Nemo expectat Sanctum Officium

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As long-time readers will be aware (hello, both of you), I like to try and be charitable towards our spiritual leaders. I mean to say, Rowan Williams comes in for a lot of stick, some of it justified, but it’s impossible not to feel for the guy when you consider the impossible job he has to do, keeping Peter Akinola and Katharine Jefferts Schori at least nominally in the same denomination. Similarly, I’ve been known to wax satirical on occasion about our old friend Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn, but again, when you reflect for a moment on the genuinely appalling state of the Catholic Church in Austria, I think it’s the humane thing to cut the Count a little slack. Not too much though.

So anyway, it’s with something of a heavy heart that I turn to consider Archbishop Vincent Nichols. I say this because I’ve been more than willing to give +Vinnie the benefit of the doubt. I think he’s basically a decent enough chap whose faith is pretty close to that of the Catholics in the pews. More to the point, he comes from outside the Magic Circle and so is in a position to give the Church in England and Wales a sense of direction after a fairly long period of drift. Yet, we haven’t seen much of that. I’ll grant you that he seems to have stamped his authority on the Bishops’ Conference, with one or two exceptions, but having done so, I’m not sure I can see what he wants to do with it.

Perhaps we might say that His Grace’s management style hasn’t necessarily been shown at its best. Nor does it help that his style is very much one of one-man management. Back in Cardinal Cormac’s day, Archbishop’s House used to be a hive of activity. Maybe, given that some of the bright young things around the place didn’t seem to have actual jobs, it would be more accurate to say it seemed like a hive of activity. But some people at least miss the old buzz. Moreover, since Cormac was crafty enough to have other people do the unpopular things, and charming enough to smooth over difficult situations, he didn’t actively create ill will. Vinnie’s tendency to take on everything himself, and the common impression that he doesn’t trust anyone except for Marcus Stock, leaves him dangerously exposed. With the best will in the world, some of his troubles are of his own making.

Let us take, for instance, the long-running saga of Cardinal Vaughan School in west London, the site of a bitter feud between the best Catholic school in England on the one hand, and on the other educational bureaucrats from Westminster diocese who resented it precisely because of its success. Vinnie could quite easily have taken the view that this was a mess he’d inherited from Cormac, and he was going to resolve it to the satisfaction of most people involved. But no, this became a virility test for the diocese. Diocesan manipulation actually became more blatant, putting Vaughan parents’ backs up further. Someone, I know not who, made the inspired decision to send Mgr “Jungle Jim” Curry into a delicate situation, which is a bit like getting a WWE wrestler to negotiate an arms control treaty. In the end, the diocese was put in the mortifying position of having Michael Gove intervene to safeguard the Catholic character of one of its best schools. And even then, we had a stream of claims to the contrary from the diocese, of such an unconvincing character that, my spies tell me, Boris Johnson was expressing concern at fire crews being called out to extinguish conflagrations in the Archbishop’s pants.

But that’s a local matter. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, come to the attention of Rome. And this is sort of the crux of the issue. While the Catholic Church is (at least in theory) very centralised doctrinally, it’s very decentralised structurally, and if you spend more than ten minutes in the Catholic blogosphere you’ll find someone complaining bitterly that her bishop isn’t doing what the Pope wants. Actually, there are only two conditions under which a bishop will do what the Pope wants: a) he agrees with what the Pope wants, or b) he’s ambitious and wants to earn brownie points with Rome. Add to that a culture in England and Wales, much of it going back to the late Cardinal Hume, which is distinctly Gallican, holding that we don’t do it that way over here. Well, that can go on for a long time, even decades, but then you’ll sometimes find the wind changing.

One straw in the wind is the continued failure to implement Summorum Pontificum. This isn’t confined to England of course, and it’s notable that nearly five years after publication of this important document, the Vatican website still only has versions in Latin and Hungarian(!) posted. But no, it’s encountered some resistance in these islands. Briefly, as anyone in the LMS could tell you, the CBCEW doesn’t take the PCED seriously, even though the PCED is part of the CDF, which everyone takes seriously. At this point you will say “WTF?”, and rightly so. It’s worth noting, though, that some bishops have been quite helpful in providing for the usus antiquior – not necessarily the most trad-friendly either, but even if they’re doing it to win brownie points, let us not reject the good fruits.

Summorum Pontificum is something that Rome pays attention to, because it’s an initiative of Rome’s and indeed of B16 personally. Something else Rome pays attention to is the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. We may note, for instance, that the Ordinariate has been up and running for over a year and still doesn’t have a principal church, despite there being any number of underused Catholic churches in London that could have been pressed into service. The American Ordinariate was only set up this January and had a principal church ready at the outset – a very nice church in Texas – not least because the USCCB was determined it should hit the ground running. And though there are some teething problems with the Australian Ordinariate, I assume it will hit the ground running as well once it’s set up.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why the English and Welsh bishops aren’t too keen on the Ordinariate project. One reason you hear about why they’re dragging their feet on the principal church is that they don’t want the Ordinariate to be too distinctive, even though that’s the whole point of the exercise. There’s also the fear that the Ordinariate may upset the decades-long ARCIC process of agreeable ecumenical tea-drinking with the C of E. Above all, I think, it’s Their Lordships’ ingrained fear and suspicion of something that isn’t under their direct control.

This, in brief, is why, as Dr William Oddie points out, the English bishops sabotaged a similar initiative in the early 1990s. Which in turn is why the Ordinariate project is being run by the CDF in Rome, who didn’t even tell the English bishops until late in the game, precisely because the English bishops couldn’t be relied on not to play silly buggers with it.

Now, as you know, nobody tells me anything. So I have no knowledge of whether or not the CDF have been taking a close look at what’s going on in England. I certainly don’t know one way or the other whether Cardinal Levada is taking an austere view of the English bishops’ foot-dragging over one of Pope Benedict’s pet projects. But I’m fairly sure that these are not the sort of things an archbishop who’d dearly love to be a cardinal would want to be happening.

After all, once the good people at the Palazzo Sant’Uffizio start paying attention to something like the Ordinariate and not being amused at the situation, there’s no telling what they might turn their attention to and not be amused by next. To take a hypothetical example, if a bishops’ conference produces statements on important social issues that are such magnificent edifices of opaque guff as to allow some Milo Minderbinder types to run a cottage industry explaining to the media what Their Lordships really mean, that’s something the CDF might not be amused by. If, to take an even more hypothetical example, a bishop were to have unconvential domestics arrangements that were entirely innocent, but sufficiently well known as to be a source of gossip all over his diocese, that hypothetical occurrence is something the CDF might be even less amused by.

That’s the trouble with the Holy Office. Nobody expects it.

Men in hats

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Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, I was just reflecting that, in a very real sense, Saturday’s consistory was quite interesting. And not necessarily in the way most people think.

Okay, we know the basics, which is that a consistory marks a gathering of the College of Cardinals, specifically one where new members are appointed. It’s also the case that the College’s main function is to elect the next Pope, although, Deo volente, that’s a function that won’t be required for some time.

Getting beyond that, we usually get a) attempts to second-guess the next conclave, which is not very illuminating and almost invariably wrong; and b) interpretations based on categories of “liberal” and “conservative”, which aren’t very meaningful in the context of Catholic politics, and certainly not at this level.

So, having said all that, what can we make of the 22 new cardinals who were created on Saturday, 18 of whom are under 80 and therefore electors? One striking point is that, unlike JP2, Pope Benedict has been something of a stickler for protocol. He’s kept the number of electors pretty close to the crucial 120 mark, and red hats have gone out to those major archdioceses and Roman curias that traditionally get them, while some rising stars have had to wait their turn. Nor does this fit with the common narrative of a College being stacked with ultra-conservatives in the image of B16 himself (or rather, the cartoon image of him we’re usually retailed). All of the appointees I can see are entirely mainstream figures – I don’t notice any particularly strong traditionalists, nor do I see any Roger Mahony types from the other end of the spectrum.

The nearest we can see to pure pontifical preference is with the cardinals appointed who are over 80 and therefore don’t have a conclave vote, but are being honoured for past service. Two names jump out at me – the German theologian Karl Becker SJ, who’s been a long-time collaborator with the CDF in doctrinal investigations; and the 86-year-old Prof Prosper Grech, who may be one of the smartest men alive, and quite incredibly is only Malta’s second cardinal in its entire history. There’s also 91-year-old Belgian religious historian Julien Ries, who again is well deserving of the honour.

But when you get down to the 18 electors, yes, it’s very much following traditional allocations. We see, for instance, Toronto archbishop Tom Collins, who wasn’t appointed at the 2010 consistory because his predecessor, the late Cardinal Alojzij Ambrožič, was still (just) under 80 at that point. On the other hand, some priorities can be seen. The quick elevation of John Tong Hon of Hong Kong, who’s filling the considerable shoes of Cardinal Zen, reflects the importance the Holy See places on its fraught relationship with China. There’s been a little surprise about a red hat going to Berlin’s Rainer Maria Woelki, who is a mere boy of 55 and has only been an archbishop for seven months, but then he is a protégé of Cologne’s formidable Joachim Meisner and is down with the programme for regenerating the Church in Germany.

There’s also a very minor bending of the rule against having two electors in the one diocese, with the elevation of New York’s Tim Dolan and Václav Havel’s old chum Dominik Duka of Prague, while the sitting cardinals for those cities (Edward Egan and Miloslav Vlk) are still a short way off their eightieth birthday. So the Vatican isn’t entirely unbending when we’re dealing with the popular archbishop of a major city.

I must confess here that I like Dolan a lot. He’s an excellent communicator and unafraid of controversy, at a level of Church politics where waffling bishops are all too common. He took on the thankless task of cleaning up the Milwaukee archdiocese after the debacle that was Rembert Weakland’s long reign. His visitation of Irish seminaries is likely to prove extremely important. His regular-guy persona isn’t a persona at all, but simply how he is – while Cardinal Egan is known as a great connoisseur of Michelin-starred cuisine, Dolan is much more likely to be found watching a baseball game with a beer in one hand and pretzel in the other. And I think it’s immediately refreshing to find a senior churchman who isn’t a dour middle manager promoted beyond his station, but a really joyful and positive character who reminds you that it’s a vocation.

The Americans seem to have a pretty good episcopal crop at the moment. I wish we could import some, or learn what they’re doing right.

Tom Kerry: “If Ever You Surrender Your Right To Criticize, You’re Dead!” (1979)

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Comrades, I take the floor despite my vows not to do so. I’ve had it. I’ve had it up to here. The decision I would have to make would be either to stay home, to stay away from the branch meetings, or to begin to speak and express an opinion. I’ve had some experience in the party, for forty-five years. I’ve even been an industrial worker. Would you believe it! And a nonindustrial worker.

Let me divert. I don’t get this about the industrial worker. What is it about being an industrial worker that endows the individual with qualities which require other individuals years of study? I don’t know. You mean you take some zombie off the street and stick him on a machine and he becomes a teacher? I never heard such nonsense in my life, but let that go. I want to speak of more serious things.

The comrade said there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. And I questioned him on it and he reaffirmed his view, there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. Well, the comrade knows that I’m in opposition. I voted against the political resolution, and I tried to motivate my motion at the time. And I was prepared to let it go at that.

But when you stand up on the floor of this branch and say, well, there are class divisions in this branch, then that’s a declaration of war, whether you know it or not. Because a class division in this branch means that there’s a petty-bourgeois grouping or tendency in this branch and they’ve got to be driven out! You’re not going to drive me out, brother, without a fight! I can tell you I’ve got at least one more good fight in me, I think. I think so.

We had a petty-bourgeois opposition. We had the Shachtmanite petty-bourgeois opposition and we characterized them as such. Because there was a difference on program. A programmatic difference. And we raised the question then: Is it possible that these two tendencies would be compatible, could they coexist in the same party, having such deep-going differences as was present? Answer that question in your mind please.

Is this petty-bourgeois opposition compatible with coexistence in the party with you Marxists? That is the question you’re going to have to answer. I’m going to ask this question of the plenipotentiary from West Street who is here in San Francisco. And I’m going to demand that he answer it before this branch. And if his answer is the same as yours then comrades we’ve got trouble. Oh boy, have we got trouble. Because I for one have had experience enough to know that in a case of this kind you’ve got to begin to organize in order to protect your right to speak! And I’m already beginning to hear objections, objections! to the comrades making criticism. They consider criticism as a sort of personal assault upon the leadership of the party. It’s not so. It’s not a scandal when comrades criticize the executive committee. What they’re saying is we think you’re wrong. What is scandalous about that? Or don’t you think it is possible for them to be wrong? Or is it intended to intimidate the opposition to the leadership? Is that what you intend by your remark about the class division? That anybody who has a difference with the leadership, by virtue of that fact, is in the enemy class. You see, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut.

No! That is not the way we build the party. And you’ll not find that in any of the statutes of the party. You’ll not find that in the organizational principles of the party. You’ll not find it anywhere!

Our party was based upon the Leninist concept that the only possible party that can successfully lead a revolution is a self-thinking, self-acting membership! We don’t have any popes! And the way you talk about Barnes, he is some kind of pope. Every time there is some question he refers to Barnes as though that settles it. Do you even consider that Barnes may be wrong? I mean does it ever cross your mind that Barnes may be wrong? I think so. Oh boy, has he been wrong. But I still think he is a qualified leader of the party, carries out the program of the party, and I support him critically! Critically!

If ever you surrender your right to criticize, you’re dead! This party couldn’t make a revolution on Mission Avenue, let alone in San Francisco, with that kind of a membership. A membership must be self-thinking and self-acting! That means a critical membership. And critical of every official, from Barnes on down, if you please. If you’ve got a criticism of Barnes — voice it! Don’t let anybody stop you! Don’t let anybody intimidate you! I never heard of such a thing. You look back. Look back at our internal bulletins, if you please. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Full of criticism, some of them very violent criticism of the leadership, from Jim Cannon on down. We never attempted to crucify them because they criticized. We said that they were wrong. We argued with them. We discussed with them. We tried to convince them. Some were convinced, some we didn’t succeed in convincing. But I think our method was the best one. Those who were capable of being assimilated were convinced. And we convinced them. Those who weren’t left the party. Some of them went into business for themselves. You see them in front of your forums occasionally here, part of them. OK, but they had their chance to speak. They weren’t suppressed. They weren’t threatened. And they weren’t intimidated. We had free and open discussion.

Let me tell you something. There is a comrade from the Political Committee out here to submit the information that the Political Committee had reversed the decision of the District Committee and of the branch — on what? on two propositions that are appearing on the San Francisco ballot. Big deal. I’m against it. I’m opposed to it. I think it’s wrong. I think it is absolutely wrong. Even if they are right about their criticism. I haven’t even heard their criticism. I don’t give a damn. Even if they are right about their criticism I think it is an incorrect way of developing a leadership in this party! You don’t come down with a goddamn broadaxe on a section of the leadership and the membership of the party when they’ve made some little error or when you think they’ve made some little error. This is an error on, what do you call it, a proposition. The whole goddamn San Francisco electoral machinery is going to be upset if the Socialist Workers Party of San Francisco votes yes or no on proposition Q and Z.

All right. I’ll conclude. I’m against it because it undermines the confidence of the leadership. It destroys their feeling that they are confident of making a little decision like this, you see. It makes them more dependent upon the center. So that after this they won’t make decisions like this, or decisions of any kind, for that matter, without getting on the telephone first and clearing it with Barnes, or whoever happens to be pope at the time.

So it is not the way to build a critical, self-thinking, self-acting membership! It is not the way to build a leadership. Leaders in this party are not selected. They earn their spurs by their activity, by their thinking, by the development of their views and ideas in the course of their activity.

Too much. There’s been too much of this business of sending in organizers from the outside of the branches. In our branches, for example, like the San Francisco branch, we have very qualified people, we have the most qualified people of any organization in this country, in my opinion. And if we can’t select an organizer out of a branch of this size and this character then we’re in a pretty sad state. What is the use? How do you develop leadership? How do you develop leaders? Beginning with taking industrial workers and making teachers out of them. OK, you’ve got one section of the leaders there. Does that exhaust our capacity?

No, comrades, don’t intimidate me. Don’t try to intimidate me and don’t try to hush me up. You’ll be making the worst mistake in your life if you do. I’m going to find out whether there’s a division in this branch, whether there is a class division in this branch, which means a political, programmatic division in this branch, whether there’s a petty-bourgeois tendency in this branch, whether this tendency is compatible with the coexistence in the same party with the “proletarians,” the teachers from the industrial unions.

There’s going to be a fight so you had better gird yourself.

From the archives: The Panel System of Election and Bolshevik Tradition (1945)

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Note: The following document was first published the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Internal Bulletin No. 4 (October 1945). It does have some obvious historical interest but also – and we note this document was recently circulated by Alex Callinicos on Facebook – may serve to clarify certain questions of current interest.

At our recent (1945) National Congress the new Central Committee was elected by a method which has apparently puzzled some comrades. After discussions had taken place between the majority of the old CC and delegates to the Congress holding the minority position, an agreed panel was arrived at for the new CC. This panel – consisting of 13 members of the majority and 2 of the minority – was then introduced to the Congress, and after some discussion, accepted by it, with only one vote in opposition.

A similar method of election had been adopted at the 1944 Fusion Congress and was also used, after the 1945 Congress, for the election of the London District Committee.

Since it would appear that this procedure and the reasons for it are not clear, to a number of comrades, the present statement aims at clarifying the position before our membership.

It must first be made plain that there is no fixed method for electing the leadership of a Bolshevik party. The CC must be elected, of course, at a Congress of the Party and by the delegates of that Congress, but the way the election is carried out depends entirely on circumstances. The history of the Bolshevik Party shows that a number of different methods were used, depending upon both the legal position of the Party, and the political situation inside it.

For instance, at the Second (1903) Congress, for reasons of Party security, there were no open nominations and no open elections for the members of the CC, and the name of only one of those elected was announced to the Congress. Actually voting took place on the basis of rival panels which had been discussed during the Congress at meetings of the two fractions (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), the Bolshevik panel being the one elected.

At the Fourth ‘Unifiying’ Congress (1905) there was a sharp political cleavage between the Menshevik majority and the Bolshevik minority. When it came to the election of the Central Committee, “a vote was taken”, (so the minutes state, “as to whether the election should take place upon the basis of individual nominations, or upon that of panels. It was unanimously decided to vote upon the basis of panels”. Someone then raised the question of whether there should be a secret vote and the chairman replied “Secret voting is incorrect when an election is taking place upon the basis of panels and not of individual delegates (Sharov and Voinov) and accepted by the Congress – 60 votes being cast for it, with 10 against and 24 abstentions. Lenin, in his report of the Congress, afterwards explained what had actually taken place. “The elections took place at the Congress in a few minutes. In actual fact everything had been arranged before the session of the Congress. The Mensheviks filled the five seats on the Editorial board of the central organ with Mensheviks alone. We agreed to put three of our people as against seven Mensheviks on to the Central Committee.” At the Ninth Congress (1920) election of the CC took place in the following manner; “ candidatures proposed for membership of the Central Committee were discussed. Panels of candidates were announced and only those candidatures were discussed against which objections were raised; upon the discussion of candidatures being terminated, voting papers were distributed to the delegates. These voting papers, when completed, were handed over to the commission of 15 which had been elected by the Congress to count the votes.” (From the Report of the Ninth Congress.) It will be observed that people were put forward to the delegates though in the actual vote it would appear that those proposed were voted upon as individuals.

At the Tenth Congress (1921), there were differences between Trotsky and the majority of the old Central Committee on the Trade Union question. There were also more serious differences between both Trotsky and the CC majority on the one hand, and the so-called Workers’ Opposition on the other. The CC majority included Lenin and nine other members of the old CC. As a result the Congress had before it “a panel of candidates proposed to the tenth congress of the RCP by those former members of the CC who signed the platform of the ten, Lenin, Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Tomsky, Rudzutak, Kalinin, Artem, Petrovski, and also by the private meeting of those delegates to Congress who support the same platform.” (Congress report).

This panel contained 23 names (including Trotsky’s). Two places were left open (the CC had 25 members) so that the Workers’ Opposition might nominate two of its members. When it came to the vote those nominated were voted on individually, the number of votes different individuals on the panel received, varying considerably.

It will be seen from the above that nomination for the CC by means of panel, was a general practice in the Bolshevik Party, though the way in which the panel (or panels) was voted on, differed on different occasions. There is a general reason for this method of nomination which holds good even in the event of a politically united party without fractions. At the end of its term of office an out-going Central Committee (or at least its majority) knows exactly how its individual members have fulfilled their functions since election. If any CC members have failed to attend CC meetings regularly or have failed to make any significant contributions to the work or discussions of the CC such facts are obviously far better known to the other CC members than to the Party as a whole, or any other section of it. Likewise if any alternate members of the CC have either failed to fulfil their role adequately or else fulfilled it well enough to justify their being made full members of the CC, – this will be better known to the members of the CC than to the rest of the Party. The CC is also in a good position to judge which Party members, not previously members of the CC, now merit inclusion, either as alternates or full members.

It is therefore good Bolshevik practice, and fully in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism, for the out-going CC to present to the national Congress a panel for the new CC. In the absence of sharp fractional divisions within the Party, such a panel would first be generally discussed at the Congress. It would be introduced by a member of the retiring CC who would give grounds for the dropping of former CC members and the inclusion of new ones. Delegates might then query or challenge the presence of certain comrades on the CC panel; suggestions might be made for the inclusion of comrades omitted by the CC. Possibly some delegates, or even the Congress as a whole, might have some basic disagreement with the proposed panel. Another panel, or other panels would then be moved by delegates.

In the event of no basic disagreements being found with the panel proposed by the out-going CC the Congress then proceeds to vote. The CC panel proposed can be voted upon as a panel – any delegate desiring slight changes being of course at liberty to move an amendment, to remove one or more names from the panel and to replace them by others. Voting then takes place openly. On the other hand voting may take place on the basis of every delegate voting for 15 (if the CC is composed of 15 members) comrades for the CC. This is done as a rule by writing down 15 names on a voting form; the voting forms then being collected and the number of votes for each candidate being counted – the 15 receiving the highest votes being of course those elected. In this case the panel proposed by the former CC and any other panels which have been proposed merely serve as a guide to delegates in their voting but are not voted on as such.

The method to be adopted at any given Congress depends upon practical considerations, and should be decided by the Congress itself after discussion of the panel or panels has taken place. In the event of general agreement being reached the first method – that of voting on the panel as a whole is obviously best as saving unnecessary waste of time. But should there exist considerable differences of opinion as to the composition of the CC without clear-cut political differences being present, then the second method might be considered most satisfactory. In either case, the method of nomination by means of a panel or panels has the important advantage  that the Congress is able to before voting, discuss the future CC as a whole, as the future leadership of the Party. Individual nomination, without panels, render this impossible.

One further point here; the inclusion or otherwise of any comrade on a panel obviously depends to a great extent upon the part he or she has played at the Congress itself. It is therefore necessary that panels put forward should be drawn up in their final form at the Congress itself. Unlike the case of resolutions, therefore, it is not possible or desirable to circulate panels for the CC prior to the Congress amongst the membership.

When sharp fractional divisions exist inside the Party, the necessity for the panel voting system of voting becomes still more obvious. The relative strengths of the opposing fractions will have become obvious during the course of the Congress. Fraction meetings will then take place between the Congress sessions (these latter being suspended if necessary for this purpose) and each fraction will then work out its panel for the CC. Discussions inside a fraction on its nominations for the CC will normally take place on the basis of panels proposed by members of the Fraction, in much the same way as such discussions would take place at Congress without fractions.

When the fractions have each worked out their panels for the CC, meetings normally take place between representatives of the different fractions with the purpose of arriving at an agreed panel if this is possible. If such a joint panel is agreed upon, then it will be proposed to the Congress by the representatives of the fractions concerned. The way in which the Congress then votes will of course depend upon the circumstances, but if the fractions which have presented the joint panel have behind them the overwhelming majority of the Congress it will obviously be best for the agreed panel to be voted upon as a whole. This both saves the time of the Congress and provides a guarantee that the agreement regarding the joint panel will be honoured by those who have concluded it. Delegates who belonged to no fraction would of course retain the right to either move another panel or else to move amendments to the panel proposed by the fractions.

In the event of no agreement being reached between the fractions or if no agreement is reached in which one or more fractions do not participate, that is, if there are more than two fractions at the Congress, which will then vote either upon the panels as a whole (with amendments if such are put forward) or may use these as a guide for voting for individuals. Once again the method adopted will depend upon the circumstances.

It would of course be possible for a fraction which had behind it a majority of the delegates to secure that its panel would be accepted by the Congress, even if such a panel included no representatives of the other fractions, such a course of action would in general be an unwise one, since it would mean that only one viewpoint would get representation on the Party leadership. This in its turn would tend to prevent the fractional differences within the Party being eliminated by joint work, and joint experiences on the Party leadership. For this reason it has been the practice in the Bolshevik movement for a majority fraction to give representation on the CC to any minority, (or minorities) having serious political differences with it. Such representation is in no way a proportional one – ie, it need in no way be in exact relation to the relative strengths of the opposing fractions, but it should be aimed at securing the presence on the CC of the best representatives of the minority (or minorities) a certain number of seats on the CC and leaving it to the minority fraction (or fractions) to nominate its representatives for those seats once their number has been agreed upon.

Guest post: On the historical experiences of IS and SWP with factions

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Note: The following essay has been submitted by an SWP member who would prefer to remain anonymous, and is intended to shed some historical light on questions of current interest.

In his essay On Party Democracy John Molyneux correctly remarked that the formation of factions in democratic centralist parties and organisations like ours is part and parcel of our tradition. He also made clear that he is uncertain as to whether they are an appropriate part of party democracy today. This essay argues that in most conceivable circumstances they are not only conceivable as an important mechanism by which the party can function democratically but are a necessary part of that democracy. Although it must also be clear that in arguing for the right to form factions we are not arguing that comrades ought to form them as it is also clear from examining the record that they often come with a cost. We need then to examine the record and indicate ways and means by which factions can enhance party democracy and any damage they might cause can be limited. Such an enterprise must also indicate the rights and duties of both the membership and the central leadership of the party with regard to its democratic functioning.

There can be no doubt that we have entered a new period of class struggles that offers our party the chance to build deeper roots within the working classes. That the comrades are determined to make the best of opportunities presented to them cannot be doubted. Similarly there is a renewed determination within our party to develop our understanding of the world, through the deepening of Marxism as a critical theory, and thereby enable our class to exchange capitalist ‘reality’ for communist utopia. But there is considerable questioning within the organisation as to what this means especially in light of what is seen by many comrades as a top down approach on the part of the leadership.

The question then arises as to what party democrats need to do in order to reform the group. This is not an easy question to answer but the preferred option of the leadership to deepen the education of members, while a positive step forward, will not suffice in the least. Certainly it is important for comrades to have an understanding of the history and traditions of our movement. In fact it is vital that such knowledge, at least at a basic level, is in the possession of every comrade but far more important is the ability to think like a Marxist that is to say to think critically. And perhaps it is true that education programmes will help enable comrades to learn to think in this manner especially in conjunction with events like the annual Marxism school. But even if every single comrade in the group becomes an expert in Marxian theory and revolutionary history this will not change anything other than the verbosity of contributions at meetings.

The problem in the SWP is not to be located in specific organisational structures, although these may or may not be appropriate for the period we are passing through, but was correctly identified by Harman as a problem of the party’s culture. The top down approach that characterised the group for many long years, especially during the period when John Rees seemed to be first among equals, is only one aspect of this culture if the most obvious one. More importantly it also coloured and continues to colour the manner by way of which the groups militants relate to allies on the left. If a certain degree of sectism was a product of the Downturn years then such attitudes need to be jettisoned in the changed and far more positive circumstances of today.

It is however all too easy to blame individual leaders for the poor culture long prevalent in the group. Events since the departure of John Rees have however shown that not even he can be held to be the sole cause of the rot which set in long before he was elevated to the CC. Rather than seek to discover which individuals are responsible for the groups damaged culture we need to ask what were the objective factors, far more powerful than the role of individuals after all, which shaped that culture. The answer that it was the Downturn simply will not suffice albeit it is correct in essence. We need to take a short look at the group’s history.

When it was founded in 1950 the then Socialist Review Group was a tiny organisation which worked within the Labour Party, Trades Unions and later through the NCLC. For ten years it experienced very little growth but was able to maintain a public press of a remarkably high standard indicating the high level of Marxist culture within the group. But this high level of Marxist culture also indicates that the group was surrounded by and immersed in the labour movement of the day which was deformed in many ways by Stalinism but was far larger and more active than anything any but the oldest members of the SWP have ever known. Having to defend their oft heretical views against a reformism that still had adherents numbering tens of thousands, a left reformism deformed by Stalinism and last and least against various orthodox (sic) Trotskyist sects meant that members of the SRG simply had to know their stuff.

The slow growth of the group between 1958 and 1968 saw many of the same conditions working on comrades of what was by now IS. Given the internecine conflicts in the Young Socialists the necessity of being able to hold ones own in debate was even more important than previously as things began to heat up slowly in industry. In fact it was the industrial orientation of IS that marked it out as being different from other entrist groups and enabled it to begin to recruit cadre drawn from heavy industry and engineering. As much as for comrades in the YS it was vital that comrades in industry knew their stuff given the importance of the CPGB and the rising, if very sectional, shop stewards movement.

1968 saw IS move to a Democratic Centralist form of organisation and that year saw a multitude of factions appear and, once they were of the opinion that they were no longer beneficial to IS, dissolve. With one exception but I’ll return to that later. It would appear that functioning with a veritable plethora of factions did not inhibit the growth of IS and indeed might possibly have aided that growth. It is certainly the case that they helped to crystallise debate within IS in a fashion that was usually, if not always, positive. IS was to continue with the same liberal regime until December 1971 with no discernable problems arising from the right to form factions. Although as nobody saw fit to form a faction that is hardly surprising.

However there was a ‘faction’ working within IS from 1968 to late 1971 but its character was not that of a faction but rather that of a parasitic sect. This was, as is well known, the Matgamna group which operated under the name of the Trotskyist Tendency (sic) while in IS. Details of its politics and exploits can be found here, here and here as, in the last document linked to, can be found an explanation as to the fundamental character of a faction. Unlike earlier factions the Trotskyist tendency did inhibit the proper functioning of IS at a time of great opportunities. As evidence against the possibility of factions being a positive feature of party life the experience with the Matgamna sect must be heavily discounted.

The leadership of IS appears to have been badly burnt by their experience with Matgamna and from this point on limits were set on the formation of factions. This was contrary to both the previous practice of the revolutionary movement, the practice of IS itself and the declared principles of the leadership. On this see Towards A Revolutionary Party in which Duncan Hallas declared that:

“Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

Sadly these words would be forgotten by all concerned between 1971 and 1975 at which point the leadership itself split into warring tendencies. In the years between the leadership of IS operated a liberal regime but the rule that factions could only function during the pre-Conference period was rigidly enforced as was demonstrated in the case of the Left Faction, forerunners of today’s Workers Power and Permanent Revolution grouplets, which had to dissolve itself after Conference only to reform exactly one year later. One might argue that as the comrades concerned continued to discuss amongst themselves and clearly had a commonality of ideas that their faction never really dissolved. It follows then that the rule forbidding factions outside the pre-Conference period was clearly a dead letter and unenforceable as such. And to be fair to the LF comrades they did obey the rules of IS.

Other factions within IS were not as honest as the LF as can be seen in the example of the Right Opposition (they only described themselves as the Revolutionary Opposition in a document produced after the expulsion of their leaders). Like many others in the IS of the early 1970s this grouping was entranced by the writings of Trotsky, many then appearing in English for the first time, and believed that they were original and fresh thinkers. As such they were happy to set out their wares in long and frequent contributions to the Internal Bulletins then produced on a monthly basis. Obviously operating as a more or less coherent group it was also well known that they met and took political counsel from a non-member of the group – an obvious breach of discipline. Worse, branches containing supporters of the Right Opposition became little more than talking shops and failed to intervene in struggles or recruit. Clearly this was exactly the kind of faction, declared or not being beside the point, that no leadership can tolerate and their leading elements were rightly expelled. As a sequel to this episode the erstwhile Right Opposition immediately disintegrated into three distinct tendencies with almost nothing in common, a tale told by John Sullivan in his essay on The Discussion Group

What needs to be pointed out about both of the tendencies mentioned above is that they were treated with kid gloves by the leadership. In the case of the RO they were granted the right to publish a long series of tedious documents in the internal bulletins and members of the leadership devoted many pages to refuting their crap. If anything the LF were treated even better with their leading spokesmen contributing at least one article to the ISJ. Such leniency was, without any doubt, the correct course to follow given that many of the concerns expressed by the LF and RO were to some degree of concern to wider sections of IS. For example it is clear from reading the IBs of the period and talking with comrades then active that many comrades, otherwise unsympathetic to either the LF or RO, were sympathetic to the idea of IS developing a fully fledged programme based on the idea of transitional demands. Something that IS, as a whole, did commit to but never completed with the result that this is still an open question in the IS Tradition today. See for example Alex Callinicos in his The Politics of Austerity.

Between 1968 and 1975 IS had operated on the basis of a set of perspectives and a primary orientation towards the shop stewards movement that had been developed in the earlier period and was further elaborated as events demanded. The entire organisation was united behind these politics, with the exception of the Matgamna sect and later the RO, which meant that when the established leadership within its own ranks developed serious differences a major crisis erupted. Details of the political nature of that dispute need not concern us here, comrades who wish for more information are urged to read Ian Birchall’s recent biography of Tony Cliff and Jim Higgins’ little book More Years for the Locust, what is of importance is how the dispute was handled within the group.

What is most striking is that the dispute, initially confined to the Executive Committee, found no reflection in the then regular Internal Bulletins and that even active London based comrades often knew nothing of the dispute. When Duncan Hallas saw fit to initiate an opposition to the emerging majority around Tony Cliff it came as a shock to most of the organisation. Or rather it would have done had not Hallas already switched sides in the dispute only to emerge as the major polemicist for the majority against the newly formed IS Opposition. Ordered, as the constitution of the group dictated, to disband after the 1975 IS Conference the ISO refused and found its leading figures expelled in short order. A bitter factional struggle had turned into a lack of tolerance that cost the group a section of its leadership, a number of intellectuals and a layer of established trades unionists. The damage was deep and severe.

The IS Opposition was the last substantial faction within IS, although the following year saw the appearance of Fred, the Faction for Revolutionary Democracy which echoed the views of the ISO,  albeit internal debate remained healthy, through the medium of the Internal Bulletin, for some years. But even this would die down after Steve Jefferys left the party at roughly the same time as various elements nostalgic for a then inappropriate rank and fileism. For those interested in sectarian exotica it was at this time that the Revolutionary Democratic Group appeared, billing itself as an external faction of the SWP despite having next to nothing in common with the IS Tradition. Sad to say though its bulletins were widely distributed at Marxism and other party events they were sometimes the only way, this was before the internet, comrades had of learning of some developments in the organisation.

What can be observed from the above narrative is not the simply linear development of a small Marxist propaganda group and its entry into crisis when its leadership fell out. Rather we need to understand that the development and degeneration of IS involved a shifting series of relationships within the working classes. In the first instance we can observe the development of a body of theory by a small group of revolutionaries who would become the leadership of IS throughout the glory years of 1968-1975. But at all times this developing group was informed by its relationship to the class as a whole as mediated by the growing organisation itself. We can also identify a growing cadre seeking to relate to the most advanced sections of the class and, in a functional sense, to the theory that informed their activity as embodied in the organisations leadership.

The development of factional and tendency strains within a revolutionary organisation cannot but reflect the tensions between various layers within the class and the efforts of revolutionaries to relate to them. This is more easily observable and truer of mass based organisations than it is of small propaganda groups with a limited ability to undertake direct agitational work. For example it is easy to observe the growth of a bureaucratic syndicalist current in the Russian Workers’ State as reflected in the misnamed Workers Opposition of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). And again in the small revolutionary movement in Britain it is clear that the tiny Socialist Labour Party, for which see Ray Challinor’s The Origin of British Bolshevism, reflected the revolutionary syndicalist mood of the shop stewards in Glasgow and Sheffield immediately after the First Imperialist World War.

Similar tensions also had and continue to have an echo in IS and the SWP. It is the task of the leadership to ensure that such tensions do not disrupt the revolutionary organisation enabling positive developments to be generalized while limiting the influence of negative developments. This will normally be done through the process of education and polemic but the apparatus of the group will also be used by any leadership to nurture this development. Or so one might hope, but Marxist wisdom is not and cannot be confined to even the most far-sighted Central Committee and the possibility arises that comrades will have insights and arguments that the CC cannot recognise. Or comrades will simply disagree with the CC position. In such circumstances, reflecting very often the influence of the different experiences of the comrades, the question arises as to how the group as a whole can reach agreement on the course of action to be followed by the entire group.

It is at this point that a healthy party culture and democratic forms become vital for the development of the group. For example if the revolutionary organisation has a number of comrades in senior trades union positions, who seem under pressure from their cohorts to sell a bad deal to the union members, it is vital that these comrades are supervised and disciplined by party fractions in the relevant unions and by their local party branch. In this scenario it is the task of the leading committees of the party, the NC and CC, to ensure that the fraction and branch do in fact carry out their tasks of supervision and discipline. We have seen, within the last few years, to our cost what happens when these duties of supervision and discipline cannot function due to the disbandment of the relevant party organisations. To its credit the current leadership has acted to ensure that such disasters cannot be repeated.

The branches and fractions can however only act to supervise and discipline members who belong to them and are not able to deal with groups or layers of comrades, who being subject to various pressures, seek to express more or less common opinions on various aspects of the group’s activity. In fact should such a tendency develop then the current structures of the party and the comrades holding responsible positions in those structures, (we are thinking here of the branch, district and fraction committees along with the NC and CC) cannot but regard any tendency holding views that differ from theirs as an obstacle to the functioning of the group.

Such an attitude on the part of a leadership is entirely understandable because the law of factions is that they are an obstacle to the carrying through of an agreed upon political line. And yet, from time to time, they are the only way the membership or a part of the leadership has of correcting a political line that is wrong or in part wrong. Or at least is perceived by a section of the party as being wrong. We may take an example from the history of the Bolsheviks to illustrate this. In our first case the Left Communist faction, associated with comrades such as Bukharin, opposed the line put forward by Lenin going to so far as to accuse him of betraying the word revolution (!) operated publicly, they even published a daily paper of their own, and at the same time implemented the line they fought to change. The point here is that both sides in the debate remained loyal to the party programme and their understanding of Democratic Centralism.

The episode related above illustrates that even at the very point of crisis the Bolsheviks were a democratic party willing to make concessions to dissident tendencies within their ranks. There was moreover no question as to the right of such dissidents to organise themselves as a formal faction and fight to change the line of the party as a whole. Even if such an internal party struggle inhibited the functioning of the party in the midst of a crisis situation. Yet the disruption to the party was minimized by the very existence of the Left Communist faction precisely because it enabled the debate in the party’s ranks to be carried out in the appropriate channels and thereby minimized disruption.

In all of the episodes related above, whether they be episodes from the history of IS/SWP or from the history of Bolshevism, it is clear that the various factions, including that of the leadership, have to a greater or lesser degree reflected pressures and influences arising from different sections of the working class or other classes. Politics then must be put in command and the membership of the party must decide the organisation’s political line and have the right to correct it if that becomes necessary. Which has not been the case within the SWP in the years following the transformation of IS into the SWP. What has developed is an organisation that knows one permanent faction and denies the rights of the membership to struggle to change either that leadership or its political line.

The above can be seen all too clearly in the manner by which the organisation was led during the period when John Rees was a leading member. At this point I should note that the personality of Rees is of no importance as the entire leadership followed and argued for a political line which I assume was authored by Rees and his closest allies. What cannot be denied is that at the time of the turn to building Respect, ludicrously described as a United Front sui generis, many comrades had serious doubts which led to them abstaining from joining or building that formation in any way. But the leadership commanded that such was the political line to be followed and not one comrade challenged them publicly although a lot of grumbling took place in pubs the length and breadth of the country. Whether or not the Respect line was wrong was it not a disgrace that not one comrade felt able to challenge the leadership on it?

Was it any surprise then that when the party changed course, due to the entirely predictable betrayal of its erstwhile ally George Galloway, that not only were a small number of comrades lost to the sub-reformism of Respect (Galloway) but a line that had obviously failed was continued in the form of the Left Alternative. And worse, was it a surprise that differences within the leadership remained opaque, concealed from the membership to the point that it took some considerable time before the ranks of the party were aware that the Rees minority had considerable differences with the majority of the CC. Although even when the Rees minority briefly surfaced as a formally constituted faction – there is no question they had functioned as such for much longer – there was little on the face of it to differentiate their politics from that of the CC majority.

Many comrades have argued that Rees stood for Rees and nothing else. This is a nonsense that demonizes the man and prevents a proper discussion of the political issues at stake. And the political issues are not to be confined to the group’s political line but also concern organizational questions too including the question of internal democracy. For revolutionists questions of organisation are of the utmost political importance whether it be when to form workers councils or internal democracy within the revolutionary party. Which is why the Democracy Commission was such a damp squib as it began a discussion and just as swiftly ended it before any answers had been arrived at and separated question of democracy and politics in a typically Zinovievite manner. A manner John Rees might have been proud of in fact.

So inconclusive was the Democracy Commission and so little did it change as to the groups internal functioning that the resignation of a faction around Chris Bambery was a shock only in the sense that it had not already happened. What disappointed many comrades was that he had been allowed to pursue his factional activities under cover of his responsibility as a member of the CC for the party in Scotland. And this despite a leadership that had placed a renewed stress on the need for active functioning branches and was arguing for the need for systematic cadre education in order to raise the cultural level of the party.

But an abstract knowledge of Marxism and labour history will not remedy the problems the party faces. Though it will help equip comrades for the struggle and must be encouraged. It cannot remedy our problems because many of them relate to the decline in class consciousness throughout far wider layers of the working class as a result of the Downturn. In this context we can note that when the SRG was formed in 1950 many workers had illusions that the Labour Party would bring about socialism, the unions had emerged from the war with new millions of members and the Stalinist party too counted its supporters in the tens of thousands. There was then a fierce contest within the working class for the allegiance of both its vanguard and the class as a whole. The result was a class that in its mass had achieved a considerable consciousness of itself as a class even if it lacked the awareness of the measures that needed to be taken to move towards socialism. Similarly during the upturn of the early 1970s our comrades had to compete in a field in which the Labour Left, the declining but still powerful CPGB and vaguer syndicalist ideas were far more influential than the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Class consciousness in the class as a whole and particularly within its advanced sections was in comparison to today at an historical high. All of this had a profound influence on both the theories produced by SRG/IS and on the democratic forms the organisation adopted.

The reverse is also true with regard to the Downturn and its effects on the SWP. Chris Harman initiated a discussion in the ISJ, in his essay Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, as to the crisis of the revolutionary left in Europe. Although he did not suggest the SWP was unaffected he implicitly contrasted the collapse of many groups to the relative success of the SWP in maintaining both its toehold in the working class and its membership base. He was correct and prescient enough to identify a trend nearer its beginning than its end and that crisis was deepened by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, wrongly identified by so many as forms of socialism, and the neo-liberal offensive. What he did not, could not, identify was the effects an enforced isolation from the working class would have on the SWP itself. And indeed had the group been able to maintain to a greater degree its contacts with the class given the low level of struggle it is by no means impossible that it would not have been more susceptible to that crisis that destroyed so many other once promising groups. On the reverse side of the coin I suspect that a healthier party regime would have made it easier to hold the line without relapsing into sectism.

This writer is of the opinion that the party culture and forms of internal democracy within IS from 1971 to 1976 were generally of a positive nature. There were though a number of problems that are relevant to today. There can be no doubt that in general the internal culture of IS was healthy but there was a political distance between the leadership and most of the membership that deepened after 1971. This was expressed in a tendency on the part of the leadership towards impatience with the membership, with the result that rather than argue for a change in tactical orientation by the group, they fell into the trap of instructing the members to make whatever turn it was that was felt to be needed at the time. Comrades, particularly those who formed themselves into factions, who displayed reluctance to make any given turn became barriers to be removed. A feature of party life that many would argue is still firmly in place today.

In part the distance, in terms of decision making, that opened up between the leadership of professional revolutionaries at the centre and the membership spread throughout the country was a result of structures that only inadequately articulated the decision making process within the group. This was often expressed in the failure of the National Committee to be a real decision making body between the conferences of the group. It is striking that even today similar concerns are expressed with regard to the relationship between the NC and the CC. It is my contention that this arises as both are elected directly by the conference but the larger body has no right of supervision over the smaller CC which therefore is able to monopolise political direction of the party.

Another negative feature of party life is the total lack of a space in which criticisms of the political line of the organisation can be raised internally. Rather than being able to articulate their views in a regularly published Internal Bulletin comrades are often reduced to grumbling in corners after branch meetings with the result that they become seen as conservative elements or worse. Indeed the raising of questions at branch meetings is often frowned on by a section of the comrades who would appear to see any kind of questioning as disloyalty to the organisation and its politics. This attitude is as much a result of the training comrades have received and can be painlessly changed for the better.

What then needs to be done to make our party more democratic in order that it can more sensitively respond to an ever changing class struggle and make it more attractive to a rising generation repelled by mainstream politics parties, especially those of the left, which are not democratically controlled by their members? Most importantly we need to discuss the nature of the problems that many comrades are raising and in this way change the internal culture of the party into one that is tolerant and inclusive of those who question. There has never been a better time for such an enterprise given that the spirit of democracy has swept the globe in 2011 and not far beneath the surface has been the spectre of workers democracy waiting only to be made explicit and here in Britain that is exactly the process that N30 began. It is our task to seek to become of the developing forces that seek to progress beyond bourgeois society and we are best able to do so if we too possess an organisation that is democratically centralized and eschews commandism.

Apropos of absolutely nothing at all

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Shattered Glass (Dir: Billy Ray, 2003)

“After all, we are in the entertainment business.” Rupert Murdoch, after the exposure of the Hitler Diaries forgery.

I blame Konrad Kujau and Robert Harris. Actually, probably Orson Welles too, having been bowled over by his classic, and criminally overlooked, F For Fake. But anyway, as some of you will remember, Konrad Kujau was the ebullient forger behind the 1983 Hitler Diaries scandal which led to some of the world’s biggest news organisations handing over huge sums of money for sixty-odd volumes of fake Führer diaries. More than that, what Harris did in his book Selling Hitler was something that genuinely impressed me – a work of straight journalism that reads like a roller-coaster thriller, just because the story it’s telling is so bizarre.

This is what’s probably sparked a long-term interest in forgers and con artists. But as it happens, the most interesting thing about the Hitler Diaries scandal is not the personality of Kujau himself – the elusive “Dr Fischer” seems to have been a charming chancer on the make – but the circumstances, the processes, that allowed the scandal to reach the point it did. Firstly, when he started out selling fake Hitler paintings, he was aided by the fact that collecting Nazi memorabilia was (and is) illegal in Germany, leading to a secretive and tightly-knit fraternity of collectors, many of them Nazi veterans, who were unlikely to go to the feds if they suspected a forgery. Gain the trust of this shadowy world, and you had it made.

Kujau should have come a cropper when he moved on to dealing with the press, but didn’t. In the first place, because Gerd Heidemann was a desperate man – a reporter in financial difficulties with his career on the slide, who couldn’t pass up the chance of the scoop of a lifetime. When we come to the news organisations – Stern in the first instance, but also the Sunday Times, Newsweek etc – greed blinded them. The scoop, if true, was incredibly lucrative; the desire to keep a lid on leaks meant there wasn’t proper forensic analysis; above all, these experienced editors and executives allowed themselves to be duped because they wanted to be duped. They so badly wanted the diaries to be real that they didn’t do the necessary checks. It was a pretty unedifying affair all round. Kujau, at least, had the excuse of being a crook.

So, anyway. That wasn’t the first time the esteemed profession of journalism had fallen prey to a clever hoaxer, and it wouldn’t be the last. Which leads me to this film. He isn’t as well known on this side of the pond, but in the list of American journalistic scandals, in between Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair there came Stephen Glass. Who in a way is one of the most fascinating con artists of them all, and this is the story that Billy Ray expertly tells us.

We are introduced to Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a 25-year-old rising star at venerable DC political magazine The New Republic. He seems like a nice chap. He goes around being nice to people in the office, helping out colleagues with their stories, generally being warm, witty and charming. Oh yes, and his pitches in story conferences are wonderfully entertaining. He turns in these brilliant, vivid articles that make other TNR writers feel like dull plodders by comparison. Not only is he a main feature writer on TNR, the precocious Glass is also getting high-profile articles in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, George, and, we are led to believe, is beating off job offers with a stick. He’s the American Dream.

Then, about half an hour into the movie, it all goes to pot.

Where it all goes to pot is when TNR runs a typically vivid Glass piece about computer hackers. Specifically, 15-year-old hacker Ian Restil, who had hacked the website of major California software company Jukt Micronics, only for Jukt to hire him at an extortionate sum to run their security. Great story, right? Yes, until Forbes tech writer Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) gets asked by his editor how he could possibly have missed it. Penenberg tries to follow up Glass’s scoop, and… oh what the hell, I’ll let the real-life Penenberg speak for himself:

Our first step was to plug Jukt Micronics into a bunch of search engines. We found no web site, odd for a “big-time software firm.” Our next step was to contact the Software Publishers Association of America. Nothing. Next on our list was the California Franchise Tax Board. An official from the Tax Board confirmed that Jukt Micronics had never paid any taxes. Further investigations revealed that Jukt Micronics, if it existed at all, was not listed under any of California’s 15 area codes. Sarah Gilmer from the office of the California Secretary of State said there was no record of the company, “as a corporation, a limited liability or limited partnership.” 

A search of Lexis-Nexis’ extensive database turned up only one reference to Jukt Micronics: Glass’s New Republic story…

Next on our checklist was the official-sounding “Center for Interstate Online Investigations,” supposedly a joint police project in 18 states, and the “Computer Security Center,” a supposed advocacy group. Both organizations had inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic names, but officials at the Justice Department, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Department and police departments in California and New Hampshire (both aggressive cybercrime fighters) had never heard of these organizations. 

Wait. There’s more. 

Glass also cited an organization called the “National Assembly of Hackers,” which he claimed had sponsored a recent hacker conference in Bethesda, Md. Surely this was real. But no. Despite our best efforts, we could not unearth a single hacker who had even heard of this outfit, let alone attended the conference. 

Glass reported that 21 states were considering versions of the “Uniform Computer Security Act,” which would “criminalize immunity deals between hackers and companies.” Again, law enforcement officials were unaware of any such law, and the National Conference of Commissions on Uniform State Laws, based in Chicago, reported no knowledge of it. 

In short, nothing in the story could be verified. Even Jukt Micronics’ phone number turned out to be a cell phone.

Ouch! To summarise, Glass’ “Hack Heaven” piece for TNR was a sham from start to finish. Of course, this was just grist to the mill of those low-down online journalists at Forbes, especially given that TNR was just about the snootiest, most highfalutin journalistic outlet in the United States. The British equivalent, I suppose, would be a particularly waggy-fingered columnist on the Independent being caught out making stuff up.

At this point, the Forbes journalists approach Glass’ TNR editor Chuck Lane (master of understated acting Peter Sarsgaard) with their evidence that Glass’ story doesn’t check out. This is where the film does a nice little switch of mood. Up until now, Glass has been a fairly sympathetic protagonist, while Lane seems a little dull by comparison, even a little jealous of Glass’ flair and popularity. However, as we move into Lane investigating Glass, that all gets turned on its head, as we see Lane stepping into the role of an honest editor slowly discovering that his star writer is a pathological liar. There’s also some nice ambiguity here – Billy Ray’s direction gives a slightly brighter, more colourful look to scenes that are taking place entirely in Glass’ imagination, but it’s quite subtle, and often leaves us wondering what’s real and what’s false.

Our view of Glass also changes quite dramatically. When he’s initially found out, he has a window where he could come clean, apologise and salvage a bit of dignity. But he doesn’t. Any admissions have to be wrung out of him like blood from a stone, and even then he’s working on cover-ups. He lies and whines and wheedles and lies again. He lobbies friends and colleagues ferociously. He quite shamelessly plays on office politics, centred around staff resentment at Lane replacing revered former editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria, in a rare straight role). At one point, he even issues a not very thinly veiled suicide threat. Eventually he forfeits whatever sympathy we might have felt for him at the outset.

The reason for this, as becomes clear, is that “Hack Heaven” was the tip of a very large iceberg. When that one piece turns out to be a hoax, Lane goes through the Glass back catalogue and finds a whole raft of stories that, in this new context, suddenly look very dodgy indeed. We also feel Lane’s frustration in having to talk to colleagues who can’t see what Glass has done that’s so wrong, because they don’t know the detail. Not knowing the scale of the deception, they still assume that he’s basically a good kid who messed up once or twice. The way out of this – well, after summarily firing Glass – is to run a fact-checking exercise on all his TNR articles. This is what finally brings the magazine’s staff around to a sense of what exactly has gone wrong, something so seriously wrong that their personal liking for Glass can’t excuse it. As Lane says, “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact… because we found him entertaining.”

That’s the basic drama, and it’s a good one. But it’s also well worth listening to the DVD commentary from writer/director Billy Ray and former TNR editor Charles Lane, who fill in a lot of the background.

So, the TNR investigation determined that, out of 41 Glass articles the magazine had run, 27 were either wholly or partially fabricated. Some interwove fact and fiction, some were made up in their entirety. Which, as Lane reminds us, is not to say that the other 14 can be assumed to be clean – it’s just that TNR couldn’t prove them to be false. Glass himself didn’t come clean about what exactly he had falsified. This is quite a catalogue of misdeeds, and you can get a sense of it here.

There are two interlinked questions arising from this. One is why Glass did what he did, and the other is why it took so long to catch him.

As for motivation, to say Glass was a fantasist is only half the story. If we take his word for it (and there’s no reason we should, but it makes sense) he made things up because real life wasn’t vivid enough for the articles he wanted to write. He wanted every article to be brilliant, and would draft articles that weren’t quite brilliant enough – he was missing a killer quote or a telling bit of colour. So he started “improving” quotes, and before you know it he was inventing stories out of whole cloth.

But there’s certainly more to it than that. Glass was clearly highly intelligent, had risen very quickly in journalism straight out of college, was a talented writer and there is no question that he was capable of doing straight journalism if he wanted to. The sheer amount of industry that went into his fabrications could have been used researching real stories. We can’t just put this down to a young reporter with a punishing workload – it’s a question of character.

The other question is that of TNR’s processes. Michael Kelly had come to TNR from The New Yorker, and had brought with him that magazine’s fearsome tradition of fact-checking. This should have caught out a fabulist at an early stage. But it didn’t. Why?

Partly, I suppose, it was a question of resources. Few publications have the resources of The New Yorker. In the case of TNR, that meant three underpaid and severely overworked young fact-checkers trying to go through the whole magazine’s content on a weekly basis. Moreover, Glass himself had been a fact-checker, and was notoriously pernickety about other people’s articles. He knew exactly how to game the system.

This is the really impressive bit of Glass’ fakery, the lies that stood behind the lies. He had notes to back up everything. He had fake emails, fake faxes, fake voicemails, fake business cards, in the “Hack Heaven” case a fake hackers’ newsletter and fake Jukt Micronics website. He had fake diagrams of the seating arrangements at non-existent meetings between non-existent people. He would even – and this is depicted early on in the film – drop in deliberate mistakes for the fact-checkers to catch, for which he would apologise profusely, knowing that this would cover for much bigger porkies that would then be let through.

He was helped, too, that few people complained about being misrepresented in his articles. To some extent, that’s because many of the people in his articles didn’t exist. Even when they did – see his “Spring Breakdown” piece about young conservatives running amok at a political conference – it was easy to dismiss complaints on the grounds of “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Michael Kelly was a great editor for backing up his hacks, and Glass shamelessly abused that trust.

And, in the end, it did come down to trust. As Lane points out, the fact-checking process is not a fraud-checking process. It does assume that the journalist, however prone to factual errors, is basically honest. It isn’t sufficient by itself to deal with a very clever sociopath who knows exactly how to exploit the weaknesses of both the system and the human beings around him.

All this, of course, is in the wacky world of American journalism. It’s difficult to imagine something similar happening in Britain.

So, what of Stephen Glass? Well, he won’t work in journalism again. Some years ago he published a novel, The Fabulist, about a reporter called “Stephen Glass” with a penchant for making up stories. He’s also qualified as a lawyer, though he’s having trouble being admitted to the bar due to ethics considerations. But while I hope he does find another career, in journalism he’ll long be remembered as a cautionary tale.

Finally, there are a lot of young kids who have a crusading image of journalism based on watching All The President’s Men. That’s a great film to be sure, but as a corrective, any young person entering journalism should also watch Ace In The Hole and Shattered Glass. By way of keeping their feet on the ground.

A paperboy’s tale

Image

Paperboy by Tony Macaulay (Y Books, 2011)

See me? See this book? This book is deadly crack, so it is.

At which point you, the reader, will be asking for why it is deadly crack. The thing is, if you look back at that category of books one could class as “Troubles memoirs”, they do tend to be unremittingly grim. So it’s with immense joy that we come across a memoir of 1970s Belfast that wouldn’t easily fit into WH Smith’s “Tragic Life Stories” section. Indeed, one that’s pure brilliant at bringing out the dark humour of our city.

To do this takes a child’s perspective. And in 1975, Tony Macaulay was not a paramilitary or a cop or a peace activist. He was a 12-year-old boy who had just managed to get his foot on the employment ladder with a paper round in the Upper Shankill. So what we get is the next couple of years from the viewpoint of a very observant paperboy. The worm’s eye view, if you like, and it’s the best one possible for bringing the atmosphere of the place and time to life.

When I say “atmosphere”, though, I mean that quite literally. There are the sights – the massive greyness of Belfast’s old Victorian buildings, the neat working-class estates, the parallel trousers and platform shoes on the city’s youth, Doctor Who and John Craven’s Newsround on the telly. There are the sounds – the blast of a flute, the roar of a helicopter overhead, the muffled thump of a bomb in the distance, the Bay City Rollers, Big T on Downtown Radio. And there are even the smells – of Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps, Brut aftershave, the vinegar from a thousand pastie suppers, the unmistakeable aroma of a burning double-decker bus. All this is here. For Belfast people, it’s a bit like stepping into your own little TARDIS.

The language helps, too. Even if you didn’t know Tony Macaulay from his regular appearances on Radio Ulster/Raidió Uladh, you’d be impressed by his fine command of the vernacular. Paperboy is a book that’s so Belfast, it demands to be read with an accent. I personally can’t resist any memoir that frequently employs the word “boke”, and displays correct usage of the pronoun “yousens”. (Note to linguists: “yousens” means “you and the friends/family belonging to you”. I believe there’s a similar pronominal lexeme in Fijian.)

So anyway, young Tony gets his paper round. Forty-eight Belfast Telegraphs six evenings a week, and sixteen Ulsters on a Saturday. This is what gives him the opportunity to observe all human life as it passes by. Not least, of course, Tony’s family: the father doing endless DIY with stuff he’s borrowed from the foundry, the mother sewing dresses for swanky women up the Malone Road, the older brother who shoots down Tony’s wilder ambitions with the injunction to “wise a bap, wee lad”, and who torments him mercilessly after an unfortunate incident involving Brut aftershave.

Because, no matter about his working-class background, Tony is an ambitious kid. He persists with learning the guitar in spite of all the evidence that he’ll never master it, and learns the violin as well. He is a most conscientious paperboy, getting great satisfaction (as well as tips) from serving his customers well. He wants the kids from the Westy Disco to have the best float in the Lord Mayor’s show. Most of all, he wants to impress Sharon Burgess.

Politics, in the macro sense, doesn’t really impinge. That’s an adult affair, the province of cross baldy men having interminable arguments on Scene Around Six, or the Rev Ian Paisley guldering into a microphone down by City Hall. On a micro level it does, often in the form of sideburned loyalists with a penchant for Elvis records who would shut down the power supply to keep Ulster British. Class is here, especially since Tony is a rare Shankill kid who takes and passes the Eleven Plus, gaining a grammar school place that on the Shankill opens him up to the suspicion of being a big fruit, whilst still having to avoid admitting to his classmates that he actually is from the Shankill. (Yes, and the distinction between the more respectable Upper Shankill and the rowdier Lower Shankill, something that’s missed outside of West Belfast.) Religion, too, is here, with Tony having got saved at the age of eight in a Millisle caravan park (largely, I suspect, because there isn’t much else to do in Millisle but get saved) and thereafter being known as “that wee good livin’ boy”.

And, of course, the Bay City Rollers, a running theme here, climaxing in the Rollers’ infamous Ulster Hall gig, where the balcony nearly collapsed and the boisterous behaviour of the audience led to lots and lots of cross baldy men in the Belfast Telegraph opining about how these cheeky wee hallions were giving our city a bad name.

And with all this, a questioning nature that leads young Tony to wonder what folks are like on the other side of the Peace Wall (remember that while the Berlin Wall would last forever, the Belfast walls were just temporary):

I was curious as to what they were really like over there. I had so many questions. Did they learn at their church too that we were all going to Hell? Did they want to put us all on the Larne-Stranraer ferry back to Scotland? Did they really believe we were all rich? Were their paramilitaries full of wee hard men that liked to boss everyone around, like ours were?

Questioning, as we know, is the beginning of wisdom. There’s a great humanism, in the real sense of the word, running through Paperboy. But I won’t lie. It’s the humour and the observation and the language and the nostalgia that made this irresistible to me. And the recognition, in the sense of “Yes! I remember that exact same thing!” I don’t know how easily Paperboy will travel, but I hope it gets a good audience. I really do.

The most unforgettable person I’ve ever met in my life

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time by Ian Birchall (Bookmarks, £16.99)

Well, hello again. (Waves uncertainly at passing tumbleweed.) Yes, I know, the real world has been keeping me away from online tomfoolery, but I’m not going to pass up the chance to reflect a little (or, more likely, at infinitely tedious length) on the book of the year. If you neither know nor care who Tony Cliff was, feel free to skip this, because much of it will be incomprehensible.

Moreover, I suppose there’s a question of why anyone outside of the organisation founded by Cliff should be remotely interested in his life story. Most political biographies, after all, are about politicians who’ve actually done something quantifiable in the real world. A man who spent sixty-plus years beavering away in the world of hard-left sects – and quite a lot of that time spent on writing about the sociology of the USSR, rather than practical activity – might not seem terribly promising material. All I can tell you, and I hope this will come through, is that Cliff was important to me. I could make an argument that Mike Kidron, or particularly Chris Harman, informed me more in the sphere of ideas, but they made their bricks from Cliff’s straw, and the personality of Cliff was such that he couldn’t fail to make an impact on anyone who crossed his path. You could say that I went to Cliff’s kheyder, and I’m grateful to him for what I learned there, even those things I no longer agree with. He was a unique figure – capable of being genuinely inspiring one moment, and an incredible pain in the hole the next – whose like we shall not see again.

There’s been a gap I’ve felt for quite a while that Ian Birchall’s lovingly crafted biography goes to fill. I was terribly disappointed by Cliff’s posthumously published autobiography, A World to Win. Granted that the old fellow was seriously ill at the time and was writing from memory rather than a researched work: all the same, I was unimpressed by Cliff’s assertion of his own unfailing correctness, even when he was patently wrong; even less impressed by his serial failure to give credit to the contributions of anyone other than himself; and worst of all, it didn’t really capture what Cliff was like. Maybe it would have been better had Bookmarks released it as an audiobook.

But that was one thing about Cliff that was always striking. Ian remarks towards the end of the book that those who know Cliff from his writings only half know him. This is true. Not even Cliff’s admirers would claim him to have been a great literary stylist. Credit must go to his indefatigable wife, Chanie Rosenberg, who long had the thankless task of not only doing the typing but of turning Cliff’s manuscripts (often in an idiosyncratic mixture of bad English and Hebrew) into something resembling idiomatic English. No, there was none of the literary panache of LD Trotsky or Isaac Deutscher to be found here; there was functional prose which served the purpose of getting Cliff’s ideas across, and such appeal as it had was down to the strength of the ideas.

I read Cliff’s book on state capitalism (in a battered old second-hand copy) some considerable time before I ever saw him in person. It was a hell of a shock. Though the writing didn’t suggest an image of the author, the pseudonym “Tony Cliff” did call to mind a suave 1950s crooner of the Dean Martin or Andy Williams variety. Had I known to expect Ygael Gluckstein from Zikhron Yaakov, the shock would have been much less. The great man turned out to be short, elderly, bespectacled, with a hairstyle best described as mad scientist chic, and – let’s not put too fine a point on this – dressed like a tramp. When he spoke, it was in a very strong Russian-Hebrew accent that took a minute to get your ears around. He was a grumpy bastard, incapable of normal social pleasantries, but when he got up to speak…

…the Cliff meeting, of course, was a performance. Offstage, Cliff was extremely reserved, and perhaps the willpower needed to perform gave his speaking its force.[1] The arm-waving, the wisecracking, the obligatory reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s latest pronouncement as a lot of bloody rrrubbish, these were the easily satirised visible elements. On a more basic level, he was trying to explain often quite complicated ideas in accessible language – so the humour, the performance aspects, were the spoonful of sugar. On more than one occasion I sat through a 45-minute talk on the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy[2] and actually enjoyed it. That’s how good Cliff was when he was on good form.

Even Cliff’s dodgy grasp of the language could be turned to good effect. His idiosyncratic approach to English syntax and his mixed metaphors added a lot to the humour. Then there were the characteristic mispronunciations, as seen in Ian’s account of a meeting on racism where Cliff informed a bemused audience that in the 1930s the working class had been prejudiced against the yetis. (Disappointingly, it turned out that he meant the Eyeties; thus, Italian immigrant workers rather than abominable snowmen.) All that went towards getting an audience chuckling, and there’s no better way to lighten up what threatens to be a boring topic.

One thing that was immediately apparent about Cliff, lifelong atheist and anti-Zionist though he was, was how profoundly Jewish he was. You got this from the very cadences of his speech. There was a broad streak of the Borscht Belt comedian in there (if I heard the joke about the rabbi and the goat once, I heard it a dozen times); one could also, if one closed one’s eyes, imagine Cliff bearded and wearing a shtrayml, in the role of a Hasidic rebbe expounding his mystical interpretation of the Toyre to his fanatical band of followers. But it’s a broader cultural thing. If I say Cliff was a Talmudist, I don’t mean that as an insult. You all know, of course, that the Talmud is a codification of halokhe, of Jewish religious law, but that’s far from all it is. The Talmud is also five thousand or so pages of rabbinic sages scoring off each other using not only halokhic erudition, but also puns, insults, bad jokes, gossip and anecdotes of dubious relevance. Sound familiar? Put Cliff two millennia in the past and have him speaking Aramaic, and he’d have fit right in.

One thing that’s long intrigued me was the detail of Cliff’s youth in the old Mandate of Palestine – Cliff himself rarely said much about it, though he wrote a little in A World to Win. Gaps still remain, not least because most of the people who might remember are now dead, but immense credit goes to Ian Birchall for giving us a sense of what Cliff’s background was like. I’ll get onto the politics at a later stage, but there are suggestive hints about Cliff’s formative influences, and in particular his parents. From his mother, Esther, he seems to have got his intellectual curiosity and occasionally frail health. But his father, Akiva Gluckstein, seems to have been a most appealing character:

Gluckstein was a handsome, jovial man, greatly liked by those who knew him. He was a born actor; he loved to tell jokes, and though he constantly told the same stories, he always varied them. In later life he joined a Yiddish theatre company and travelled around the country with it. He retained his curiosity and zest for life into old age.

Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

What else comes to mind? Cliff’s legendary single-mindedness, which had a couple of aspects to it. Some of us used to jokingly call Chris Harman the Renaissance Man, which was a bit scurrilous but also paid tribute to the breadth of his interests, the way no aspect of human life was safe from Chris trying to analyse it. Cliff didn’t really have any interests outside of the organisation, and even then he would have a very narrow focus on the issue in hand. Sometimes that would stand you in good stead; sometimes it would tip over into a lack of perspective. And it could also feed his impatience with those who didn’t see the needs of the moment as clearly as he felt he did. Cliff could deploy a formidable amount of charm when he had to, but if he felt he needed to read you the reproof, you wouldn’t soon forget it:

In John Molyneux’s words an argument with him could be like a “benign hurricane”. On one occasion Cliff was having a heated argument with Molyneux when Molyneux’s four-year-old son intervened: “Don’t argue, Dad; can’t you see he’s just a little old man?”

Some people who in their time had been subjected to an eight-hour Cliff harangue may want to quibble with John about the “benign” bit, but not with the “hurricane”. Cliff himself used to have a good joke about this single-mindedness, which was that of his four children only one, his younger son Danny, had inherited his fanatical temperament. The punchline was that Danny was the only one of the kids never to join the SWP; his fanaticism was directed into his music. Moreover, Cliff himself had zero interest in music, though he was always very encouraging towards Danny.

I realise I’m in danger here of simply repeating favourite Cliff anecdotes, but there is a purpose. Cliff’s organisation can’t be understood separately from Cliff the man; organisations have their own cultures and personalities, and small organisations with a dominant founder tend to reflect the founder’s personality. The late Jim Higgins quipped that Gerry Healy’s group had been paranoid and thuggish, Ted Grant’s group had been stultifying boring, and Cliff’s group had been hyperactive and overexcitable – and that this was not an accident. This is to simplify matters somewhat, but it’s not untrue.

On the other hand, to cast the modern SWP as a triumph of Cliff’s will just won’t do. Cliff could have been as brilliant as anything, and it would have meant naught had he not had people around him. This is where the great strength of Ian’s book lies, in the hundred-plus interviews, what saves it from being a simple story of Cliff writing this and then doing that and then speaking on something else, which would be of little interest to anyone other than historians of Trotskyism. This is where we get to hear the voices of those whose paths crossed Cliff’s, who give their impressions of him and his impact on them. And while we see some very pertinent points made about his failings, it’s also apparent how much warmth and loyalty he was capable of inspiring.

The quotes are where it comes alive, whether it’s from a miner telling you about hearing Cliff speak in the 1984-5 strike, or from Alex Callinicos being remarkably candid about old arguments on the Central Committee (and filling in the detail on a couple of things I only half-knew), or from Cliff’s family, to whom he was ferociously devoted, telling us what he meant to them. A particular favourite is from Anna Gluckstein, on being asked in primary school what her dad did for a living. Unwilling to say he was a professional revolutionary, she replied that he was a writer who wrote children’s books about a wizard called Lenin. For some reason, this pleases me immensely.

And with that, I’ll sign off, though with the confirmed intention (I know, I know) of coming back to ruminate on this some more. But, just as a taster of the old fellow’s style, here’s a Cliff meeting on a wizard called Lenin. The animation captures the spirit quite well, I think.

[1] This may also have been true of Chris Harman, though not to the same extent.

[2] If you don’t know what the Permanent Arms Economy was, don’t worry. Life’s too short.

The judgement of Johann: a reflection, and a bit of a rant

A note on epistemology

Though there is incontrovertible evidence that Tony Blair and his colleagues regularly distort, manipulate, mislead and even invent the truth on a massive scale, they regard any attack on their personal integrity as an outrageous calumny… Blair himself has consistently referred to his own integrity in terms which, coming from anyone else, might well be criticised as boastful or vainglorious. Even when he or colleagues are caught red-handed telling fibs, New Labour tends to respond that all concerned acted “in good faith”, a key phrase frequently uttered in defence of mendacious ministers. In New Labour’s view, the truthfulness of a statement matters much less than whether it was inspired by a virtuous motive…

It is not unreasonable to speculate that the prime minister has a strong tendency to fall victim to a common conceptual muddle: the failure to understand the distinction between truth versus falsehood and truth versus error. Tony Blair, and many colleagues, consistently seem to feel that they are lucky enough to have been granted a privileged access to the moral truth. This state of grace produces two marvellous consequences. It means that whatever New Labour ministers say or write, however misleading or inaccurate, is in a larger sense true. Likewise whatever their opponents say or write, whether or not strictly speaking accurate, is in the most profound sense false.

Peter Oborne, The Rise of Political Lying

The downward spiral

I didn’t particularly want to write again about Johann Hari, and it’s quite difficult for me to do so. It’s very hard to be dispassionate about him, though I’m going to try. Let me say at the outset that, though he’s never given me any great reason to be fond of him, I don’t want to see his life destroyed. I’m fully aware that this must be an absolutely horrible time for him, and I know his many friends are seriously worried about his mental state. I’ll have cause to criticise his employers pretty harshly later on, but I do hope they’ve arranged for him to get whatever help is necessary.

However.

Why, you may ask, should we bother with a man whose career is over? My immediate answer to which is, who says it’s over? Hari has plenty of supporters, some of them prominent in the media, who insist that he’s done nothing really wrong, just made a teensy weensy mistake for which he’s apologised, and he’ll be back again before you know it. No, this will not do. It’s necessary, given the way so many people have taken Hari’s articles as gospel truth, that there be some sort of open accounting. It’s necessary that a light be shone on Simon Kelner and the Independent, who will weasel out of this situation if they’re given a chance. I also don’t believe that the bluster and denial coming from Hari partisans actually helps their friend. It just postpones the inevitable.

To summarise, what Johann Hari has admitted to, and apologised for, is that in a handful of his long-form interviews, he’s occasionally used a quote from the subject’s written work where this was more cogent than what the subject said in the interview; and that he failed to properly acknowledge the source. This is true, as far as it goes. But, as has been shown all over the intertubes, this is just the tip of the can of worms. To summarise, without going into excruciating detail, we’re talking about:

  • A somewhat unorthodox interviewing technique that includes not only unattributed lifting from the subjects’ own written work, but also the unattributed lifting of quotes from other journalists’ interviews with the subjects, explicitly framed as if these words were being spoken to Hari himself. It may be understandable that few interviewees complained when the end result showed them being fantastically articulate, but on the occasions when Hari has done hostile interviews he’s had no qualms about portraying his antagonist as inarticulate.
  • A strong suspicion, at the very least, that some of his vox-pop quotes (as opposed to those from named interviewees) have been made up.
  • A reportorial style that tends to be careless of the facts, straying easily into exaggeration and embellishment, sometimes into outright invention.
  • Strong circumstantial evidence, though it would be hard to prove or disprove definitively, that either Hari or someone very close to him was engaged in extensive Wikipedia sockpuppetry, including the posting of allegations about critics of Hari that were flagrantly libellous. (I don’t care what you think about Cristina Odone, she is not anti-Semitic by any stretch of the imagination.)

We’re talking, in short, about a massive failure in professional standards over a period of years, which rather prompts questions about editorial standards at the Independent. We’ll get onto the paper presently, but as for Hari himself I’m much more interested in understanding than condemning. The psychology is fascinating, and I really hope he writes a serious and honest explanation at the end of this – it could be the most compelling thing he’s ever written.

Hari is certainly an interesting character, someone you could write a novel about. As I say, he has many friends – we have a few mutual friends, believe it or not – and they’ll freely talk about what a lovely guy he is, how warm and funny and brilliant and charming and sensitive he is. I have no reason to doubt that – he’s certainly got some charisma, and inspires intense loyalty. I also know from other sources that he can be unbelievably nasty, spiteful and vindictive if you cross him, which is why I have no problem believing the sockpuppetry allegations. His mood swings and occasional prima donna behaviour are the stuff of legend, and even his closest friends – perhaps especially his closest friends – can testify to his volcanic hissy fits. Extremes of light and shade; I know the type.

I said before about Hari that I didn’t think he was a cynical liar out for the main chance, but a well-intentioned bullshitter. That’s why I quoted Peter Oborne, whose book is excellent on the subject of Good Cause Corruption, with particular reference to the career of Mr Tony Blair. If you have moral right and a good cause on your side, then surely inconvenient facts are just a distraction. Accuracy is pedantry. This is positively dangerous from politicians, with dodgy dossiers and the like potentially leading to lots of people getting killed. Which is why you need a press that’s honest, accurate, even pedantic. When journalism falls prey to Good Cause Corruption, it just becomes propaganda. Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in, which might indicate some of the issues behind his journalism.

But I can well understand how he got himself in this position. Formidably bright and articulate, a writer of some talent, he goes straight from Cambridge to the national press, first at the New Statesman and then at the Independent. He never learned the basics of the trade – possibly he was arrogant enough to think he didn’t need to learn anything (he always refused to join the NUJ, which may be significant), and his editors, first Wilby and then Kelner, were prepared to indulge him. Not only that, but Hari, who could have just been a provocative opinion columnist, was rewarded with prominent journalistic assignments that he evidently wasn’t prepared for, with the possibility of failing in a very public way. And, having got in over his head, he tried to get out of this situation by means of (in Duncan Hallas’ immortal phrase) “bluff, bluster and bullshit”.

And not only did he get away with fabulism, he prospered, getting promoted to bigger columns, more high-profile assignments, celebrity interviews, being showered with journalism awards. Perhaps he felt, like a shop assistant nicking twenty quid from the till, that he was being clever in getting away with something. Perhaps he really did think that this was standard journalistic practice. At this point, the thought process is difficult to figure out. Some of the fakery was so stupidly high-risk that you would nearly think he wanted to get caught. The most damaging, for my money, was the interview with gay rugby player Gareth Thomas, who gave a lovely quote about hiding his sexuality and visualising it in terms of being in control of the ball. Trouble was, this quote was taken from a previous interview Thomas had given to Attitude magazine. Gareth Thomas wouldn’t have complained, as he’s a nice guy and Hari had written a sensitive article, but when you think of it – the gay community is Hari’s core audience, Hari writes a column for Attitude, in fact Hari sits on the bloody editorial board of Attitude – either we’ve got a very smart person being incredibly stupid, or unconsciously self-destructive behaviour. From what he’s written in the past about his mental health episodes, I can easily believe the latter. That’s why I hope he’s getting appropriate help.

The reactions

Much of the reaction to the Hari affair has been along the lines of “Yeah, he obviously made a few mistakes but (cough, cough, mumble) look over there, Rebekah Brooks! Also, Andy Coulson!” This does not impress me, and should not impress anyone else with the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

The most important point is that, while you could make a political criticism of Hari, and many people have done so, over the years, what’s done for him is professional criticism. Namely, not his opinions but his basic journalistic standards. In fact, more so as the criticism has centred on the technical journalistic side. Tim Worstall has been saying for ages that Hari’s economic writing was wrong not just ideologically but in terms of basic facts, but that was easily dismissed on the grounds that Tim is one of these mad free marketeers and he would say that, wouldn’t he? My own criticisms of Hari have been dismissed on the grounds that I was just sore at him for saying nasty things about the Pope. (Incidentally, one or two people owe me an apology, though I’m not holding my breath.) What has made the difference is people like Brian Whelan or Guy Walters, who don’t have pre-existing beefs with Hari, concentrating on the journalistic basics.

This is also important because one of the reasons he got away with it so long is that, with the notable exception of Biased BBC, most of the small army of media-monitoring blogs out there come from a left-of-centre perspective and concentrate on attacking the Mail or Sun. The smart guys who write them were too heavily involved with fact-checking Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn to notice there might be a problem with a broadsheet columnist who argued the same sort of politics they believed in.

A few observations:

  • Criticism of Hari cannot simply be put down to left and right. Yes, the Telegraph has gone after him hard, but so has the New Statesman. Many of Hari’s critics have been from the left; after all, it was the late Paul Foot who christened him “Johann Hari Potter”.
  • This is not a gay thing. Some of Hari’s sharpest critics are gay themselves; other gay journalists haven’t had these criticisms levelled at them; and insinuations that this is a homophobic smear campaign frankly don’t hold water – indeed, I’d say it was insulting to gay journalists to think they should be held to a lesser standard, akin to saying Jayson Blair was victimised for being black. If activists turn this into a gay thing, they’ll find it’s a self-defeating strategy.
  • Hari’s most prominent media defenders have been opinion writers, activists and social media entrepreneurs. Actual journalists with backgrounds in news reporting have been a lot harsher.

On the other hand, he’s had no shortage of defenders, though they’ve been getting quieter as more details have come out. These come in a number of categories – personal friends, of whom he has many (and it’s quite touching in a way); activists who appreciate how he’s bigged up their causes over the years (and don’t quite realise his downfall may discredit those causes); tribal leftists or gayists who think it’s their duty to defend one of their own no matter what he’s done; and those writers who might be feeling a bit nervous about their own writing, particularly if they’ve relied a lot on Hari in the past. For instance, there is one young writer whose recently-published book’s index reveals no less than thirteen citations from Hari. Some of these people risk making themselves look very silly, and no more so than two or three self-proclaimed scourges of bad journalism who’ve proved to be enormous hypocrites when their mate is put under the microscope. (You know who you are.)

I don’t think, frankly, that loud proclamations to the effect that Hari hasn’t done anything wrong and he still has a bright career ahead of him actually help the guy. Keeping his spirits up is one thing; but the best thing of all would be a resolution. Which neatly brings me to the guilty parties.

The paper and the trade

Let’s be honest, Johann Hari’s career, at least as it’s hitherto existed, is over. It’s a desperately sad outcome for somebody who loved his job so much, who at a relatively young age had been living the dream of having a platform for his beloved good causes, being celebrated in his chosen profession, winning awards, appearing on TV, and of course having a legion of devoted fans. (Young people don’t read newspapers as a rule, but the two writers you very commonly see shared and retweeted are Hari and Charlie Brooker.) But this would be hard to recover from for any journalist, let alone one whose stock in trade was banging on and on about his own integrity, other journalists’ lack of integrity, and how he was the man who was telling you the truth. Now, he’ll never be able to speak in a debate again without this being thrown in his face, and while there are lots of people who’ll never believe anything bad about him, that sort of denial isn’t sustainable for any media outlet that might employ him.

In my view, the best outcome would be this: Hari writes a full and frank account of what he did and why he did it; the Independent runs an analysis of how this was allowed to happen, as the New York Times did in the Jayson Blair case; Simon Kelner gives a personal account of his role in the affair; and then Hari can go off and rebuild his life. If he insists on working in journalism, he’ll have to do what he never did in the first place and work his way up from the bottom; on the other hand, he could turn out to be a great novelist, or an amazing charity campaigner, or any number of other things. He’s a bright man and still young.

But the current ass-covering at the Independent does nobody any favours. You know, when Boris Johnson was caught making up a quote, the Times didn’t fart about with two-month suspensions; Boris was summarily sacked, had to go and work on the Wolverhampton Express & Star, and didn’t get back into Fleet Street until he’d learned his lesson. My instinct is that this drawn-out process is all about editorial saving of face.

Make no mistake, this is a personal tragedy for Johann Hari, but it’s a farce for the Indy’s pretentions of holding higher standards than the rest of the press. Some of this, to be fair, has to do with endemic problems in the newspaper trade. Formal training for journalists is more or less a thing of the past. The local papers, where young hacks got valuable on-the-job training in the basics, are rapidly going bust. Subbing is a dying art.

Moreover, with the Mail and the Sun being the only national papers to regularly turn a healthy profit, there’s less scope for maintaining a large and experienced workforce of journalists. That means, very often, young, inexperienced (and cheap) hacks being overpromoted. More and more this is through headhunting from the student press, the music press, or more recently the blogosphere. The practice is to take some inexperienced kid and throw them in the deep end, with results that aren’t always for the best. (This is why I worry about Laurie Penny, whom I like a good deal more than I do Johann Hari, and whose undoubted talent I’d hate to see wasted.)

Another problem is the growth of celebrity columnists – whether comedians, TV critics or activists – at the expense of trained journalists, in contrast to the old days when hacks would be given columns when they were getting old and not as mobile as they used to be. The Indy (it’s a viewspaper, remember) is a particularly bad example, but some other papers are catching up. Yet another issue is the practice of journalists failing to maintain some distance from their story. I blame Hunter Thompson for this – he was brilliant enough to get away with it, but the price of that is a slew of bad imitations of Hunter Thompson. The Saturday edition of the Guardian is full of them.

But let’s specifically talk about the Indy. Simon Kelner’s assertion that, in ten years, nobody had ever complained about the Hari column is a black lie. I know that personally. Nor does it speak well of Kelner’s judgement that his first reaction to the Hari scandal was not to examine the evidence but to attempt to brazen it out, even sneaking the Hari column back into the paper (with Disqus comments disabled) when everybody else was preoccupied with Murdoch. And maybe he could have brazened it out – after all, the Guardian still employs Emma Brockes – had it not been for the sheer mountain of evidence. And then, of course, Kelner being kicked upstairs to editor-in-chief.

Face-saving is an issue because (and this is also true, mutatis mutandis, of the phone-hacking scandal) we can believe that a journalist was guilty of malpractice once or twice, but if he was consistently guilty for ten years, we have to ask where the editor was all this time. If we’re talking about that severed heads story from the Central African Republic, the thing I find hard to believe is not that Hari would embellish a story like that, but that the Indy backroom didn’t call him and say “Seriously, Johann, wtf? Are you saying that really happened?” Then again, while I say subbing is a dying art, the Indy was opposed to having subs at its inception…

Again and again, we come back to Kelner. He hired a raw young star about whom doubts had already been expressed at the New Statesman, and relentlessly promoted and protected him. Hari didn’t get the firm editorial hand a young journalist needs; his columns don’t seem to have been subjected to fact-checking or serious editing (comparing Hari’s columns on the Indy site with his own site, one sees that Indy editorial broke up his long paragraphs and corrected a few obvious howlers, but little else); he clearly was never given the training or mentoring he needed (and if Hari thought he didn’t need training, Kelner should have insisted). Hari was given plenty of resources – one hears stories of Indy interns doing mountains of photocopying that would then be couriered over to the great man (couriered, I ask you, as if he was Peter fucking Mandelson) – but didn’t give him what he really needed, a guiding hand. More experienced hacks who had concerns about the infant prodigy’s work soon learned that the editor didn’t want to hear these criticisms.

Which, in the end, only ensured a greater debacle when it all eventually came unstuck. And the two-month suspension plus internal inquiry just reeks of a spin exercise. Not that I don’t expect Andreas Whittam Smith to conduct the inquiry with integrity, but there is already enough prima facie evidence to sack him several times over. There is the Indy forbidding Hari from speaking publicly; there is the Indy persuading the council of the Orwell Prize to delay its announcement on Hari’s 2008 award. A charitable view would be that the Indy doesn’t want to get scooped on its own scandal; a cynical view would be that Indy editorial are trying to puzzle out a way to spin themselves out of this with minimum loss of face. Someone should tell Chris Blackhurst that sometimes, fronting up is the best PR strategy.

You know, when you see headlines about the death of Amy Winehouse, or about Charlie Sheen’s latest escapades, it’s worth remembering that celebrities don’t go off the rails alone; they have a posse of enablers who have too much invested in the celeb’s lifestyle to try and straighten them out. For Johann Hari, though I’m not a fan of his, I have some sympathy; for Simon Kelner, none at all. Hari himself is a young, intelligent, idealistic guy who wanted above all else to be a Great Journalist, and thought (or was led to believe) he was so brilliant he could do it without putting in the effort. As for his enabler… Ann Leslie said we shouldn’t be too harsh on young Johann because he’d never been a real journalist. Maybe Simon Kelner was never a real editor.

Porcus ex grege diaboli

Those who know me will be aware that I’ve been banging on for some considerable time about the likelihood of British journalism throwing up a Jayson Blair scandal. Moreover, I’ve always been clear about which hack in particular was the most likely candidate for the Blair role. Do I feel schadenfreude at Johann Hari’s sudden fall from grace? Very well then, I feel schadenfreude. Couldn’t happen to a nicer chap. But, as ever, there’s more to it than that.

For those of you catching up, the basic story is this. Johann Hari, star columnist on the Independent, frequently does big set-piece interviews with divers newsworthy people. Well, the intrepid Brian Whelan noticed that at least some of the pithy quotes in Hari interviews seemed oddly familiar. In fact, the interviewees had said the things they’d said, just not to Hari. They’d appeared elsewhere first – in books or press releases or other interviews. Which is not to say (and I’m trying to be scrupulously fair here) that Toni Negri or Malalai Joya might not have said something to Hari similar to what he quoted – he’d simply lifted his quotes from elsewhere because they evidently read better than what he had on tape. Which, as it happens, is the explanation given by Hari himself in his remarkably pompous blog post (“intellectual portraiture”, forsooth) owning up to this sharp practice.

Jamie has an interesting take on whether or not this technically counts as plagiarism – Hari isn’t, after all, claiming the thoughts of Toni Negri as his own. But he is claiming, without attribution, somebody else’s work as his own – and not only that, but dramatising the quotes with schlocky “X leans in over his coffee and says to me…” introductions, so as to further underscore that this is what was said to Hari. If I had given an interview to, let’s say, Gary Younge a year ago, and the exact same words turned up in a Hari interview this morning, I think both I and Gary (or whoever the other interviewer might be) would be fully entitled to be quite pissed off about the whole thing. What is more, part of Hari’s job description (and part of the justification for his very generous salary) is that he’s supposed to be a great interviewer who’s really skilled at coaxing killer quotes from his subjects.

What’s clear is that, whatever Johann and his mates might say, this is not normal journalistic practice. Oh, that isn’t to say that hacks don’t polish a quote here or there. It’s quite a while since I had to do an interview in the course of work, but I have on occasion had to straighten out an interviewee’s grammar or cut down the number of cuss words in a quote. But every journalist knows that you have to be bloody careful with people’s quotes, and putting words into an interviewee’s mouth is just not on. Toadmeister has a good take on just what a serious breach of the trade’s ethics this is; indeed, I seem to remember Boris Johnson once getting fired for this sort of thing. If Naomi Klein thinks the serial plagiarising of quotes is just an “attribution problem”, then frankly, that affects how seriously I’ll take anything she writes in the future.

Let me expand on this a little. Many of you will know of Richard Peppiatt, the Daily Star hack who resigned from the paper a few months back, naughtily leaking his resignation letter in which he cheerfully admitted to having made up dozens of stories. But I like Rich Peppiatt, and journos have hailed him as a whistleblower who exposed massive journalistic malpractice in Richard Desmond’s media empire. And this is precisely because he blew the whistle on a culture where low-paid, overworked hacks would be under instructions to produce a front-page on Jordan (or these days it may be Ryan Giggs) whether or not there was a story there. Although I take Foxy’s point about how hard it can be to get outright invention into a paper, it can happen if you’ve got a rogue proprietor who more or less insists on made-up stories.

Yet, that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Anyone who reads the Daily Star does so in the full knowledge that a lot of what’s in the paper is just bollocks. The Independent, on the other hand, has always been terribly snooty about journalistic ethics. And it’s made doubly delicious by the fact that this is Johann Hari, someone who’s prone to throwing the most spectacular hissy fits when anyone questions his integrity, or even politely asks him to substantiate an allegation.

In some ways it’s a problem of overpromotion. Your jobbing hack will spend years at the unglamorous end of the business, learning how to nail down facts, how to evidence your claims and, above all, how you need to be incredibly careful with quotes. Here’s a guy, though, who graduates from Cambridge and walks straight into a column on a national newspaper. Very early on he earns a reputation for – let’s be charitable – embellishment and exaggeration, but instead of learning from his very public mistakes he just becomes more and more self-righteous on the subject of his own integrity.

I don’t, as it happens, think that Hari is a liar, in the cynical sense. I’m quite prepared to believe he isn’t knowingly dishonest. But I do think he’s a world champion bullshitter, in the philosophical sense described by Harry Frankfurt:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So, like I say, I don’t believe Hari is a cynical liar. I’m often driven to ponder whether he even understands the basic categories of truth or falsehood. After all, the examples of his tortured relationship to reality are well known. And, you know, this is not a question of me disagreeing with what he says. I disagree with, to take an example at random, David Aaronovitch on almost everything, but I can still enjoy reading him, because we’re at least in the same empirical universe. I long ago tired of Hari’s column because reading him just became a tedious exercise in fact-checking. Even when you agree with him, you can count on him to produce at least one misstatement or terminological inexactitude or mangled statistic. And after a certain period of time… well, as a blogosphere sage once said, “I wouldn’t believe Hari if he told me he was gay.”

I will allow him this, though, that he’s extremely skilled at telling his audience what they want to hear, and like-minded audiences are willing to forgive a lot from a writer who’s articulating their own worldview. Today there have been some pretty prominent figures willing to defend Hari on the basis that, well, he’s a leftie so what he’s done can’t be so bad. If that’s your view, fair enough, but I don’t ever want to hear you moan about Richard Littlejohn again.

I think Hari will be all right in the end. Were he an actual jobbing hack this might kill off his career, but he’s high enough up the food chain to survive. He’ll go to ground for a while, perhaps claiming the criticism is all motivated by homophobia (thanks to Laurie Penny for rolling out that alibi early), then resurface with a tearful interview on Women’s Hour about how sorry he is, but now he’s learned from his mistakes and won’t ever do it again, honest guv. He certainly has a tribe of devoted fans who’ll forgive him anything, and will probably keep some kind of writing gig; but he’ll never live this down. Private Eye will be repeating the story for the rest of his natural life.

No, the real question has to be asked of Simon Kelner. The Independent – a paper that really can’t afford to lose any more readers – has employed Hari for the last decade, and editorial staff can’t have been unaware that there were (cough) certain issues around his factuality. But they’ve stuck with him through thick and thin because – why? He gets the paper talked about? He generates web traffic? So does Bob Fisk, but even people who don’t like Bob wouldn’t see him as a laughing stock, which I’m afraid is what Johann has now become. If you just want a columnist to produce liberal-left chest-beating twice a week, hiring Sunny Hundal would be a much cheaper option.

And finally, yes, I do agree with Guido – and isn’t it telling that Guido can take the moral high ground here? – that Hari should really hand back his Orwell Prize. Dear old GO’s memory deserves better than this farce.

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