When you are invited on to programmes like the BBC’s Question Time, the idea is that you express your opinions. So that is what I did when I last appeared on Question Time, on 12 March. In the wake of the Luton Islamists who insulted the British troops parading through the town, I made some unfavourable comments about the attitude of the Muslim Council of Britain to British troops serving in Muslim countries. There is always an hour’s pause between the recording of Question Time and its broadcast, partly intended so that the programme can be checked for libel. (I know this, because I once had to fight, successfully, for the BBC lawyers to keep in some things I had said on the programme about Martin McGuinness.) On this occasion, no one at the BBC raised any legal or other objection to anything I had said, and the broadcast went out. A few days later, the BBC informed me that they had had a solicitor’s letter on behalf of Mohammed Abdul Bari, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Although the letter exclusively concerned my own words, the BBC would not show it to me. I supplied them with background information relevant to what I had said on air, but this does not seem to have been pursued. The BBC went dead. Then, last Friday, on holiday in Italy, I got a call from the Daily Mail, who told me that the BBC had offered an apology for my remarks to Dr Bari and £30,000. I decided to refuse the Mail’s invitation to comment, because I felt in a legal limbo, and had been told nothing whatever by the BBC. That remains the case as I write, and, when telephoned, the BBC legal advisers refused to provide any further information. But now the whole thing has gone public, so I don’t see why I should be silent. A spokesman for the Corporation says on its website: ‘On occasions, this [the format of Question Time] results in unfairness to individuals who aren’t there to put their view and this is one of those occasions.’ Actually, I mentioned no individuals in what I said, so the only individual concerned whose view the BBC has not sought is me. It has taken upon itself to apologise for a libel which it thinks I committed. Has it thereby libelled me? I promise that if it pays me £30,000, I shall say no more about it.
But I shall still keep my television, while refusing to renew my licence so long as it retains the services of Jonathan Ross. One of the things we are learning from the great MPs’ expenses scandal is that every institution funded by the taxpayer must account publicly for how much it spends and why. Ross is said to be paid £6 million a year, but the BBC has refused to confirm this figure, or to explain why it, or anything like it, is suitable recompense for a man who rings up a septuagenarian to leave and broadcast obscene messages about his granddaughter’s sex life. It owes us all an explanation, and I do not believe that I owe it £142.50. The money will go instead to Help the Aged. One notices that the BBC is interestingly reluctant to take up the details of accusations in the Daily Telegraph, particularly those against ministers. It has been virtually silent on the story that ministers charged their professional personal tax advice to the taxpayer. I wonder what sort of thing goes on BBC expenses?
One of Gordon Brown’s defects is that he does not defend his colleagues properly. On the Today programme on Monday, his choice of words made Alistair Darling sound like a thing of the past, and his answer over the Damian McBride scandal managed gratuitously to drag in Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, even though the latter is one of his own Cabinet ministers. Mr Brown’s one concern seemed to be to prove how unthinkable it was that he himself could have done any wrong. Doesn’t he realise that leaders are supposed to be unreasonable in the public defence of their colleagues, even when they hate them? Doesn’t he understand that if he won’t defend them, they will kill him?
Reading Antony Beevor’s powerful new book, D-Day (Penguin), I was struck again by how difficult it is for us to understand how people who were not necessarily personally wicked supported the Nazis. Perhaps it helps to read across to the recent story of the discovery of new poems by W.H. Auden. These were, in fact, translations, which Auden turned into English poems, of songs from a Soviet pro-Lenin film in 1935. Rendering one of them more or less as a hymn, Auden has a peasant speaking of being ‘…a slave although unchained,/ Till through my darkness shone a ray/ And Lenin’s truth I gained’. The purpose of the poems was, via Lenin, to glorify Stalin. When these poems were published last month, people did point out that they were slightly embarrassing in their propaganda for totalitarianism, but no one pushed the point. If it were discovered that Auden had written this sort of thing, at that sort of time, about Hitler, we would never hear the end of it. Yet you can only begin to comprehend the pseudo-religious appeal of the 20th-century totalitarians when you recognise that one was very much like another. The reputations of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao etc. diverge more according to whether or not they survived than because of any moral difference.
Kingsley Amis once told me a story about how this point was well made. He knew a man who was an interior decorator. One day, the man was commissioned to improve the house of a rich, left-wing woman in Hampstead. Above the main staircase was a huge portrait of Lenin. Kingsley’s friend decided on a tease. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked the real-life Mrs Dutt Pauker. ‘Hang on, don’t tell me, don’t tell me… I know: Hitler!’
It was encouraging to read at the weekend that hard times are making it more likely that museum charges will need to be reintroduced. Although it sounds a wonderful thing that everyone is allowed free into great collections, the effect is to give more power to the body that pays — the government. It is not a coincidence that the Labour government which ended museum charges has also terrorised museums over ‘access’, and even over what they choose to exhibit. It has promoted an idea of culture in which artistic value is judged solely by getting the right ‘footfall’. The belief that collections have a duty to the past and to the future and to the objects in their care has been supplanted by the doctrine of ‘diversity’. Our great national collections, like our great universities, would be much better guardians of their contents if they had their own endowments and their own revenue. Charge!