Torture is wrong but why, in the name of sanity, should we allow those who hate us to live here?

Nicely dovetailing into my last post comes an opportunity to discuss the rights and wrongs of torture, courtesy of Max Hastings:

“It is a wicked thing, if Binyam Mohamed has indeed been tortured during his seven years’ confinement, latterly at America’s Guantanamo Bay, and equally wicked if Britain has been complicit in that torture.”

Which, as opening paragraphs go, is quite a good one. It establishes, from the off, that some things are bad, are that being complicit in them is also bad. We can all agree with this, we can be friends. But wait:

“The pit in which Britain, more than any other Western nation, finds itself stuck is that our courts and the human rights industry reject removal from our shores of anybody to their own nation if it lacks ‘acceptable’ standards of justice and freedom.”

Suddenly Max wants us to be complicit in bad things. Here we disagree, and fall out. What happened between the first paragraph and that one? Why can we not assist in torture, but can send someone back to a country where they will be tortured? Max thinnks it’s sufficient to say:

“The right of residence is discretionary.

Why should it be extended to a man about whom there seems little doubt does not want to live here as a law-abiding person, committed to our values and way of life?”

Take a parallel example: You want to kill Max. I know you want to kill Max. You ask to borrow my sharp knife; while I can’t be sure you don’t just want to evenly divide your freshly made fudge for the orphans, the look in your eye, and your comment about needing it to kill Max,  suggests strongly that your motive is less friendly. I lend you the knife. You kill Max. You are now a murderer and I am an accessory, because I knew what you wanted to do and enabled you to do it. I didn’t kill Max, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything wrong, morally or actually. Even if I really wanted Max out of my spare room, or I felt Max’s journalism undermined my way of life. We should be able to agree.

If w can, we shuold also be able to agree that it is completely unimportant whether Binyam Mohamed left the UK because he didn’t want to live here (which he denies), it’s completely unimportant that he harbours resentment to the UK (although his statement on arrival certainly didn’t indicate that to me), it would be completely unimportant if he followed Max’s recommendation and built a bomb factory in Southall (although it would be fine to arrest him, try him and, if found guilty, imprison him).  If we can agree that torturing him is wrong, it is wrong to enable his torture by sending him back to Ethiopia.

Either Max has missed this inconsistency, or he’s ignoring it. That’s poor – to paraphrase his conclusion, he has ‘displayed pitiful weakness‘ in failing to consistently condemn or support abetting torture and, arguably ‘merits our contempt‘.

What the sacking of Posh Ed tells us about the BBC’s hang-ups over class

It’s odd to hear the Mail clamouring for positive discrimination, but here we are, cunningly disguised as an attack on inverted snobbery.

“Almost every day, we see on our screens or hear on the radio reporters and presenters whose only obvious credentials are that they are young, or female, or black, or possibly gay, or boast a Celtic or regional accent.”

Indeed. The observation arises from the removal of Edward Stourton from the presenter’s chair at the Today Programmme after ten years. Possibly because he was considered to be ‘a toff’. Perhaps. Maybe.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for Ed, but apart from the fact that his sonorous tones are well suited to reading things early in the morning, he has very few ‘obvious credentials’. The job requires that he has a voice. That box is ticked. What further credentials does he need? Beyond the fact that he has one, there’s not much his voice could tell you of any relevance. The reverse is also true – just as the nature of his voice doesn’t necessarily mask a lack of qualification, neither do those of any of the Jewish black gay (possibly) provincial Johnny-come-lately presenters. The fact that they don’t sound like Edward Stourton makes them no less able to read a script or ask people things on live radio.

What’s particularly peculiar about this farrago is not just that Hastings is dealing in an anti-toff bias which is merely alleged, but that he happily accepts that this isn’t a case of the wider dumbing down he links to it¹. Justin Webb, Ed’s replacement, not only has a voice but a track record of radio journalism. The only complaint is the toff-bashing one – there is a slowly creeping erosion of toffs in the media and this is one toff too many. A line should be drawn. Essentially, he wants a quota system.

That’s fair enough, but let’s be honest and open in saying that that’s what we want. He worries that the Beeb is “dominated by unlimited numbers of Scottish, Welsh, Geordie, Devon, Irish, Norfolk, or Essex accents” and wants fair weighting for all niche voices. That’s fair enough – the aristocratic accent is a pretty one, the airwaves are better with it included in our chorus. What is slightly more irksome is dressing this up as a buffer against the erosion of standards. This simultaneously suggests that you can’t pursue high standards with a regional accent and confounds extending the representation of the audience with ‘dumbing down’ (as in “It must be right to promote diversity on air. The BBC’s mistake, however, is to elevate popular culture, and those who peddle it, to represent the highest good.“).

Again, we’re not talking here about Today – that’s gone from one respected figure to another. What Max is complaining about is people on stations he doesn’t listen to². The argument is the same as it ever is: “Any national broadcasting organisation which thinks it clever, or indeed acceptable, to allow celebrity interviewers and chefs to exchange obscenities on air, because that is how their viewers and listeners are thought to talk, must expect us to respond cynically to its decisions.” Except that that is how the viewers and listeners talk. Max doesn’t, but he doesn’t watch shouty chef programmes anyway. He listens to Radio 4. Which is still a bastion of people who talk a bit like Max Hastings.

Cynicism isn’t the BBC moving away from ‘talking to’ to ‘talking with’. It’s taking advantage of a non-upsetting non-change and using it as a weapon to hit things you don’t like other people listening to or watching. Max gets the same value for his licence fee that he ever did – Radio 4 is still there. It’s time to stop letting the other stations upset him.


¹ Not, actually, that you’d know it from his conclusion: “The Today programme remains one of the best things the BBC produces. However, if the foolish doctrine of ‘accessibility’ takes over even there, then another blow is struck against the case for the compulsory licence levy.” Taken with the column that proceeds it, this is roughly equivalent to saying ‘Playschools are some of the safest places in the country. But if knife crime starts there, another blow will be struck against the government’s record on crime.’ It’s an entirely empty point.

² This may be unfair – he might be objecting to Eddie Meyer and John Humpries as well, high-water marks of yoof culture media saturation that they are.