Lionel Shriver

The persecution (and vindication) of Kevin Myers is a parable of our times

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

It seems seasonably suitable to celebrate good news. Unfortunately, as in most serviceable stories, for something good to happen, something bad had to happen first.

Though we’ve only been in sporadic touch since, I met Kevin Myers three decades ago at a boozy lunch in Dublin. He was already a journalistic institution. By his own estimation, he’s published roughly 7,000 columns, largely for the Irish Times and the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, totalling some five million words. He’s regularly stuck up for Israel, a state no more popular among Celtic worthies than among the Momentum sort. He also built his once-prodigious reputation by opposing the IRA, which at the time was not good for your health. He was twice assaulted by terrorists with AK-47s, one of which was shoved in his mouth. Yet 2017’s assault of a more metaphorical sort, he says, was actually more traumatic.

Two years ago, Myers wrote 17 words that outweighed the other 4,999,983. In a column about the BBC’s gender pay gap, he observed that two of the corporation’s best-paid female presenters were Jewish. ‘Good for them,’ he wrote, adding fatally, ‘Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price.’ The aside was meant as a compliment. It was not so perceived.

There proceeded one of the fastest and most furious pile-ons since the coinage of the expression. The column went online at midnight. By 9 a.m., Myers’s ‘anti-Semitism’ was leading the BBC news. Media consternation spread all the way to Malaysia, while Leo Varadkar, J.K. Rowling and Chelsea Clinton joined the fray. (In a sick sort of way, I’m almost jealous.) By noon, after no due process at the Sunday Times, Myers had been sacked.

This rolling stone gathered moss. During the initial spume of indignation, someone dug up a Myers column from 2009 entitled  ‘I’m a holocaust denier but I also believe the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jewish people’ — and neatly truncated the citation to read ‘I’m a holocaust denier’. (Remember, columnists do not write their own headlines.) In truth, if a little esoterically, Myers was questioning the use of the word ‘holocaust’, literally a single consuming conflagration, because Nazis murdered a vast number of Jews outside of the death camps. He contested the iconic ‘six million’ victims because the number may be too low.

In Ireland, digging for dirt among Myers’s old columns became such a nationwide pastime that it should have drawn subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy. Soon he wasn’t only a holocaust denier, but a racist, misogynist and Traveller-phobe. Overnight, he lost his standing, his livelihood, and his fair-weather friends — meaning, alas, most of his friends. ‘The most powerful force in human affairs,’ he wrote mournfully to me last year, ‘is cowardice’.

But it’s the holidays. When do we get to the happy ending?

At some financial risk, Myers sued RTÉ, the Irish equivalent of the BBC. RTÉ just lost the case. A fortnight ago, the broadcaster was legally compelled to announce on air that suggesting Myers was a holocaust denier ‘was untrue and defamatory’. On the contrary, he has ‘repeatedly testified to the scale and wickedness of Hitler’s final solution’. They acknowledged ‘the damage done to Mr Myers’s reputation. We regret this, and unreservedly apologise’. RTÉ is also obliged to pay costs and punitive compensation.

Fine, that original line about Jewish presenters could seem to reinforce the stereotype that money-grubbing Jews drive a hard bargain. Having copiously apologised, in hindsight Myers would certainly delete that painfully unimportant sentence. But since when do we annihilate accomplished people over a single careless textual afterthought? Why did one line count for everything, and a lifetime’s worth of distinguished, courageous writing count for beans? Why did the overwhelming support of Ireland’s Jewish community for Myers also count for beans?

Columnists write to deadline, and journalism is not by convention a precious profession. The columnist doesn’t sweat over every word like a poet. One of the pleasures of the form is knocking a piece out and moving on. By its nature the column is a bit dashed off, a bit hit-and-miss, winning some and losing some. So you compare a woman in a burka to a (morally neutral) letterbox and, big deal, the image doesn’t turn out to be all that funny. Maybe you end up saying you’re sorry, but one incidental misjudgment shouldn’t be the end of the world.

The Myers story didn’t entail the media being merely humourless or unforgiving, but mendacious. The unimpeachable text of that ‘holocaust denier’ column was available online. Yet he was hung still out to dry by his own colleagues, purported guardians of the truth. Meanwhile, Jews at Labour meetings are slandered as ‘Zio scum’ and ‘child killers’, or told that ‘Hitler was right’ and they should ‘go home and count their money’. I mean, this stuff isn’t subtle, is it? There is such a thing as anti-Semitism, and that’s what it looks like. By contrast, Myers’s mild slip-up was merely ill-considered.

In this season of goodwill, we’ve got to wonder how we arrived at a place where we routinely negate the achievements of whole careers after a single minor mistake — always in the name, we are told, of goodness, of justice. However secular, I’ll say it: such unsparing crucifixion is unchristian.

Joy to the world that one persecuted journalist has been vindicated. Yet restoring Kevin Myers to his former occupational good graces will take more than a begrudging RTÉ apology. Roger Scruton’s ultimately failed media mugging demonstrated the only remedy for frenzied attacks by the mob. Rational, decent people need to rescue one sullied reputation at a time. Herein, I do my small part. Happy Christmas, Kevin.

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