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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

There is supposed to be a Leveson Part II, although everyone has forgotten about it. As well as telling him to look into everything bad about newspapers (‘Please could you clean the Augean stables by Friday, Hercules’), David Cameron also asked Lord Justice Leveson to investigate who did what when over phone-hacking. This was postponed because of the forthcoming criminal trials, but I mention it because it is a reminder that things are back to front. Normally when you have an inquiry, you first work out what happened and then you work out what to do about it. Leveson is the opposite, hence the resulting chaos. The problem is particularly acute if you put a judge in charge. Judges like laws, so they propose new ones. Mr Cameron never wanted a new law, so why did he appoint the learned Lord Justice?

Few people seem to realise that the press regulation now formulated is the long-meditated revenge of the left. I cannot count the number of Labour party conferences and rallies I sat through in the 1980s at which the Tory press was denounced for its ‘disgustingandvicioussmearcampaigns’ (all said, like that, in a rush) by Militant, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone etc. ‘Right to reply’ is in, and the rights of anything seen as the right are out. The Tories will suffer for not spotting this in time.

It does seem viable, though possibly impolitic, for newspapers to refuse to take part in this curious mixture of olde-worlde Royal Charter mumbo-jumbo, updated agitprop politics, and the new 21st-century piety which delegates everything to bureaucrats. Why is it better to have the Commissioner for Public Appointments, not Parliament, in charge of press regulation? Neither should be, but at least Parliament has some sort of answerability. Now pressure groups, able to take advantage of free arbitration, will besiege newspapers with the regulatory equivalent of ‘lawfare’. The exemption from exemplary damages promised by the Royal Charter is hardly a safe harbour. It may be time to strike out for the open sea.

Last week, in our village, I saw signs in windows saying ‘Etchingham says Yes’. I have never seen such a sentence in the rural south. It is almost always ‘X says No’ — ‘No’ to a bypass, a shopping centre, a development. Sometimes, this ‘No’ will be justified, but cumulatively it amounts to a vote against the next generation. Etchingham was saying yes to a greenfield site for our primary school, our village hall and 15 new houses. My wife and others actually waved banners in the bitter wind because the planning officers had recommended refusal, and the planning committee of local councillors had come to inspect the site. To our delight and surprise, the councillors overruled their officers. They said they had been impressed by the strength of local feeling. What strikes me most about the whole story is the price of time. It is 40 years since the school, which is persistently successful, first had to build temporary classrooms to accommodate the growing demand. It is about 20 years since a committee was set up to find room for a new village hall. The village has, on the whole, been united in its aims. Yet again and again the public authorities have found reasons for delay. In the time it has taken to agree habitations for roughly 50 people and school facilities for about 100, entire cities of ten million have gone up in China. There is a cost in all this — the cost of a future postponed. More villages need the power to say Yes.

This week, the Times ran a guide to the 30 Best Villages in Britain, mentioning the price of houses in each. Only one offered anything at all under £200,000 (‘from £195,000’ in Great Somerford, Wiltshire), and most were much higher. So the 30 ‘best’ are also those in which no one on average earnings (£26,500 p.a.) can afford to buy. What this means, in human terms, is that villages, which historically were notable for their mixture of rich, middling and poor, have become rich ghettos. Simon Jenkins, of the National Trust, says that people have no ‘right’ to live in the villages where their parents live. Perhaps not, but isn’t it tragic that they often have no opportunity? The success of modern democratic society is based on the idea that you can do better than your parents if you work reasonably hard. Planning restrictions, and the consequent astronomic rise in the price of houses, mean that the opposite is true. You do worse than your parents. A society organised in such a way disintegrates quite quickly.

When I was a boy, I read of Beerbohm Tree’s 1900 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which real rabbits scampered through the Athenian glades. I longed for their equivalent in the more austere dramas of the 1970s, in vain. Last week in the West End, though, I attended two on consecutive nights. In The Audience, the overrated play about the Queen and her prime ministers, corgis trot across the stage. In Marianne Elliott’s marvellous production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time there is not only a dead dog at the beginning but a live puppy popping out of a box at the end. Both the live acts are delightful, but there is no doubt that they upstage the human beings and so skew the emphasis. I felt that the only slightly unbelievable thing in The Curious Incident is the idea that a new dog would bring instant joy to the autistic teenager. As the puppy capered about, though, the audience was in no mood to notice. What will happen if real creatures start to be introduced into tragedy — crows making wing to the rooky wood in Macbeth, even a horse in Richard III?

The other day a friend ordered wine in a licensed restaurant in London. The bottle had a cork. The young waitress apologised: she did not know how to use ‘one of those things’, by which she meant a corkscrew. Every bottle she had ever previously opened had had a screw-top.

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