Stephen Glover

The press shouldn’t join the government in its mindless obsession with security

The press shouldn't join the government in its mindless obsession with security

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A favourite newspaper ruse is to sneak a journalist on to the flight deck of a Boeing 747 and then to suggest that we are all at risk as a result of lax security. It is, of course, very effective. Most of us are easily alarmed. And many of us will have been persuaded by the media that the admission of the 'comic terrorist' Aaron Barschak into Prince William's birthday party at Windsor Castle was a terrifying lapse. There was almost universal horror. 'This security breach has repercussions for the safety of every British citizen,' thundered the Daily Telegraph. 'This sorry saga reveals failings that are systematic, showing laxity at every level,' asserted the Daily Mail. 'When the inquiry finds who is to blame, an example must be made and heads must roll,' demanded the Sun.

What nonsense. The general fallacy is to suppose that because Aaron Barschak could gain admission to Windsor Castle looking very vaguely like Osama bin Laden, it would be possible for Osama bin Laden or a real terrorist to do so. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, may be partly forgiven for believing this because he has been unable to look at a photograph of Mr Barschak. He may have been told by his advisers that a man resembling Osama bin Laden gatecrashed Prince William's party. The Sun, whose editor is technically not blind and is able to study photographs, preposterously described Mr Barschak as an 'Osama bin Laden look-alike'. He was nothing of the kind. He wore a backless ball gown and red high heels – not the sort of dress that Osama or any terrorist would wear – and what was obviously a false beard. I find it impossible to look at him without laughing, which is what members of the royal family did when he popped up at the party. Even the Queen is said to have tittered.

No terrorist in the world would think of dressing like Mr Barschak, who regularly pulled up his ball gown to reveal what looked like a particularly furry sporran. Of course the police should have stopped him, but one can understand why they did not, the more so as other guests were dressed up as lions and leopards. They presumably thought that he was some sort of upper-class freak. Whatever he was, they could see that he was not a terrorist, and he was not. A police constable has already been named as the guilty man who let Barschak through, and he and the head of the royal protection department (who, oddly, turns out to be an earl) may be forced to resign.

Let's hope they don't have to. This episode shows how miserable and humourless we have become, how eager to find scapegoats and how mindlessly obsessed with security. The sad thing is that it will probably lead to more tiresome security for the royal family, which will take them further away from the people. Mr Blunkett, who would clap us all in irons if he had his way, may use Mr Barschak's comic stunt to justify further security restrictions. It is not so much Mr Barschak who is to blame for this as our reaction to what he did. Whatever new restrictions are introduced, there will always be a hundred ways in which a terrorist can strike. But it won't be by making at least some of us laugh while dressed in a backless ball gown.

On Saturday Tim Garton Ash (a former foreign editor of this magazine) published a long piece in the Guardian about George Orwell's list of communist suspects. Professor Peter Davison has already disclosed that Orwell passed information about communists to the Foreign Office. Mr Garton Ash has gone further. He has obtained a list of 38 names which, in 1949, Orwell handed to Celia Kirwan, who worked for the Foreign Office's information research department. Ms Kirwan was evidently quite a beauty, and her picture adorned the Guardian's front page. She died last autumn and her daughter, Ariane Bankes, gave the list to Mr Garton Ash.

He suggests that Orwell was moved in part by his 'quest' for Celia Kirwan's 'affection'. This may well be true. The Guardian's own news story, and even more the subsequent letters of several correspondents, have had a regretful air, as though Orwell somehow let the side down. But he had nothing to be ashamed about. Leftists who abhor his sneaking to the government would have taken a very different view if he had produced a list of British aristocrats with fascist sympathies before the war. That would be regarded as a fine thing to have done. There remains a widespread disinclination on the Left to accept that Stalin was anything like as awful as Hitler. But he was, and in 1949, when Orwell wrote his list, his sins were known, and he was believed to constitute a great threat to this country.

Orwell may be criticised for putting some people on the list who were neither communists nor fellow travellers. But I am sure his motivation was not just love for a beautiful woman. Unlike most people on the Left then, and some even now, he understood what Soviet Russia had become.

I have written before about the way in which broadsheet newspapers have thrown away the typographical rule book when writing front-page headlines. Until quite recently, they observed certain conventions. The two-deck headline across the top of the front page was reserved for very major events. But now broadsheets often use the device for news stories which are not very important at all. In effect, stupendous headlines are being used to pretend to readers that stories are more earth shattering than they really are.

Nowhere is the vice more evident than among Sunday broadsheets. Appearing only once a week, they may feel that they need to scream louder to get noticed. The Independent on Sunday and the Observer are the worst culprits. Last Sunday the former carried the following two-deck front-page headline across eight columns: 'Blair buried health warning on GM crops, says sacked minister'. The Observer's two-deck headline across seven columns was: 'DNA tests after missiles strike Saddam's convoy'. Neither story was particularly special. What size of headline would they use if something really important happened? The form has been abused, and I fear there is no way back.

On the subject of the Independent on Sunday, it deserves much praise for having plugged away so effectively on Alastair Campbell, the 'dodgy dossier' and (the absence of) weapons of mass destruction.

In my piece last week about the propensity of several publications to claim credit for having had the idea of a referendum on the European constitution, I wrote, 'The editor of this magazine is adamant that it was The Spectator which first proposed it.' Very strangely, the words 'no doubt correctly' were inserted in parenthesis without my permission by another hand. My inquiries are continuing as to who was responsible, but I must say that I have a very strong suspicion.