The week with Peter Wilby

Desmond v Dacre redux, the clamour from Occupy LSX, questions of faith and university bingo.

Desmond v Dacre redux, the clamour from Occupy LSX, questions of faith and university bingo.

In a world of bewildering change, it is comforting to find the Mail and Express newspaper groups at war again, with Richard Desmond, owner of the latter, calling the Daily Mail's “editor", Ayatollah Paul Dacre, "a miserable fat git". The rivalry between the groups goes back to the 1920s, when Lord Beaverbrook, then the proprietor of the Express, said he would return to his native Canada and retire a failure "if I don't succeed in killing the Daily Mail".

However, soon after Desmond - who made much of his money from pornography - bought the Express group in 2000, a truce was negotiated. The Mail wouldn't call him a pornographer in return for the Express papers not mentioning the illegitimate son of the Mail's proprietor, Viscount Rothermere.

I was never sure what Desmond thought he got out of the deal. Everybody still calls him a pornographer and nobody cares about Rothermere's child, who was born long before he married. Only the Mail, which has many of the characteristics of a religious sect, would think illegitimacy (itself a quaint term) was of any importance. The truce is coming to an end and a contest that bears comparison with England v Australia in cricket and Tottenham v Arsenal in football may now resume.

I shall cheer for Desmond. His papers are, if this is possible, even more obnoxiously right-wing than the Ayatollah's. But at least they look so unstylish, uninteresting and generally mediocre that there's no chance of anybody reading them.

Little-tent politics

Two weeks ago, in this column, I suggested the protesters outside St Paul's would do better to work out a programme, join political parties, attend meetings and so on, instead of pitching tents. I now believe I was wrong. Why should they do such boring things? After all, none of our political leaders has a programme and most of them got where they are not by developing coherent ideas or doing the hard work of converting the masses to them, but by pitching their tents (metaphorically) among the think-tankers and lobbyists of central London. The occupiers may not have a plausible solution to our present crisis but nor, despite several weeks of joint cogitation, do the presidents and prime ministers of Europe.

Protesters are saying "yah-boo" to global capitalism just as the titans of global capitalism say "yah-boo" to anybody who wants to reduce their profits or cut their bonuses. The dismay of financiers and politicians across Europe at the Greek government's temerity in putting a "rescue" package (which essentially rescues bankers and bondholders) to a referendum says it all. They implicitly echo Margaret Thatcher's "There is no alternative". The Occupy movement tells them they must find an alternative, and echoes the slogan of the Latin Quarter in Paris in May 1968: "Be realistic - demand the impossible."

Beyond belief

One of my problems with religion is that so many of its adherents seem not to believe in it. Doesn't the Bible go on about giving up worldly possessions, not laying up for yourselves the treasures of this earth, and coming to want if you oppresseth the poor to increase your riches? The message is getting home to the St Paul's clerics and the Bishop of London that, in trying to clear out the protesters, first on dubious safety grounds (I don't think the Bible records any health and safety checks at the feeding of the 5,000) and then by straight legal action, they were somewhat out of touch with public opinion and expectation. But that shouldn't be the point, should it? Aren't their immortal souls supposed to be in peril if they flout the teachings of their God? Don't they risk eternal damnation? At least Muslim suicide bombers behave as if they actually believe that stuff about paradise and the waiting virgins.

All bets are off

University places are at present allocated by a form of spread betting. Students apply on the basis of predicted exam grades (only half of which turn out to be accurate); universities make offers on the basis of what grades they hope students will get; both sides then cross their fingers and hope it will come right on the night. Only very clever people could have invented something so foolish and irrational. It benefits public-school pupils because their teachers are more familiar with the complexities of the system.

Now, it is proposed, students should sit A-levels earlier so they can apply after the results. However, I doubt this will lead to more than a marginal improvement in the social balance at our top universities. The danger is that the change will reduce the pressure for positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged students, after generations of positive discrimination in the reverse direction.

Indie band

The Independent and the London Evening Standard, both owned by Evgeny Lebedev, are to share sport and business departments, which is increasingly common practice among papers under the same ownership. Couldn't the Independent, with its reputation for innovation, have done something different? Why not just merge the sport and business desks into one department? Just as sports journalists are fans writing for other fans, so business journalists write as fans of capitalism, which is why they were still praising Northern Rock a month before it crashed.

Peter Wilby was editor of the NS (1998-2005)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban