Sunday, 6 November 2016

That Infamous Headline: a Question from Schooldays

Have we ever seen a more infamous headline in a British daily paper?

I mean the Daily Mail's front page on Friday 4 November. It was the day after the three High Court judges ruled that the government was bound by law to gain the consent of Parliament before invoking Article 50 and triggering Brexit. As we all know, it lined up mugshots of the three judges above the headline "Enemies of the People".

In a blog (here) the same day I spelled out what I thought was at stake in the High Court's ruling and the Prime Minister's rush to appeal it: respect for law, governance and parliamentary democracy. Many have defended the judges and many have dissented. Fair enough. Testing judgments is what legal process is for. But if you are going to dissent, it needs to be done intelligently. It's not enough to denounce, attack and stamp your foot. The Mail seems to me to be wilfully perverse in just not "getting" it. For this case in law has nothing to do with Brexit itself, whether Britain should or shouldn't leave the EU. It has everything to do with the legal process by which the referendum decision to leave is achieved. This, said the judges, was a matter for Parliament, not the Executive alone.

So the Mail's headline is based on the false premise that by interfering with the referendum Brexit vote, the judges were guilty of meddling in politics. But it's worse than that. To denounce them as "enemies of the people" is an offensive slur on their integrity and professionalism. They know the boundaries of the law's competence better than anyone. Straying beyond them in the High Court to play politics would be unthinkable. And if the judges have acted as enemies in upholding the role of Parliament in the Brexit process, that's tantamount to asserting that Parliament too is the enemy. If I were a parliamentarian, whatever my party or position on Brexit, I would be extremely angry.

This amounts to an implied attack on the independence of the judiciary. A free press is at liberty to disagree with judges just as it's free to dissent from politicians. But once it goes beyond that and starts saying, in effect, that the judgment should have found for the government because that was its business, the independence of judicial scrutiny is entirely subverted. The reality is that in the British Constitution, Prime Minister, her Executive and the Crown itself are all subject to the law of the land. It's the job of the judiciary to clarify what that law is. That's what the judges were doing as conscientiously as they knew how.

The Daily Mail has in the past won awards for its reporting and investigative journalism. So let's not disparage what the Mail has achieved just because we're at odds with it (not for the first time). But that doesn't excuse serious lapses of judgment. Cheap headlines like this are unworthy of a responsible paper. They don't clarify, they aren't truth-seeking, they don't foster serious debate and they don't help us to "disagree well" to use the Archbishop of Canterbury's phrase. All they do is to raise the temperature and fuel mistrust. They are more at home in regimes where the judiciary is in the pockets of dictators or powerful paylords, not in constitutional democracies like ours. "Enemies of the People" may achieve a dramatic effect (who will forget it?) but it's meretricious and unprincipled.

Now, the editor of the Daily Mail is Paul Dacre. I was at school with him in the 1960s: I think we were exact contemporaries. A writer rang me up a while ago to ask if I remembered him from schooldays. I replied that I hadn't known him well, but I did have a clear memory of one thing: his prowess on the rugby pitch. How I envied sporting ability like his! I was the clumsiest rugby player you ever saw and no better at cricket. Those who won their colours were like gods to me. I imagined there was nothing they could not and would not achieve in life. And becoming editor of a national newspaper is indeed a pretty big achievement.

You may have got the impression that he and I went to a typical public school where old-fashioned values were shaped by the classics, chapel services, corporal punishment, the playing field and the corps.  Well it wasn't like that at all. True, it was an independent (day) school where we did study classics and did play rugby. But our school had been founded by far-seeing and enlightened men in the early nineteenth century in pursuit of a vision for society shaped by utilitarian ideas and free of religious ideology. In the prep school I found myself in Bentham House. That says it all. For Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), virtue in a society meant "the greatest happiness for the greatest number". It has proved to be a profoundly influential idea throughout the English-speaking world thanks to the writings of John Stuart Mill.

Because of this, my parents decided to send me there. My father and mother were a mixed marriage of non-observants, Anglican and Jewish. They believed religion was a source of division and conflict in the world, and wanted their children educated in a liberal environment free of religious obligations and loyalties. (How ironic that it was at school that I found my Christian faith as a teenager, or rather, it found me. God moves in mysterious ways.) They wanted us to be good citizens of a world where religion, politics and ideas were debated in a tolerant way that was not afraid of diversity, and instead of invoking dogma, looked for understanding. They wouldn't have put it in quite that way. But it's what they were feeling for.

I realise how much I owe to that education. It's true that for a while, the conservative evangelical Christianity I'd embraced threatened to eclipse the liberal outlook I'd been formed in. I'm grateful that by the time I was ordained in the 1970s, I was able to see things in a larger context. I began to understand that if humanity is to survive, let alone flourish, we must all learn to live as adults in a world of religious, political and ideological differences. It's not that there's no place left for conviction or passion. It's how we express them and embody them that counts, and (just as important) how we listen to other people's passion and conviction. It's part of finding our place in the world where tolerance, understanding, generosity and trust are everything.

This was the school both Paul Dacre and I come from. So you'll see why Friday's headline poses a question for me. If our school influenced me in the ways I've described, I'm wondering how it influenced him too. For the editor of the Daily Mail presides over a paper that seems to me to have taken on Friday a rather different approach to the week's events from the one I'd thought he and I were schooled in. "Enemies of the People" is just not the way his education and mine taught us to do business. It tried to help us learn that we don't scream with rage or impugn one another's integrity; instead, we listen and try to understand; we argue it out, and if we differ it's without rancour. There's no place in the public discourse of a civilised society for shrillness. It brings no credit to a responsible newspaper that claims to be proud of our British values and ways of doing things.

So because I'm interested in human nature (it's my job to be), I'm intrigued by what motivates the thinking of this powerful and able man who for so long has sat at the helm of the Daily Mail. Perhaps my old school contemporary will tell us how his mind works nowadays, half a century after he and I parted company for the last time.


  1. Just by the by, my blogger dashboard has picked up 3 copies of this post, two "untitled".
    I'm afraid as far as your old school friend is concerned, I imagine he simply wants to sell more newspapers. But I totally agree with you.

  2. Find the new-style dashboard on mobile devices hard to manage and user-obscure. However, on this laptop, I can only see one version, and no drafts showing. But thanks!