From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Diatribes of bilge’?

Nuclear explosion!

March 10th

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry, aired on ITV on Monday evening, has been described as a ‘bombshell interview’ whose ‘shockwaves swept around the world’.  The Daily Mail, our representative tabloid for the day, talks about ‘a string of incendiary accusations unleashed by Harry and wife Meghan’ and tells us that Buckingham Palace has been ‘paralysed with horror and dismay as Prince Harry stands accused of blowing up his family with his bombshell interview.’  And it was apparently no ordinary bombshell: ‘palace insiders’, we are told, described a mood of ‘intense personal shock and sadness’ that the prince had pressed the ‘nuclear button on his own family … people are just reeling.’ * Paralysed people ‘reeling with shock’ after being hit by a nuclear explosion whose shockwaves have swept around the world should probably take time off to be thankful that they have enough life left in them to do their reeling.

Apart from the implication that security had been withdrawn from Harry and Meghan’s family, and that Archie had been denied a title, on racial grounds – hinted at in particular via a reported conversation with an unnamed royal who had speculated on the shade of darkness of the unborn baby Archie – the most telling ‘bombshell’ was perhaps Meghan’s revelation that she had become suicidal and sought help from Buckingham Palace, but had been refused.   Almost submerged among the more striking claims was the assertion that there exists an ‘invisible contract’ between the royals and the tabloids informally stipulating favourable press in exchange for access.**  If that is true, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that it might not be, one can only assume that, for whatever reason (and one can guess), Meghan Markle was not regarded as coming under the terms of that invisible contract.

There can be no question that the Press’s treatment of Meghan Markle has been one of the principal determining factors in this whole sorry saga.   But, with the notable exception of today’s excellent editorial in The Independent,*** even the very few inhabitants of the more enlightened wing of the Press’s unstately home seem reluctant to acknowledge this.  Sunday’s The Observer (7/3/21), for example, carried three substantial articles about the interview.  In the first, by Vanessa Thorpe (p.5), nothing whatever is said about the press; the second, by Andrew Gumbel (pp.40-1), talks about them ‘feeling’ they [Harry and Meghan] had gone to USA ‘with some assurance that they wouldn’t be hounded by the paparazzi the way they felt they were’, and thereby calls into question whether they really were hounded by the paparazzi or simply ‘felt they were’; the third, a carping article by Catherine Bennett titled ‘In the battle of Meghan versus the Firm, who do we cheer on? How about neither…’(p.49), makes very fleeting reference in passing to ‘when Meghan was herself bullied by the UK press’ but doesn’t bother to linger on that insight.

In this instance one had to look to David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, on the BBC’s Today  programme yesterday to get to the nub of the issue where Harry and Meghan were concerned:  ‘‘This is the story of a black princess, a moment when Britain projected this image around the world and this was the opportunity for us to become the nation we pretend we are…. I’m interested in the fact that we didn’t.  We allowed our press to hound this woman and hound her family and it says something about us.  And the Royal Family are just another institution of this country, and in some ways these issues reflect the wider country.  It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation’.   The BBC, seeing the Tory private sector fetishists in full cry in its rear-view mirror, intent on eviscerating it to get at its licence fee, inevitably felt it had to ‘balance’ Olusoga’s incisiveness by inviting no less an authority of Britain and the Royal Family than Meghan’s estranged father Thomas Markle to share his expertise with us: ‘I have great respect for the royals and I don’t think the British royal family are racist at all. I don’t think the British are racist.’  So that is settled then.

Olusoga’s repetition of ‘hounding’ allows the full force of the metaphor to come through:  in the ‘tally ho!’ world shared by both the tabloid press and traditional fox-hunting the quarry is regarded as vermin, ‘fair game’, onto which the hounds – whether fox-hounds or news-hounds – can be set, with the goal being to tear the quarry to shreds, either literally or metaphorically.  Harry had seen what happened to his mother who was, as nearly literally as it is possible to get, hounded to her death in an underpass in Paris – hunted down by the paparazzi.   When he saw the same thing in danger of happening to his wife he would have had to be insane not to want to find a way to protect her from the hounds.

Only one person was explicitly exonerated during the interview from complicity in ‘The Firm’s’, or ‘Buckingham Palace’s’, stiff-upper-lipped refusal to take Meghan and Harry’s plight seriously and defend them against the hounds.   That one person was the Queen herself.  It was obviously not coincidental that news of the impending Oprah Winfrey interview galvanized the rest of ‘the PaIace’, by contrast, into a very belated inquiry into allegations that Meghan had herself bullied members royal staff.    It was very clear from the interview that there was a mutual and very genuine warmth and fondness between the Queen, Meghan and her grandson, and that warmth is reflected in the Queen’s public response to the interview:   ‘The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.’ 

With depressing predictability, Britain’s gutter-press, whose excretions just happen to be the printed media’s best sellers, seized on five words from the 60 word statement:  ‘Whilst some recollections may vary…’  This they interpret as a covert assertion that Meghan was lying through her teeth, effectively endorsing the awful Piers Morgan’s ‘Pinocchio Princess’ label for Meghan.  The Daily Mail’s online headline could not be a starker contrast to the Queen’s restraint:  ‘PIERS MORGAN: Meghan and Harry’s nauseating two-hour Oprah whine-athon was a disgraceful diatribe of cynical race-baiting propaganda designed to damage the Queen as her husband lies in hospital – and destroy the Monarchy.’ ***  Whatever else eventuates from the interview one good outcome has been Morgan’s unlamented departure from ITV’s Good Morning Britain.  

Piers Morgan was not about to go quietly and, as is the wont of the more contemptible tabloids, hid behind ‘freedom of speech’ as the catch-all weapon of his defence:  “I believe in freedom of speech, I believe in the right to be allowed to have an opinion…. If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge that she came out with in that interview, so be it.”****  His noble act of falling on his, now rather tarnished, sword as a martyr to the cause of freedom of speech, which seems to have pre-empted his being fired by yet another employer, brings an appropriate end to this episode of his own series of diatribes of bilge. Unfortunately it won’t be the last of the series.

All of which brings me back to David Olusoga: ‘It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation.’  Exactly so.  The likes of Piers Morgan can get away with expressing their repugnant opinions because a sufficiently large section of the nation apparently has sufficient thirst for the diatribes of bilge to keep newspapers in business that are often a shameful national embarrassment.  Their diatribes feed off and indirectly fuel an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia.   Princess Diana was hounded to her death; Harry is obviously right, that cannot be allowed to happen to Meghan, and if it takes living in California to ensure that doesn’t happen, so be it.   Rather than cleaning up the sewage by closing down the offending tabloids, to a crescendo of whines about ‘freedom of speech’, the nation should follow the excellent lead set by the population of Liverpool who have boycotted The Sun ever since its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.  If nobody buys the bilge, the offending tabloids won’t survive, and the nation will be a lot cleaner and healthier. But I’m not holding my breath.

* https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9340143/Queen-holds-crisis-talks-Harry-Meghans-bombshell-Oprah-interview.html

** https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/harry-and-meghan-interview-oprah-review-b1813834.html

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/press-media-meghan-harry-diversity-b1814801.html

**** https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9338343/PIERS-MORGAN-Meghan-Harrys-nauseating-two-hour-Oprah-whine-athon-disgraceful-diatribe.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: The naivety of hope.

5th November

One might have thought one had learnt by now.  It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for.  Wrong.   Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President.  Wrong again.  Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin.  Wrong yet again.  Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump.  You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.

So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education.  You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future.   Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness?   Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. 

60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees.  I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him.  That may, or may not, have been a coincidence.  Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’  The answer to that is obvious:  ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’  If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days:  how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist?  How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence?  So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?

This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common.  When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart.  Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.   Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford.   Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency.  That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes.  Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace.  But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Very testing

May 10th

When, rather more than a month ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care set his arbitrary target of ‘100,000 Covid-19 tests a day’ by April 30th few of us will have appreciated just how literal he was being.  What Matt Hancock meant by ‘a day’ was very precise: the one day he meant was April 30th.  His triumphant claim of 122,000 tests for that day has been debunked, but, leaving that aside, he will no doubt have been feeling intensely relaxed about the fact that no day since then has seen more than about 80,000 tests – it is not his fault if we were silly enough to imagine that 100,000 ‘a day’ meant every day.  It won’t have been his fault either that, even with substantially fewer than 100,000 being conducted every day, we have still had to send 50,000 tests to the USA recently to be processed.  So much for his promise of “capacity” for the promised number of tests in the days immediately before April 30th,  at a time when he clearly feared (correctly as it happens) that the target wouldn’t be met.   And what does Boris do when he realises that the 100,000 tests every day target isn’t being met?  You guessed it: he just raises the target to 200,000 tests a day (no doubt forgetting that he fleetingly declared 250,000 as the target several weeks ago.)

If our government’s Covid-19 testing strategy leaves a lot to be desired, its communication strategy, in so far as there is one, has been even worse.  Boris  announced a grandstanding address to the nation at 7.00pm this evening to tell us what the Government’s exit strategy from lockdown is going to be.  This was greeted with a tart suggestion from the Speaker of the House of Commons that it would be a good idea if such statements were delivered in Parliament before being offered to the nation as a whole.  We have a very good idea, once again, about what he is going to say, because he went off-piste at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and indicated that there would be some easing of the lockdown tomorrow.  This brought our brain-dead tabloids out in a rash of excitement with banner headlines the next day of the order of ‘Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons’ from The Daily Mail, and ‘Happy Monday!’ from The Sun.   Ministers had to spend the rest of the week rowing back from any suggestion that there would be a major change of policy.   

With a sunny bank holiday weekend predicted, what did the tabloid editorial boards think would happen, other than that people would assume there wouldn’t be a problem with ignoring the soon to be lifted social distancing restrictions?  The police were predictably appalled.  With well over 30,000 families mourning their loved ones on that ‘Happy Monday’ for The Sun, any increase in infection rates over the next few days should lie heavy of the consciences of Boris and the tabloids, were they to boast such inconveniences. Why address the nation on Sunday evening, after the governments of Wales and Scotland have already made it clear that any tweaking of the lockdown will be pretty minimal? Quite simply, one suspects, because if Boris made his announcement either in Parliament or at his daily Downing Street press conference people would have the opportunity to ask questions.  And Boris isn’t good at answering questions.

Barack Obama has described Donald Trump’s federal government’s response to Covid-19 as a ‘chaotic disaster’.  The same could be said of our government’s response by influential people in UK, but it won’t be.  As a nation, the UK is far too deferential.  Reporters from the quality newspapers and broadcast media have been coming in for flak just for asking awkward questions at the daily Downing Street press conferences.  The official opposition knows that it needs to be extremely careful not to sound conflictual, rather than bi-partisan, in its approach to the government’s handling of the pandemic.  The general attitude seems to be: ‘Don’t be nasty to Boris.  He’s just been in hospital, and he is doing his best.’  Never mind that ‘his best’ has also been a chaotic disaster responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands and thousands of people.   Even allowing for instinctive deference being a national characteristic, I still find myself wondering how on earth, in view of the number of deaths, the testing debacle and the communication deficiencies, it is even remotely possible that public approval ratings of the way the government has handled the crisis can have steadily risen by 17% as the disaster has unfolded.