On Winterval and the Mail

Politicians like Eric Pickles have bought into this bogus mythology. No longer.

All my Christmases have come at once with an early gift from the Daily Mail's new Corrections and Clarifications column. "We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas," the newspaper writes today, in response to reader complaints about a Melanie Phillips article.

For media blogging nerds like me, frantically typing this post in a slightly darkened spare bedroom to get rid of the sense of ennui and despair, this is a truly amazing day. For years we've been banging on about media myths and stuff having been made up; for years, we've been patronised or ignored, while politicians like Eric Pickles have happily bought into the bogus mythology as it suits their agenda.

My fellow media blogger Kevin Arscott should take a bow for his stellar essay on Winterval, its origins and its development as a fable that apparently showed the PC Brigade had gone well and truly mad, rather than the throwaway marketing exercise from Birmingham City Council it actually was. Many other bloggers have been pushing the issue for years now. No, Winterval didn't replace Christmas, we said. No, Christmas wasn't renamed Winterval, we said; that wasn't it at all.

The more noise we made, the more it seemed that the stories would return. Winterval was the politically correct way of referring to Christmas; it was taking Christ out of Christmas; it was part of the PC killjoys' attempts to de-Christianise Britain and bring us all into an Iron Curtain world of secularist misery. The myth kept on coming back -- every year, at Christmas time, or before.

These "X is being banned" stories are all essentially the same, when you boil them down. Whether it's poppies being banned by troop-hating fast food franchises, England shirts being banned by immigrant bus drivers or Christmas being banned by killjoy councils scared of offending minorities, the tale follows a standard pattern. The totemic object -- the poppy, the England shirt, the baby Jesus -- is being rejected because of a prevailing spectral force of injustice -- political correctness, jobsworths, The Left and so on -- and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Get angry now!

People do get angry. Facebook campaigns begin. Statements in CAPITAL LETTERS reverberate around Twitter. A little later down the line, when the anger has subsided and the truth is revealed to be not quite as terrible as it was at first made out to be, it doesn't get put right, and so sits around to be woken up again at the next Remembrance Day, or Christmas season, or England appearance in an international tournament.

Now, thanks to the Mail's sensible and ethical new policy of correcting and clarifying where possible, there's the chance to see these things rectified. There it is, in black and white: Christmas was not renamed Winterval. Whenever someone tells you it was, you can point out that the Mail admitted it wasn't. You can even link to the original piece, where a correction has been made underneath the article.

Amid the praise that should be given to the Mail for correcting the Phillips article, there is a slight note of caution. This may well be seen, as Phillips said herself in the original piece, as "the Left" (capital L essential) "muzzling rational debate". Why, it's even got to the stage nowadays where you can't even say something that isn't true in a national newspaper without having to correct it, thanks to the Left! The forces of political correctness and the Thought Police have become so insidious, they've managed to make Paul Dacre willingly clarify Daily Mail articles in the Daily Mail.

Well, I don't think anyone on The Left (I might capitalise the T as well, to make us sound even more SINISTER) wants to see "rational debate" muzzled. It's the "saying things that aren't true" bit; for some reason -- we're just awful people essentially, and hate freedom -- that winds us up a bit. By all means let's have a rational debate about how THE LEFT (it's nicer all in capitals, I think) are shutting down debate by only allowing handsomely paid right-wing columnists to say the same things repeatedly all the time.

But saying things that aren't accurate in a mass-circulation newspaper isn't a very good thing to do, morally or journalistically. Get the facts right and we'll have a debate about the rest.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear