Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The Strange Case of Kilroy-Silk

There has been considerable commentary on both sides of the Atlantic over the chastisement of a BBC talk-show host over remarks printed in another paper, the Sunday Express.

The BBC suspended its Kilroy programme yesterday after the presenter, Robert Kilroy-Silk, caused outrage by writing a newspaper article attacking Arabs. ... In a piece, headed "We owe Arabs nothing", Kilroy-Silk claimed they had contributed nothing to the world apart from oil and referred to them as "suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors". He added: "What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 then danced in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate the murders?"

That had him awaiting not only the sack, but the bastinado.

The Muslim Council of Great Britain and other groups wrote to the BBC, claiming the article was racist and made Kilroy-Silk unsuitable to present his show. The programme, which has run for 17 years and attracts 1.2 million viewers, usually focuses on family, health and relationship matters. Lynne Jones, a Labour MP, called in the Commons for the BBC to sack Kilroy-Silk, while the Commission for Racial Equality referred the article to the police to see if there were grounds for a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred.

Penalties were addressed not just to Kilroy-Silk, but to the newspaper which published his article, the act of publication being grounds in itself to arouse suspicion. The Sunday Express, in which Silk's article had appeared, originally planned on purchasing the Daily Telegraph. It's fitness is now in doubt. 

The media watchdog Ofcom will take into account the row over Robert Kilroy-Silk's "anti-Arab rant" in the Sunday Express when it examines any bid from the paper's owner for The Daily Telegraph. Matt Peacock, director of communications at Ofcom, said that every bidder for a newspaper such as The Daily Telegraph must give details of complaints made against their existing publications. The details of these objections, together with "the outcome of complaints and details of any policy to apologise or publish corrections" will be considered before giving the green light to a deal. Ministers have the power to ask Ofcom to investigate whether there are any "public interest" grounds for stopping an interested party from buying the papers. ... The CRE has referred the article to the Metropolitan Police as a case of incitement to racial hatred, which is a criminal offence. The Muslim Council of Britain has taken the issue to the Press Complaints Commission.

Mark Steyn characterized the whole affair, which is far from ended, as "censorship" and an assault on "free speech". It is that, but it is much more. It is an application of Party Discipline. Kilroy-Silk had unthinkingly, perhaps unconsciously transgressed an unwritten law, not to be found in any gazette, and insusceptible to citation, which governs the behavior of the Party. It will do no good to observe, as Mark Steyn does, that the BBC continues to let Tom Paulin, a man who said "Brooklyn-born" Jewish settlers on the West Bank "should be shot dead" because "they are Nazis" serve in their studios because that is an appeal to equal protection -- an irrelevant concept -- as what is at issue here is not British law but Inner Party law. Once that is understood, everything becomes crystal clear. First the admonition to criticism-self-criticism:

"What Robert could do," suggested the CRE's Trevor Phillips helpfully, "is issue a proper apology, not for the fact that people were offended, but for saying this stuff in the first place. Secondly he could learn something about Muslims and Arabs – they gave us maths and medicine – and thirdly he could use some of his vast earnings to support a Muslim charity. Then I would say he has been properly contrite."

Then the show trial.

It is understood executives were angered by Kilroy-Silk's decision to give ITV's highest-profile news presenter an interview in which he repeatedly refused to say whether he believed there were limits to freedom of speech. An investigation into his anti-Arab remarks will be conducted swiftly by Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television, and Alison Sharman, controller of daytime programmes. It is thought that a decision on the former Labour MP's future as a daytime talk show host will be made by the end of the week or the beginning of next. They are understood to be concentrating not on whether the comments, made in his Sunday Express column last week were racist or whether their decision will be criticised for limiting freedom of speech. Instead, they are focusing on whether Kilroy-Silk can still perform the obligation in his contract "to produce and present a topical discussion programme with due impartiality".

The important thing is to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally what fate awaits any cub reporter, apprentice host, news reader or writer who fails to heed the whispered law of the invisible government. And the stick will be in pointed contrast to the carrot of money, celebrity and ease offered to all those who sign articles with the Party. The most curious aspect of Party discipline is the extreme vagueness of what constitutes an offense. That is intentional: to instill in the Member a horror not only for transgressing the Party's edicts, but even it's mood. As Orwell noted in 1984, Party discipline is most effective when those under investigation are not even sure what they are being punished for, yet are ready to confess all the same. When Winston Smith meets the innocuous Ampleforth in the antechamber to Room 101, he asks:

'What are you in for?'

'To tell you the truth -- ' He sat down awkwardly on the bench opposite Winston. 'There is only one offence, is there not?' he said.

'And have you committed it?'

'Apparently I have.'

He put a hand to his forehead and pressed his temples for a moment, as though trying to remember something.

'These things happen,' he began vaguely. 'I have been able to recall one instance -- a possible instance. It was an indiscretion, undoubtedly. We were producing a definitive edition of the poems of Kipling. I allowed the word "God" to remain at the end of a line. I could not help it!' he added almost indignantly, raising his face to look at Winston. 'It was impossible to change the line. The rhyme was "rod". Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to "rod" in the entire language? For days I had racked my brains. There was no other rhyme.'

The expression on his face changed. The annoyance passed out of it and for a moment he looked almost pleased. A sort of intellectual warmth, the joy of the pedant who has found out some useless fact, shone through the dirt and scrubby hair.

'Has it ever occurred to you,' he said, 'that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?'

No rhymes and no reason.


Reader BM points out a National Review article detailing the travails of the Belgian Alain Hertoghe, who was sacked from the Catholic newspaper La Croix for writing a book claiming that the French press had distorted its coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I experienced collective and spontaneous silence." Other than a paragraph in a column in Le Figaro and an item in a free paper distributed to commuters, no major French newspaper has reviewed the book, or even mentioned it. ... The icy treatment has surprised Hertoghe. "I was excited that I would be challenged on whether my book was fair," he said, "because I knew I had been fair. I hoped for a debate. But instead...." Instead, just before Christmas, Hertoghe was confronted by his editor, Bruno Frappat. He was told by Frappat that he had "committed an act of treason" and fired.

Don't bother researching which French statute Hertoghe violated. He didn't. It was an Inner Party rule he violated, and those are the ones that count.