It's entirely appropriate that the new Free Word Centre, which is launched tonight, is based in Farringdon Road. The area has associations with the written word that go back to the Middle Ages, and a long tradition of publishing, printing and radicalism. William Morris published the famous "Free Speech in the Streets" in his political broadsheet The Commonweal from 13 Farringdon Road. How appropriate too that the centre is based in the old newsroom of the Guardian, a newspaper that "argues the causes of free speech and freedom of information, and allows our opponents, as well as our friends, a voice".
Free Word's mission is to promote the power of the written and spoken word, and to protect creativity and free expression generally. What makes it different from the many literature houses all over Europe is that its core principle is free expression and literacy – which immediately makes its outlook international and political (not always seen as a palatable word in the arts). The ideas behind it were thrashed out by theeight founder members over five years. They are now resident in the building. Free Word is a venue, an office space, a thinking space, where media meets literature. In its theatre and meeting rooms you will hear familiar and unknown voices, the expected and the unexpected, debate and controversy.
Free expression has never been hugely popular in this country (unlike the US, where it once seemed to be taken in with mother's milk). Except of course with writers, who know there's no literature without it. In l993, when I began my work at Index on Censorship, free expression was near the bottom of the political agenda, despite the earlier fatwa on Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses. After 9/11 this changed; free expression's profile was raised with the pressure from all sides to restrict speech. And in a more culturally diverse Britain, religion was becoming central to political life – something that had seemed unthinkable 20 years earlier. The business of offence took on new dimensions. When Behzti, a play by a young Sikh playwright, was closed down in Birmingham in 2004 by the violent actions of a small section of the Sikh community, profound questions were raised. The success of this protest encouraged a group of Christians to try and prevent the BBC showing Jerry Springer – the Opera (they failed).
The now infamous Danish cartoons, published in Jyllands-Posten in 2005, led to violence and some of the fiercest debates ever heard on free expression. And there is a surreal coda to this story: this August,Yale University Press decided to remove the Muhammed cartoons from their forthcoming book The Cartoons that Shook the World by Jytte Klausen. The press claimed that they consulted with diplomats and counter-terrorism and Muslim officials, who said they had "serious concerns about violence occurring following publication of either the cartoons or other images of the Prophet Muhammed in a book about the cartoons". So we have a book about the Muhammed cartoons that doesn't include the Muhammed cartoons. You can't get weirder than that. Have we internalised the fatwa? Would it be possible to publish The Satanic Verses today? Is offence the new censorship?
The Free Word festival, which runs from 16 September to 9 October, addresses these issues and many more, giving audiences a taste of things to come. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti talks about Behzti and her new play, and there are three events around offence, with Kamila Shamsie,Brian Klug and Salil Tripathi looking at the Muslim, Jewish and Hindu case. Plenty of debate and controversy there.