The students boycotting Shakespeare

If you teach us, do we not learn?
Jewish students at Yesodey Hatorah school who boycotted an exam on the Merchant of Venice because they found it anti-Semitic, were backed by their head teacher, despite damaging their key stage 3 assessment results and demoting the school from 1st to 274th place in performance league tables. An ex-teacher of the school blogging on the Talkback message board for the online edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz opposed Rabbi Pinter’s decision to support the students’ veto, advocating instead closer textual reading, but there were plenty more who supported the students.

The play David Jays once called a "nasty piece of work" here in the New Statesman was pronounced “one of the liveliest, toughest and most necessary conversations about art, prejudice and performance in Western culture” by Boyd Tonkin in the Independent. "What could be more pitiably prejudiced than to refuse to engage with it?" he asked, a view shared by Haaretz’s editor,
Simon Spungin.

Tonkin cited playwrights Harold Bloom and Arnold Wesker as examples of how Jewish engagement with the text could rescue the play from pound-of-flesh stereotyping.

‘Off’ to the Proms?

In the government’s quest to promote British values, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge declared the Proms an arcane cultural event with an exclusive audience that's "still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease" in British cultural life. Although Gordon Brown was quick to clarify that the Proms are "a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution", ex-Lambeth Councillor blogger
Gertsamtkunstwerk translated Hodge’s comments thus: "We can't begin to understand how you little people without our obvious advantages need anything more challenging than Coronation Street. Just crawl back to your hovels please." Over on the Guardian blog, South African-born David Juritz explained why Hodge was wrong for pronouncing the Proms an inclusive failure, and there were one or two sheepish souls grappling with an illiberal guilt for disliking so-called “alternative” cultural events: "I'm not comfortable at the Notting Hill Carnival. I went once and once it got dark I was really scared," StuartP conceded in a post. Telegraph blogger Rick, meanwhile, was quick to suggest a more temperate climate for "Comrade Hodge": "If La Hodge and her ilk do not like the Proms, Cuba still offers what they may have in mind, I'm sure expenses will cover their trip there."

The New Statesman had of course already probed the issue of cultural exclusivity last August, when Tory politician Brian Coleman railed about the sea of white faces that swathe the Promtime Albert Hall.

When life gets in the way…

- Died – Pavarotti - with debts of around £7 million (or £12 million, if the Daily Mail’s “official document” figure is to be believed). Properties worth considerably more than either sum may be sold to settle the debt providing daughters from the tenor’s first marriage cease inheritance-wrangling with second wife Nicoletta Mantovani.

- Revived - Bolshoi Ballet boss 81-year-old Soviet-era Yuri Grigorovich for a new 3-year directorship.

- Awakened - young people by pop music, and that’s sexually awakened by the way. A survey conducted by Jamaican researchers found that music rather than alcohol or peer pressure is the main instigator of sexual activity in young people aged between 9 and 17. A list of the top lust-inducing tunes has not yet been released.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder