No burning issue

Freedoms of speech do not excuse giving the largest soapbox to the most egregious orator.

The last few weeks have seen more ink spilled over the ill-conceived conflagration of a couple of hundred Qurans than is probably contained within the books themselves, and the media machine shows no signs of letting up.

The chief target of this stupid act of vandalism is Al-Qaeda, a group whose paid-up membership in the coalition's chief battleground is apparently not much larger than the pathetic congregation of their bibliographic tormentors.

News of the Quran burning - to be held at the at the inaptly-named Dove World Outreach Centre, Gainesville, Florida - has been met with several similarly ill-attended protests, most notably in Kabul, Afghanistan. Counter-protestors have burned the US flag (as usual), and an effigy of 'Reverend' Terry Jones, a man of improbable moustache and abhorrent attire and 'mastermind' of the burning. Reuters reports that more spectacles of this sort are likely to follow throughout Europe.

This inverse pyramid of events can only built on so paltry a foundation by a global news media that dredges for the most pathetic actions of the most dismal fringe actors and then seeks to shape an entire discourse around them. Thanks to the Ponzi mores of the world's 24-hour news media, we can mark the end of 9/11 anniversaries' exemption from America's rabid religious-cum-political discourse. If coverage continues we may also witness an eruption of violence not seen since the barbarous reaction by several mobs of Muslim men to a Danish cartoon.

Meanwhile, millions of words - many of them ensconced in the vocabulary of "offence" "insensitivity" "freedom" and so on - have been uttered over a planning application for the erection of a community centre/Mosque/whatever on a bustling commercial street in lower Manhattan, New York that is unlikely to ever come to fruition unless a Fox shareholder foots the bill.

These events share two common factors. The first is their parochialism: before mid-term election season and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, each story would only would prick the ears of a provincial news editor. The second was best put by James Joyce of his young artist, for whom "the preacher's knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscience". Today, our respected news outlets give preachers' barbs their reach, successfully putting the 'International' in 'International-Burn-A-Koran-Day'.

If - rather than encouraging Jones by reporting on the wacky schemes from his Jesus shed - the media moved on, Jones will simply go away.

Instead, increasing news coverage of Jones and the "Ground-Zero mosque" has had a Wonderbra effect, pushing two otherwise uninspiring bagatelles together, up and out, to form a putative cleavage of civilizations. A report in today's Telegraph is a typical example of the self-reinforcing nature of this story:

It is feared the event at the Dove World Outreach Centre, an evangelical church in Gainesville, will put the lives of coalition forces serving in Afghanistan at risk and inflame religious tensions worldwide.

Between 'the' and 'event' above, we should insert 'mediation of', and divide culpability for the lives put at risk and 'religious tension inflamed' (whatever that means, presumably riots and the like) accordingly. Instead, commentators deride the pastor without questioning their collective role in his rise to to the international stage. The BBC website also conforms to Godwin's Law to lend the prospect of this squalid little episode some 'context'.

Fevered coverage of these non-stories has also required a menagerie of luminaries from Barack Obama through Ban Ki-Moon to Angela Merkel debase their high offices by denouncing a congregation too small to put on an American football game.

Sadly, the media circus has now gone far enough in its invention of a crisis in the 'culture war' to endanger service personnel and retard the progress (and thereby conclusion) of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

No doubt that, should someone be killed as a result of this wretched incident, a few dozen camera crews will be there to cover it too. And so on.

Orwell, in reference to the politicization of literature through the 1930s, wrote "What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant." The news media may do well to take account of their effect on events before conflating freedom of speech with a premise that the largest soapbox be given to the most egregious orator.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.