The cast of Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne's hit sitcom The Royle Family.
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I don’t mind if politicians went to posh schools. I do mind if they don’t listen to anyone who didn’t

Ad hominem attacks make no sense. All young people should enjoy the opportunity to tell their stories.

Let me begin by paying you a compliment. I don’t care where you went to school. There – have I made your day? No? All right, I’ll go further: I also don’t care what your dad did for a living, or how your mum voted. Nor do I mind whether you ate your tea in front of the telly, dinner at the kitchen table or supper in the dining room. Maybe you didn’t have a telly. Or you called it a TV. Or you had one but it was hidden in a cabinet. And maybe you seldom ate an evening meal at home because you were in care, or at boarding school; and you can’t tell me what your dad did for a living because you never met him; and you don’t know how your mum votes because she never votes, because she’s the Queen.

I call it a compliment because, if you disagree with me about something, I’ll wonder what might be wrong with what I said, rather than what might be wrong with you. If I offer a conjecture, you might challenge that conjecture – but you could return the compliment by not challenging my life. It’s a pleasant fantasy, isn’t it? But, oh well, back to human beings.

To rail against ad hominem attacks is as pointless as to rail against Homo sapiens. We think: therefore, we often talk rubbish. The trouble with playing the person instead of the ball is that a) it makes you look like you’re not interested in the ball and b) you almost always get the wrong person. You’ll notice I slightly compromised the more familiar phrase “playing the man instead of the ball” in the interests of not excluding women (many of whom like or play football). You might say that this is overly fastidious. Or that I’m favouring political correctness over clarity. Fine. But I’d rather that you didn’t say I wrote that because I am a “typical left-wing luvvie”, for instance, because then I would know I was in the presence of a dick. And, flawed as I am, that would be the end of our potentially interesting chat. The “Well, you would say that . . .” school of thought is not so much a school as a hospice.

It’s always a one-way street: I seek out the logical fallacies in argument, you are a benefit scrounger. I detect solecisms and lazy thinking, you are a public-school buffoon. I coolly weigh the evidence, you are a woman. We all do it. Rationality, objectivity: these things are essential to argument. But we are in trouble when we don’t recognise that we are swimming against the tide. Very bad things follow when we kid ourselves that we’re naturally rational, rather than the more humbling truth: naturally emotional.

So, perhaps a little forgiveness here. Does it matter that David Cameron went to Eton? Yes, it does. But do I blame, even hate, him for it? No, of course not: he was a child. We don’t withhold empathy from people who are lucky (though there are all kinds of luck: I’m not sure that, say, being waved off to boarding school at the age of seven is a guarantee of cloudless mental heath).

Yet we are free to judge people by what they do with that luck, and indeed by whether they show any sign of noticing it. I don’t mind that George Osborne went to St Paul’s School. I mind very much if he shows no sign of reading about, meeting and listening to a lot, and I mean, A LOT of people who didn’t. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not an expert on what it’s like to work on a zero-hours contract then he isn’t fit for the job.

It’s a matter of intellectual diversity. Where you have 20 people who all share roughly the same educational and life experiences, they’re going to come up with the same solutions to the same problems. Not only is equality of opportunity a good idea in terms of social justice (as ideas go, I can scarcely think of a better one), but the creative friction that comes from clever people from different backgrounds arguing about a common aim benefits all of us: business, politics, the arts, everyone.

Speaking of the arts, the recent handbag tussle between Chris Bryant and James Blunt made me think of The Royle Family and how long it took me to warm to it. Among other comments, the Labour culture spokesman criticised broadcasters for not making enough drama or comedy about working-class culture. The thing that initially alarmed me about Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s wonderful sitcom was how accurate it was. I grew up in a bungalow in the beautiful nowhere of Lincolnshire, where, to answer the questions above, we had our “tea” at the kitchen table and the thing in the corner of the “living room” was a “telly”. But then I scraped in to the grammar school, and then Cambridge. And from that moment – this isn’t rational, it’s just how it feels right now – I disqualified myself from writing about the people I grew up with. If I tried to write The Royle Family now, the critics wouldn’t review the show, they’d review me: I would pass them the ball and they would ask where I got my “Oxbridge football boots”.

But I’m just one bloke. We need to give back to young people all the advantages I enjoyed. Until a government can restore arts funding, public libraries, the Education Maintenance Allowance, housing benefit for young people and maintenance grants for the poorest university students, we will never hear from those talented people with their own, vibrant stories to tell. The ones who are not yet, as I have become, afraid.

 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder