Tom Holland, bestselling historian and keen amateur cricketer (a select few may be aware that he once hit a Six) was scheduled to come on TalkSPORT this afternoon to plug a book about (and written by) his cricket team, the Authors' XI. Yesterday he seemed quite excited at the prospect:
On the list of things I thought it improbable I would end up doing, appearing on Talksport is right up there with becoming a Grand Mufti.
— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) June 10, 2013
But it was not to be. Last night he received an email from the producers telling him his appearance had been cancelled. And not because listeners to the Hawksbee and Jacobs show aren't interested in cricket. Not even because they had been warned that all Tom really wanted to do was talk about his Six (in which case one might have forgiven them). No. Apparently they were worried that the author of Rubicon and, more recently, In The Shadow of The Sword, was too controversial.
To all those tuning into @talksport to hear me talk about my 6 & @authorscc, I'm afraid I've been sent to Banternamo Bay
— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) June 11, 2013
In The Shadow of The Sword did cause something of a stir when it was released last year, largely because it discussed (among other things) the early days of Islam. When a documentary based on the book, Islam: the Untold Story, was shown on Channel 4 there was even more of a fuss, with some Muslims taking issue with the film on historical grounds and others abusing the author on Twitter. Channel 4 even cancelled a screening of the film it had arranged for journalists after taking mysterious "security advice". But neither that, nor even the truly ominous sight of journalists like Charles Moore lining up to congratulate Holland for being "brave", sufficed to turn him into Salman Rushdie, or his book into The Satanic Verses. He continued to tour the country promoting the book, give interviews, present afternoon history shows on Radio 4 and cheerfully debate with Muslims on Twitter, all while working on a new translation of Herodotus. Not to mention playing cricket.
He was, it is true, briefly dropped from the Authors XI earlier this year, but the selectors quickly realised their mistake and, in any event, there was no suggestion that intimidation from outraged Muslim cricket-fans had played any part in the decision.
So why is Tom Holland suddenly such a hot potato? Why is a radio station that once employed George Galloway as a phone-in host suddenly scared of the merest hint of controversy? And what made them think that controversy was likely to ensue? Holland was, after all, coming on the show to talk about cricket and was most unlikely to have even mentioned In The Shadow of The Sword (now out in paperback, and a terrific read, by the way.)
On Twitter this afternoon, Tom was bemused:
Do @talksport think if they have me on, Muslims will burn down their studio? Don't know whether to be more insulted on my behalf or Muslims'
— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) June 11, 2013
He doesn't know why TalkSPORT cancelled him. "I think they Googled me and got into a state, worrying I might be a security risk," he speculates. "It's utterly weird. Beyond weird. Comic. I think they think they're being PC, when actually they're being the precise opposite."
Quite. If the station was acting pre-emptively to head off presumed Muslim anger, they must have a very low opinion of Muslims. Nor does this kind of hypersensitivity do anything to further soical harmony or good community relations. It is in fact a form of Islamophobia: irrational fear of Islam in its most basic and literal sense.
As far as I can tell, there were no threats, or even complaints, in the run-up to Tom Holland's planned cricket-themed appearance on TalkSPORT. But perhaps they feared a boycott, or imagined that Anjem Choudhary and his mates would picket their studios. ("Behead Infidels who talk about Cricket!") Or was the threat something more oblique -- maybe they envisaged EDL supporters phoning in to congratulate Holland, not on his celebrated Six, but on his "brave" stand against Islam, which of course would have been highly awkward for everyone, but hardly 9/11.
The station told me, in a somewhat noncommittal statement this afternoon, that they had been "keen to feature" the book, but when Bloomsbury put up Tom Holland they became concerned for their listeners (why?). Apparently there were "concerns regarding controversy around Tom Holland's previous work and so it was decided not to go ahead with the feature." Which, of course, reveals almost nothing beyond the fact that any "threat" was entirely a product of TalkSPORT's imagination.
Tom Holland's reflection: "They don't seem to be employing the sharpest knives in the cutlery drawer."