The Bigley affair has not brought out the best in anyone. Naturally I exclude Kenneth Bigley himself, who can hardly be blamed for being kidnapped and should be freely forgiven for his desperate Internet appeal to the Prime Minister. But I am not sure that I approve of Mr Bigley’s brother addressing Tony Blair as though he were a halfwit, and saying that he has ‘passed his sell-by date’, much as I disapprove of Our Great Leader. Even Mr Blair deserves a little respect. But then he himself and the unbelievable Jack Straw, who has barely been off the telephone to the Bigleys, have not behaved with very much dignity either.
This is a difficult thing to say — as I write, the fate of Mr Bigley is still unknown — but something seems to have gone wrong when a once great country of 60 million people is obsessed with the life of one man who, after all, freely went to Iraq and chose to live there. Of course, as human beings we are bound to sympathise with Mr Bigley’s awful predicament, but this does not mean that it should be permitted to take over our national life. The media, of course, are largely to blame. Last week, as the deadline for Mr Bigley’s execution approached and passed, the front page of every newspaper, even the Financial Times, was taken up with his likely fate. His Internet appeal — which was presumably bludgeoned out of him, as it would be out of any of us — was covered in melodramatic terms. It may be that down at the Dog and Duck people have an interest in Mr Bigley that is measured and proportionate, but our political and media classes plainly do not.
This, though, is a judgment of taste on my part which in the view of some may border on the crotchety. I would simply rather live in an older, sadly extinct Britain in which it would have been considered unseemly to obsess about the life of a single kidnap victim in such a way. However, I certainly would not advocate censorship as some are doing. According to them — they tend to be fervent supporters of the war against Iraq — the British media are being manipulated by Mr Bigley’s kidnappers, led by Abu Musab al-Zarkawi. We are invited to believe that spin doctors in kaftans are tracking the story in the Daily Mirror and on Sky News. Their intention, we are told, is to undermine our fortitude and weaken the will of our political leaders. Thus the two unfortunate American hostages were dispatched first, the American media being less excitable than the British, or at any rate more inured to kidnapping. Al-Zarkawi is chipping away at our resolution, so the argument goes, and playing on our enormous capacity for sympathy and sentimentality. The only way to deal with such fiendish manipulation is to browbeat newspapers, and if need be to censor them, so they do not give the terrorists what in a ghastly and irritatingly vague phrase is called ‘the oxygen of publicity’.
It is an interesting analysis, and one which I, with my crotchety distaste for sensationalism, might be expected to sympathise with. I don’t. In the first place, even if the lurid coverage had the effect that is claimed, I hardly think that censorship would be the appropriate response. If al-Zarkawi achieved such an outcome he would have won, as I am afraid Osama bin Laden has secured at least a partial victory as a consequence of the panoply of oppressive laws introduced by David Blunkett. But in any case I do not accept that the spin doctors in kaftans have had the effect that is alleged. Our political leaders, so far as I am aware, have not capitulated to the kidnappers’ demands, and few people are suggesting that they should have. If anything should happen to Mr Bigley, it is surely certain that our hearts will harden against al-Zarkawi and his murderous crew. Some passionately anti-war newspapers might try to pin the blame on Mr Blair as an instigator of a disastrous war, but I rather think that such an outcome would serve to strengthen his argument that we are opposed and threatened by some exceedingly nasty people. Nor will many be disposed to think that the terrorists are jolly nice chaps after all, should Kenneth Bigley be released unharmed, as we pray that he will be. The media coverage of this affair may have been distasteful, but I very much doubt that it will leave us enfeebled in the so-called war against terrorism.
The story about the rift between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is becoming rather boring. Of course, it is absolutely true, and whenever I hear John Prescott or John Reid dismissing it as ‘press prattle’ I feel like throttling them. But I don’t believe that ordinary people are as fascinated by minuscule developments in this saga as are many in the media and political classes.
The problem, of course, is that the principals, Messrs Blair and Brown, will not play the roles assigned to them. If they did, I expect that the man on the Clapham omnibus would prick up his ears. A public falling-out of major politicians is bound to be dramatic — witness Geoffrey Howe’s attack on Margaret Thatcher, or the resignation of Nigel Lawson as chancellor of the exchequer. But Mr Blair and Mr Brown insist on saying nice things about each other in public, though when they do so their compliments are deconstructed by Kremlinologists and judged to carry hidden reservations. I suspect that, despite their bitter rivalry and Mr Brown’s brooding resentments, the two men do still quite like and even respect each other. The Chancellor is also too cautious a man ever to show himself as an assassin. So the battle is carried on by proxies on each side, who privately mutter to journalists and seldom emerge into the daylight. Until someone is prepared to wield a knife and shed some blood, this will largely remain a story for political anoraks.
It may seem an odd thing for a so-called media commentator to say, but I wonder whether newspaper readers are quite as obsessed with media punditry and media stories as some newspapers think they are. The thought is provoked by the Independent’s new 24-page media section on Monday, relaunched on that day to compete with the Guardian’s media section, which is generally held to be the most accomplished among national newspapers and was itself revamped on Monday.
No doubt the Independent is right to seek to have a large slice of what is thought by many to be an ever expanding market. One would expect the newspaper’s readers to be more interested in the media than most. But I must confess that even my eyes began to flicker stubbornly as I fought my way through the media section’s many pages. Torpor began to set in when I came across Greg Dyke on television. (How long will he keep it up, I wonder?) But I expect that I am being uncharitable. It may well be that we in the media class will end up writing exclusively about one another and ignoring the rest of the world.