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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses