In last week’s column, Alex Kane’s argues that Boris Johnston was wrong to go to Liverpool and make the apology his political leader ordered, declaring, “A political column which doesn’t regularly provoke and offend, is a column which isn’t worth reading!”
PS: I’m still away from Slugger Central but still contactable at mick_fealty[at]hotmail[dot]com.By Alex Kane
I met Boris Johnson very briefly at a Conservative Party Conference about five or six years ago. It was before he had been elected to Parliament and he was entertaining a very large audience at a fringe meeting on the subject of conservatism in the 21st century. The impression I formed of then, has remained with me: that of a hugely likeable guy who had decided that celebrity status was a much more effective base for influence than that of mere political or journalistic status. I realised, too, that behind the shambolic, bumbling, cuddly-bear front, lay a very sharp mind and an equally sharp pen.
I was genuinely surprised, therefore, that he decided to become an MP, for he struck me as a natural maverick and someone who would find himself permanently constrained by the party whip structures of the Conservative Party. It would surely only be a matter of time before he would find himself being forced to choose between loyalty to his conscience and manufactured duty to the party leader. (And, believe me, I know that dilemma only too well!)
That moment arrived last week, when he sanctioned an editorial in the Spectator magazine which was deemed to have insulted and offended the people of Liverpool in general, and the family of Kenneth Bigley in particular. Michael Howard claimed that the article was “…rubbish from beginning to end…” and an order was issued from Central Office that Johnson would be dispatched to Liverpool, where there would be a series of orchestrated media opportunities to apologise for the offence he had supposedly caused.
In my opinion, albeit from a much more lowly position as a fellow columnist, I believe that Johnson was wrong to board the grovel train. A political column which doesn’t regularly provoke and offend, is a column which isn’t worth reading! Yes, there are moments when a columnist can wander into the realms of libel, and, when that happens, there are well-trod legal routes to follow. But an apology which seems to have been kickstarted by a political party wary of alienating potential voters, is an apology not worth having.
Anyway, I happen to believe that the general points made in the editorial were accurate. We don’t know how to handle grief anymore and there has been a “…disproportionate convulsion of grief for Mr Bigley.” In the space of a few weeks he moved from, “an unknown British man,” to “Kenneth Bigley,” to “Ken” and finally, to “poor Ken.” Six months from now it will be, “that man Bigley” and within a year, “you know, that guy that was beheaded, Ben somebody.”
That is the reality of life today. For a few weeks the whole nation knew about Kenneth Bigley, for he represented a story for newspapers keen to prop up circulation, as well as becoming an icon for those opposed to the war in the first place. The stark and unpleasant fact of the matter was that the unfortunate Mr. Bigley happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have genuine sympathy for his loved ones, but we must never allow sympathy to be cynically translated into cosmetic, politically motivated empathy.
And that is my primary objection to Johnson’s decision to go to Liverpool. He allowed himself to become a part of the culture of “ignorant sentimentality” that had been railed against in the editorial. In choosing duty to the party over loyalty to his conscience, he has only succeeded in corking and blunting his own pen.
First published in the Newsletter, on Saturday October 23rd, 2004
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty