Monthly Archives: August 2006

One of the books Malcolm keeps promising to read is Keith Jeffrey’s biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. The biography is sub-titled A Political Soldier. A less charitable view called Wilson “the greatest intriguer who ever wore the King’s uniform”. Professor Brian Bond reviewed the book for The Times Literary Supplement back in May. Bond is Mister Big in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and so approaches Wilson from that end.

When Malcolm saw the biography again, on the “Irish History” shelves of Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street, Dublin, he was moved to add it to his purchases. However, the book certainly is not in the bargain-basement, and Ryanair are ripping off all-and-sundry with excess baggage charges. Malcolm’s particular interest is to see how Jeffrey treats those matters of Irish history over which Bond lightly skates.

Wilson was Irish-born, in the County Longford. He was at school in England (Marlborough College) but entered the Army through the Longford Militia, after repeated failures to enter Woolwich or Sandhurst. The Militia got him into the Rifle Brigade, and service in Burma and South Africa. Then he was back to the War Office (when he wrote the manual on cavalry training) and, by now a Brigadier-General, to Camberley as Commandant of the Staff College. He reconnoitred the north-eastern corner of France, and became pals with Foch (then French’s equivalent at the French Staff College). By 1910 Wilson was an even bigger cheese: Director of Military Operations, and planning for the coming war with Germany (yes, indeed: he was laying out his wares to the Committee of Imperial Defence as early as August 1911).

And that brings us to the Curragh Mutiny. This is not the time for Malcolm to vent spleen over that sordid episode: suffice it to say that Bond’s seemed way off-line in representing Wilson as merely involved in behind-the scenes machinations over the Curragh Mutiny. Wilson was complicit from the earliest stage. His diary reports a conversation with French in November, 1913: I told him I could not fire on the North at the dictation of Redmond.

Meanwhile, Wilson was conniving with Bonar Law (as is reported in Lord Blake’s biography of Bonar Law), with the aim of making Redmond push too hard and so wreck the Liberal Government’s Home Rule Bill. The flavour of Wilson’s character comes across from his diary entry of this meeting: This, and much more of a confidential nature, made my morning very interesting.

Wilson had also been advising Edward Sclater, one of Carson’s commission of “Five” (as Wilson himself called them). This does need a bit of explanation. On 25 September 1911, the massed ranks of the Ulster Unionist Council, the Grand Oranges Lodges and the Unionist Clubs met in Belfast. Two resolutions were passed:

1. to take “any steps” to resist Irish Home Rule; and
2. to make arrangements for a provisional government in Ulster.

A committee of five was appointed: James Craig (later Prime Minister of Northern Ireland), Colonel Sharman Crawford MP, the Rt Hon Thomas Sinclair, Col. R.H. Wallace, and Edward Sclater, Secretary of the Unionist Clubs. This committee had two ends: to liaise with Sir Edward Carson, and to frame a constitution for the proposed provisional government. Any self-flagellator can follow the sad, sick story in any number of histories, many of which can be traced back to Ronald McNeill’s original 1922 apologia, Ulster’s Stand for Union.

Shades of Sir John Harrington:

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Bond has Wilson deploring the excesses of the “Black and Tans”. Hmm… in fact, Wilson was largely instrumental in setting up the Auxiliaries. Tim Pat Coogan [Michael Collins, 1991, p125] quotes Wilson (from his diary) urging the Cabinet with all my force the necessity for doubling the police and not employing the military.

Later, after the truce of July 1921, Wilson (as CIGS) continued to arm and finance Craig’s “Specials”.

Bond says that Wilson’s blindness to Irish political realities contributed, “though indirectly and bizarrely”, to his assassination. Let’s take that a bit slower. Wilson (February 1922) became M.P. for North Down in February 1922. He was appointed Military Advisor to Craig’s Government, with a budget of £2M (Craig eventually got £5M, and a vast armoury from London). On 20 March Wilson presented the Stormont Parliament with proposals to use the “Specials” as a basis for a new force. The following Friday came the “MacMahon massacre”, perpetrated by Specials, sponsored by the Brown Street RIC Barracks. Wilson’s further contribution was to visit Belfast (14-22 April), when he challenged Craig and his Cabinet: “Who is governing Ulster? You or Collins?” He followed this with an inflammatory speech at Bangor (19 April), claiming Republican forces were massing on the border, “while a supine British Government withdrew from Ulster”. The murder of Wilson was, indeed, one of the most indefensible, inefficient, and hopelessly heroic deeds of its kind of the entire period [Coogan; p373]. De Valera, typically, trumped the grammarians with a triple-negative: “I do not approve but I must not pretend to misunderstand”.

Malcolm, therefore, finds it hard to accept Bond’s line that Wilson was a naïf in Irish matters.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Malcolm generously publicises…

Private Eye is meant to be (a) satirical and (b) funny. The latest edition (Eye 1166) achieves both in a superb piece of self-satire and sheer cretinous, crapulous pomposity. Here goes , in full:

More fuel you
Dr B. Ching ridicules councils in Birmingham and Ealing for scrapping or proposing to scrap bus lanes (Eye 1164). He is wrong to attack these moves, for two reasons.
First, simple common sense economics. Just as people generally use state schools because they can’t afford private schools and get NHS treatment because they can’t afford private medicine, they use public transport because they can’t afford private transport. On average, bus passengers who are employed at all (many are pensioners, students, schoolchildren or the unemployed) earn far less than car users. This is because their time is less valuable to the economy. It therefore makes no sense to give them priority over people in cars.
Secondly, a lot of the arguments for public transport are based on misrepresentations. If people are to use buses, they must have the flexibility of buses running all day. Whilst buses are full at peak times, they are pretty empty the rest of the time. Huge diesel engines pump out horrible emissions in large doses, made worse by the fact that they have to stop and start all the time. Queues of traffic build up behind them, who are also obliged to stop and accelerate way again due to the presence of the bus, thus increasing their emissions far beyond what they would have been if they had been able to keep a steady speed, unobstructed by buses. On the BBC news recently, we were treated to a lecture on the evil of cars—a car journey from London to Edinburgh, we were told, puts out 100kg of carbon dioxide per person, a plane journey 50kg, a train journey just 25kg.
This assumes, of course, a heavily polluting car with only one person in it, a full plane (reasonably common) and a full train (outside peak hours, very uncommon)—all very misleading. This was to explain the government’s proposal to introduce road charging. And how do they intend this to work? Why, we will all be charged a lot more for using busy roads at peak times, to encourage us to use the trains. The trains are full to bursting on busy routes at peak hours. In the local news for the West Midlands, immediately following this broadcast, we learned that many through routes would be scrapped since New Street Station in Birmingham is already working at double the capacity for which it was designed. The infrastructure simply would not stand more people travelling on the train at peak times having been driven out of their cars by road pricing.
Your magazine has a noble tradition of clearing away the bullshit put out by government and lobbyists—you let yourself down by being taken in by the public transport lobby.
Lecturer in Law, Lancaster University Law School.

Just remember: the nurse on the bus, on her way to a shift in the ICU, is less valuable to society than the fly-guy in the Porsche, on his way to the strip-club, because her “time is less valuable to the economy. It therefore makes no sense to give [her] priority over people in cars”. Where do lecturers at provincial universities fit in this dichotomy?

Dr Austen-Baker (for Reading University gave him a PhuD, just this year, for an absolute rib-tickler: The Relational Contract Theory of Ian Macneil: An and the work of Ian MacNeil) breaks cover only occasionally, usually when the Institutions of Higher Feeling and Learning are in relax-mode. His previous appearance on the fringe of the lunatic radar was as long ago as 23 December, 1999, on the BBC Talking Point website. Again, let’s hear it in full from our learned friend:

Life after death – should families decide? It seems to me that, in the field of fertility treatment and embryology generally, scientific possibility is being elevated into “right”. The ethical justification for this seems doubtful to say the least. What benefit does society as a whole derive from providing the infertile with treatment to allow them to bear the children nature has denied them? What benefit to society from disappointed would-be grandparents being allowed to manufacture children to dead fathers? (And all this in an overcrowded country and planet.) It is perfectly possible for the state to make me a rich man by simply giving me large amounts of money. I should certainly like this; but can it be said I have a “right” to it. I think not. “Good” for the individual does not necessarily represent a social good, and the whole Western system of ethics (particularly as represented in the common law) is dependent on the Aristotelian principle of the individual having the right to do that which is good for the community.

It reminds Malcolm of a bon-mot from the mouth of Norman Clegg (the great Peter Sallis’s classic persona): “I entertain serious hopes that this one is potty on a full-time basis”.

Dr Austen-Baker has a personal page, including telephone number and e-address.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Conspiracy goes up in smoke

Everytime Malcolm manages to suppress his paranoia, someone manages to renew it.

If there was any doubt that Big Tobacco had any sense of morality, the finest scintilla of that doubt would be puffed away by the front page of today’s Washington Post. A story by David Brown, borrowed from the Boston Globe, blows the smoke away from a Massachusetts’ Public Health report on the way the tobacco-pedlars are upping the nicotine-levels (and thereby the addictive element) in fags.

And the ramping up is greatest in the cancer-sticks favoured by young smokers. Here is Brown’s summary of the facts, and they speak eloquently for themselves:

As measured using a method that mimics actual smoking, the nicotine delivered per cigarette — the “yield” — rose 9.9 percent from 1998 to 2004 — from 1.72 milligrams to 1.89. The total nicotine content increased an average of 16.6 percent in that period, and the amount of nicotine per gram of tobacco increased 11.3 percent.

The study, reported by the Boston Globe, found that 92 of 116 brands tested had higher nicotine yields in 2004 than in 1998, and 52 had increases of more than 10 percent.

Boxes of Doral lights, a low-tar brand made by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., had the biggest increase in yield, 36 percent. Some of this may have been the result of an increase in the total amount of tobacco put in that brand’s cigarettes, one expert said.

The nicotine in Marlboro products, preferred by two-thirds of high school smokers, increased 12 percent. Kool lights increased 30 percent. Two-thirds of African American smokers use menthol brands.

Not only did most brands have more nicotine in 2004, the number of brands with very high nicotine yields also rose.

In 1998, Newport 100s and unfiltered Camels were tied for highest nicotine yield at 2.9 milligrams. In 2004, Newport had risen to 3.2 milligrams, and five brands measured 3 milligrams or higher.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Malcolm didn’t read Monday’s New York Times …

Monday’s New York Times was not distributed in Britain, nor was the web-feed available for one key story. This referred to the continuing kerfuffle over the arrested suspects for the aircraft bomb plot. Malcolm feels a bit frustrated: if he had known he could have acquired a copy at Dublin Airport.

The story is summarised in Andrew Rice’s Monday press review on

In essence, the NYT seems to add little to the sum of human knowledge, as far as it is already perceived in the UK: the plot was by no means fully-developed; the Police and security types seem to have intervened well before things turned nasty; and “In retrospect, there may have been too much hyperventilating going on” (the view quoted from an unnamed US “counterterrorism expert”). If it is all huff, puff and “hyperventilating”, this further annoys Malcolm: the newly-introduced shoe-shedding thing really bates him.

The entry continues:

On Aug. 9, the day before police moved in, two of the suspects recorded tapes in which they justified their planned actions, saying, in the words of one: “As you bomb, you will be bombed.” One of the suspects kept “a handwritten diary that appears to sketch out elements of a plot,” which contained “a reminder to select a date.” In one of the apartments they raided, police found “a plastic bin filled with liquid, batteries, nearly a dozen empty drink bottles, rubber gloves, digital scales and a disposable camera that was leaking liquid” that “might have been a prototype for a device to smuggle chemicals on the plane.”

On the other hand, the story notes, the suspects hadn’t bought tickets for any flights, and two of them didn’t even have passports, though they “had applied for expedited approval.” British investigators have evidence that some of the suspects had attempted to make a hydrogen peroxide-based explosive, but it is unclear, in the words of one chemist who is part of the inquiry, whether they “had the brights to pull it off.” Also, MI5 was apparently monitoring the apartment that served as the headquarters of the alleged terrorist cell with “hidden video and audioequipment.”

That all seems somewhat less than the froth in the dailies. It may be marginally helpful to the Government and save the Met Police’s blushes not to have this available immediately in the UK. It will not stop the conspiracy-nuts having their say. We have already heard lawyers assuring us that things said now are not going to prejudice a trial in a year or more.

Two days on, the Great British Press has found it in itself to report the NYT censorship, while continuing to suppress the subject matter.

It reminds Malcolm of two things:

1. In the Falklands campaign, events consistently were disclosed on the BBC World Service (which then needed some serious knob-twiddling to be readily heard throughout Britain itself) in advance of domestic bulletins. This was part of a very serious (and pretty successful) attempt at news management by the Thatcher Government. Tout change parce que rien ne change.

2. Hilaire Belloc got it right:

You cannot bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

In passing, how does one get the piece of paper to prove one is a fully-qualified “counterterrorism expert”? And how is such a guru significantly different from his opposite number, the “terrorism expert”? Is it an Arts or a Science degree? Is one styled as “Batson D. Belfrye, B.A.(T.)”?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Malcolm reads The Emergency by Brian Girvin

A while back, The Times published a Comment article by Tim Hames. This mocked a press conference given by Michael O’Leary, Head Bod of Ryanair. O’Leary had used a Churchill impersonator to deride the security restrictions on baggage, while threatening to sue the British Government. Hames suggested that Churchill’s difficulties with Irish neutrality during the Second Unpleasantness made O’Leary’s stunt:

exceptionally audacious. Mr O’Leary and his company are not British, but Irish. When Churchill was leading Britain through its darkest hours, Ireland’s stance was one of strict neutrality, although the decision by Eamonn de Valera, the Republic’s Prime Minister, to sign the book of condolence at the German Embassy in Dublin after the death of Hitler might indicate his sentiments.

Inevitably, this created a mild tizz within the Times readership. A recent book, The Emergency, by Brian Girvin was called in aid. [Incidentally, Malcolm feels definitely hacked off. He heaved €18.95 at a paperback copy; only to find the hardback on sale through Amazon at £14.98 and free postage.]

Girvin represents de Valera as the ultimate tricksy ambiguity. This seems to be the current mode for biographers, accelerated by how Alan Rickman did Dev for Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins [1996]. Girvin’s de Valera is obsessively irredentist:

There could be no compromise on this issue … his determination to unite the island under his rule. All else except the continuation of national sovereignty, he continued, should be subordinated to this aim. What de Valera was engaged in here was not diplomacy but generating national unity and support for his own party. [Page 15]
[The context is a Dáil Éireann debate, 18 July 1945, on Ireland’s constitutional position. Girvin cites the Official Proceedings of the Dáil as his source.]

De Valera’s acolytes included some very dubious customers. Joseph Walshe was de Valera’s secretary for External Affairs (though de Valera reserved the ministry for external affairs for himself). Girvin nails Walshe as:

a conservative who considered Portugal under Salazar the ‘best ruled country in Europe’ as it was ‘under an admirable Catholic government’ [pp 123-4].

Frank Aiken directed “censorship, internal security and neutrality policy” [p 72]. Aiken

believed that Britain would lose the war and may actually have hoped that this would happen [p 126].

Aiken, in de Valera’s presence, told Malcolm Macdonald, the British Dominions Secretary (and therefore responsible for relations with Éire) that Éire would have joined Germany against Britain to regain the Treaty ports, had they not been handed over in 1938 [p 133, citing a PRO minute]. Incidentally, Girvin prefers “Ireland” to “Éire” throughout, neatly but imprecisely side-stepping issues raised by the 1937 Constitution.

Censorship gets a good chewing from Girvin:

it built on an existing framework of literary surveillance that had resulted in some 1,700 books being banned over aten-year period. In addition, radio broadcasting was in government hands, and more generally the 1930s had been characterised by state intrusion and control at all levels of Irish society. [Page 84]

This begins the first of a score of references, several a number of pages long. Malcolm sees Cumann na nGaedhael (the pro-Treaty Government of 1923-1932) establishing the Free State on the basis of an alliance of interest between the Roman Catholic hierarchy, business, and the burgeoning bureaucracy. So Radio Éireann was a civil service fiefdom since its establishement in 1927. State Censorship of Publications came in 1929 (films had been controlled since 1923, in effect nationalising regulation inherited from the UK).

Aiken’s apparatchiks were Michael Knightly (the chief press censor), Joseph Connolly (Contoller of censorship) and Thomas Coyne (recruited from the Justice Department as assistant controller). Girvin says:

Walshe demanded that censorship be used to promote the virtues of neutrality … he argued that by adopting this policy Éire could influence the belligerents. Irelands’s place as a ‘Christian state’ placed it in a favourable position to cooperate with other small states and ‘the Vatican in particular’. [page 85]

Their first major achievement was to suborn the Irish Times:

… the editor R.M. Smyllie seemed anxious to explore the limits of censorship … but in January 1940 the censors demanded the Irish Times submit all matter for publication in advance. The Irish Times capitulated … [page 89]

Censorship quickly became pro-active and manipulative. In November 1939, the farmers and the Department of Agriculture could not agree a price increase, so farmers withheld supplies. The news was suppressed for three days: Aiken defended this on the basis of public safety. Death notices for those serving in the British forces were stopped. Since de Valera closely identified himself with the national interest, so any criticism of him (and, consequent on that, of Fianna Fáil) was censored. Girvin quotes de Valera in the Dáil (3 April 1941):

It is not in the interests of the community that the head of the Government, in circumstances like these, should be represented by any body … as being animated by hatred or any such motive against one belligerent. It is untrue to start with, and it is not in the interest of the State. As long as this Government is here, it is not in the interests of the State that that should be done. [Page 220]

Accordingly, opposition parties were effectively muzzled:

… Fianna Fáil decided in early 1941 that Ireland was blockaded, but Fine Gael, independent members of the Seanad, the United States and the British all denied this. However, the only version that appeared in the press was the government version. [Page 223]

Despite all this, Fianna Fáil lost ground and its majority, in the June 1943 General Election. Fine Gael could call for a coalition National Government, but otherwise had no distinguishing policy, except to remain in the Commonwealth. Instead, the Labour Party and Clann na Talmhan (the farmers’ party) made significant gains.

De Valera then had three pieces of luck (and Girvin is less sound here, in Malcolm’s view). Inflation lessened. The Labour movement in Éire split. The US denounced neutrality and demanded the expulsion of Axis diplomats. Fianna Fáil, gaining by abstentions, appeared as the only nationalist party in sight, and so won back its overall majority in the 1944 Election. Aiken was promoted to Finance Minister in June 1945.

Girvin’s conclusion is closely argued and effective. The issue that still has resonance is the denial of Treaty ports:

In 1943 the United States joint chiefs of staff agreed that American lives would be saved if ports and airbases were available to the Allies in Éire. De Valera never believed this and Joseph Walshe encouraged him in that view. Robert Menzies [Australian Prime Minister] discovered this when he met de Valera in April 1941 to discuss the ports. He was shocked at de Valera’s indifference to the war and his apparent ignorance of the strategic importance of Ireland. [Page 321]

Girvin mentions, but does not consider in depth, the working arrangements between the Irish and British military. Below the level of high politics, dirty trade-offs happened. The more obvious ones were the “Donegal Corridor” and the differential treatment of internees. There was the flying-boat base at Foynes, on the Shannon Estuary. Boeing Clippers operated regular flights through Foynes: the figure of 1,400 aircraft movements and 15,000 passengers seems generally accepted (405 of the flights were made by Captain Charles Blair, later the husband of actress Maureen O’Hara). Most of those passengers were political (including Anthony Eden) or military.

An article by D. de Cogan and J. A. Kington in the Royal Meteorological Society’s periodical Weather [November, 2001] discusses Foynes, and notes that the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty reserved anchorages, airfields, radio transmitters and submarine cables to British control. The 1938 settlement surrendered only the ports. [Professor] Hubert Lamb (later founder of the Climatic Research Unit at the UEA) had conveniently resigned, on grounds of conscientious objection, from the British Met. Office, in time to become officer-in-charge at Foynes in 1940. Britain, therefore, had access to weather data from Irish stations through the Irish Meteorological Service. Readings from the Blacksod lighthouse, Mayo, for Sunday 4th June, 1944, were what allowed Eisenhower to decide, “Let’s go” for the Normandy Landings. Malcolm, instinctively suspicious, wonders whether re-occupying the Treaty ports by force ( a continuing thread in Girvin’s book) might well have endangered more than it could gain. So, was Churchill stayed from precipitate action by some sage advice?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Malcolm revisits old haunts …

A weekend in Dublin: College, O’Neill’s (where Malcolm was first devised), Hodges and Figgis (a Waterstoning of its former self, alas), the University and Kildare Street Club (17 Stephen’s Green: Yah!), O’Neill’s again, a bitter taste of what Bewleys once was, and again O’Neill’s … a grand few days.

Trinity is still a fine place. Three superb squares (if one includes Botany Bay, as one must) and the finest collection of Georgian granite one could wish. The nostalgia hits even harder under heavy leaden skies, and after a wetting. The modern stuff is hidden away on the south side, towards Nassau Street: in its own way it may even be worth the odd Michelin bullet. The latest Library addition is worth the visit. Eight stories seen from a central atrium knifing the height of the structure.

The visit and its implications will need further explanation, at greater length. So, doubtless, will the spleen need to be vented about the inhumanities of Ryanair, Stansted and Dublin Airport. And why do the Dublin authorities keep erecting such trite and kitsch statues? At least we were spared the Irish Traditional Music (except the occasional twiddle of a penny whistle) while the locals wept in their Guinness after Dublin Crokered to Mayo: for which Seán Moran’s final sentence in the Irish Times report deserves a hat-tip: “The West was awake and as the late Micheál O’Hehir once so eloquently put it, the Jacks were flushed”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Malcolm found himself musing on the State of the Nation and its Media …

One source Malcolm watches assiduously is Chris Cillizza’s politics blog, The Fix. For those who don’t know, Cillizza is the Washington Post‘s poll-wonk. His latest post (dated 01:09 pm, 23 August) tries to make sense of US opinion polls, and how GWB’s ratings seem to stay afloat, just, on the basis of popular support for “the War on Terror”. He notes an upward tick in approval ratings for the GOP “since the foiled terrorist plot in Britain”.

Meanwhile, a day earlier, The Times had been reading the entrails of an ICM poll to see “Labour hit by terror battle”:

a fifth [of those interviewed for the poll] believe the Government is telling the truth about the threat from terrorism, 21 per cent think that it has actively exaggerated the danger. A slight majority – 51 per cent – are convinced ministers are not telling them the full story.

This is August, for goodness’ sake, the “silly season” in most years. We should not take polling in mid-August too seriously. Yet, the talking heads and opinion-page fillers strive to convince that something is happening.


  1. Why is there such a discrepancy between US and UK reactions?
  2. Why does “the War on Terror” benefit the Administration one side of the Atlantic, yet is the major drag on public approval for the UK Government?
  3. Why is conspiracy-theory the norm in Britain?

Malcolm thinks that, in this case, it really is the messenger who is to blame. The US has some excellent news-outlets: The New York Times and The Washington Post are Malcolm’s sources of choice: comprehensive, balanced and decently liberal. Other metropolitan newspapers cannot be entirely without merit: however mean the editorial line, columnists like Carl Hiaasen and Molly Ivins get syndication. The best American newspapers Malcolm sees seem to be generally improving: what is usually termed “transparency”. Articles are frequently foot-noted, for example. In cyberia, let nobody diss, if only as a ready source for the egregious Hitchens (one need not agree with him: just enjoy 1,000+ words of well-fermented bile). And then there is the eternal humanity and sanity of Doonesbury. As a result, big-city America is well-informed and well-served: not entirely coincidentally, these are the “Red States”.

Elsewhere, things are less salubrious. Any traveller in the boondocks and bournes from which no hollingsworth emerges unscathed recognises the paucity of information available therein. Motel breakfast on a diet of CNN and USA Today achieves the near-impossible: it makes one hanker for horrors like the Daily Mail. The shock-jocks whom one hear in the diners, too, must have an impact. They have the fascination Malcolm would extend to a rock-python: one cannot afford to ignore something so malign. Fox News is tabloidism-on-steroids.

The UK Press is different quantitatively and qualitatively. Above all, though, it is different attitudinally. Almost without exception, the opinionated Press sees its position as one of criticism, which frequently slides into carping. No-one does this better than the Mail. The Sunday Times is the ne-plus-ultra of sneering. Not for nothing did Wapping need to invent the “reverse ferret”. The Independent tends to the heterodox, the trick of singularity. The Daily Express is now a hopeless case: once, Alfred Christiansen, Carl Giles and Rupert Bear went through Middle England like Blackpool went through rock; now the confectionery is Diana-conspiracy, Little-Englandism and cheesecake.

Malcolm does not ask for balance, or even fairness from the British Press: just that, occasionally, the other side of the argument escapes before the dismissive final paragraph.

Is there a reason for such negativism? Is it a passing phase? Would all change were Tony Blair to step aside? Nah! Any alternative Labour leader would be fresh meat from day two. Even a Cameron administration would be lucky to have its hundred days.

So why?

First, the BBC is the 600lb gorilla of the British media. In any moment of crisis, BBC TV news is the first source of information. BBC News 24 is becoming the pre-eminent rolling news station: Sky News is slicker, often quicker, but seems less integrated, less “national”, and — certainly — lacks the local links the massed ranks of BBC reporters can achieve. Add into this the breadth and depth of the BBC news website and the squeals of the Media, especially the Murdoch stable, becomes understandable. If a UK news-source is not the BBC, then it is effectively in competition with, and so must differentiate from the Beeb.

Second, Lord Gnome‘s organ has a following among opinion-formers out of all proportion to any nominal circulation. This is not itself a testiment to the Eye, but a recognition that the World that Once was Fleet Street is still very tight and incestuous. The Eye‘s Street of Shame, effectively every journo’s opportunity to slag off the competition, is a mark of how the in-crowd gossip. And the Eye‘s trademark is to be essentially combative and derisive.

Third, the underemployed politician fills the idle hours as a part-time columnist. Inevitably, the product of such labour will be bilious (for which read, “He shouldn’t have sacked me”) or ambitious (“This is where he is going sooooo wrong …”). For a prime example, see Roy Hattersley passim.

Fourth, there is the need for news on the cheap. It is only when Malcolm leaves London he fully appreciates how small the place is. Domestic news tends to the triviality. We get into a lather about the barely-significant: distance gives proportion. A General Election, however is big stuff. It nicely fuels columns and provides a month or more of headlines, articles, fillers. Even a juicy by-election satifies the need to have something on page two for several issues, and will nicely fill Friday’s and Saturday’s front-pages. And the Sunday’s will still have enough fat to chew for an editorial and a full-page analysis. Now, if only we could have a General Election, a “leadership contest” every year, a “Government split” every month, a “Minister sacked” every fortnight, how much easier does that make the editor’s job? Now, how can that be engineered?

Malcolm’s conclusion is that, in Britain, opinion-forming is essentially done from a hostile and negative position. Any branch of the Administration, the Executive, the public bodies is fair game. Journalism is played according to the rules of coarse rugby: go for the man, not the ball. National Interest be damned … let’s get him!

What all that failed to debate was why conspiracy-theory has become British mainstream opinion. To that we shall need to return.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized