Alf was about to express his astonishment at a major newspaper championing censorship.
But no. In fact he is by no means astonished. The populist press will do anything to curry favour with its readers, and if that means forgetting about guiding principles – aw shucks, why not?
One of the principles typically promoted by newspapers is entrenched in the phrase “the public has a right to know”, or some variance of it.
The buggers will often delve into people’s private lives, shrieking – if thwarted – about a denial of the public’s right to know.
When it comes to private lives the public only sometimes has a right to know, but it does have a huge appetite for gossip.
So when we come to shaping public attitudes to book burnings, what role should we expect a newspaper to play?
Hands up, those who thought a newspaper should condemn such an outrage against the public’s right to know?
Book burning – also known as biblioclasm or libricide – is the practice of destroying books or other written material and media.
Often this is done ceremoniously.
In modern times, phonograph records, video tapes, and CDs have also been ceremoniously burned, torched, or shredded.
The practice, usually carried out in public, is generally motivated by moral, religious, or political objections to the material.
A good liberal newspaper – Alf would like to think – would be critical of book burnings.
“The public’s right to know” might be injected into its condemnatory prose.
But give the buggers at the Sunday Star Times the whiff of a book burning and – depending on what is to be destroyed, presumably – there’s a fair chance they will supply the petrol and matches.
Alf makes this observation after reading about the newspaper’s role in the deletion of academic papers from a university web-site.
This deletion – of course – is the modern equivalent of a book-burning.
And it has happened in recent times in this country because the Sunday Star Times brought certain writings to the attention of university authorities.
The newspaper is expressing no regrets that the university authorities did what the newspaper obviously supposed they would do, which was expunge someone’s writings from its archive.
And so today the newspaper reports (with a sense of triumph, Alf senses) –
Red-faced Otago University officials have deleted killer Clayton Weatherston’s work from an online archive after offending the family of murder victim Sophie Elliott.
The university spiked seven papers written by Weatherston between 2001 and 2006 after being approached by the Sunday Star-Times last week.
Now, don’t let there be any misunderstandings at this juncture. The university officials – we might think – are red-faced for hitting the delete button.
Not so. Alf’s reading of the story tells him they are red-faced because they did not hit it soon enough.
So what’s this all about?
Weatherston completed a PhD at the university before tutoring in economics.
In 2008 he killed Elliott, stabbing her more than 200 times in a bedroom of her family’s Dunedin home.
He had taught Elliott before they embarked on a five-month relationship.
He was later jailed for a minimum non-parole period of 18 years.
Then the book-burners moved in.
After the case, university officials tried to erase references to Weatherston from its records. But the seven items by the convicted murderer, covering professionalism in rugby, crowd sizes in Super Rugby, and evaluating rugby’s former NPC, slipped through the cracks.
A university spokeswoman did not know Weatherston’s work was still online when contacted by the Sunday Star-Times, but rang back later, saying references to Weatherston had been removed.
Elliott’s father, Gil, welcomed the news but was upset the articles had been available as the fourth anniversary of his daughter’s January murder approached.
“I’d have thought the university would have been rather sensitive about this,” he said. “Somebody like him, who is a murderer, do they really want information relating to him still associated with the university? I would want to get rid of it all. He’s a nasty piece of work.”
Several writers of classics and best-sellers would qualify as “a nasty piece of work”.
That’s hardly a reason to burn their books.
But hold on.
Elliott said he had been made aware Weatherston had sent a number of papers to journals in the months before his daughter’s death, but the respective editors had refused to publish, decisions Elliott said he appreciated.
Why should he appreciate decisions not to publish material sent to editors before the murder of his daughter?
Disapprovals of the author’s nastiness can’t have influenced the editors’ decisions in those cases, surely.
Adolf Hitler – of course – was much nastier than most and his “Mein Kampf” would be burned, if we went along with those who believe the writings of nasty people should be expunged from our libraries.
Alf has not read that particular tome, nor does he intend reading it.
But he would like to think an enlightened newspaper editor would defend to the death Hitler’s right to express his thoughts in a book and Alf’s right to read the book, if he felt so inclined.