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The Spectator's Notes

The problem with the internet is that it gives newspapers deniability

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: academia and the EU; Remainer headbanging; falling off a horse; Bishop Bell

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

‘My deep concern is that because of changed ways that news is now gathered, collated, packaged, delivered and displayed, the country can often find itself in… the tyrannical grip of the massed media… which could seriously threaten the political health of the United Kingdom as a Parliamentary democracy.’ This is from a letter I have received from Field Marshal Lord Bramall. Lord Bramall has reason to complain, since he was recently, in his nineties, the victim of preposterous child abuse allegations, invented by the fantasist ‘Nick’, fanned by the media, and wild-goose-chased by the Metropolitan Police. His complaint, however, goes much wider, including how the British media misread the Arab Spring and thus Syria. He wonders what should be done. When I was an editor, I could never answer such questions well. I said that the media should try to get news out rather than suppress it, but this didn’t justify publishing everything always. Restraint was better applied by professional accuracy and fairness than by the law. I predicted the rise of the internet would help, because no media cartel could any longer control the news agenda. I had not bargained for the way the internet gives newspapers and television deniability. ‘We didn’t produce this story,’ they can say. ‘We’re just following the web.’ So I have no answer to Lord Bramall, except the cold comfort that the fickle media which traduced him have belatedly combined to vindicate him.

As a former student of English at Cambridge, I am sent the faculty magazine, 9 West Road. Its latest issue leads with a long article by Peter de Bolla, chair of the faculty, headlined — with intentionally bitter irony — ‘Now we are in control’. On and on he goes — the shocked perplexity of ‘French locals’ in ‘our holiday village’ that we could be Brexiting, the putative loss of the EU exchange students who ‘amaze and challenge’ him, how you cannot study for the tripos’ famous Tragedy paper ‘from the perspective of a monocultural and inwardly facing society or polis’. Prof. de Bolla himself is so monocultural and inward-facing that he cannot imagine any way of running international exchanges without the EU. The real burden of his article, however, is money. Stupefying sums — an ‘annual inflow of grants from EU sources’ of ‘at least €45 million’ — come Cambridge’s way and are set out in bewildering detail. An EU initiative called Horizon 2020 amounted to £98,543,527 ‘as of February 2016’, etc. Now the university is going to lose it, he thinks. It never crosses his mind that it might corrupt academic independence to worship the source of your money so uncritically. He does not let himself be ‘amazed and challenged’ by the wider arguments which persuaded millions — even some Cambridge English graduates — to vote Leave. Cambridge University was 800 years old in 2009. Except for the last 40 years, it managed without grants from Brussels. It can find a creative way through this, if it wants to.


In this paper’s Christmas issue, Matthew Parris and Matt Ridley had an interesting conversation about leaving the EU. Ridley succeeded in exposing the irreducible core of Parris’s stance, which is that Tory ‘headbangers’ are in favour of Leave, so he is against it. This is a curious position, because it ends up not being an argument about Europe at all. Kenneth Clarke thinks this way too. His brave and consistent pro-Europeanism has always been untouched by any desire to discuss or even acquaint himself (hence his famous failure to read the Maastricht Treaty) with where the EU is heading. Enough for him that he dislikes its opponents. He is a headbanger about the headbangers. The puzzle with Matthew Parris is that he is not normally like this. No writer is more sympathetic in seeing the other person’s point of view — except on this subject. What is this about? Some oath sworn long ago at a dinner of the Blue Chip group? Some unspeakable bullying by Eurosceptic thugs in the Smoking Room? It is sad. You can always find unpleasant or idiotic people in favour of every opinion. Better to apply to political debate Article XXVI of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which explains that the ‘unworthiness of the ministers… hinders not the effect of the sacraments’.

 

While on the subject of headbanging, I have fallen off my new horse six times this season and five times banged my head. He is a wonderful creature but he jumps big and, as he lands, dropping steeply, he gives one of those ‘look at me’ little kicks beloved of showjumpers. This tends to have me off. Briefly, I see stars or candles, like a character in Tintin. The longer-term effect is on confidence. Although I was essentially uninjured, my falls made me feel as if I had aged ten years. At last I followed the suggestion of a kind friend that I rest my fiery horse and borrow one of his. Although this magnificent beast is 18 hands high — and therefore a fall from him would hurt more — he jumps so smoothly that after one day’s hunting I feel master of all I survey (which, at that height, is quite a lot). Where riding is concerned, it is impossible to meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

Martin Warner, the present Bishop of Chichester, is said to be a decent man, so I don’t enjoy repeatedly criticising him and his diocese for condemning his predecessor, the courageous Bishop George Bell, for the alleged abuse of a girl in the late 1940s. But unproved accusations of iniquity are a terrible thing, as the Church has now tacitly admitted by inviting Lord Carlile of Berriew to review the process by which Bell (who died in 1958) was damned without his case being put. Bishop Warner is now up for the Garrick Club and I gather his candidacy faces opposition because of Bell’s mistreatment. Obviously blackballing is not a transparent process which gives people the chance to answer their accusers. Some members are threatening Bishop Warner with a tiny taste of his own medicine.


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