Sir Patrick Moore: A great and bad man

The astronomer inspired many, but we cannot whitewash his sexist, xenophobic and homophobic comments as the outbursts of a quirky old eccentric.

I was an awkward kid, and some of my best friends were books. Books, as I’ve said before, are incredibly important for children. They tell us about our world and other worlds, worlds past and worlds yet to come. One of my favourite books was an encyclopaedia of space, edited by Patrick Moore. It was big and glossy and stuffed to the gills with facts and pictures. I wanted to know everything, I hid under the duvet with a torch late at night just devouring it. Proud relatives would show me off to friends – “tell Kerry what the farthest planet from the Sun is?” Of course I knew (Neptune, at the time). I knew everything, as long as it was in one of my treasured books. Each new fact was as precious to my ten-year-old self as a nugget of gold, or a slice of arctic roll.

Lots of things have changed since then. Some of the facts I took pride in learning have been overturned - Pluto is no longer a planet, because of pedantic morons trying to convince themselves that a naming scheme for different-sized lumps of rock isn’t entirely arbitrary in the first place. But until now, Patrick Moore and the Sky at Night remained an unchanging constant: The Bohr radius, the Planck length, the Patrick Moore. Now, as E.J. Thribb will doubtless observe, there is no more Moore. It’s hard not to feel a bit sad about that.

For many, Moore was a hero. Fifteen years ago I would have agreed, and certainly Moore has inspired generations of people to lift their thoughts to the stars; but few heroes bear close scrutiny, and Moore bears less scrutiny than most. “Never meet your heroes,” the old saying goes, and I’ve found it to be generally true, albeit more because of my personality quirks than theirs. I first met Professor Brian Cox in a pub in Holborn, and became immediately transfixed by how smooth his face was. “I can’t believe how smooth your face is,” were my first words to him, and I suspect he’s assumed I’m an idiot ever since. A brief introduction to Robin Ince a few years ago consisted of me saying “Hi, I’m Martin, I do a blog” and shuffling awkwardly away again. I’m a lot shitter in person.

These were people I wanted to meet though. I never met Patrick Moore, and I’m glad I didn’t, because my all accounts he was not a very pleasant man. Phil “Bad Astronomer” Plait publicly boycotted Moore’s show in 2007 after he made deeply misogynistic comments in an interview for the Radio Times. He suggested women had ruined television in general, and some of his favourite shows in particular: "I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC - making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching."

It’s interesting how keen people have been to whitewash comments like these at the outbursts of a quirky old eccentric. At the time, the BBC quoted one of their own spokespeople, who “described Sir Patrick as being one of TV's best-loved figures and said his "forthright" views were "what we all love about him".” On Twitter, various people have suggested that he was simply ‘old-fashioned’, and that ultimately we should focus on the excellent work he did for science outreach. There are three problems with this ‘loveable eccentric’ narrative.

The first is that Moore’s bigotry went far beyond a few crass comments about Star Trek. His 2003 autobiography set out some interesting thoughts about homosexuals and AIDS. He infamously referred to immigrants as ‘parasites’, declaring that he would “send them all back to where they came from.” Of Germans he believed that “the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut.” With a political career that included chairmanship of the United Country Party, Moore was out there whichever generation’s standards you choose to judge him by.

The second is that you can’t easily separate his professional accomplishments from his private views. My friend Kash Farooq is absolutely right when he says that we should be able to appreciate his work an accomplishments even while acknowledging his failings, but this becomes problematic when people make sweeping claims about him being a great man, or a superb communicator of science. Moore inspired millions of budding young astronomers to pick up a telescope; but if you were a woman, or a homosexual, or an immigrant, or the descendant of immigrants, then you were not particularly welcome in Sir Patrick Moore’s vision of British science.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the hailing of Sir Patrick Moore as simply a ‘great man’ or a ‘hero’ in the wake of his death is a kick in the teeth to those groups he sought to belittle and marginalise through his public statements, people who don’t have the benefit of fame or a BBC PR department to amplify their voices. Twitter yesterday was full of self-righteous people claiming offense at the airing of any criticism of the legend in the wake of his death, but it is equally offensive to see the reputation of a vocal and politically-active bigot white-washed for the history books, particularly if you are in one of the groups he targeted. The dead of course are impervious to offense, and in any case there are probably no retweets or fail whales in the afterlife.

Sir Patrick Moore was both a great man and a bad man. He achieved great things as a peerless writer, broadcaster and explainer of things, and then used his considerable talents to push hideously regressive views on the public. He inspired millions of people to engage with science and astronomy, even as he campaigned vigorously to exclude those who weren’t white and male. To remember him as a bigot ignores his achievements, and to remember him as a hero ignores his sins and belittles those who sought to keep down. He was a complicated man, and we should remember him as such.  


Update: This piece originally referred to Moore "expressing sympathy" for the BNP. This was incorrect, and has been removed.

Patrick Moore. Photo: Getty

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR