“Beatrice Webb refused to be a deb” – and other centenary clerihews

The satirist Craig Brown’s first published article appeared in the <em>New Statesman</em> in 1978. He fetes our centenary with choice clerihews praising everyone from Jemima Khan to Malcolm Muggeridge.

  1. Beatrice Webb
    Refused to be a deb.
    She thought life much lusher
    In Soviet Russia.
     
  2. The reputation of Sidney Webb
    Continues to ebb
    As they look through his files
    Under “Stalin’s show trials”.
     
  3. A C Grayling
    Has only one failing:
    Given the green light he
    Holds forth like God Almighty.
     
  4. David Hare
    Takes special care
    To ensure his plays don’t lack
    A very long speech about the
    State of England delivered by
    a disillusioned character,
    preferably dressed in a mac.
     
  5. Hugh Grant
    Said “Shan’t!”
    When told to shut up:
    Naughty pup.
     
  6. Malcolm Muggeridge
    Gave a thug a fridge;
    He was naturally contrarian
    When confronting the barbarian.
     
  7. Harold Pinter,
    Outraged the Statesman wouldn’t print a
    Poem called “Fucking Yankee Shit Wank Jerk”,
    Yells: “But it’s a hugely important work!”
     
  8. John Maynard Keynes
    Helped workers lose their chains
    And, by way of relaxation,
    Wrote The Inflation of Currency
    As a Method of Taxation.
     
  9. Jemima Khan
    Coos: “Wow, it’s so much fahn
    “Associate-editing the Staggers,
    “One of my absolute fave glossy maggers!”
     
  10. Alastair Campbell
    Took a gamble
    On WMDs; and lost,
    To our cost.
     
  11. Eric Hobsbawm
    Considered obeying orders the norm
    And so didn’t react
    To the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
     
  12. John Major
    Went into rage a
    Day after the Statesman laid bare
    The (wrong) affair.
     
  13. Martin Amis
    Wasn’t cast in Les Miz
    Though they should have found room: he
    Is sufficiently gloomy.
     
  14. Richard Dawkins
    Favours radio talk-ins.
    “Prof, we’re putting you through
    “To God on line 2.”
  15. J B Priestley
    Was rarely beastly.
    He preferred to sit on the fence
    Of plain common sense.
     
  16. Cyril Connolly
    Would eat and drink bonnily,
    >Causing him to shout,
    “In every fat man a thin one is
    wildly signalling to be let out.”
     
  17. Julian Assange Says: “Le patron mange
    “Ici, because I’m now the chief member, see,
    “Of the Ecuadorean embassy.”
     
  18. Denis Healey
    >Has gone all touchy-feely,
    Recently paying hommage
    To Nigel Farage.
     
  19. Bruce Page
    Had a talent to enrage,
    Declaring: “Evelyn Waugh
    “Is a writer we deplore!”
     
  20. Arthur Marshall
    Proved too partial
    To darling Mrs T.
    (Oh deary, deary me!)
     
  21. George Orwell
    Didn’t tour well;
    He could be heard to murmur
    Rude remarks about Burma.
     
  22. Kingsley Martin
    Took no part in
    God Save the King:
    It wasn’t his thing.

1 & 2 With only modest reservations, the founders of the New Statesman, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, supported Stalin through the Great Purge.

3 One of A C Grayling’s pieces for the NS began: “What religious people mean by ‘god’ means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts . . . ”

4 The playwright David Hare still contributes to the NS.

5 Despite heavy criticism, the actor Hugh Grant is resolute in his campaign to curb press freedom.

6 In 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a pioneering article for the NS against the “tedious adulation” of the royal family.

7 Harold Pinter would be sent into a fury whenever a publication turned down the opportunity to publish one of his poems.

8 John Maynard Keynes was the chairman of the Nation when it merged with the NS in 1931, and remained a guiding force.

9 Jemima Khan is the NS’s associate editor.

10 Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, guest-edited the magazine in 2009.

11 The late historian Eric Hobsbawm remained a dutiful member of the Communist Party even beyond the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

12 While still prime minister, John Major sued the NS after it printed rumours of an extramarital affair (though not the affair he had earlier enjoyed with Edwina Currie).

13 Martin Amis was the literary editor of the NS from 1977-80.

14 Richard Dawkins guest-edited the Christmas edition of the NS in 2011.

15 J B Priestley was a regular contributor; an article by him led to the founding of CND.

16 Cyril Connolly (pictured right) was a regular contributor to the NS in the 1930s.

17 Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is now residing at the Ecuadorean embassy in Hans Crescent, London SW1.

18 In an interview with the NS last month, the nonagenarian Denis Healey spoke fondly of Margaret Thatcher, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

19 & 20 When he was the editor of the NS, the Australian Bruce Page declared Evelyn Waugh his least favourite author; he also fired his columnist Arthur Marshall, allegedly for saying “Cooee! Isn’t Mrs Thatcher doing well?” while visiting the NS offices.

21 & 22 George Orwell, the author of Burmese Days, fell out with the NS editor Kingsley Martin. In 1962, Martin wrote The Crown and the Establishment, an argument in favour of British republicanism.

Craig Brown’s first published article ran in the NS in 1978

Beatrice Webb, presumably refusing to be a deb. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era