League of Extraordinary Arrogance: Allegra has no answers while Aaronovitch appoints himself Racism Detector

Press and press officers alike pretend to know everything.

Yesterday was a big one for people who think they have all the answers but categorically don’t. At the Number 10 press briefing, Allegra Stratton — still yet to make her on-camera debut as Official Excuse Generator for the Prime Suspect — failed 20 times to answer a question about whether Boris Johnson lied to Parliament when he claimed that Labour voted against a 2.1% pay rise for nurses. (It was a lie and the Speaker, Lindsey Hoyle, has ruled that a clarification be added to the record to note that no such vote took place.)

With 20 evasions, Stratton has smashed the squirming record set by Michael Howard in his 1997 Superbullshiter Weight bout against Jeremy Paxman in which he famously ducked the question, “Did you threaten to overrule him?” 12 times. The Huffington Post marks Stratton’s record book rewriting efforts with an almost unbearable transcript of her encounter with the chair of the lobby, the Express’ Macer Hall:

Macer Hall: This is specifically about comments he made about the way the Labour Party voted on one Bill. The Bill went through “on the nod”. They didn’t vote against it. Will the prime minister apologise and correct the record on this?

Allegra Stratton: The Speaker addressed it in the House immediately after the shadow health secretary raised it, and the Speaker said that it was a point of clarification, and regarded it as having been dealt with. 

Macer Hall: Shouldn’t the prime minister clarify? It was not really up to the shadow health secretary to clarify the mistake. Shouldn’t he be clarifying it?

Allegra Stratton: I think the Speaker addressed it, so it’s not about the shadow health secretary. The Speaker addressed it, he accepted it was a point of clarification, and he regarded it as having been addressed.

Macer Hall: So he does accept that he was wrong in this case, and he did say the wrong thing to the House?

Allegra Stratton: It was the Speaker regarding a point of clarification as having been made. And that’s appropriate.

Macer Hall: This is the third occasion in several weeks that the prime minister has got points of fact wrong in the House of Commons. Does he have a problem with getting the facts right?

Allegra Stratton: No, he doesn’t. The Speaker addressed this as a point of clarification. And it’s been dealt with today.

Macer Hall: Did you just forget how Labour voted on this occasion, or was he deliberately trying to make a political point and was incorrect?

Allegra Stratton: The Speaker regards a point of clarification as having been made. And it’s therefore being dealt with today.

And it goes on. And on. And on.

Stratton, formerly of Newsnight and the peculiarly awful Peston programme on ITV, was an advisor to Rishi Sunak — the best friend of her husband, Spectator Political Editor James Forsyth — just prior to shifting to work for the Prime Minister. She must surely wish she’d stayed safe in Number 11 now, particularly as the promised limelight of daily televised briefings remains dimmed by the pandemic and the need to push ministers to the fore.

When reality collides with the message that Stratton is employed to convey, she opts for ‘alternative facts’ and the almost mantra-like repetition of a new lie to justify the old lie. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who remembers her most notorious Newsnight interview.

While Stratton was illustrating that she really does not have all the answers, a past master of unearned self-confidence, David Aaronovitch dedicated his column to whether the royals are racist. In his typical chin-stroking, cod-philosopher style, he declares:

I have to dip back into the Oprah Winfrey transcript. Here you find Oprah asking Meghan if Archie may not have been made a prince because of his race. Towards the end of her answer, Meghan refers to “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born”. Oprah does her now-famous double take. Meghan adds that she didn’t hear this herself but there were “several conversations with Harry” involving the “family”.

Oprah: “About how dark your baby is going to be?” Meghan: “Potentially, and what that would mean or look like.”

Meghan won’t reveal who the conversation was with. It is Oprah who asks Meghan to speculate that the subject was raised because “they” (unspecified) “were concerned that if he were too brown that that would be a problem”. The reply was “I wasn’t able to follow up with why, but I think that feels like a pretty safe [assumption] . . .”

And that’s it. That’s all any of us have to go on. We don’t know exactly what was said, we don’t know how it was said, we don’t know who said it. The only context that we can give to this story is one, frankly, conjured up out of our own fantasies and prejudices. But Lord, we haven’t let that stop us.

The current headline over Aaronovitch’s words on The Times website reads, There’s no hard evidence of royal racism but the original version was No one knows if what was said about Archie was racist. Aside from the fact that, despite his waning powers, Prince Philip is living proof of royal racism (and Princess Michael of Kent stands ready to sub in for him should a slur be required while he’s indisposed), had Aaronovitch asked practically any black person whether they thought the question about Archie’s skin colour was racist, he’d have got an unequivocally different answer.

Aaronovitch is engaging in the same faux-ignorance practised by Piers Morgan in his debate with Alex Beresford. It’s the ‘what if they were just asking an innocent question?’ gambit, which posits with false naivety that the Royals might simply have been curious about shades, like someone scrutinising a racial paint chart and pondering what colour they should go for in the kitchen.

Of course, a member of the Royal Family asking what colour the first child of the first mixed-race person to join ‘the Firm’ comes from a racist place. It is not an innocent query, but Aaronovitch — committed to the bit in which he pictures himself as the most reasonable man in the world rather than the kind of person who can be duped into buying a knock-off leather jacket — pretends otherwise.

It’s a classic example of columnist brain, where a writer presents themselves as such a deep thinker that they are able to see the real issues while the bovine masses moo around them. The 'rationalists’ of UnHerd specialise in this ‘cleverness’ for dickheads act but Aaronovitch is also a past-master of it.

He uses another common columnist trick in this piece — the ‘cut and shut’ where one story is grafted to another seemingly-related news item, but upon closer inspection, the weld between them turns out to be very weak. After picking over that extremely-not-racist line from the Royals and a quick diversion into his own family history to bulk out the word count, Aaronovitch turns to the case of now ex-New York Times reporter Donald McNeil:

Early in the pandemic, I started to listen to podcasts and read articles by the veteran New York Times science reporter, Donald McNeil. One of those craggy old journalists who quite enjoy their own cragginess, McNeil turned out to be a brilliant guide to the uncertainties of the corona world. With excellent contacts and superb judgment, he called it right, from his early pessimism about viral spread to his early optimism about vaccine development. He seemed nailed on for a Pulitzer.

Then, last month, out of the blue, came the story that he had, in effect, been fired. The full story, including his own lengthy version, has now been published and it begins in 2019 when he was one of the journalists accompanying paying teenagers on a New York Times jaunt to Peru. Some of them had complained about him, that complaint had leaked to a rival news outfit, who wrote up the story and the sky fell on McNeil’s grizzled head.

McNeil himself has detailed the complaints, all of which seem to allege some form of racial insensitivity and which range from the use of the “n” word to dissing the medicinal capabilities of a Peruvian shaman. No one disputes that he had used the “n” word in a discussion about racism, because a friend of one of the participants had got into terrible trouble for using it herself.

Ah, the n-word. So many powerful white people still seem so committed to their right to ‘say the word’. I would class using a racial slur multiple times in front of high school students as gross misconduct, so it’s hardly surprising that the New York Times ditched McNeil, regardless of whether his podcast is good. But that’s too simple a position for Aaronovitch.

He doesn’t seem to have met McNeil at any point — I’m sure he would have mentioned if he had — but still feels qualified to rule that the man is not racist:

Is McNeil a racist? Almost certainly not. What helps us to understand this is knowing the context and thus his intention. But if you decide that these are irrelevant and that your “pain” is what matters, and you can get enough signatures on your complaint then, as the craven New York Times management has shown, emotion can defeat mere facts every time.

Sophie Shepherd, a student who was present on the 2019 trip told The New York Times’ media columnist Ben Smith that McNeil made a series of provocative statements to her and other students. Smith writes:

[Shepherd] was 17 at the time, and had just finished her senior year at Phillips Academy Andover, a boarding school sometimes rated America’s best. She’s the kind of teenager who is excited to talk to a New York Times correspondent about public health, and perhaps to put the adventure on a résumé.

She had even done the optional reading Mr McNeil suggested, Jared Diamond’s 1997 book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” a Pulitzer-winning history that argues that environmental and geographic factors produced the global domination of European civilization. The book has drawn criticism for a deterministic view that seems to absolve colonial powers of responsibility for their choices.

… Ms Shepherd said she noticed that Mr McNeil was walking alone as they left their hostel on the first morning of the trip, so she caught up with him. She asked him, she recalled, about the criticism of the book.

“He got very defensive very quickly about it,” she recalled. “It’s just a book, it’s just making this point, it’s very simple, it’s not racist.”

… [on another walk] she talked about her favorite class at Andover, a history of American education that covered racial discrimination. He responded, she recalled, that “it’sfrustrating, because Black Americans keep blaming the system, but racism is over, there’s nothing against them anymore — they can get out of the ghetto if they want to.”

Ms. Shepherd said she tried to argue, but he talked over her whenever she interjected, their voices getting louder and attracting the attention of other students, two of whom confirmed her account of the conversation.

“This is the thing with these liberal institutions like Andover — they teach you the world should be like this but that’s not how reality is…”

Now we could have a philosophical debate of the kind that panellists on the not-at-all racist Moral Maze love about McNeil’s right to hold and share those opinions but context is key. He was representing his organisation, The New York Times, during a trip that it had organised. He brought the company into disrepute and that’s a pretty cut and dry situation, even before you take into account his apparently free and easy use of racial slurs.

McNeil has published a four-part 21,000-word response to his ouster on Medium. Tl;dr: “Everyone else is very mean and I was very hard done by…”

For Aaronovitch, positioning himself as the arch-rationalist, those facts presented by people who actually work within the New York Times or were on the trip in question are just ‘feelings’ and the ‘facts’ he has selected to create his column matter more:

We need to push back hard against this. Intention matters, context matters, facts matter. If “feelings” are all that count, then eventually we are, every one of us, potentially lost to someone else’s emotional intensity. And that, not duchesses, is what matters here.

If he were actually in possession of the incredible analytical skills he thinks he has perhaps David Aaronovitch would question why he felt the need to pick at and disassemble the words of a young black woman — however privileged — while relating to and making excuses for another white man of pensionable age (Aaronovitch is 66, McNeil is 67). He might also ponder why he feels that he is so well qualified to identify anti-black racism. But he won’t.

Just as Allegra Stratton’s job is to pretend she has all the answers on behalf of the Prime Minister, David Aaronovitch is employed to have all the answers for the status quo1. It has always been that way.

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1

Yes, yes, I know, I just used the ‘cut and shut’ trick myself.