Like millions of listeners to the Today programme on New Year’s Eve, I rejoiced at P.D. James’s inquisition — the more deadly for its courtesy — of the BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson.
Like millions of listeners to the Today programme on New Year’s Eve, I rejoiced at P.D. James’s inquisition — the more deadly for its courtesy — of the BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson. Mr Thompson is not a bad or stupid man, but his very locutions were typical of the modern bureaucrat. Where Lady James respectfully called him ‘Director-General’, he tried to ingratiate himself by calling her ‘Phyllis’. Where she used metaphor exactly — a well-extended image of the BBC as an ‘unwieldy ship’, with the officers ‘very comfortably cabined’ — he employed the phrases of self-defence and evasion — ‘I have to say’, ‘I do think we have priorities’, ‘Let’s be honest’, ‘the decision around Arlene Phillips’ — and the jargon — ‘12 million personal interactions’, ‘delivering’ programmes. He sounded like a sloppy ‘carer’ in an old people’s home suddenly caught out by a resident whom he has wrongly treated as senile. The interview was a fascinating culture clash between someone who deeply believes in something, and someone who doesn’t. Almost all our public culture is now dominated by the latter. What is that something which P.D. James believes in, and which she thinks the BBC once espoused? In a word, it is civilisation. It is a very strong apprehension of a hierarchy of knowledge and values, and how these may flourish or fail in a society. The most moving bit of the P.D. James show was its end. She recited the famous ‘Ring out…’ passage from ‘In Memoriam’. ‘Ring out the false, ring in the true’, she declaimed, and her voice rang with what she believed.
Two days after my London visit from TV Licensing inspectors, described in the Christmas issue, I got a knock at the door at home in Sussex. It was the same men — Mr Spriddell (Fraud Investigation Manager) and Mr Clayden. I asked why they, rather than local operatives, had been sent. They said that the Sussex branch manager had requested them. I asked where he worked. In Darwen in Lancashire, they said. They refused refreshment, but accepted my invitation to sit down in the drawing room, where they gave me two varieties of ‘caution’. Did I understand the cautions? I said I understood their English words but not the men’s authority to deliver them, since they were not police officers. They then carefully noted down my answers as to whether I had a television (yes), a television licence (no) and whether I watched my television (yes). They noted my reason for refusing to pay my licence (that the BBC is in breach of its Charter by not sacking Jonathan Ross), and invited me to pay the fee after all. I declined. Then they informed me that I might be committing an offence under the Communications Act of 2003, and could be prosecuted. They produced a written record of what I had just said and asked me to read and sign it. It was all very proper — except that it wasn’t: these men work for a commercial company called Capita. I don’t think even Mark Thompson can confer legal powers on them. Now I await what he would call his ‘decision around’ my future.
In the wake of the failed Christmas aeroplane bombing over Detroit, two strange arguments are being made. The first is that the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was not radicalised by his experiences in Islamic student societies where extremists sometimes spoke, while at University College London, which he left only last year. He trained as a terrorist in Yemen, so the British context is said to be irrelevant. But surely no such absolute disjunction exists between violent radicalisation and the ideas which legitimise it. Many paedophiles go to Thailand to get child prostitutes: it does not follow that their reading, associates and internet use over here are irrelevant to what they end up doing. The second peculiar argument is that the ‘profiling’ of terrorists is counterproductive and will create a justified grievance. Contrary to what is said, profiling does not mean, for example, interrogating every Muslim. It means, rather, that the authorities work out risk rationally and concentrate hard on applying their knowledge. There is nothing righteous about the ‘equal’ treatment of all passengers. It is just an insulting waste of time and money. I know of a recent case of a 94-year-old Jewish refugee from the Nazis who worked for the US government for half a century. Because a metal pin in his leg set off an alarm at an American airport, he was forced to undergo an anal investigation. Visitors to Israel, the country in the world under the greatest threat of suicide bombing, will know that no such madness applies there. Airport searches are carefully targeted: skilled people ask passengers detailed questions.
Before the Copenhagen conference, Gordon Brown said that there were only ‘50 days to save the world’. But the conference failed to agree, the world survived, and already the whole venture looks like a satire by Jonathan Swift. Disarray among climate alarmists has not been helped by this incredibly cold weather. But the advocates of global warming have at last got round to explaining why the fact that it’s cold means the world is getting hotter. On Monday night, Snowmail, which publicises Channel 4 News, said: ‘They [unspecified] always said that the first sign of global warming would come when the Gulf Stream changed course, forced away from the west coast of Scotland by the ice melt in the Arctic, and that the consequence of that would be a dramatic cooling of British weather systems for a time…’.
These Notes on 5 December put forward the idea that someone (not me) should set up a charity called, perhaps, Meeting People, whose sole purpose would be to provide trained volunteers to accompany people to meetings with public authorities. Such meetings are frequently stressful and confusing, and members of the public need the presence of a friendly outsider who can keep a record on their behalf. Many readers have responded to the idea. In particular, Elisabeth Dunn has decided to set up a pilot scheme in West Dorset. It is provisionally called Common Sense, and the volunteers it would like to recruit will be ‘guardian angels’. Mrs Dunn would like to hear from those with relevant ideas and experience. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a fierce attack on the proposed repeal of the hunting ban, Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, writes of the ‘barbaric act of letting dogs tear foxes to pieces with their teeth’. In fact, hounds only tear a dead fox, so it is the same as when a pet dog tears apart any piece of meat. And what is barbaric about hounds doing it ‘with their teeth’? What else would they do it with?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 9, 2010