A couple of months ago, preparing a broadcast discussion on Schubert and Mahler, I was amazed to discover the extent of censorship in Habsburg Vienna, not just under the virtual police state of Metternich in the 1820s but into the time of Mahler, Klimt, Schiele and Freud. We think of Secession Vienna as a time of artistic and intellectual freedom but the other side of that coin, as students of Freud should not be surprised to hear, was repression.

All the same, the censorship suffered by Schubert and Mahler pales by comparison with the experience of Gaetano Donizetti in Naples in 1838. His opera Poliuto, based on Corneille’s tragedy Polyeucte, about the martyrdom of an early Christian saint, was pulled weeks before its production at the Teatro San Carlo. His Majesty King Ferdinand II, lord of the Two Sicilies, had “deigned with his own sacred hand to declare that the histories of the martyrs are not presented on stage”.

Donizetti was a survivor and rewrote the work for the Opéra de Paris as Les Martyrs. This rarely staged piece gets an outing at London’s Southbank Centre on November 4, performed by Opera Rara under Sir Mark Elder. If it’s anything like as good as their concert version last December of Offenbach’s Fantasio, you should not miss it.

These musings on censorship are not purely historical. If we are tempted to smile at the de haut en bas restrictions operated by the King of Naples, we should be concerned at a new kind of censorship that seems to be creeping up. Censorship was par for the course in autocratic regimes such as those of King Ferdinand II or the Emperor Franz Josef. But what can explain its recrudescence in liberal democracies such as the US and the UK?

Three recent examples have brought this issue into focus. The most high profile is the decision by the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Peter Gelb, following discussions with Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, to cancel the Live in HD broadcast of the Met’s production of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which was scheduled for November 15, while going ahead with the stage production. The other two are the closure, as a result of protests, by the Barbican Gallery of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, an installation which, according to the Barbican, “critique[d] the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic displays that showed Africans as objects of scientific curiosity”, and the decision by a council in the town of Clacton, in Essex, to remove a mural by Banksy showing a group of pigeons pointing anti-immigrant placards at a lone swallow. This followed complaints that the mural was “racist”.

All three decisions are lamentable and incoherent. The Banksy mural was quite obviously ironic in intent and the opposite of racist. It was a piece of provocation designed to draw attention to the anti-immigrant policies of the UK Independence Party. Exhibit B was not ironic, as far as I can gather, but thoroughly serious and again anti-racist in intention.

The Death of Klinghoffer has attracted controversy ever since it was first presented in Brussels in 1991. Complaints that the opera is anti-Semitic are wide of the mark. The real “offence” of Klinghoffer – about the murder of an elderly Jewish tourist by Palestinian terrorists on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 – is that it gives equal voice to Palestinian and Jewish characters, and their causes, while presenting Leon Klinghoffer as a tragic, sacrificial victim and celebrating the values of ordinary humanness that his life represents.

Gelb deserves credit for going ahead with the stage production in the face of great resistance. Why cancel the live broadcast, then, when he is clear that the piece is not anti-Semitic? When I spoke to him on the phone, Gelb told me that he felt he had to “compromise to protect the institution” and “appease various factions”. I see his point but what has happened in all three cases is that vocal, in some cases violent, protest by special interest groups has achieved what it took vast repressive bureaucracies to accomplish in Bourbon Naples and Habsburg Vienna: impose a narrow, particularist, distorted world view on the wider public.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

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