From Boris Johnson – sent to the Liverpool Daily Post this morning
It is quite an education to be at the centre of one of these sudden media firestorms: the cameras on the doorstep, the phone ringing off the hook, the endless requests for interviews, the shouted abuse.
By Saturday morning my poor Commons secretary was so overcome by the avalanche of electronic hate mail that she had to retire to her bed. And yet I can’t really pretend to be surprised.
We had a firestorm because we had an editorial in the magazine that was frankly incendiary, and I have no one to blame but myself.
I am the editor. I put it there. I must now take responsibility for enraging my party leader, alienating the people of a great city, and incurring the anger of not a few of The Spectator’s readers.
What on earth was I thinking of?
How could I possibly have approved an attack on Liverpool?
I will tell you the genesis of the piece. I was driving a child to a football match, and we were listening on the radio to the start of the England-Wales game, where it was the intention to hold a minute’s silence in memory of Ken Bigley.
I listened with mounting disbelief and disgust; because instead of keeping silent – as the people of Liverpool kept silent – the crowd started to jabber. Then they started to swear, and jeer, and catcall.
After what seemed like barely twenty or thirty seconds the ref was so embarrassed that he gave up, and blew the whistle for the start of the game. The following day I looked in the papers for an account of this disgrace, and found nothing, and thought we should have a piece on it.
I brooded on the causes. How could people behave so thuggishly, when called upon to hold a minute’s silence?
It occurred to me that the crowd’s reaction showed there was something by definition false in the decision to hold the minute’s silence. The ceremony required people to show an emotion that – manifestly, alas – they did not all feel.
Suppose a British crowd had been asked to hold a minute’s silence for those who died in the second world war. Or suppose that they were asked to commemorate all the British soldiers who have died in Iraq, or the victims of some IRA atrocity.
I don’t believe that silence would have been interrupted by anything more than a cough.
So it struck me that a large part of the crowd was in a sense rebelling against an imposed sentiment; and that made me think about a leader on the difficulties of the culture of sentimentality in modern Britain. No doubt I shall be strongly criticized for saying this, but I still believe that the underlying point of that editorial was serious, and was worth pondering.
Whatever apologies I am about to make, it would be absurd and Orwellian if I were to perform a complete intellectual U-turn, and repudiate, this week, the main point of a leader I published last week.
I still think it worth saying that it is a sad truth that tumultuous displays of grief, like those we saw for Ken Bigley, will tend to encourage the Islamic terrorists, because they increase the political value of each kidnapping and murder.
Time and again, in the leader, we stressed our horror and revulsion at Ken Bigley’s death.
Time and again we extended our heartfelt sympathies to his family. But we also pointed out that it was wrong of some of the Bigley family to say that Tony Blair had Ken’s blood on his hands, because in our view the people who had Ken Bigley’s blood on their hands were the people who killed him.
And I say that because I do not believe it would have been right for the Government to negotiate with his kidnappers in such a way as to encourage further kidnappings, and jeopardize the lives of others working in Iraq.
We concluded with a point – which I stick by – about risk, and the risks Ken was willingly running, and our modern refusal to accept that we may be in any way the authors of our own misfortunes. I now think that the point was valid, but that it was tasteless to make it in the context of Ken Bigley’s death.
I am truly sorry for any offence we may have caused his relatives.
But I am sorry, too, for the hurt and dismay we have so evidently caused in our description of Liverpool. There may well be some Liverpudlians who still answer to the characteristics in question – just as there are all over the country. We should not have generalized, so as to seem to refer to everyone in Liverpool.
Above all, we have simply no excuse for getting our facts wrong about the Hillsborough tragedy. We said “more than 50” Liverpool supporters died. That was I suppose technically accurate, but the real number was 96, as ten seconds on Google would have shown.
And we should clearly not have blamed drunken fans at the back, when this cause was specifically ruled out by the inquiry report.
A lot of people have said that this whole business shows that you can’t be both a politician and a journalist, and that there are things you can get away with as a columnist that you simply can’t say as a member of the Tory front bench.
I am not so sure. After all, I am not the first journalist to be forced to say sorry to the people of Liverpool – as I do – for misrepresenting what happened at Hillsborough.
I repeat that in so far as the leader made a serious point about
risk and sentimentality, and the culture of blame, I stick by it. In so far as it imposed an outdated stereotype on the whole of Liverpool, and thereby caused offence, I sincerely apologise.