‘England shall bide till Judgment Tide,
By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
says Kipling. Possibly we shall have to bide with just oak and thorn now (and oak, too, is threatened). People have already attacked the government for being slow to intervene against ash dieback. But it is also interesting to note the tardy feebleness of the various bodies who are supposed to love and know about trees. I cannot identify anything from the Woodland Trust before its press release of 29 September, because if I type ‘ash dieback’ or ‘chalara’ into its website it says ‘no results matching your search were found’. Although the Forestry Commission did chance upon an example of the disease in February and report it in March, in the records of Forestry Research, which is part of the Forestry Commission, I can find no mention until this autumn. A friend who owns an extremely rare ash forest in Scotland (a fraction of one which the Forestry Commission destroyed in the 1950s) tells me he has received no alert at all from the Commission before or during the present crisis. The Forestry Commission succeeded in fighting off privatisation early in this Parliament by selling itself as the custodian of the nation’s trees. Its publicity depicted mountain bikers and dog walkers. It has reinvented itself as a leisure industry. It acted with much more alacrity to save itself than it did to save our trees.
In the Tintin books, Thompson and Thomson (the latter ‘without a p, as in Venezuela’) are the two bungling, bowler-hatted detectives. In real life, they are the two most important people in New York newspapers. Mark Thompson (with a p, as in ‘paedophilia inquiry’), the former director-general of the BBC, is just about to become chief executive of the New York Times. Robert (without a p) Thomson, the former editor of the Times (of London), is now the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. Both were appointed in preference to Americans because of the high reputation of the British media. But since then Thomson’s boss, Rupert Murdoch, has been humiliated because of phone hacking, and now Thompson is under scrutiny because of his alleged failure to investigate the Jimmy Savile scandal. How long before fine upstanding New Yorkers allege newspaper ‘dieback’ brought in by imports from Britain, and grow their own top executives at home?
This column (see last week) refuses to attack everyone who, at some point, may have declined to believe an accusation that someone else was a paedophile. You often hear it described as an outrage that the alleged victims of Savile and others were ‘not listened to, and not believed’. The first is certainly wrong, the second not necessarily so. It is plain evil to believe every accusation of child abuse made against anyone. If all are believed, horrible people will make such accusations all the time. But when I read the Daily Telegraph’s report this week that in the past two years 900 girls between 13 and 16 have been given contraceptive injections by school nurses without their parents’ knowledge, it did occur to me that the school authorities concerned might usefully be investigated for abetting child abuse. All the girls under 16 are, in law, children, so anyone (even another minor) having sexual relations with them is abusing them. If a school is pushing contraceptives upon them, it is, in effect, encouraging these acts. Child abuse is a toxic cultural mixture — half a perversion of traditional notions of deference to powerful men, half the result of the permissive idea that early and promiscuous sex is liberating.
All politicians wish to exploit the Jimmy Savile affair to make it clear how totally they deplore paedophilia, so I have a suggestion. The scandal exposes the fact that the BBC is a massive bureaucracy, compelled by its own processes and unique tax-raising power to refrain from exercising necessary editorial judgments upon itself. The licence fee is the most regressive and most ruthlessly collected of all government imposts, and the annual sum of £145.50 is a seriously painful sum for the social groups who watch television (though not, usually, the BBC) the most. Why doesn’t David Cameron take advantage of the current hysteria to announce the abolition of the licence fee in time for the next election?
It was a great pleasure to see my old friend and former employer Conrad Black back in town last week. I particularly enjoyed buying him lunch, since this is something a journalist never does for his boss. He was in fine form. But I could not bring myself to watch his various television appearances: I feared that the big fish in shallow water would be the sport of shrimps. But Conrad did a brave thing, which was to question the credentials of our great television heroes. These people, paid so very much, often from the licence fee, to try to bring down everyone else, have proved oddly immune to the current iconoclasm. Fresh from jail, Conrad has a sort of street cred when he asks them who on earth they think they are.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother got it right about the BBC, as she did about almost every aspect of British public life. In William Shawcross’s new selection of her letters, she writes to John Betjeman, thanking him for his poem on the occasion of her reopening of the Upper Avon river in 1971: ‘…did you not think that all those good people lining the river gave one an excellent feeling that England is absolutely all right? It was such a splendidly un-BBC occasion. Too many nice ordinary people enjoying a nice ordinary occasion is strictly against the rules!’ Queen Elizabeth had a habit of doing the opposite of a toast, lowering her glass to any figure or organisation which she disliked, and holding it below the table for a moment. ‘Let’s lower our glasses to the Forestry Commission,’ she used to say, especially after they had destroyed so much of the Flow Country near her beloved Castle of Mey.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012