Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 19 November 2015

The Paris atrocities, BBC rolling news, the right to criticise Islam, President Rouhani’s French dinner

The Spectator's Notes | 19 November 2015
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When Jeremy Corbyn says it is better to bring people to trial than to shoot them, he is right. So one might feel a little sorry for him as the critics attack his reaction to the Paris events. But in fact the critics are correct, for the wrong reason. It is not Mr Corbyn’s concern for restraint and due process which are the problem. It is the question of where his sympathies really lie, of what story he thinks all these things tell. Every single time that a terrorist act is committed (unless, of course, it be a right-wing one, like that of Anders Breivik), Mr Corbyn locates the ill as deriving from the behaviour of the West, especially the United States and Britain (and, where relevant, Israel). Thus the IRA were not to be condemned, in 1984, for trying to blow up Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet at Brighton: they were driven to such extremes by the colonial oppression of Northern Ireland. Thus President Putin is not to be criticised for waging what amounts to war in the Ukraine: he is responding to the provocations of Nato. And thus Isis and the murders they commit are all what Marxists call epiphenomena. They are the inevitable results of the thing itself — capitalist exploitation. Now that he is Labour leader, you can get Mr Corbyn to duck and weave a bit presentationally — be photographed with war veterans, dine with the Queen, wear a tie — but you will never get him to deviate from his basic account of the source of all evil. He is the political, left-wing version of a creationist — happy, from time to time, to use emollient language, but utterly fundamentalist. There is no arguing with such people. They are quite outside the normal range of understandable disagreement about a tricky subject like the Middle East. Even if, like Mr Corbyn, they speak softly, they are fanatics. All one can do is identify them clearly and work hard to stop them gaining power.

On Saturday morning, I watched BBC rolling news about the Paris atrocities. Then I spent the day hunting and switched on again at about half-past five. It was extraordinary how little the Corporation had advanced its coverage in the course of seven hours. It suffered from the curse of ‘big-footing’ — the custom of flying news ‘anchors’ from London to broadcast on the spot without knowing anything. No one needs Huw Edwards looking very serious in some boulevard and telling us again and again that ‘Paris is today a city in shock.’ We want to know, first, as much as possible about what actually happened; second, whatever can be gleaned about the perpetrators; third, the reaction of those directly affected, of leaders in the country and round the world, and of police and security agencies; fourth, the effects on Britain; fifth, a political analysis which explains what President Hollande can and can’t do, the state of French opinion and law, the role of the EU and Schengen, the situation with Isis and Syria, and so on. Obviously the human element is very powerful, but we do not need hours of film of people laying wreaths, lighting candles etc. What was most marked — and in coverage elsewhere too — was the demise or underuse of the regular foreign correspondent, the person who really knows the country affected.

Hours before the Paris atrocities, Al Arabiya news reported a speech by David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. In it, he said that because some mainstream media were ‘grossly irresponsible’ in their coverage of Muslim issues, Ipso, the press standards body, ought to consider making it possible for an entire religious group to bring a complaint about coverage. Mr Anderson is an able and distinguished lawyer. Surely he knows that the entire history of this subject is that mainstream Muslim bodies are constantly trying to criminalise hostile remarks about their religion. And surely he knows that if this were conceded, the chilling of free speech would be unprecedentedly severe. And surely he should know that this subject is not within his remit anyway. On Monday night, David Cameron said at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet that ‘It is not good enough to say simply that Islam is a religion of peace and then to deny any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists.’ Under the Anderson clause, we ‘grossly irresponsible’ journalists would probably get into trouble for reporting the Prime Minister.

Just before France was attacked, there was a row about dinner in the Elysée Palace. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani (much celebrated as a ‘moderate’ in sections of our media), refused to attend because the French insisted on serving wine to those who wanted it. It is rather as if President Obama or David Cameron were to jack a meal with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, because he said he and his team would stick to their vegetables. Obviously, it is very wrong to torture Islamist bigots, but would it be so wicked, as we spend many years and millions of pounds looking after them in Belmarsh because we are not allowed to deport them, if MI6 and MI5 were to open bottle after bottle of premiers grands crus and wave them under their noses before slurping them down with greedy cries of appreciation?

Robert Halfon, a Conservative MP, has been threatened with blackmail about some (hetero)sexual allegation. The press, reporting this story, described Mr Halfon as a cabinet minister. He is not. He is only a minister (in his case without portfolio) in the category invented, I think, by Tony Blair, called ‘attending cabinet’. This is a bad development, because it blurs the line between a cabinet minister’s individual authority and the subordinate role of all other ministers. It turns the word ‘cabinet’ into little more than a badge with a few privileges. It won’t be long now before people idly ask ‘What is this archaic thing known as the cabinet?’, rather as they started to inquire about the Privy Council when it seemed that Jeremy Corbyn might not become a member of it.