Meeja


Arguing with a certain form of commentator is like running head-down into a wall. I like discussing things with all types of people but when dialogue is bound to be so fractious that it descends to the level of an argument I tend to find it tedious. If I wanted to fight I would have taken up Muay Thai. Sometimes, though, people display such bad faith and on such a scale that confrontation must be faced.

A few years ago I wrote for a blog named Boris Watch. Its founder is a bloke called Naadir. He is a good chap: a social democrat of some form who describes himself as “religiously unmusical”. He was also, as he admits in his biography, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir for three months when he was 18. All sensible people know this is not a big deal. Maajid Nawaz, Ed Husain, Shiraz Maher and other “anti-extremist” figures are all former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and remained so for considerably longer. David Aaronovitch, John Lloyd and the founder of Harry’s Place were all Communists. I have done, said and thought a lot of things that I regret. Haven’t you?

Now, Harry Cole is the protégé of Paul Staines and helps to write his Guido Fawkes blog. He is also, according to his Twitter biography, a Contributing Editor of The Spectator and a columnist of Daily Star Sunday. He enjoys cattish arguments with left-wing folk and some of them have been with Tom Barry, who writes most of Boris Watch’s content and runs its Twitter account. One day, Cole must have gone looking for material to smear him with and stumbled over a detail about the founder of the blog

It is possible that Mr. Cole was not lying. He might have been very careless or pathetically illiterate. Either way, he repeated the charge in August and I stepped in to correct him…

He ignored this. Yesterday he repeated the charge for the third time, though on this occasion he was not merely claiming that Naadir is a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir but that he is a terrorist…

This would have been libellous even if he was a member. (It takes work to libel someone from Hizb ut-Tahrir.) As he is not it is a despicable smear. It was said, around the time of the McAlpine affair, that child abuse was the worst crime one could associate a man with. Terrorism is, perhaps, the only one that equals it. Men have endured dreadful suffering merely for being suspected of deserving such a charge. If one made the accusation that its seriousness deserves the evidence for it would have to be substantial, and, indeed, it would have to be supplied to the police. That it can be idly made without a care for its truth is evidence of the self-satisfied carelessness that post-McAlpine commentators impute to Twitter users but that infects our media classes. The only difference is that they are more likely to smear the powerless.

This, of course, annoyed me and my reaction was suitably confrontational…

He responded by asking where he’d lied and offering to provide me with an address for his lawyer. I reminded him of the significance of being a former member of an organisation, and noted the hypocrisy of denouncing Boris Watch for associating with Naadir while contributing to The Spectator, a magazine that publishes Shiraz Maher…

His response was pathetic…

You have to work in anti-radicalisation to prove that you are not a radical? That is simply dumb. Cole, it seems, was realising how untenable his position was as he ended the conversation…

It is interesting how much evidence of his low intellectual and ethical standards Cole manages to squeeze into less than 140 characters. He is not, it seems, troubled by disseminating falsehoods so long as his activities do not put him in danger of being sued. Nor does he consider justifying his rigour and integrity to be as important as “work”. What should be more relevant to a journalist’s career?

I have written a lot on the bullshitting and the bitchiness that are prominent features of the nation’s journalistic class. The young Mr Cole is, it seems, a product of this culture. Such is the shamelessness with which he pursues his silly feuds that he thinks little of smearing an innocent man as a terrorist. Such is his indifference to the truth that he makes no effort to justify this horrible charge. He should retract his claims and apologise. Otherwise he will remain a liar, and his status will remain an indictment of our intellectual culture.

Half the Daily Mail’s website is devoted to lamenting the degradation of our culture. The other half is devoted to softcore pornography. That is not, I fear, a great exaggeration. It’s almost comical how blatant their filth-purveying is. Yesterday, for example, they printed photos of a woman’s naked breasts and bottom, both of which were being fondled by a half-naked man. Why? Well, the bloke is on X-Factor. Hey, kids! You know you fear your parents catching you with nudie pics? Just engineer a tenuous means of presenting them as news and you’ll be fine!

What is creepier is their practice of sexualising barely pubescent teenagers. Tabloid Watch writes of a leering report – replete, of course, with photographs – on the “womanly curves” of a 14-year-old girl. “Flesh was on show,” it panted, as she wore a costume that “scooped to just above her derriere”. The report was edited but due to the outrage of readers and not professional ethics. As I’ve written, they have previously featured a 15-year-old in “mean-looking bondage heels”, who, they wrote, stared into the camera “lavisciously” before “slip[ping] into a pair of leather hot pants”. On a different occasion they reported on a girl who had modelled in a bikini at the age of twelve and inspired “a deluge of twisted emails from ‘strange men’”. They preceded to print the photos. It is clear that the editors have an amoral desire to appeal to any demographic they can reach. This apparently includes the dirty raincoat brigade.

Another socially conservative publication is the Daily Express. Their owner, Richard Desmond, likes to pose as an upright sort of gentleman. When the Irish Daily Star published photos of Kate Middleton topless he threatened to withdraw his financial support from it. Desmond is, however, also the owner of the Star, which is crammed with upskirt photographs and nipple slips. Infamously, his Northern & Shell company is also the parent to Red Hot TV and Television X. This week, the latter is broadcasting Fetishly Insane, Filthy Favourites and Fantasies of Rubber.

I think of this because I’ve been reading Alan White’s “open letter to Melanie Phillips”. He notes her observation that the U.K. “accepts — even expects — that the very young will be sexually active” and points out that she omits an important fact.

You fail to mention a relatively modern institution which appears to have done its utmost to promote the prematurely-sexualised culture which you describe. It is the website of the newspaper for which you write.

Even the most incisive of journalists rarely bite the hand that feeds them. Thus, conservative writers who work for these papers avoid reference to their sordid output and associations; preferring to rail against the bogeyman of liberalism.

Well, criticising liberals, on this and other issues, can be richly justified. It must be observed, however, that those responsible for many cases of moral and aesthetic corruption are not “liberals” or, indeed, people of any ideological inclination but “greedy, amoral bastards”. To fail to acknowledge this is not merely to undermine one’s own integrity but to render one’s oppositional efforts futile. I’m not going to lump myself in with staunch conservatives but on some issues we are of the same mind: the sexualisation of extraordinary portions of society, including children, is unpleasant and destructive. It annoys rather than amuses me that they are so hamstrung on the issue. How effective are moralists going to be if they are under the control of a bunch of pornographers? It’s like Greenpeace accepting donations from Shell. Or Neighbourhood Watch accepting it from Cosa Nostra.

Becoming emotional in response to Brendan O’Neill’s commentary is like punishing a irksome sado-masochist by giving them six of the best. Still, one can’t deny that the unpleasantness of his prose is something to behold. If you were a victim of Jimmy Savile, he claims, you should “keep it to yourself”. This, he says, is better than “pour[ing] every memory…into a hack’s expectant dictaphone”. Has it occurred to him that the victims could also tell the police, a psychologist or a loved one? Probably. But it would have put a crimp in his argument.

The Savile scandal, he moans, will “further dent social solidarity” by “promoti[ng] the idea that paedophiles lurk everywhere”. Shouldn’t victims be welcomed in coming forward to gives us accurate data from which to draw conclusions? O’Neill, apparently, has no such concerns for the truth. He goes on to criticise the notion that “our entire existences, our whole adult lives, can be shaped by the actions of one weirdo”. This is, he says, a “deeply and disturbingly fatalistic view of human life”. It is disturbing. But is it true? O’Neill doesn’t care. He doesn’t like it and this is enough for him to say it’s wrong.

Let’s be clear about what O’Neill is doing. He’s presuming to advise victims of abuse on whether to reveal their secrets or repress them; lecturing these people as to which course of action might be better for their health. In doing this, he has consulted no research; interviewed no experts and interviewed no victims. He has made no arguments, in fact, that can’t be seen through by someone with access to a list of fallacies. Does he care if his arguments are substantive or sit back and laugh like a /b/tard who posts rape fantasies on feminist blogs and giggles until the tears run down his spot-speckled cheeks?

What about the people who published the article? I don’t care if they agreed with O’Neill or not but did it strike them that an essay with the gall to tell rape victims how to react to their suffering should at least conform to high standards of intellectual rigour? Did they think that somebody might take the advice, and did they wonder if it would be healthy for them? Perhaps they thought this unlikely – and, yes, it is unlikely – but if that’s the case why did they publish it? I have a good idea. It’s so they could gather round their stats page and watch the hit counter rise, drooling like toddlers watching cakes rise in the oven.

What, however, if he is attention seeking, is the point of giving him attention? It’s because he’ll get attention whatever we do. Soon, in fact, there will be more Brendan O’Neills; more smug, sneering sophists who write essays tailored to offend. It earns their employers links and comments from people who, if they hadn’t been driven to anger, would have ignored them. As the papers strive to make their online work profitable it’s these links they will rely on and they’ll publish anything to get them.

The problem is that some people should be offended. Their values obstruct the search for the truth and the actions that it sometimes demands we take. The lesson, however, is not that there is something wrong with having values but that there is something wrong with values that obstruct truthseeking. If your partner starts to oversleep and miss appointments you should wake them up in time to meet them, not assume that sleep itself is wrongful and start playing the saxophone at midnight. If someone has a range of ideas that are important to them and some are dangerously mistaken you should confront those rather than pissing them off per se. One should not make arguments in order to offend but tell the truth in spite of people finding it offensive.

One can empathise with people who are mistaken or even unpleasant when it’s the result of genuine convictions. What I find repugnant in commentators is insincerity. I can’t promise that I’ll be correct (though I will try to be). I can’t promise that I’ll be enjoyable to read. All I can promise – and my fingers are too busy typing to be crossed behind my back – is that I won’t bullshit. And if I should break this pledge may I be sent to Hades, to have back issues of Living Marxism read to me. Forever.

The USADA “Reasoned Decision” is the most damning report I’ve ever read. And I’ve read my PE reports. Its glimpses into the corrupt world of the US Postal team are fascinating. We observe its members having blood transfusions in adjoining rooms and joking about whose body was absorbing blood the fastest. We’re told that Armstrong had to leave the home where his extracted blood was being stored to be treated so Floyd Landis moved in to “babysit the blood”.

We’re informed of multiple occasions where the plot could have been rumbled. At one point Armstrong is said to have discovered that he had to take part in a weigh-in that was open to the public. A bruise caused a syringe apparently marked his arm. Fortunately for the team their masseuse had a box of make-up and after being smeared with cosmetics Armstrong faced his trusting fans. There’s a movie in this, people. Seven movies, even.

Anyway, David Walsh was the journalist who questioned Armstrong when few others would. He’s not bitter but he is, perhaps, a little irritated. His insights into the uncritical mindset of those journalists who failed to pursue investigations are intriguing. He says his colleagues became “fans with typewriters”, so enamoured of the inspiring story of the comeback kid that they stopped being objective and became enthusiasts. Others were frightened of the legal heavies who protected Armstrong, and, indeed, so cynical that they avoiding risking access to the most bankable figure in the sport. Some journalists, Walsh claims, refused to let him travel with them lest the Texan tough raise his hackles and stop granting them face time.

The case of Jimmy Savile is comparable. Why did no one level substantive charges while he was alive? Journalists are said to have been daunted by the formidable character of the man. Others claim that libel laws are too restrictive to have allowed them to charge him with crimes, and, as The Mirror’s Brian Reade states, “accepted there was no will on high”; that he was “too Establishment”. This is a scandal that calls for sustained investigation.

Here’s the thing, though: if journalists can be seduced and intimidated by a cyclist and a DJ to such an extent that they’ll ignore wrongdoing that was never hidden with great sophistication how can we trust that they won’t do the same for plutocrats and powermongers with far more considerable status and resources? Well, we can’t. A Kissinger or a Murdoch would reduce Armstrong and Savile to snivelling servitude, never mind a hack. That such comparative shrimps can reduce them to awed silence might, perhaps, help one to grasp why some of us are less than happy when journalists look elsewhere when, say, the Bilderberg convene.

Given all of the slaughter and starvation in the world it was, perhaps, strange that what angered me most yesterday was a paragraph appended to a Telegraph column but, well, it’s true. It arrived from the pen of Damian Thompson, Editor of Telegraph Blogs, and is published here in full…

As I wrote last week, I’ve become obsessed with King Lear. So I’ve been reading articles about the play and made a hilarious discovery: the most clod-footed columnist in Fleet Street. He’s called Amol Rajan and he writes (of course) for the Independent. He’s just seen Jonathan Pryce at the Almeida. He begins: “This column is not usually a province of literary criticism; but on the grounds that every social problem is in some sense negotiated by the play, I hope you’ll forgive me for the following reflections…” I’ll spare you the “reflections”; let’s just say that you’d need some pretty hefty grade inflation to secure Rajan a pass at GCSE English. But if there were a Nobel prize for preening, he’d be a shoo-in. Comedy gold.

Here’s Rajan’s piece. No, he isn’t going to replace Michael Billington. If one must employ a phrase like “I was struck” it’s best to make sure it’s a single time. One might also question why opinion journalists get paid for musing about subjects they have no specialised knowledge of and I wouldn’t object. There’s nothing especially disagreeable about Rajan’s musings, though. It seems to be an expression of sincere enthusiasm for a work that’s influenced him. Whether or not such pieces are exemplars of style and insight I’ll take them above the moans and howls elsewhere among the papers.

Foulmouthed abuse used to be popular amongst the blogs. I’m not proud to say that I indulged in this myself but, shit, at least swearbloggers knew that they were lowly creatures and engaged in a less than exalted pastime. What infests contemporary journalism, and is especially rampant in the commune of commentary that Damian Thompson maintains, is a tiresome cattiness; a delight in tearing people down, not on the basis of real demerits, but merely to elevate the carper and their friends; to assert their intellectual superiority not by the means of argument but the weight of their scorn.

The world, to some commentators, often seems to be not a place in which billions thrive or suffer depending upon the choices leaders make but some kind of vast, delightful playground for rhetoricians. (Twitter is crammed with little leftists and runtish righties bickering as if they’re Gore and Buckley on ABC.) Thus, for Thompson, the hugely significant belief that climate science is mistaken isn’t cause to detail and debate the view and explore its implications but merely a chance to giggle at George Monbiot. The trivialisation of matters of consequence is actually problematic but it’s the inherent meanness that turns my stomach. If your entertainment and your ego are dependent on sneering at other people, in a world with such intrigue to be explored; such beauty to enjoy and such evil to stand against, well, that’s your business but you should open a salon instead of posing as a sage.

Oh, and if we’re talking about standards of English what does “clod-footed” mean?

The papers are outraged that the continental media are publishing photographs of a topless Kate Middleton. There’s too much slaughter and starvation in the world for this to enrage me but I agree that their behaviour is sordid. One solution, though, is happily available to our news editors. They could stop being perverts themselves. Their daily publication of nipple slips and upskirt photography encourages a culture of intrusive prurience that’s bound to impact on people who find it threatening and feel humiliated. It’s not too late, however, for them to cease this practice; apologise for their years of lechery and ask other editors to consider the introspection that they should have all succumbed to long ago.

Elsewhere, Kelvin MacKenzie seemed annoyed when a Channel 4 interviewer, trying to get the man to speak about his coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, shouted through his letterbox and then obstructed his car as he tried to drive away. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor of The Sun when its journalists broke into the hospital Jeremy Brett was dying in and tried to engineer a confrontation in which they’d ask him if he was suffering from AIDS. If he’d like people to respect the privacy of others, then – to stop exploiting sorrow and humiliation for pleasure and profit – he could renounce the heartless, meddlesome style of hackery he helped to pioneer and ask the journalists of today to ignore his shameful legacy.

Such penitence, of course, is not to be expected. The abusive are always aggrieved when treatment they were happy to inflict on others is forced upon them or people they care for. Public figures who lament behaviour that was theirs are often in a worse position to complain, because its perceived acceptability can be due to their own flaunting of it. So, the media barons who believe that their privacy, or that of people they care for, is being unjustly denied are bemoaning products of a cruder, crueller, more frivolous culture they helped to spawn. Thus, it’s easy to conclude that they’re at least in part responsible for the events that disturb them; and, until they’re repentant, it’s hard to feel sympathetic.

Alastair Campbell was the guest host of Have I Got News for You this week. While the bright young comics of 10 O’Clock Live were downright obsequious towards him Ian Hislop was at least a bit disdainful: firing off gags about Iraq, state secrets and the manipulation of public opinion. Therein lies the problem. Those are subjects that deserve more than gags. Campbell giggled over each of the veteran satirist’s jibes because he knows the programme has all the teeth of an octogenarian with an 8 can-a-day coke habit. There’s no moral power to its comedy: warmongering is treated with no more seriousness than dodgy tax returns and either will have been forgotten once they’ve reached the missing words round. It’s essentially a roast: the panelists insult the visiting politico but they win affection or, at least, grudging respect by showing their ability to have a laugh at their own expense. And, being rational enough to grasp that mild embarrassment is a small price to pay for this, they giggle like schoolchildren. So, you helped to plot a catastrophic war, Alastair? Giggle, titter, chortle, guffaw et cetera.

Our political culture is unpleasantly forgiving. Not that I’ve got anything against forgiveness; it’s just it’s expected, in any other context, that the object of one’s pardon should first accept responsibility for their wrongdoings. In politics, however, where misdeeds are of the greatest consequence, what happens in Westminster or Washington tends to stay there. Thus, Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraq invasion, chatted about Syria on yesterday’s Newsnight while Campbell, a vicious bully whose indifference to the truth allowed him to help con us into joining it, cracked jokes on Have I Got News for You and the only mentions of the war elicited laughs.

It’s that time of year again! The Bilderberg conference is taking place in Virginia in 2012. In the past couple of years we’ve been assured that it’s just “a group of willy-waggling old men…dreaming of past glories”. Given that they’ve taken the unprecedented step of publishing their guest list one can see that the Bilderbergers include Fu Ying, the Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs; Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the vice-president of Spain; Josette Sheeran, vice chair of the World Economic Forum; Jutta Urpilainen, the Finnish Minister of Finance and a fair few other women. It’s no sausage factory. More importantly, these powermongers are far from being past-it. The CEOs of Deutsche Bank, Siemens, The Dow Chemical Company, Caixabank, Unilever, Shell and many others are present. The chairmen of Goldman Sachs, Google, Barclays, Novartis, AXA S.A. and others have swung on down. The Chancellor of Austria, the PM of the Netherlands, our own Secretary of Justice and a bunch of other politicians are in attendance. And, of course, wizened old veterans like Mandelson and Kissinger wouldn’t miss it. These men and women are among the superclass: the one-percent of the one-percent.

Despite the fact that it’s attended by the Editor-in-chief of the Financial Times, the CEO of The Washington Post Company and others you’re unlikely to read or hear of the conference in the organs of the established media. And, even if you do, it’s liable to be a sneer about how it’s “it’s a lot of vaguely uninteresting people giving vaguely uninteresting lectures”. Well, that’s bullshit and shameful bullshit at that. The presidents of banks, the chairmen of oil companies and the CEOs of multinational corporations worth more billions than I have fivers don’t clear dates in their diaries for idle get-togethers. How much of the course of international politics they’re actually deciding and how much they’re stumbling towards agreements over is, of course, a mystery but either is a matter of formidable significance and makes their furtiveness, isolation and general desire to exclude their citizens from the proceedings damn sinister. In a time of political, economic and environmental turmoil, where radical prescriptions are being enacted as I write, this is especially true.

A curious diversion in the Leveson Inquiry took us back to 1983 and the serialisation of the fraudulent “Hitler diaries” in The Sunday Times. I’ve been reading Selling Hitler, Robert Harris’ terrific book on the shameful affair, and may write on it further at some point. For now, though, here are two thoughts. Firstly that I’d love to be around to see the exposure of the archives of Kim Jong-il’s LiveJournal. Secondly that the case is a marvellous illustration of the poisonous influence of Rupert Murdoch.

Gerd Heidemann, a journalist for Stern magazine, obtained the diaries over time from “Dr Fischer”, who was known for selling Nazi memorabilia. “Fischer” was, in fact, Konrad Kajau and a gifted if inelegant forger who was swotting up on Hitler’s life and writing the diaries himself. Germany’s most credulous man had met one of its most dishonest. Over time Heidemann talked more of his colleagues into trusting the validity of the documents he’d received from Kajau and as they invested more and more of their funds into the project they had no option but to convince themselves they were authentic. Under the pretence of secrecy they sent mere fragments to be studied by handwriting experts and decided not to let historians observe the diaries. One of the pair that did was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was dispatched by Times Newspapers. The quantity of the documents, and the belief that they’d been firmly authenticated, led him to the presumptuous view that they were valid. This was enough for Murdoch. He imposed the publication on his doubtful employees.

Frank Giles, editor of the Sunday Times…[was] unenthusiastic, yet comforted by his belief that [the diaries] would be running in The Times. His sang froid had been shattered the previous day by a brief, transatlantic announcement from Murdoch that the Hitler diaries were going to be serialized in the Sunday Times after all: now that the Stern would be appearing on the Monday, Sunday had become the perfect day to print the extracts. It would enable the paper to avoid the risk of rivals getting hold of advance copies of the German magazine and printing pirated extracts of the diaries twenty-four hours ahead of them.

Murdoch was not a proprietor who encouraged dissent. Even strong editors found it had to stand up to him. Giles was not a strong editor.

On the day before publication Trevor-Roper, whose doubts had been simmering within his cerebrum, admitted to himself that the diaries were probably fraudulent. He rang Giles. (“These doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that? Oh. I see. You are doing a 180-degree turn.”) The Deputy Editor phoned Murdoch to ask if they should consider rewriting the paper…

“Fuck Dacre,” replied Murdoch. “Publish.”

Murdoch, then, dismissed the scepticism of the man on whose authority he had accepted the diaries as valid. Before Leveson Murdoch granted that he was responsible for the subsequent rhapsodising over Kajau’s scrawls and described it as a “major mistake”. But, of course, he was as liable to accept its implications as a Trophozoite is the feelings of its host: that his work is premised on gratifying his and his allies’ interests and that he’s prepared to enforce his plans across his fiefdom without care for principles of truth and hopes of enlightenment. The dangers of this would clear when he promoted a far more destructive hoax almost exactly two decades later.

So, the cover of this week’s issue of TIME shows a mum breastfeeding her toddler while both gaze at the viewer. There are roughly a million things that are strange about it: both look more interested in the camera than the activity; the Mother is doing some kind of sassy pose that’s wholly out of place; the son looks as at ease as a kitten on Guy Fawkes Night…As I said: it’s strange. But the point is that among these reasons you won’t find “because it’s a mother breastfeeding”.

Commentators, desperate to be seen as taboo busters, are interpreting this discomfort as some kind puritanism. Jen Doll, for example, askswhy we [are] so freaked out by the sight of a boob in a grown-ish little boy’s mouth” without considering the factor that it was made to look as natural as Sainsbury’s basic veggie bolognase and asks, “Why are we so worried about the kid, and predicting mockery…for him?” Because little children can be as sadistic as the Soviets, that’s why. Nobody’s saying that’s right.

The question the picture was supposed to illustrate was that of the virtues and/or dangers of prolonged breastfeeding and, indeed, a reasonable dialogue between mothers, nutritional experts and health professionals could yield productive thought. Yet, of course, the photo has ensured that the debate, such as it is, has gotten off on not just the wrong foot but the wrong limb, with people who are more ideological than informed talking at cross purposes. Now, after the three millionth column on this photo – congratulations on your week’s revenue, TIME – Matt Seaton, the editor of Comment is Free, states

It seems to me that this has really got people talking. Sure, some are offended for a variety of reasons; and yes, it is all PR to hawk a mag. But it does show breastfeeding in a new, kind of insurgent mode. It makes an arresting and thought-provoking change from the sort of wholesome-mumsy and feminist-essentialist discourse around the issue.

This is a cliché of an age where provocateurs have replaced journalists: the idea that “getting people talking” is a necessary virtue. It would be convenient for newspapers and magazines if this were so because they’re reliant on shit-stirrers and tub-thumpers to attract the readership that satisfies the owners and the advertisers. Yet what’s profitable needn’t be productive in the sense of being a social good. There’s “talk” that influences peoples’ opinions in a worthwhile manner and then there’s “talk” that’s simply the mutual expression of biases and trivialities. There’s “talk”, in other words, and then there’s talking bollocks.

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