The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator's Notes: What's the difference between the Sachs case and sexual harassment?

Plus: The Macpherson Report at 15, and the best of your first world war facts

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

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.

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  • First L

    Facts about the Great War.

    The German high command actually sent a letter to Belgium long before the declaration of war, asking if they would mind if Germany marched through Belgium in order to invade France as part of the Schlieffen plan. Belgium took one look at the letter, laughed, and said no. This was why Belgium was the only nation actually prepared to fight the Germans at the outbreak of the war. They knew it was coming. Thus putting the lie to the Franz Ferdinand theory. That was simply an excuse.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      BS. No evidence of this. Belgians weren’t caught with pants down completely because the country is very small.

      • First L

        Evidence for this is shown in the War Diaries of King Albert I of Belgium.

        • ClausewitzTheMunificent

          I wasn’t disagreeing about the Germans asking for permission, I was disagreeing about the timing! You try to make it look as if the war was premeditated, by suggesting a note was sent before the assassination. This is preposterous. Moreover, the Belgians did not have much time to react, but being a small country they called up their army quickly and deployed it to the centre of the country. The Belgians did not have some magical insight because of the permission note because it was fairly obvious where the various armies would fight it out anyway. And about the Belgian Kings, well, can’t say I have a high opinion of them. Worst colonial masters in Europe, and ruling over a country which would eventually grace us with His Nonentity Verhofstadt.

          • First L

            The war was premeditated. Germany had been preparing the Schlieffen plan (the plan that it put into execution in 1914, that immediately failed because it did not consider the Belgian resistance) since 1897. How is that not premeditated?

            I am not defending the Belgian Kings – Leopold is directly responsible for one of the greatest death tolls in history even if it was through sheer incompetence rather than tyranny. But the crimes of Albert’s father are not the crimes of Albert.

          • ClausewitzTheMunificent

            Well we have a tinfoil situation here. Every country makes military plans against its most likely enemies. The Schlieffen Plan did not fail because of Belgian resistance, it failed because 1) too many resources had to be diverted East to face the Russians and 2) the French were lucky that the Germans made a deployment error at the Battle of the Marne. To further disprove the point, the Schlieffen Plan was completely unsuited to the war which broke out in 1914. It rested on the fact that in 1905 Russia was weak and France strong, and that neither could mobilise quickly. None of these was true in 1914. A far better option would have been to defend in the West and crush the Russians – as can be conjectured by the disastrous French offensives against Lothringen, but decision making was so rushed in 1914 – BECAUSE IT WAS NOT PREMEDITATED – that an older plan had to be used – there was no time to change vastly complicated transport programs. By the by, this problem also affected the AH Empire which really screwed up the first few weeks by sending enough troops to Serbia to weaken its armies in Galicia, but not enough to crush the Serbs. Again, hardly the mistakes likely to be made in implementing a pre-thought out plan.

          • First L

            You’ve got it all wrong. Schlieffen was designed to wipe out France before taking on Russia. For Schlieffen to work, the Germans needed to be in Paris two weeks from the outbreak of war. The exact same plan that worked in WW2.This was precisely why they asked the Belgians for permission to march through. Instead the Belgians resisted and two weeks after the outbreak the Germans were still stuck outside Liege facing both east and west instead of having conquered the west and just facing east. Either way, the Germans were the aggressors and therefore working to a premeditated plan, everyone else was simply scrambling to respond to the Germans.

          • ClausewitzTheMunificent

            I did not get it wrong. I know that the Schlieffen Plan was a formula of West then East. I was stating that the Plan was completely out of date by 1914 – and gave empirical reasons why a defensive posture in the West would have been more effective. The Manstein Plan of 1940 could not have been more different to the 1905 Plan of Schlieffen nor could it have been conceived under a more different distribution of forces. At a basic level, one involved huge operation on two fronts and a carefully drawn up transport timetable with the final strategic aim of winning a quick war, whereas the former was designed as an opening tactical gambit on one front, and was essentially a gamble. The territory traversed was also different – the bulk of the Army in the First World War moved through Aachen and Belgium, in the Second a feint through the Low Countries (including Belgium) allowed a concentrated mobile force to cross the border through a French forest. As a last point, the 1905 plan was designed to bring the Army to Paris and there pin down and crush the French, while the 1940 plan was designed to cut off the bulk of the Allied armies from their commanders and provide an eminently favourable starting point for what was expected to be a long campaign. Moreover, the German offensive of 1914 was not seriously hindered by the Belgians who were quickly crushed, as at Liege. The Germans did not destroy Belgium purposefully, the destruction in Belgium was the result of it being the battleground of four years of industrial warfare. The invading army shot a few thousand Belgians in the heat of the invasion and in the rush to get to France. This was partly due to the fact that in 1870 civilian snipers had been a real problem and this undoubtedly led to an overreaction, which however, was vastly magnified by the Allied propaganda machine. The last two sentences are particularly simplistic and troubling. The decision to declare war was the fruit of a several month long international political crisis, a crisis which the other Powers, in particular the Russians, helped to bring to a head – being the first to mobilise in what was certainly not a friendly move. The Russians knew this would probably trigger a war, but did so nonetheless. The Germans then had to make a near instantaneous decision – a decision which they probably got wrong. Why should the Germans have thrown all caution to the wind, all patience out of the window and attacked its neighbours? It doesn’t make any sense to ascribe this to a premeditated move. Everyone fears its neighbours and has contingency plans in place, but a contingency plan a crime does not make.

  • Christopher Lennon

    When I was a child, in the fifties, our house overlooked a pleasant park in which we children were allowed to play and we spent a lot of time there. There would always be elderly ladies, walking their Pekinese, or Yorkshire Terriers, to whom we used to chatter. My mother explained that these ladies had not been able to find husbands, because of the WW1 losses, who included her own uncle. My mother also had two maiden aunts by marriage, who were of that generation and my older father had a spinster sister. The sad truth is that there were very many women who lost potential partners, or never found a partner and it was one of the profound, long-term effects of the War. I must disagree with Professor Vincent.

  • Liz

    The real victim in this, the person who was publicly humiliated, was ostracised by her grandfather and received NO apology or recognition of the fact while the men concentrated on apologising to one another, was Georgiana Baille.

  • Liz

    I think women are probably ready for one kind of injustice to replace the other kind that has been operating for the last 40,000 years. Perhaps if that happens, men will be more motivated to tackle the injustice at source instead of coasting and relying on women taking evasive action.

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