The Media Column: Why is Pilger allowed to abuse his ‘New Statesman’ colleagues?

Author: By David Aaronovitch

There is a convention among newspapers, quaint but sweet, that columnists are not allowed to reply to letter-writers. No matter how traduced we may feel by the author of an angry epistle to the editor; the line is that we have had our say, and that’s that. I respect the convention. Columnists have the privilege of being paid to stand on their soapboxes and harangue readers at length. It seems only fair to allow those same readers to respond, free from the threat that, on the following day, they will find themselves under direct assault from paid writers.

The New Statesman magazine seems to have decided that the convention is unnecessary. In late October, for instance, the Statesman’s star enragé, John Pilger, took exception to a letter from an Oxford academic quarrelling with one of his lengthy Pilgeriads. In the letters page of the following edition, Mr Pilger laid into the enemy with rhetorical and personal vigour. The academic was a “pathetic McCarthyist” and a “crude apologist for Ariel Sharon’s Israel”, who had shown “thuggish and specious disrespect” to one of Mr Pilger’s heroes. The next week, the academic was permitted a much shorter and much less ad hominem reply to Pilger’s reply.

I have to say that I find such exchanges irritating, but perhaps I am alone. Surely, though, I must be in company in finding the Statesman’s letters pages of the past fortnight quite extraordinary, for now Pilger has gone to war on his own colleagues. The man who has offended the veteran Australian is a young, talented and mischievous writer in his mid-twenties, called Johann Hari. Something of a prodigy, Hari is already the author of a book on the Royal Family ? a book endorsed on its jacket by Julie Burchill and Christopher Hitchens. On 11 November, the Statesman carried a cover piece by Hari that attacked the anti-globalisation movement as incoherent, and argued that, as a political force, it had been in decline ever since September 11.

One might expect disagreement from Pilger. Perhaps in his next piece he would go as far as to make coded reference to Hari’s argument while dismissing it?

Wrong. To Hari’s amazement, the Statesman the next week carried yet another Pilger letter: 153 words rubbishing Hari’s views and Hari himself. Naturally, Hari failed to understand that “this is the most informed, dynamic and international movement of my [Pilger’s] lifetime.” But he was also, frankly, a shit-head. Pilger’s letter ended with this sentiment: “Hari’s mean, ignorant and lazy non-journalism… was simply wrong and unbecoming of a New Statesman cover.”

If that was an OTT attack on Hari, it was one that claimed the NS editor, Peter Wilby, as collateral damage. Who, after all, commissioned this “lazy non-journalism” and decided that it was good enough to be put on the front cover? In one letter, Pilger had managed to insult both his editor and his colleague.

But why did Wilby print it? He could have refused. Back in the spring, after all, he had declined to publish a letter from another NS writer (and former editor), John Lloyd. Lloyd had wanted to complain about the magazine’s tendency toward an unthinking leftism, which “abdicate[d] criticism and analysis for denunciation and cynicism”. Wilby explained to The Daily Telegraph, “There is no reason why John, who is a regular contributor, should have a privileged position to attack the editorial line of the New Statesman.”

To comprehend why Pilger is allowed to abuse his colleagues while Lloyd is not even permitted to argue with them, one has, I suppose, to be familiar with the research that shows that many of the magazine’s readers adore Pilger. They are devoted to him. They read the New Statesman because of him. I dare say that ? like me ? they could now write a complete Pilger column themselves, in which a lone, brave voice (like the author’s own) speaks out against American/ Israeli violence/hypocrisy. That same implacable, unchanging, unvarying quality that so distresses dilettantes and lovers of sensation is precisely what those readers most value. Pilger fans know what they will get and love what they know. When they read him, they keep company with the righteous.

If such market forces are allowed to prevail, though, with Pilger everywhere, I do think there will be a case for changing the New Statesman’s name. Not the New Pilger, obviously. Just The Pilger, perhaps.

david.aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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