Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 10 January 2009

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

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Although television coverage of the Israeli attacks on Gaza is extensive, it is uninformative. The BBC, in particular its reporter Jeremy Bowen, seems to be in thrall to the images it can project. But, by its Charter, the BBC has a duty to educate, and what is missing in so much of the coverage is context. What is Hamas? What does it believe? Why is it not reported that the Arab press carries numerous attacks on Hamas for exposing the Palestinian people to suffering? Why is Hamas, despite being a Sunni organisation, close to Shi’ite Iran? What are the politics of the situation on both sides? Why, in short, is what is happening happening? The rise of Hamas adds to the idea, much loved by the BBC, that the authentic leaders of Muslim societies today are all political Islamists — the intellectual model being that of Sinn Fein: terrorists as the people who make peace. As a result, we are told about very little else. Just before the end of the year, for example, Bangladesh, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the entire world, returned to democratic rule. British officialdom, notably the Muslim adviser to the Foreign Office, Mockbul Ali, and the Muslim Contact Unit of the Metropolitan Police, have liked to say that Jamaat Islami, the party of political Islamism in Bangladesh, can help control militancy in this country, where the Bengali population is extensive. Its extremist leaders have been invited here. Mosques like the East London Mosque, which furnishes the current leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, are close to Jamaati elements. In the Bangladesh elections, though, Jamaat was left with only two seats in the 300-seat parliament, and the secular Awami League was victorious. Virtually no attention from the BBC. Perhaps they would say faraway elections among dark-skinned people are boring — but then let us not hear their self-justifications about their unique educational role.

Among the cards dropping on to our mat before Christmas was a bright purple communication, not in an envelope. ‘Are you under 25?’ it asked. ‘Ever had unprotected sex?’ it went on. Since the questions stood beside a picture of glamorously dressed boys and girls, I thought it might be an invitation to the young to rush out and find some unprotected sex, but it turned out to be an offer from East Sussex Downs and Weald and Hastings and Rother PCTs to have a free test for chlamydia. At no point did the card explain what chlamydia was, beyond asserting that it can make people infertile. It then claimed that ‘1 in 10 people have chlamydia’. This figure seems unbelievable, and certainly unverifiable. Why do public bodies think that it is all right to say big, frightening, serious things without establishing whether they are true?

As mentioned in previous Notes, this technique is used constantly by TV Licensing when it threatens people who do not have televisions and therefore do not have television licences. In its menacing letters and oral communications, it implies legal powers it does not possess. A reader who moved into his new flat and received a demand within a week of arrival tells me that he wrote back immediately to explain that he would be in Africa for most of the summer and so had no plan to get a television. The letters kept coming, and then, one morning at seven o’clock, my correspondent was woken by an inspector claiming the right to search the flat there and then. Luckily, the occupant knew his rights and insisted, correctly, that a search could take place only if a uniformed policeman, armed with a warrant, was present. But how many less well informed people have submitted to these intrusions? If you do not have a television licence and want to know where you stand, it is worth consulting a useful website (www.marmalade.net/lime) which collates information on the subject. It has quotations from TV Licensing, which, when pressed, admits that it cannot apply for a search warrant without ‘reasonable cause’, and that ‘a search warrant would never be applied for based solely on non-co-operation with TV Licensing’. So ignore all letters received, and non-co-operate.

Driving through a neighbouring village, I noticed a billboard which said: ‘Brede Scouts Carol Concert Success’. The headline gave complete pleasure. First, because it was nice to know that Brede Scouts exist and had a carol concert. Second, it was good to hear that the concert was a success. Third, the headline perfectly summed up why local papers are different from — and more liked — than national ones. The poor Scouts could organise successful carol concerts until the crack of doom and national newspapers would never show the slightest interest, though they (we, I should say) would love a thoroughly disastrous one. But local papers understand that the good bits of most people’s lives are composed of such small successes, and so they report them with enthusiasm.

No one was sharper than the late editor of this paper, Frank Johnson, at satirising our left-wing intelligentsia, but he was always notably respectful about the work of Harold Pinter. Frank was brought up in the East End in roughly the era when Pinter knew it. Pinter, he maintained, was ‘the Chekhov of the working classes’. As an epitaph, that is even better than ‘the master of silence’.

Who would have thought that the Roman Catholic Church — in England and Wales at least — would have abolished the Twelve Days of Christmas? Yet it is so. As this column has complained before, the decision by the Catholic bishops to reduce the number of holy days of obligation (days when the faithful must attend Mass) has undermined the observance of important feasts. This is particularly so because, instead of simply removing the obligation but continuing the celebration, the authorities have moved the observance of the feast to the nearest Sunday. In the case of the Feast of the Epiphany, this means, this year, that there were only Ten Days of Christmas. No lords-a-leaping or ladies dancing; and Magi, presumably, arriving late.

‘Force yourself to be spontaneous’ is the dizzying paradox offered by the Style section of the Sunday Times telling you how to avoid ageing in 2009. I can think of nothing sadder than grey-haired women and balding men sitting in their cars before a party, rehearsing the spontaneity which they think will be demanded of them.

Best sight of 2009 so far — foxhounds, in brilliant sunshine, slithering across a frozen dyke in pursuit of their ‘trail’.