparency. These are key factors for moving Jersey forward undivided, and this must not be over-looked.

Tony, if you ever produce research that disproves a cover-up by the authorities, like you have with 'banned books'- and the evidence is is there and is convincing, I won't be too proud to admit it if I get that one wrong too.
Somehow, I don’t think you'll be able to because I don't think the evidence is there. Lets face it, the Establishment has never put forward any counter arguments to disprove the theories of the excellent local bloggers.
On a slightly different note, should you with your objective, middle ground approach- ever provide convincing research which points the finger at the Jersey authorities (like the bloggers do), do you think their supporters, will follow my example and say "I got it wrong" - I doubt it somehow and yet it is exactly that 'meeting in the middle' that is so deperately needed to stop the island becoming even more divided on this issue. One gets a clear impression that the authorities have more interest in Jersey's international image than the well being of the local population.

Anonymous said...

I see your very informed article hasn't been well received by other blogs. You really must get back in line and stop printing tithe truth about Leah McGrath Goodman. You will be next on there target list if you don't

TonyTheProf said...

Let's be clear that I'm not saying Leah McGrath Goodman is wholly wrong; there is a kernel of truth, but like Chinese whispers, it has changed in the telling.

As someone who looks at ancient sources, and how they change and are retold, I'm just applying the same kind of historical methods here.

This is not a "let's rubbish" Ms Goodman; and it is certainly not uncritical of some of the Island authorities with regard to Haut de La Garenne (or for that matter the suspension of Graham Power).

Leah McGrath Goodman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Leah McGrath Goodman said...

Hi Tony --

In addition to being a journalist, I am an author at HarperCollins -- the publisher in question.

HarperCollins at present states it cannot in any way confirm Lucy Stephenson's reporting at the JEP. In fact, they have distanced themselves entirely from it. I have spoken to Lucy as well. You do not say where you get your information -- other than from Lucy. Do you have any other sources? (This I would be interested in hearing.)

I did my work at the time of the ban, not after the fact, as was the case with the JEP. If one is unable to confirm on the ground what is happening at the time, as I did -- not gleaning, you understand or 'mutating' over time, but real reporting AT the time -- you cannot hope to patch the details together afterward. What I see happening now by others is 'mutating' over time. I do my research live, when others are asleep at the switch. Case in point: the JEP, straggling in with one source, years later.

As for my information on book bans in Jersey, yes, Waterstone's confirmed that all sales of the book were blocked in Jersey in the summer of 2010. I did not glean it was a "ban," that was Waterstone's word. Note the year -- 2010 -- rather later than the research you and Lucy cite, which I suspect is probably the same "research."
Other books have received the same treatment, but "Nobody Came" interests me most for obvious reasons. I also was the first to report that the Jersey libraries managed to get copies of the book. If my research is so poor, funny how people keep citing it when it suits their purposes, no?

(As a minor point, incredible people run the Jersey library system; people who have done their level best to collect info as it arises with the expectation that it will soon disappear if they don't. They are the true keepers of information on behalf of the people of Jersey.)

As I have said, I confirmed personally with the Jersey bookshops (all of the shops in St. Helier) in 2010 that none of them were allowed to sell the book -- and not because it was their choice. And not because it was HarperCollins's choice, either. (As it happens, HarperCollins is not in the business of trying not to sell books; funny that.)

The reason you were able to buy the book on Amazon (which should have tipped you off to the fact the problem was on-island, not off) is that Amazon is not on-island. And, therefore, not beholden to the island's rules, as are its bookstores.

Please consider the facts as you urge others to do so. You do damage by only muddying the waters.

Not that I need to mention it, but you should know better than to rely on the JEP for your facts. One day, the JEP will be an independent voice speaking on behalf of the people of Jersey. But it is not there yet.

As for Mr. Garner's accounts of suicide and what he considered to be murder, you only have to read the book. The child he believed was likely killed before his eyes was scalded to death. Not my contention -- his. Also, have you spoken to Mr. Garner? I would suggest you reach out to him.

I do enjoy reading your blog and you do offer good insight. But I would like to see you be as critical as you say, Tony.


TonyTheProf said...

Yes, as I say, I contacted Waterstones directly regarding information about the ban, both by email and by phone.

What's more, I was also able to check the Waterstone's position by a friend at Waterstones.