Noble bankers, pesky minorities and the BBC’s plans for Question Time

It didn't take long for the western media to decide that, with Hosni Mubarak still in office and the traffic in Cairo starting to move again (in so far as traffic ever moves in Cairo), the Egyptian uprising had run out of steam. Fourteen days after the first demonstrations, the story dropped off newspaper front pages and down television and radio bulletins, and presenters returned to their London studios.

Mubarak clearly knows a thing or two about the modern media's attention span. I'm not sure how today's editors would have coped with the French Revolution: the storming of the Bastille came months after the first major bread riots of 1789. Even then, Louis XVI, you will recall, hung on for a few years, endeavouring, after a fashion, to oversee an orderly transition.

Even if Egypt eventually gets some form of democracy, will that change anything? Over the past four decades, more countries have embraced democracy than at any time in history. Yet the grip of a wealthy elite on the world and its resources has strengthened steadily over that period. If Britain and America do not have endemic corruption quite in the Egyptian sense, the way in which the corporate sector and its executives have captured the state amounts to much the same thing.

We should be thankful we are not subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture. But in the light of Guantanamo Bay, control orders and waterboarding, we cannot be as confident of that as we once were.

Beware the bear

You may wonder how bankers can complain about paying another £800m to the Exchequer when the rest of us are facing higher taxation and reduced public services to pay for a crisis that they caused. But the bankers don't accept they were to blame. It was the fault of governments, regulators, housebuyers and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda? Yes. According to a report for the US defence department, the financial meltdown was part of a three-stage terrorist masterplan.

First, they caused oil prices to surge in 2007. Then they mounted "bear raids" against leading banks. In the final stage, they will dump US treasury bonds, bringing about the dollar's collapse. (No, it's not me making this up.)

It's no wonder bankers don't see why they should pay oodles of cash to George Osborne. They seem to think that they are in the front line of the war on terror.
Roaming camera

The BBC's plan to move the production of Question Time to Glasgow - which has reportedly driven David Dimbleby close to resignation - sits oddly with the style of its news bulletins.No information about political developments can be delivered without the reporter speaking to the camera from outside No 10 or another government office, even in a blizzard.

The viewer is presumably supposed to believe the reporter is close to the action, popping in and out of No 10 to chat to the PM in person. Yet the BBC doesn't seem to care if the editors of its political programmes work hundreds of miles from the real centre of power. Perhaps the corporation will now base its reporters in Salford and project them to London as holograms.

Home truths

David Cameron's speech on multiculturalism fails to explore fully why, as he puts it, "different cultures . . . live separate lives". The pesky Muslims have chosen to go their own way, he thinks, "because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity" and adopted "the doctrine of state multiculturalism". I do not see how a belief in "collective identity" is compatible with, for example, breaking up the NHS and threatening the BBC, nor how opposition to multiculturalist "doctrine" sits with enthusiasm for faith schools. Nor am I sure how much Cameron would like young Muslims to share the lifestyles of their Anglo-Saxon contemporaries. Would he welcome their participation in Friday-night binge drinking?
But all that is beside the point. Ethnic minor­ities "live separate lives" because when they move into an area, most whites move out. And also because, when they acquire qualifications, they find it harder than similarly qualified whites to get jobs. These things are still true. They are not less true just because they have been known for more than 40 years and everybody has got tired of talking about them.

Songs of the soil

I know it's cheeky to tell other countries what to do with their national anthems but surely it is time somebody laid "The Star-Spangled Banner" to rest. It is notoriously difficult to sing because it ranges over an octave and a half - and, unless you know the details of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1812, the lyrics are almost incomprehensible. It also suffers from tortuous sentence construction, leaving this former editor itching to do a rewrite job. So it is not surprising that the singer Christina Aguilera made a mess of it before the American football Super Bowl. She repeated the second line instead of singing the fourth: "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming", which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. At least she got that far; according to a 2005 poll, three-quarters of Americans muddle the words in the third line.

The Americans need a national anthem that is simpler, less anti-British and less replete with references to battles, blood and bombs. I recommend "My Country 'Tis of Thee", which was often sung as a national anthem before Congress adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1931. It has trees, rocks and woods and, if sung regularly, might put Americans into a greener, more peaceable frame of mind.

Could Boris Johnson ban the present anthem from the London Olympics and order musicians to play "My Country" instead? l

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 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 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East