So far, Leather looked like an ordinary huckster in the style of Jayson Blair, the plagiarist and fantasist, who conned the New York Times. He was trying to make a quick buck, and he was not too choosy about how he did it. His unselfconscious bragging aside, the most bizarre aspect of the affair appeared to be that Leather was not a desperate unknown struggling to attract attention. He was the second bestselling British author on Kindle worldwide in 2011 and had no need to play low tricks.
But, as so often with British frauds, the story did not end there.
For Sweden’s Axess magazine.
Scandinavian culture is all the rage in Britain. The crime novels of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have been popular for years, and their success has not disconcerted the London cultural establishment. But the success of Scandinavian television is another matter. It raises hard questions for British programme makers. Beginning with Swedish television’s adaptation of Mankel’s novels, the realisation grew that the best Scandinavian television drama was as good as the best British television drama. After The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, we began to realise that it was better.
For the self-congratulatory world of British broadcasting, that knowledge was a shock. British television likes to say that it is “the best in the world”. And in the 1970s and 1980s, the boasting seemed justified . Britain once exported quality drama and classic serials, and imported downmarket game shows, mainly from America. There has been a huge decline since then. Britain is now the world’s largest exporter and “format television” on the lines of Pop Idol and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? As for quality drama, I made the argument a few years ago that Britain and America have swapped roles. Now we import the Wire, Homeland and other high-class dramas from America, while sending light and lowbrow game shows abroad.
When the competition only came from the United States, British television’s pride could remain intact. American channels, after all, had resources that the British could not match. Now Denmark and Sweden are producing serials that excite British viewers that old argument no longer holds.
What has gone wrong?
From Stockholm’s Axess magazine
Swedish version here
Foreigners whose knowledge of Britain comes from the BBC or the Financial Times can believe that the English journalist is like the English gentleman: polite, meticulous and fair. Only when visitors pick up the popular press do they see a different, raucous and frankly bewildering country: obsessed with celebrities sport and sex. The British tabloids are aggressive, politically biased – usually towards right wing populist causes – opposed to the European Union, prurient, sanctimonious, bullying and, as we now know, criminal.
London’s Metropolitan Police has arrested almost 100 journalists, editors and newspaper contacts (and I am sure that more arrests will follow). Some are reporters I know, charged with hacking phones – that is of finding a way round the often primitive security of mobile phone companies and listening to voice mail messages. To the disgust of just about everyone, the targets did not just include celebrities, but a kidnapped girl and the victims of Islamist terror attacks on London. Other targets for detectives have been the police and prison officers journalists allegedly bribed for information. For all their alleged crimes, both the reporters and their contacts are minor figures. The scandal is politically explosive because Labour and Conservative governments concluded that they could not govern Britain without the support of Rupert Murdoch. They flattered him and his senior managers, who presided over the loose morals of the old newspaper industry. So alongside the tabloid reporters and the lowly police officers, detectives have arrested Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s former editor of the Sun, and Andy Coulson, who moved from editing a Murdoch paper to become David Cameron’s spin doctor. Politicians once grovelled before Brooks and Coulson, asked their advice on policy and invited them to their parties. Now they regret it. David Cameron in particular is as caught up in the scandal as journalists and editors.
Lord Justice Leveson is set to deliver his verdict on phone hacking. As politicians and journalists prepare for a battle over possible state regulation of the press, Jacqui Hames, the former Crimewatch presenter and hacking victim, debates the issues with Observer writer Nick Cohen
The past year will be remembered as a time when authority became more unaccountable; when potential sources learned that they could be fired and sent to court; and the journalists who talked to them learned the same.
The police, prison service and armed forces are the coercive arm of the British state. We should want them to be leaky. We should want those in charge to fear that the public can find out what they are doing. Now they are more secretive than ever. The people who are cheering on the round-up of the despised tabloid hacks are the same people who want to scrutinise the state. They are about to learn that censorious power does not only target those the respectable despise. Once unleashed, it oozes across boundaries and suffocates stories that right-thinking people rightly believe the media must publish.
For Axess Magasin
Swedish version here
In 2009 I stood with a marvellous group called British Muslims for Secular Democracy at a demonstration in central London. We were protesting against a march by Islam4UK, a clerical fascist outfit that straddled the line between extremist politics and terrorism. I loved the young men and women for their courage in standing up for liberal values. “Laugh at the enemies of Islam,” they chanted. “Freedom of speech will rule the world.”
At that time the European left was in a terrible mess about how to oppose the religious right, a mess that continues to this day. In theory good liberals were against sexism, racism and homophobia. In practice, they failed to condemn radical Islamists, who were also sexists, racists and homophobes, because they feared becoming the targets of violence themselves or because they feared accusations of “Islamophobia” or some other form of political incorrectness.
The band of 20 young Muslims were on their own. No one would support them, apart from strange men carrying British flags, standing a few metres away. I recognised one as a former football hooligan I had met before. I went over to ask him what was going on, and learned that he and his friends were members of an organisation called the English Defence League. They were not neo-Nazis, they assured me. They supported women’s rights and gay rights. They just wanted to protest against radical Islamists whose supporters bombed London, and attacked the funeral processions of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fair enough, I thought, I’ve been expecting something like this for a while. If the European liberal mainstream abandons its principles and seeks to “engage” with theocrats, it must expect a reaction. For about an hour, I believed that English Defence League was better than the Islamists it opposed. But not for longer.
Defending Philip Larkin from his critics, Christopher Hitchens said that readers loved him because he understood everyday suffering. He mapped ‘decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates and clinics’ better than most social democrats. While dying is often referred to as‘going down hill’, Hitchens saw that Larkin realised that debilitation is not an easy glide to oblivion but an exhausting climb of ‘extinction’s alp’.
Hitchens’s account of his climb to extinction is Larkinesque, and not only because his sentences stay in the mind as firmly as good poetry. Hitchens maps the world of intensive care. Not without regret, he dismisses those who pretend they can soften its horrors, including perhaps his younger self. A heart-breaking final chapter contains quotations from great writers that he scrawled as material for an essay he would never live to write. As the pneumonia brought on by oesophageal cancer overwhelmed him, Hitchens recalled Larkin’s reprimand, in ‘Aubade’, of atheists who believe that stoicism will see them through:
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
‘Fair enough in one way,’ Hitchens writes. ‘Atheists ought not to be offering consolation.’ Notice that he did not write ‘false consolation’, as most of us would. Mortality is an argument against comforting cliché, among which the notion that cancer sufferers are ‘fighting’ their tumours outdoes even ‘going down hill’. Hitchens does not feel like a warrior. If only he were like a soldier in battle or a revolutionary on the barricades, he thinks. If only he were suffering for a purpose. But you cannot fight when you are ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water’. Nor is one surprised to learn that Nietzsche had not experienced chronic illness when he offered his ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ for healthy men and women to quote until they learned better. As for purpose: in the best and bleakest line in the book, Hitchens reflects, ‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not”?’