In the magazine cover piece this week I describe how institutions as well as individuals are having a hard time making it through this deranging age. Bishops call for restraint but then have outbursts of ungodly anger. MPs and peers talk about the need for civility and then are found jabbering like street-corner lunatics. But something that happened yesterday evening provides almost a case-study of the era.
There is no reason why most people should have heard of Peter Neumann. A minor left-wing pundit, he is currently a professor of ‘security studies’ at King’s College London. As it happens, King’s is fast-becoming a home for insignificant polemicists masquerading as academics. But perhaps that is a subject for another occasion. In any case, the reason why Neumann is of interest is because of something that happened at the German Embassy in London yesterday evening.
The occasion was a celebration of German Unity Day, and one of the speakers to address the gathering was Michael Gove. If there had been no recording of the event and someone had gone by the reaction of social media then they would have assumed that the minister had made a highly uncharacteristic, indeed monumentally crass political gaffe. But there was a recording:
One of the guests was Ben Bradshaw, a former bright hope of the Labour party. As Gove was speaking last night, Bradshaw chose to insult the minister and his hosts by heckling. Just as Gove was saying ‘Britain and Germany have so much in common’ Bradshaw shouted ‘Nonsense.’ Gove continued ‘I think Britain and Germany do have much in common.’
Bradshaw then took to Twitter to declare that Gove had been heckled at the Embassy event, without bothering to reveal that he himself was heckling.
But this example of ‘fake news’ was then added to by the professor at King’s. Neumann obviously couldn’t believe his luck at being in the proximity of a minor event and took to Twitter with a photograph of Gove to prove that he – Neumann – had been standing nearby. Neumann then claimed, absurdly, that Gove had told his German audience that Britain’s decision to leave the EU was ‘on [a] par with fall of Berlin Wall and East Germans’ quest for freedom. Shouts from audience: “Nonsense”.’ The tweet was was immediately and widely shared, and others soon piled on expressing their outrage.
Perhaps it is too much to expect a professor in charge of educating young people to also be an honest person. But Neumann’s behaviour makes it clear that his connection to truth is at best contingent and at worst simply missing in action. For as the recording of the evening shows (transcript below), Gove said nothing like the words that Neumann attributed to him. Neumann, like Bradshaw, is an opponent of Brexit and his social media activity shows that for a professed expert in ‘radicalisation’ (a phoney academic discipline if ever there was one) the professor has become highly radicalised himself.
Anyhow – the recording of the event proves that Neumann was talking rot. And did so solely – it would appear – because like Bradshaw he wanted to push an anti-Brexit point.
Once he was confronted about his fabrication, Prof. Neumann did issue a grudging apology.
As I write, this has had eight retweets. But his original concocted story has been shared 3,500 times (and counting). It has not been deleted. This is how Twitter works. The whole debacle stands a case study in how to spark and spread outrage over events that didn't happen.
THE TRANSCRIPT OF MICHAEL GOVE'S SPEECH
(The audio recording is embedded above)
They say that every cloud has a silver lining and sometimes silver linings have clouds as well. When our current Prime Minister invited me to join his government, I was delighted and flattered but also a little bit sad. Sad because in joining the government it meant that I was no longer able to fulfil the commitment that I’d entered into to visit Bayreuth this year, in order to enjoy the Festspiele.
And it meant that I was deprived of your company, Peter, as well as the wonderful music that I was so looking forward to. And the links between our two countries – cultural, political and personal – are links which I cherish.
One of my first political experiences was attending a Young Koenigswinter Konferenz in Berlin and getting to know a rising generation then of German thinkers, business people, diplomats and journalists. And since then I’ve had the opportunity to attend further Koenigswinter conferences to get to know people across the political and business spectrum in Germany. And I’m always admiring – admiring of what modern Germany has achieved.
Because modern Germany stands as an example to us all of what democracy can achieve against odds that some once thought impossible. If you look back at the history of modern Germany, you can see in Konrad Adenauer one of the towering statesmen of the last century. You can see Ludwig Erhard, and the establishment of the social market economy – a model which combines free enterprise and social justice in a way that other countries have learnt so much from.
We’ve seen in the example of Willy Brandt an opportunity to try to bring together and to transcend divisions which some thought impossible to overcome. And of course we saw in Helmut Kohl a chancellor who in a supreme act of statesmanship managed to bring the people of Germany together in a unity that we celebrate today. And no-one should underestimate the scale and the measure of that achievement.
To take East Germany, which had been imprisoned in communism, and as a result its people having been denied freedom and free expression. To take East Germany, to bind it with West Germany and to create from those two sundered parts a country which today is an example of democratic virtue and of civic spirit and of entrepreneurialism and solidarity, was an amazing historical achievement.
And it should continue to be celebrated. But as the Bundeskanzler enlightened us today in Kiel, the work of German unity is a work that is always ongoing, as the work of unity for all politicians always is. There are always challenges that pull us apart: political polarisation, economic divisions, and sometimes an increasingly raucous and strident political and media atmosphere.
There are temptations for people to pull apart rather than come together. Well, the example of modern Germany reminds us how important it is to come together. And as the Ambassador also reminded us, it also shows that we can come together quickly when we recognise how important it is to set aside divisions.
Britain made its democratic decision three years ago to leave the European Union – and I know there will be many people in this room who will deeply regret that decision. [NOISE FROM AUDIENCE]
But also one of the things that I am grateful for, and I know that the British government is grateful for, is the way in which the German government and our friends in Europe respect that decision and have sought since then to ensure that that decision can be honoured in a way that makes sure that the links that have been forged on a personal and on a cultural and on an economic level can be preserved in the future.
And in the days ahead I hope we can secure our exit from the European Union in a way that ensures that the deep ties that bind both our countries can be enhanced and refurbished in the days to come.
Because Britain and Germany have so much in common.
[BEN BRADSHAW: Nonsense!]
GOVE: I think Britain and Germany do have much in common - but my view is that both of us are robust and successful democracies, both of us are examples of how you can combine commitment to a free enterprise economy with a commitment to social justice.
And both of us have a critical role to play in making sure that the rules-based international order – those values that have come to be known as western values, but in truth are universal democratic values – are upheld and defended. And that’s why I want to thank not just the German Ambassador but also the government of the Federal Republic of Germany for their friendship – and in particular to thank the Bundeskanzler for the leadership that she has shown and continues to show in demonstrating that modern Germany is an example to us all, and an example that we can celebrate.
And with that I just want to say to all our friends in Germany – thank you for your friendship, thank you for your solidarity, and thank you for your example