Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cruiser versus the tabloid bruiser

Why is it that when someone dies who was not quite in step with its editorial line the Guardian feels the need to trash them? It isn't big and it isn't clever and merely makes the liberal left look every bit as nasty and mean-spirited as the right.

The most notorious case was Polly Toynbee's attack on Auberon Waugh, which however wrong-headed of itself, at least had the merit of appearing heartfelt and reflecting a genuine clash between opposing styles of journalism.

There is rather less excuse for setting tabloid bruiser Roy Greenslade (editor of the Mirror under Maxwell and assistant editor of the Sun during the Falklands era) to flay the earthly remains of Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Mick Fealty of the Slugger O'Toole website commented on negative postings about O'Brien that 'the answer is not that people should not speak ill of the dead, but that people say something of value about them'. This is the test that Greenslade's piece fails. There is an air of the Guardian feeling that because O'Brien was an apostate from the liberal consensus, they needed a hired gun to dole out a verbal beating, even if it is as ill-informed as Greenslade's article.

He starts by describing the obituaries as a 'hagiographic outpouring', which I suppose they may be if you are a republican-sympathising tabloid journalist unable to recognise the subtleties of nuance and qualification in language. My reading of the obituaries, inluding the one published in the Guardian, was that while they were mostly respectful, as they should be to someone who had had such a long and varied career, few were unqualified by criticism.

On the substance of O'Brien's career, the best Greenslade can do is accuse him of 'flip-flopping', particularly over the partition of Ireland. Where to start here? I suppose some people may regard it as a damning indictment that over the course of 60 years, someone should alter their opinion at all on a given issue. Possibly Greenslade has never had occasion to change his 'mind' on anything. But given that O'Brien had engaged with Northern Ireland, its politics and history alternately as a historian, diplomat, politician and newspaper columnist, over several decades, it is no surprise that his thinking evolved, a concept that Greenslade clearly finds hard to comprehend.

In this case, the criticism is that in the 1940s O'Brien organised anti-partitionist propaganda, then became opposed to irridentist nationalism, then in the late 1990s 'he disavowed the very unionist viewpoints he had been prosyletising for'. At face value, hardly a case of serial flip-flopping, but even less so if we consider the reality. Greenslade article offers a link to the book he cites as justification for this claim, but in fact it just turns out to be the Wikipedia entry on O'Brien. Greenslade appears not to have read the book he cites, or if he has has not understood it, and gives no clear evidence that he even knows which one it is.

In his various publications including States of Ireland and Ancestral Voices (links given in previous posts) O'Brien explained how as a civil servant in the 1940s he conducted anti-partitionist propaganda. At the time opposition to partition was almost a given for anyone involved in politics or administration in the Irish republic. O'Brien realised that the propaganda was not doing much good given Unionist hostility to a united Ireland, but felt it was probably not doing much harm. When the Provisional IRA begin its armed campaign in the early 1970s he concluded that the prevailing anti-partitionism of the Irish state offered a kind of moral justification for the Provisionals and began to re-think his view of partition, defending the rights of Unionists not to join a united Ireland. In the late 1990s, fearful of excessive repulican influence in the peace process, and Sinn Fein gaining power in Northern Ireland and the Republic, he argued in his book Memoir: my life and themes that Unionists should consider whether they would stand more chance of sidelining Sinn Fein and wielding greater influence by joining a united Ireland. It was certainly not a case of returning to old-fashioned nationalism. So while his views hardly remained unchanged between the 1940s and 2008, it was more a case of his opinions evolving in response to the course of events (a practice supported by his hero Edmund Burke) rather than of constantly changing his mind.

Certainly he has been more consistent than republican apologists who made excuses for a quarter of a century of violence and thousands of deaths aimed at creating a united Ireland, only to find Sinn Fein accepting a partitionist settlement after all.

Next Greenslade attacks O'Brien for having the 'temerity' to complain about lack of free speech in Nkrumah's Ghana while denying terrorists and their apologists access to broadcasting airwaves in Ireland. Again, I suppose nuance is lost on Greenslade, although the rest of us might understand the difference between the general proscription of free speech in an incipient dictatorship and specific restrictions on organisations dedicated to overthrowing the state. (In the 1970s at least, the Provisional IRA regarded itself of the legitimate government of the 32 counties and did not recognise the 26-county republic.) Whether or not one agrees with O'Brien's solution to this (although the subsequent Fianna Fail government did not repeal his legislation), it is a genuine dilemma for any democratic government faced with a campaign of paramilitary violence.

Bizarrely, Greenslade claims that such restrictions helped to delay the peace process. While he offers no evidence for this, the implication is that if only people had understood republican arguments sooner, all would have been well. But of course the Provos only formally became part of peace talks once they had declared a ceasefire and on the basis of a partitionist settlement. Republican arguments of the mid-1970s bore little or no relation to the discourse of the peace process. In any case they were never lacking for 'useful idiots' in the British left and liberal media to plead their cause. One does not have to be an unswerving follower of the Cruiser to recognise this. Indeed the Guardian's own Northern Ireland correspondence has just written a book about it, Gunsmoke and Mirrors.

In a final display of petty-mindedness, Greenslade chooses to quibble about O'Brien's exact title when he worked for the Observer, nearly 30 years ago. Goodness knows, that there is enough to disagree with Conor Cruise O'Brien about. Even as a stong admirer of his, I might mention his Euroscepticism, regarding Islam as a monolithic force, support for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and his opposition to David Trimble's role in the peace process combined with a misplaced confidence that Ian Paisley would not do a deal with Sinn Fein, as examples of where I part company from him. (Although of course one should make allowances for his advancing years and declining health.)

There was certainly room for considered criticism of O'Brien amid the obituaries, but Greenslade's piece isn't it. It is best regarded as the homage that a bad writer unintenionally pays to a much better one. O'Brien's reputation is enhanced rather than diminished by Greenslade's attack.

PS: In the heat of the moment there I forgot to acknowledge Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to the Roy Greenslade article.

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