It is 15 years since the publication of the Macpherson Report into the investigation of the death of Stephen Lawrence. The report may have done some good by making the police take crime against black people more seriously, but its main legacy is bad. Macpherson promulgated the doctrine that ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ If the incident is thus defined then there is literally no end to racist incidents; and if the (self-defining) victims — or anyone else — can define a racist incident thus then the person alleged by them to be guilty is automatically convicted. This principle that victimhood is self-chosen and cannot be questioned is now being applied more widely. It is the rule governing the alleged sexual assaults by the late Jimmy Savile, and it would seem to be the line of reasoning (or rather, lack of reasoning) which has brought famous people like Dave Lee Travis and Bill Roache to court. I hope it is not affecting the judgment of the Crown Prosecution Service as it forces a retrial of Travis on two of the charges. The same dogma has induced the Liberal Democrats to demand that Lord Rennard should say sorry for his supposed sexual harassment as they published a report finding no court-standard evidence against him: he was innocent until proved innocent, one might say. Clearly there is a serious difficulty about the fact that some wrongs, especially sexual ones, are hard to prove, and so powerful people tend to escape punishment, but one does not correct past mistakes by making new, symmetrically bad ones which also go against justice.
A recent interview with the actor Andrew Sachs reminds one how asymmetrical this question of offence is. It was Mr Sachs who was the victim of the revolting ‘prank’ calls by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, which they broadcast, with the BBC’s agreement, on Radio 2 in 2008. In these calls — all of them messages which they left on his answering machine — they said that Brand had slept with Mr Sachs’s grand-daughter and fantasised that he probably had near his telephone a photograph of the girl, as a child, sitting on a swing. In short, the ‘joke’ which the programme aired was Brand’s violation of a grandfather’s idyll. Mr Sachs protested to the BBC, but he was so upset that he avoided public comment. Six years later, he says that the ‘lewd banter’ was ‘deeply hurtful’. The punishment for Brand and Ross — a suspension — was negligible, and Ross survived for nearly two more years at the BBC, being paid £6 million a year. Yet what they did was at least as vile as low-level sexual harassment, with the added indignity for the victim that they did it in front of millions. Essentially, they got away with it, because their fame made them powerful. All the present court cases are brought against formerly powerful celebrities, rather than ones at the peak of their careers. Our courage in the face of celebrity power still has some way to go.
One evening last week, I left a dinner in Mayfair and walked down the street. From a side street came a man with red hair and a wild look. He saw me coming and waited. He was a former soldier, he said, and gave his name, rank and serial number; but he was homeless. He railed against ‘eligibility’ rules. He was not an addict, he told me, and rolled up his sleeves to show me his clean arms. He looked in reasonable health, except for very bad teeth. His speech was polite, and he did not directly ask me for money. Something about his eloquence and his immense frustration at his own predicament impressed me. I suddenly gave him £20, at which, visibly surprised, he saluted. Would it have been better to give him more, or less, or nothing? Was I truly helping him? I doubted it, but I concluded that it was impossible to know. The only thing I felt sure of was that I had, in effect, paid him for a service, for putting on a performance which I found touching. Even if he was lying about having been a soldier, I still find it touching.
Thank you for your response to my appeal for startling facts about the first world war. The most striking, so far, comes from Professor John Vincent. He argues that the Great War probably did not diminish the total number of young men in Britain. This is because, until the war, emigration had been very high. The war stopped it dead. Professor Vincent’s uncle, for example, who wanted to start his own farm in Ballarat, had booked his passage to Australia for 4 August 1914. When he turned up at Southampton, he was told that all sailing had been cancelled for the duration. Professor Vincent says he does not have precise figures himself, but argues that if emigration in 1914 was running at about 200,000 a year, the loss of British soldiers in the war was, arithmetically, neutral (which is not, of course, a way of implying that it did not matter).
All startling Great War facts are welcome, but I should add that the ones which most interest me are those which remind us that the war was not merely, or even mainly, a British/German affair. Although we call it a world war, we see it nationally. Possibly this is inevitable, but it is extremely misleading.
Anchor butter must be one of the best-known and most solid brands in this country. Its pleasingly dull packaging exudes reliability, as do the words ‘New Zealand’, whence it comes. Except that it doesn’t. For more than a year now, the Anchor sold in this country has been produced in Westbury in Wiltshire. Protests have been strangely muted. Imagine the uproar if Bell’s or Famous Grouse whisky were quietly made in Birmingham. Besides, experts (I am not one, because I prefer unsalted butter) tell me that British Anchor, subliminally passing itself off as the real thing, does not taste half so nice.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10