The BBC can’t resist speculating on the science

In this column (26 September), I pointed out that the National Trust’s new ‘Gazetteer’ of its 93 properties linked with slavery and ‘colonialism’ was not so much a scholarly documentation as ‘a charge sheet and a hit list’. Once the organisation entrusted with the care of a building denigrates that building’s most famous occupants, logic suggests it will care for the building less well than for that of an occupant it admires. This logic is already starting to work through. The National Trust owns Thomas Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, but now it has closed it ‘until further notice’, whereas all the other small houses of the Trust in London will reopen in March. For the first time since it was opened to the public in 1895, the place will have no live-in housekeeper. Although not stated, the reason for this downgrading would seem to be Carlyle’s racial views. When it does reopen, members are promised ‘a different visitor experience’. If you click on the Trust’s website entry for the house, you can listen to a podcast entitled ‘Think a Likkle: Lineage of Thought’ by Ellie Ikiebe, who is a New Museum School trainee at the National Trust. She appears not to have visited 24 Cheyne Row until making the podcast, but she knows what she wants to do with Carlyle. ‘If we truly acknowledged the lineage of thought, popular society would see the links between colonialism, white supremacy to the injustice of Breonna Taylor death and the black lives matter movement’, she says. She is ‘shifting the narrative to under-represented histories’. The ‘hidden history’ here is that Carlyle was a racist. His ‘lineage of thought’, which she wishes people to ‘break from’, is that white men dictate what we think. Two thoughts strike me. The first is that the history of Carlyle’s views has never been hidden: he has always been intensely controversial, and critics have alleged that some of his views assisted, long after his death, the development of fascist thought. The second is that a charity which publishes such a hostile piece by someone who appears not to know much about the subject is not a fit body to look after his heritage.

When Peregrine Worsthorne died last week, my mind went back to February 1986. There was great excitement at that time about the state of British newspapers. Rupert Murdoch was defeating the print unions at Wapping and the talk was of an entirely new, independent paper starting. (It did: it was called, suitably, the Independent.) At the same time, Conrad Black had finally gained complete control of the Telegraph group and was about to appoint his own editors. Owned by Australians and therefore observing from the touchline, The Spectator (which I was then editing) tried to analyse the situation mischievously. Who better to do so, I thought, than Perry Worsthorne? He was by far the Sunday Telegraph’s most famous writer at the time, and could be relied on to make trouble. When I commissioned him to write the article, Perry grinned in a slightly furtive way, and agreed. The following day — entirely without my foreknowledge or expectation — he was announced as the next editor of the Sunday Telegraph.

So the cover piece Perry produced (‘The Battle for Good Journalism’, 1 March 1986) turned into his manifesto. ‘I never thought any proprietor would make me editor’, he wrote, because editing in the era of the print union tyranny had meant an endless battle for survival, with little chance to reflect. But perhaps the happier commercial climate would allow room for ‘a writing and thinking editor’. He imagined ‘a latter-day Dr Johnson’: the paper would be ‘highly intelligent but also commonsensical, authoritative as well as readable; high-principled, without being in the least moralistic… There would be plenty of idiosyncratic opinion and shafts of dazzling originality.’ To a remarkable degree, Perry the editor achieved his aim, though I would take out the word ‘commonsensical’, which he rarely was, and add the word ‘fearless’, which he was all the time. His experiment ended prematurely, due to managerial anxieties, but it was splendid and gallant while it lasted. In his final years (he died aged 96), bedridden and almost completely lost to the world, beautifully looked after by his wife Lucy, who kept telling him (it was the truth) how handsome he was, Perry retained his dandified courage.

Last week, this September was pronounced the hottest ever worldwide. Seeking, as ever, to dramatise the story, the BBC reporter Roger Harrabin ended thus on Radio 4 News: ‘Scientists warn these extremes are happening with just one degree of heating globally, when under the current projected rate of carbon emissions, we’re heading towards three degrees.’ His sentence raised more questions than it answered. Which scientists? One degree of heating over what period? Who is responsible for the currently projected rate of carbon emissions he cites? When will their projected rise of three degrees be reached? And how do we know that the September ‘extremes’ he described — wildfires in California, half a metre of rain falling in a day in France — were caused by the one degree warming he mentioned? That single sentence was a neat encapsulation of the Harrabin method — moving deftly from probable fact (the September global figure) to imagined trend, to full-scale, undated catastrophe. The Reverend Mr Harrabin is always preaching that the end is nigh, but it is more than his job’s worth to say when.

Sensing when it began that Covid-19 would deprive people of many small pleasures and freedoms, I kept one or two things which would remind me of them, on a multum in parvo principle. I have a press release from the senior policy analyst at the Consumer Choice Center, an ‘advocacy group’, issued in mid-March. Its headline is ‘Greece banning snuff in times of emergency is undemocratic and cruel’. Hear! Hear! Sadly, even more undemocratic and cruel things have happened since then.

Originally published here.

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