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The Spectator's Notes

Looking for 'false news'? Try the front page of the Times

Also in Charles Moore's Notes: the men who got it, souvenirs for deplorables, and O-level grammar

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

On a day when much fuss was being made about ‘false news’ on the net, it was amusing to study the Times splash of Tuesday, greedily repeated by the BBC. It concerned a ‘leaked’ memo, ‘prepared for the Cabinet Office’ and ‘seen and aided by senior civil servants’. The memo, from a Deloitte employee, was in fact unsolicited. It was not a bad summary of why the government’s Brexit plans are confused, but its status was merely that of journalism without an outlet. By the use of the single word ‘leaked’, a piece of analysis was turned into ‘news’ — false news.

At least two former Spectator figures understood things about the recent American contest which eluded most commentators. The first is our former proprietor, Conrad Black. Disagreeing with the anti-Trump conservative National Review, for which he writes, Conrad filed a powerful piece at the time of Trump’s nomination: ‘What the world has witnessed, but has not recognised it yet, has been a campaign of genius.’ He enumerated virtually every issue where Trump was nearer to the voters than Democrats, the media, and other Republicans. The second is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, nowadays the Telegraph’s international business editor. In the 1980s, Ambrose wrote wonderful pieces from central America for The Spectator, the only British journalist to predict the electoral defeat of the Sandinista regime. As editor of the Sunday Telegraph in 1993, I sent him as our correspondent to Washington. In that almost pre-internet time when the American media were still in thrall to Washington power, Ambrose was the first in the entire world to carry through investigations into the Clinton scandals in Arkansas and after — Sally Perdue, Whitewater, the death of Vince Foster, etc. Bill and Hillary were never quite able to extricate themselves from what he found out.


Amid all the recent electoral upsets caused by the global revolt against the elites, more attention should have been paid to the Colombian referendum last month. The people of Colombia were invited to vote on the ‘peace deal’ made between the Colombian government and the Farc rebels. On the ballot paper was what Latin grammarians call a ‘nonne’ question: ‘Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a lasting peace?’ Yet despite this carefully crafted expectation of a Yes — and opinion polls all predicting one — the answer, very narrowly, was No. The BBC was amazed by the result because the Yes campaign was backed ‘by a wide array of politicians both in Colombia and abroad, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’. It would be helpful in global media organisations if top executives could point out to their staff that, nowadays, the backing of conventional politicians, especially foreign politicians — and of Mr Ban — for any vote in any country on anything now virtually guarantees its defeat (see Obama’s pro-Remain intervention). The governing establishments of the whole western world got ready to hail the deal with Farc as a model for peace (hence, presumably, President Santos’s recent state visit to Britain), but the Colombian majority decided that it let the terrorists literally get away with murder. In a metaphorical sense, getting away with murder is what voters no longer permit their boss classes to do.

When, in September, Mrs Clinton consigned ‘half’ of Mr Trump’s supporters to what she called the ‘basket of deplorables’, I reminded readers of how some people grab an insult from their opponent with pride (see Notes, 24 September). The ‘Iron Lady’ is a classic example — intended by Red Star newspaper to mock Margaret Thatcher. I mentioned the Vermin Club. This was a response to Aneurin Bevan’s claim that the Tories were ‘lower than vermin’, and quickly attracted a large membership among Conservatives in the late 1940s. A kind reader, Mr Philip Lewis, has just sent me the club’s badge. It is a handsome metal square, depicting a fat, recumbent rat with a long, well-curled tail, and the single word ‘VERMIN’. Not so easy to depict the deplorables, who, said Mrs Clinton, include racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes, but perhaps Trump merchandising can produce an attractive memorial basket.

In Northern Ireland recently, I sought out the Mass times of the local Church of the Immaculate Conception. Its website duly listed them, but I was surprised to find roughly half its web-page filled with a picture of a young woman’s all-but-naked torso and the invitation to click for more ‘Diva pics and videos’. I couldn’t tell whether this was a viral invasion or an Irish parish’s highly unimmaculate conception of how to make extra money for its good causes. When I met the priest, I was about to ask him, but he looked so young. I remembered that this is still the Year of Mercy, and stayed silent.

‘now then I said will you let me ask you duke what you think you will make of it he stopped and said by heaven I think blucher and myself can do the thing do you calculate on any desertions in bonapartes army i asked not upon a man he said from the colonel to the private we may pick up a marshal or two perhaps do you reckon i enquired on any support from the french kings troops oh he said dont mention such fellows no’. A reader sent me the document of which the above is a part. Candidates were asked to ‘punctuate, supply the necessary capitals, and paragraph’ the passage. It comes from an English Language O-level paper of 1953. Examinees are not allowed to remove the modern GCSE equivalent from the examination hall, so I cannot make a direct comparison. But the difference, between then and now, in grammatical accomplishment expected and depth of cultural reference assumed does not need labouring. The exam also contains a choice of essay questions. One is: ‘“The application of science to entertainment has made us lazy.” Do you agree or disagree?’


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