A QUESTION OF JUSTICE

- Keith Burstein's Court Battles -

Keith Burstein’s beliefs and chosen paths have proven to be challenging to some groups, both within the worlds of music and politics.

His transformation in the early 1990s - from conductor and exponent of atonal music to composer and proponent of New Tonal music - has defined his pathway ever since. To Burstein, the two commitments are inextricably linked. Once he had become a composer whose radicalism found ways of expressing itself in tonality, thus reconnecting with the universal voice of music, so too a real connection with the world developed; a connection which carried social and political implications.

A 1997 article in ‘The Times’, written just before the premiere of Burstein’s 'A Live Flame (in memoriam John Smith MP)', accused him of intending to disrupt concerts of atonal music.

This statement was untrue. As a lifelong professional musician, and born of a family of professional musicians, it would be impossible for Burstein to ever take such action. Burstein brought a libel case against 'The Times'. He was advised he stood no chance of winning. Three years later, in 2000, he won hands down with the judge telling 'The Times' that their defence of "justification" was "a dead duck in the water". It would be impossible for him to have disrupted anything and the case vindicated him entirely.

A further libel case arose surrounding Burstein’s opera ‘Manifest Destiny’ - with its outspoken and sometimes prescient criticism of the War on Terror and its depiction of the renouncing of violence by would-be Islamic suicide bombers. Reviews included coverage in the ‘London Evening Standard’ in response to the 2005 Edinburgh Festival production (which was mounted, by coincidence, just after the 7th July bombings in London). The review contained a statement which alleged Burstein glorified terrorism – potentially a criminal offence under the 2006 Terrorism Act.

The libel court case that followed the Evening Standard review is still in process before the European Court of Human Rights. However, the British Court of Appeal - by their own confession,"very unusually" - has already overturned a British High Court ruling that Burstein's case should be heard by a jury, despite Judge Eady of the High Court having ruled it would be "wrong to deprive him of a jury". The Court of Appeal nevertheless dismissed the case and charged Burstein with the legal bill of upwards of £70,000.

The newspaper group, Associated Newspapers Ltd, then bankrupted Burstein and seized ownership of all his music already written, including 'Manifest Destiny', as an asset. The opera which offended them now belongs to them.

The case in Europe is partly one of the UK Government having denied him his human right to a fair trial by depriving him of a jury.

Meanwhile, legal proceedings and civil liberties implications of the case led to the writing and performance of a play - 'The Trainer', by David Wilson and Anne Aylor (co-written by Keith Burstein) which has been performed by casts including the actors Tim Piggot-Smith, Roger Lloyd Pack, Corin Redgrave, Janie Dee and Kika Markham.

An unusual occurrence of two major libel cases in the career of a composer may justifiably provoke the question: "why?"

Burstein maintains the two court cases are linked by a single principle - that of defending the principle of freedom of expression.

He believes that he has acted in defence of everyone’s freedoms - particularly those of artists whose function, he claims, is in part to widen to the maximum the parameters of freedom for society and its individuals.

 

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