The Silliness of Simon Heffer

What a strange creature the Daily Telegraph has become. Some of its economics and business coverage is truly excellent – nuanced, intelligent and knowledgeable. Jeremy Warner, Edmund Conway and Roger Bootle are must-reads.

Obviously, I am not including Ambrose Evans Pritchard in that line-up: his presentation of himself as some kind of media Cassandra becomes increasingly a bore. Nuanced is not a word that could be applied to Ambrose’s journalism — and that goes way back before his surprising re-incarnation as an international business writer after his far right coverage of the Clinton administrations. Why surprising? His Clinton coverage did the reputation of the Telegraph much harm in the States, although not with the “black helicopter” right-wing talk radio crowd.

There are only three things that Ambrose is wedded to: a pre-Bretton Woods belief in the gold standard, an insistence that Vince Foster was murdered and a conviction that Bill Clinton was recruited by the KGB while a Rhodes Scholar. If Ambrose were back in Washington DC, he would be filing copy no doubt “proving” that Barack Obama is a secret adherent to Islam and was never born in the States.

On the plus side, the Telegraph exclusives about the expenses abuses were brilliant and an example of fine investigative journalism – the kind that is alas becoming all too rare in the UK these days among the national daily newspapers.

But the political commentary coming from the paper is devaluing the exclusives the political reporters are securing. Much of that devaluing commentary comes from Simon Heffer.

I ought to introduce a personal note here. I know Simon: we were contemporaries at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and we overlapped at the Telegraph, where I had two stints at the Sunday Telegraph as a political correspondent and as an investigative writer. I have always liked Simon – although I don’t share his passion for Trollope but I do share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and T.E. Utley.

Despite all of that, I can muster no enthusiasm or respect for his commentary, which is jejune, immature, pompous, backward-looking, and often ill-informed when it comes to the facts and about the World beyond London Clubland. The Young Fogey has become an Old Bore. What was endearing back in the 1980s has become tiresome in this century.

Take three of his most recent columns – on President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and on the importance of updating Trident. The first has all the nuance of a sledge-hammer – it is all noise. Actually, that could be said for all three, come to think of it.

With Obama, Simon begins by registering his shock at how President Obama has become even more unpopular since his last visit to the States four months previously. He then goes on to suggest there is good reason for the falling esteem. Obama has done nothing recently apparently. “It is not clear what Mr. Obama actually does. He isn’t engaged with the economy; he certainly isn’t engaged with foreign policy; he has abandoned hope of a climate change bill this year (and probably for ever); he has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented; he is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration…”

And now, according to Simon, he just “appears to be reading the newspapers and the blogs and watching television.” Is that last point meant to be a serious comment from a supposedly serious commentator writing for a daily paper that believes it should be taken seriously?

Let’s look at the meat of the claim – at what Obama did or omitted to do before he became a shadow of his former self and resorted to just reading newspapers, etc.

  1. “He isn’t engaged with foreign policy”. Well, Simon, he seems pretty engaged with Afghanistan by shifting US policy from a counter-terrorist strategy to a counter-insurgency one, it strikes me, and his administration is trying out a bit of a détente with Moscow. Now, granted, I don’t believe the COIN approach to Afghanistan will work – neither will the CT strategy for that matter – and the détente with Moscow will fail, but he is engaged and a better and more mature column would have been to analyze Obama foreign policy, its strengths and weaknesses, the chances for success, the internal and external challenges the administration faces in forming and executing policy and whether the policy is right rather than claiming that the President is “not engaged with foreign policy.”
  2. “He isn’t engaged with the economy”. Simon undermines this claim himself by noting the massive stimulus package the President forced through in his first year in office, his push for an extension on unemployment benefits and his wanting to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. Again, I don’t agree with raising taxes. What is even more shocking, though, is Simon’s complete ignoring of the truly radical financial reform legislation that has been passed. Wasn’t that worth a mention? Or was our commentator unaware it had been passed or how significant it is?
  3. “He has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented.” Well, Simon, old boy, it was a huge accomplishment, whether you like it or not, to get major reform through on health care – it was something other Presidents would have liked to do, notably the last Democratic White House incumbent, but failed to do. And one of the reasons Americans are waiting news about implementation is that many of its major provisions don’t start immediately and come into effect over time. By the way, the delay in implementation has much to do with the lobbying by the insurance companies and brinkmanship by the Republicans.
  4. “He is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration.” There is nothing casual about the Obama Justice Department’s challenge to the new Arizona anti-immigrant law. And, overall, “casual” isn’t the word best applied to what Obama is not doing on the immigration front. He is not fighting for reform – the same reform that his GOP predecessor in the White House wanted to introduce but also decided that cowardice was better part of valour. Although that might be more preferable than Senator John McCain’s betrayal of immigration reform.

Among other silly points Simon makes in this column is the author’s belief that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “serious Republican” who could beat Obama. “He is the sort of opponent Mr. Obama should fear, because he is experienced, an intellectual, and has widespread name recognition,” says Simon, who scolds silly “Democrats (including Howard Dean, the party chairman),” who are urging Gingrich to stand in 2012. According to Simon, they are only doing so “to ensure that the Republicans make some policies that the Democrats can attack.”

In fact, Dean and other Democrats are doing so because if Gingrich were the GOP candidate they could rest easy in their beds – oh, yes, the Tea Party members would turn out in droves to back the hero of the “Contract with America” – but the Democrats would not only see their own base energised by the presence of Gingrich on the ticket but they would see independents and the centre swing back to them, too.

What would have been a far more interesting column to write on a trip to America would be something along these lines: Obama has, in fact, achieved much – health care reform, financial services overhaul, a stimulus package that may have prevented the US recession becoming a Depression; in fact, his legislative record is more impressive than either Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s at equivalent stages in their first terms. Even so, Obama has failed to gain real credit from Americans for the legislative accomplishments and this raises the big question of why. Is it because American economic pain and uneasiness has clouded appreciation that may be forthcoming once the property market improves and unemployment decreases? Or were expectations too high for Obama? Were Americans voting for different kinds of change when they backed him? And will the Republican tactic pay off of offering nothing in the way of policy? That article is, of course, beyond Simon because he can only engage in polemical support of political allies or polemical damnation of opponents.

In Part Two I’ll look at Simon’s articles on Prime Minister Cameron and Trident.

The Irresponsibility of WikiLeaks

Until yesterday I was a strong supporter of the work of WikiLeaks: democratic governments are not transparent enough on the whole, and certainly in the “war on terror” there has been far too much empowering of the security services and far too many civil liberty abuses.  And both the Bush administration and Blair government lied to their publics – and the World – about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The disclosure recently by WikiLeaks of a video showing the killing of likely non-combatant Afghans was a public service.

But Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been offensively cavalier with his uploading of 75,000 leaked battlefield reports and other secret and classified U.S. military material from the war in Afghanistan. As the New York Times among others has reported, the names of dozens of Afghans who have provided information to the U.S. military and NATO troops can be identified from many of the reports. A cursory search of some of the documents that I did today reveals informant family and village names: pinpointing them will not be that demanding for the Taliban.

Assange maintains that WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 reports to minimize the danger to informants. Asked on NBC’s Today show about whether he would view the killing of an informant by the Taliban as “collateral damage” in his bid the make public more of the details about the war, he responded: “If we had, in fact, made that mistake, then, of course, that would be something that we would take vey seriously.”

That isn’t good enough. Assange doesn’t describe himself as a journalist – he’s more of a transparency activist. But while he may not consider himself a journalist, he is engaging in journalism and, for the better sort of journalist, there are ethics and professional standards that are to be observed – that is if reputation is to be maintained. Journalists at the Guardian, New York Times and Der Speigel observed those standards at the beginning of the week when given by Assange exclusive access to documents ahead of their full online release. The three publications posted online documents but ensured informant information was redacted.

That is the approach I took when revealing for past stories and investigations the details of hundreds of leaked classified intelligence and law enforcement documents. And, yes, I engaged in self-censorship and erred on the side of caution. It wasn’t my job to assist narco-traffickers or terrorists or other spies to identify informants and to pull the trigger.

Assange has been highly irresponsible in what he has done. Both transparency and bringing home to Americans and Britons the futility and savagery of the war in Afghanistan could have been accomplished by more restraint – the kind of restraint shown by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.

OUCH! TIMES AND SUNDAY TIMES PAY-WALL DRIVES OFF TRAFFIC

Celleno has been on holiday but is now back.

The Times and Sunday Times have seen massive declines in Online readership since News International introduced a pay-wall in June, according to calculations done by the Guardian newspaper. The fall-off may be between 84 and 93 percent – in line with industry predictions before the wall was erected.

The Guardian argues that The Times has now traffic of between 84,800 and 195,700 daily unique users. In February, The Times site had 1.2 million daily unique users, according to ABCe data.

This blog has argued consistently that pay-walls for general daily newspapers won’t work – there are plenty of capable rivals around allowing free access and (The Times isn’t that good). Celleno maintains that pay-walls will only work for niche or specialty publications, especially in the business and sports areas.