In American law there is a concept called ‘the fruit of the poison tree’ which means that if the source of some alleged evidence is rotten, or has been wrongfully obtained, then everything coming from it is also recognised as tainted. After this past week I would suggest a similar concept enters the lexicon in British journalism. Perhaps we might call it ‘the fruit of the Eaton mess’.
I refer of course to the ‘interview’ with Sir Roger Scruton that George Eaton – deputy editor of the New Statesman – published last week. The interview led not only to Scruton’s firing from an unpaid government-appointed position, but to a set of excruciatingly inaccurate pieces in the rest of the media. These pieces rested not even on the contents of Eaton’s piece, let alone the actual conversations (the tape of which the Statesman still refuses to make public) but on the Twitter say-so of George Eaton.
For instance, here is the headline of the news piece in the Sun that relied on George Eaton’s claims:
‘Evicted: PM’s housing guru Roger Scruton sacked after going on racist rant about Muslims and Chinese people.’
As I mentioned in my previous article, nothing that Scruton said in his interview constituted a ‘rant’. Nothing he said was ‘racist’ about Muslims or Chinese people. Such claims rely only on Eaton misleadingly pretending that Scruton was talking about the Chinese people as a whole, when he was in fact talking about the ruling Chinese Communist party, and that when he criticised the Muslim Brotherhood he was in fact criticising all Muslims.
Then there is the Times headline in its print edition from last Thursday:
‘No 10 adviser sacked over “white supremacist” views.’
To be fair to the Times in a way that they were not to their former columnist, the especially libellous claim in this headline comes from a quote from Dawn Butler MP. I have had cause to criticise Ms Butler before in this space. Not on that occasion for conjuring up facts but for her own record when it comes to taxpayers' money.
Yet the Times, it should be noted, went at it again the next day. Where other media had already begun to retreat from the New Statesman’s account of things, Kate Devlin (chief political correspondent at the Times) decided to take a second bite a day later with ‘Government adviser sacked for his offensive remarks stirs it up again.’ This was the Times’s spin on the blog that Sir Roger published here at The Spectator last week in an effort to respond to some of the libellous accusations being made against him. Among much else Scruton attempted to defend himself from claims of ‘homophobia’ by writing:
‘Apparently I once wrote that homosexuality is ‘not normal’, but nobody has told me where, or why that is a particularly offensive thing to say. Red hair too is not normal, nor is decency among left-wing journalists.’
To which spin the Times in its opening paragraph of its follow-up piece wrote:
‘A former government adviser has claimed that red hair is not normal and homosexuality is “not in itself a perversion” days after being sacked for other controversial comments.’
What to do when you read spin like this? Put your head in your hands? Lie down? Give up? Perhaps Kate Devlin really does think that Sir Roger – himself a redhead, as it happens (a claim she does not bother to mention) – has indeed waded into a final morass of anti-gingerism. But I suspect not. This is journalism as character-destruction. Devlin goes on to repeat the accounts of the Eaton interview, more than a day after doubts had first been cast over the journalistic accuracy of the piece. For instance she writes that:
‘On China he [Scruton] said: “They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.’
Of course by this stage the Times was reporting something which even Eaton was rowing back from. By Friday of last week (when the Times ran its second piece) Eaton had already begun to remove some of his original social media posts. Those he erased included one in which he admitted that he had edited this particular quote ‘for reasons of space’:
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Fortunately for Eaton – and unfortunately for Sir Roger – the editing ‘for reasons of space’ happened to make Scruton say something he did not. As the great Titania McGrath put it online, mimicking George Eaton’s line of self-defence:
‘OMG! If you delete 85 of the letters in this Roger Scruton quote and rearrange the remaining 11, he is actually saying “I love Hitler”. I’m not misquoting. I’m just editing it for reasons of space.’
Of course that is just some of the press malfeasance in this matter. More striking in many ways is the political cowardice. In recent days I have been engaging in a shy and subtle online effort to persuade the New Statesman to release the tape of the Eaton mess. To date they have not done so, I suspect because it will not show their correspondent in a good light. But perhaps this is just how portions of the left-wing media roll.
Much more striking to me is the behaviour of the Conservative party. After all, James Brokenshire fired Scruton from his unpaid advisory position having only had time to imbibe Eaton’s own (subsequently partially retracted) account of the interview. Why did that shining exemplar of nominative determinism sack Scruton on the say-so of a New Statesman journalist? Did Brokenshire ask to see a transcript of the full recording? Has this weak and so easily shocked man asked the Statesman to release the tapes of the exchange? Apparently not. This is the way with the modern Conservative party. Drop the ballast and run away fast.
Such was also the tactic employed by MPs Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer. When Tom Tugendhat was called by BuzzFeed to comment on Eaton’s claims about his interview, Tugendhat made some generic comments criticising all forms of discrimination. BuzzFeed’s reporter – the ever-astute Alex Wickham (who readers may remember has form in his ill-informed animus against Scruton) reported that Tugendhat had called for Scruton’s sacking. A claim that Tugendhat subsequently denied, saying that he had been ‘misled’. And so the fruit of the poisonous Eaton mess continued to spread.
Johnny Mercer, who has hitherto held himself out as a speaker of plain truths, decided that this was a ‘no brainer’ and that Conservatives were right not to ‘take our time’ over such a frivolous issue. He has subsequently tried to double-down on this stance. At the moment of writing it seems that the only person still really willing to defend the Eaton mess are people who aspire to be the next leader of the Conservative party.
Well not quite. Though Eaton himself appears to be in hiding, and has not appeared in public since publishing a half-arsed apology online, various people have tried to come to his defence. These include his fellow Statesman contributor, and erstwhile colleague – my old antagonist Mehdi Hasan. It appears that we do not have the pleasure of Mehdi’s presence in the UK any more. But I notice that on Twitter he is one of those who has shown themselves to be especially exercised by Scruton’s alleged (again, we have only George Eaton’s word on this at the moment) use of the word ‘tribes’ in the phrase ‘sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims’. On Twitter Mehdi says of this alleged line:
‘There is literally no justification or context for him saying it.’
There is something so beautifully certain and dishonest about that ‘literally’. If there was ‘literally no justification or context’ for somebody saying this line then I suppose it could be a bad thing. Except that there ‘literally’ is a context and a justification. Which is that it is a matter of historical record (and was recorded by many non-Qatari media observers at the time) that in 2015, at the height of the European migration crisis, somewhere in the region of 400,000 people from the Middle East and Africa walked into Hungary. A nation that is, incidentally, a country of only ten million people. So this is equivalent to Britain having more than two-and-a-half million people suddenly walk across its borders. Or to put it in US terms, almost 13 million people breaking across the borders in a single year. Which puts the southern border crisis in some perspective.
The Hungarians most certainly were concerned by this. In the end the vast columns of people were encouraged to continue their journey north into the country which had invited them. But the fact that this happened is not something made up by evil right-wingers or crazed conspiracy theorists. It ‘literally’ happened.
Which brings me to one final thought – which is why this matters. There will be those who maintain, with Johnny Mercer, that all this is just so boring. A no-brainer. Let’s just move on and get on with the important stuff. Except that this is the important stuff, not only in politics but in the wider culture. Are people allowed to tell the truth as they see it? Are other people allowed to misrepresent them? Are thoughtless people in thrall to an online mob free to ditch people who have forgotten more than they’ll ever know? Are we happy to chase all forms of thoughtfulness from public life with charges of heresy? And if we are, then what precisely are these heresies, and from whence are they issued? These would seem to me to be important matters to get right in any season.
The New Statesman’s deputy editor did not properly represent what his interview subject said. As a result of which a considerable amount of poison oozed out across the media and political sphere. Unless there are consequences for such an action it will happen again and again.
Who knows, perhaps legal action will result. Perhaps Eaton and his employers will rue that social media image of him swilling champagne after the ‘scalping’ of Scruton. The case of Burchill vs Berkoff is a useful primer on the fascinating question of ‘malice’ in libel cases. Perhaps Eaton and co. can begin brushing up on this? Perhaps the fruits of the Eaton mess might also find themselves in a degree of legal trouble because of the unreliability of the source from which their claims sprang. The underlying truth is not just that poor journalism should have consequences, but that no culture can survive if it celebrates the destruction of its most thoughtful people whilst willing on the survival of the thickest.