The Age of Delicate Feelings

In my time as editor it was one damned offence after another: Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Blairites, C

It is hard in this day and age not to give offence. What will Boris Johnson be remembered for? Offending the people of Liverpool. Ken Livingstone? Offending a Jewish newspaper reporter. Glenn Hoddle? Offending the disabled. As for my editorship of the New Statesman, it was one damned offence after another: Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Blairites, Castroites, the US embassy, all at various times demanded apologies. If you are anywhere near public life these days, you'll have to apologise for something sooner or later.

Historians of the future may call it the Age of Offence or the Age of Delicate Feelings. The obvious cause is the rise of globalised, round-the-clock media. Pope Benedict XVI (or "Ben", as the Sunday Times's Rod Liddle demotically calls him) could once have made a learned theological speech at a Bavarian university without anyone noticing. He nearly did on this occasion. Just as British prime ministers when they leave town are accompanied by the Westminster correspondents, so popes take with them the Vatican press corps. They conferred, as specialist journalists usually do, on what to make of the Pope's lecture.

It was, they agreed, about how reason is integral to the Christian tradition. That was the story most news desks got and, not surprisingly, it didn't make many headlines. One man broke ranks: the correspondent from Ansa, the Italian news agency. His story highlighting the Pope's quotation of a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was "evil and inhuman" - which was incidental to his main argument - was round the world in hours, though it was a few days before the British media picked it up, and proclaimed, as the Sun put it, "Pope on the ropes; it's a holy mess".

Did the Pope know what he was doing? Most commentators seemed to think so. John Cornwell in the Sunday Times insisted he had previous. At a seminar last year, he had said that Islam treated Muhammad like a "tape recorder", expressing God's will directly, "which is absurd".

Besides, the Pope had been "downing truffles and sparkling wine" with his cardinals the very day Muslim leaders expressed outrage and, in the Sunday Times, diet is always a vital clue to character. But Cornwell himself - as Sunday Times readers weren't told - has previous, having written books laying into Pius XII for helping the Nazis and into John Paul II for being a reactionary.

No doubt Benedict XVI thinks Christianity is better than Islam. I guess that's why he's a pope and not an ayatollah. But I don't believe he intended to start a punch-up. Popes are supposed to be infallible; they don't want to be on the ropes. At the foot of the text of his lecture, somebody had written: "The Holy Father intends to supply a subsequent version . . . The present text must therefore be considered provisional." The Vatican press office should tell him that "provisional" isn't a category recognised by the modern media.

But mostly, Muslims got the bad press. Liddle predicted that "some Catholic priest toiling away in a godforsaken, dusty hell-hole - Sudan, perhaps, or Turkey" would be "smacked about a bit" or "arrested without charge". David Aaronovitch in the Times thought that, in Islamabad, "there must be waiting rooms full of eager men on blasphemy-alert for offence to be given".

All very witty and, now that afflicting the comfortable is a bit of a cliché, it's good fun to afflict the afflicted. But I don't see why, when everybody else is so easily offended, Muslims shouldn't try to keep up.

Try this. "Everything Jesus Christ brought was evil and inhuman." Or this. "Some Muslim boy toiling away in a godforsaken, sweaty hell-hole - a McDonald's in Britain or America perhaps - will be arrested on trumped-up charges of possessing ricin."

It sounds the sort of thing the Iranian president might say. And we're talking of bombing him.

Warming up

A footnote on man-made global warming which, as I noted last week, the Sun now accepts. The theory that Rupert Murdoch has gone green is further strengthened by study of the Sun's sister paper, the Times.

Its columnist Gerard Baker, a long-standing sceptic, announced on 15 September - the same day the Sun explained how "saving the world can be sexy" - that "the wise thing to do . . . is to invest in alternative energy". Baker didn't quite recant his "cautious agnosticism" but got to his conclusion through a long and unnecessarily elaborate argument based on Pascal's wager. Then, on Monday, the Times gave a double-page spread to a detailed demolition of the argument - deployed by Tim Hames, another columnist, two weeks earlier - that global warming is actually caused by solar activity.

All this, I suppose, is the result of Al Gore's film. Which shows not the power of politicians - Gore, after all, is a failed politician - but the power of Hollywood.