In this week’s Private Eye:
“Baden-Powell was a creepy old perv, allegedly” by Ian Hislop.
“I am taking my holidays in beautiful sunny Serbia” by Francis Wheen.
“Hurrah for the European Union!” by Christopher Booker.
“Me and my Facebook” by Richard Ingrams.
No, not really. You know, I have been reading the Eye for more years than I care to remember, and I long since passed the point of expecting it to be fair, balanced or accurate. I accept with equanimity that Eye hacks will use the mag to pursue their personal hobby horses and vendettas. But the great thing about the Eye in days of yore was that it was an equal opportunity offender. Part of its unwritten contract with the reader was that it knew neither fear nor favour. Being big mates with someone on the Eye team was no protection against attack. Indeed, Ingrams had enough journalistic savvy to know that attacking targets close to home enhanced your journalistic credibility.
I am of course referring to the vicious hatchet job on Johann Hari in this week’s Hackwatch. Let me say at the outset that I have no problem in principle with giving Hari stick – I’ve done it myself once or twice. But the background to this is interesting.
The immediate occasion is of course Johann’s scathing review of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?, which you can read here. You will recall that, on the book being published, we had the spectacle of Norm Geras and Paul Anderson having to go around explaining to everyone what Nick meant, which must have been galling for Nick, a great fan of Orwellian plain style. Well, this is the same sort of thing. Johann reviews Nick’s book, not terribly sympathetically. Nick writes a frankly bizarre reply which, inter alia, accuses Johann of being a Maoist. David T of Harry’s Place – an outlet whose journalistic ethics make Private Eye look like the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart – comes out batting for Nick. Now the Eye comes out batting for David T. What these supplementaries from HP Sauce and the Eye have in common is that they sensibly skate over Nick’s book, Johann’s critique and Nick’s weird reply, in favour of concentrating on Johann’s reputation for exaggeration, embroidery and playing fast and loose with the facts. An accusation that, of course, could never be applied to Nick Cohen, Harry’s Place or Private Eye.
A defence of the Eye might run something like this: The mag has fairly consistently attacked Bush and Blair over Iraq. There are lots of anti-war commentators who have not been criticised by the Eye. And the Eye took the piss out of Hari when he was pro-war, just as it does now that he’s anti-war. This is all true, but it isn’t the whole picture.
Let us consider that not only did Blair lie to get Britain into Iraq, as the Eye points out on a fortnightly basis, but that a whole cadre of pundits facilitated him. Prominent among these were the soi-disant Decent Left. And yet, this layer of the commentariat has escaped odium in Street of Shame or Hackwatch, with the sole exception of Hari, the only one of them to have the balls to recant his position and do serious mea culpas, and who has been prepared to lose friends for doing so. And to draw attention to Johann’s foibles in the context of a book that has a distortion, a howler or an outright lie on almost every page… well, it doesn’t look great.
I’m not calling, by the way, for the Eye to provide an ideological critique of Decency – that isn’t its place – but I would simply point out that, from the satirical point of view, lots of people said things about Iraq that were just as silly or dubious as anything Johann said, and continue to do so. Meanwhile, Cohen’s descent into gibbering incoherence and the entire media career of the ludicrous Kamm – and don’t tell me there is no humorous potential there – goes completely unremarked by our leading satirical journal.
How can we explain this extraordinary omission? I direct you to the acknowledgements page at the back of What’s Left?, which pays fulsome tribute to one Francis Wheen, a prominent Decent Left pundit who Nick cites as one of his main sources. By a remarkable coincidence, there is also a senior Eye staffer called Francis Wheen. Could the two possibly be related? I think we should be told.
More discussion on this from the good folks at Aaro Watch.