I’m sorry I caused offence to Liverpool
I can’t remember what words Paul Bigley used to describe me yesterday afternoon, on the line to a BBC studio, but I think he said I was “a self-centred, pompous twit”. He wanted to say how much he disliked my appearance, my voice, my mannerisms, and how much he wished I would just disappear.
No matter how big your ego, there is something crushing in being so addressed, not just because I have never met Paul Bigley, but also because he has just suffered an appalling bereavement, and is the object of national sympathy.
How do you feel? they all asked, when I left the studio. Do you feel bad? asked the girls and lads with the cameras and the notebooks.
The answer was that I felt winded, drained by a sudden proximity to personal suffering and grief. I felt like Police Chief Brodie in Jaws, slapped round the face by the mother of the little kid killed by the shark.
There was nothing I could really say, except to repeat what we said in last week’s leader in The Spectator: that we had extended our maximum sympathy to him and his family.
Just as I was recovering from this encounter, I found myself sitting next to a survivor of the Hillsborough tragedy, and it may not surprise you to know that he took much the same view of me as Paul Bigley had, and that this was also pretty shattering.
You have good days, and less good days, and yesterday was one of the less good days. There are those who say that I should not have gone, and that it was unnecessary for The Spectator to apologise for the tiniest fraction of its leading article. We should have stuck to our guns, people tell me, and to hell with Liverpool and to hell with the Tory leadership.
Well, I am not so sure. It is true that there were plenty of people who were warm, and welcoming, and kind. There was the man in the park who was out for his morning run, wearing a tracksuit, who hailed me with the words: “Oi Boris, never mind the bollocks, a lot of what you said was true.” There was the Scouser at the airport who said, as he frisked me, that he agreed with every word of it.
But, in between, there were dozens and dozens of people who showed every sign of genuine hurt and incomprehension. Why did we make these cruel generalisations about welfare-addicted Liverpudlians? Why had we felt it necessary to drag in the Bigley family’s tragedy? Above all, why had we got our facts wrong about Hillsborough?
Of course, if I were simply an editor, and not an MP as well, I would have brushed it all off with a few phrases, nicely done up in an all-purpose letter of semi-apology, and asked my secretary to pp the letters. I would have remained behind the wonderful garden wall of journalism, able to chuck my rocks with no thought for the tinkling of the greenhouse.
But having been to Liverpool, and having been eyeball to glistering eyeball with those who felt they deserved an apology, I am glad I went, and I think at least some of them are a bit glad that I went, too.
I was able to say sorry for causing offence, and sorry for any hurt done to the Bigley family, and sorry for having reopened old wounds over Hillsborough, and that, in so far as we inaccurately represented the characteristics of the Liverpudlians, by resorting to some tired old stereotypes, I was sorry for that, too.
But, as I said on the radio, as I said on the street to a bunch of trainee nurses, as I said to everyone I met, this was only a partial and qualified apology. Michael Howard had called The Spectator’s leading article, “Nonsense from beginning to end.”
Well, I know of no doctrine that means members of the shadow front bench have to see eye to eye about every article that appears in the press, and in my view Michael is wrong on that. My view of our piece is that it spoke a lot of good sense, vitiated by tastelessness and inaccuracy.
There are some who say that it was outrageous that Johnson the editor should have been ordered to eat humble pie by Michael Howard. But they miss the point, that I was already consuming large quantities of humble pie before Michael made his suggestion, that any editor would have felt obliged to make some amends for that article – in view of the outrage that was provoked – and that, in any event, Johnson the politician apologises for and refuses to apologise for exactly the same things as Johnson the editor.
The leader was about the cult of sentimentality in modern Britain, which is allied to the cult of victimhood, and I wanted a leader on it not because I wanted to insult the people of Liverpool, but because I believe that we have a serious problem, in that we tend these days at every opportunity to blame the state, and to seek redress from the state, when things go wrong in our lives.
Yes, it was tasteless to make this point in the context of Ken Bigley’s death, and I am sorry for the hurt this has caused his family. But when the late hostage’s family said that Tony Blair had Ken Bigley’s “blood on his hands”, that was nonsense. Only those who killed Ken Bigley had his blood on their hands, and it should not be taboo to say so.
It is important to make this point about our tendency to blame the state, because we live in an increasingly atomised society, where the state does more and more, and emotions and affections that might once have been directed at family or neighbours are diverted into outbursts of sentimentality.
We are so ready to see ourselves as victims that we live in an increasingly hysterical health-and-safety compensation culture in which lawyers try to find someone else – usually the state – to blame for the misfortunes of their clients. That was the gist of the leader, and for that I make no apology.
Boris Johnson is MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator
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