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  1. Diary
13 September 2023

An audience with media power players in NYC

Also this week: medieval epidemiology, and the scourge of child sex abuse.

By Sarah Baxter

Diplomats throw the best parties. I know this because I went to two on different continents within a week. The first was at the Burn, a gorgeous estate in Glenesk, Scotland, with Alice Walpole, formerly our woman in Basra, Luxembourg and Mali. She now runs Goodenough College, a residential community of international postgrads in Bloomsbury, London, which also owns the Scottish retreat. I went to my first ceilidh, which was a lot more like an American hoedown than I expected – think Oklahoma! – and saw salmon leaping up a waterfall. It was magical.

Three days later, I was ascending to the British consul general’s sky-high glass residence in New York to celebrate the US publication of Simon Schama’s Foreign Bodies, a cultural history of pandemics and vaccines. I have been interested in the topic ever since interviewing Schama about his BBC series History of Now last year. He told me excitedly about old wives’ miraculous tales of exposing children to infected pus, and the work of the 19th-century epidemiologist Adrien Proust. Trust Schama to have spotted he was the father of the more famous Marcel.

[See also: The Sunak-Modi bilateral]

His Majesty’s consul general Emma Wade-Smith welcomed us with the news that The Mould that Changed the World, a hit musical about penicillin, was touring the US. Schama laughed that, being Jewish, his response was: “A musical about a virus? Vy not?”

Good news for the news

The co-host of Schama’s party was Tina Brown, the best diarist in the business, as anybody who has read her The Vanity Fair Diaries knows. The room was full of media power players. Walter Isaacson, Elon Musk’s biographer, was there, on the day his scoop landed about Musk refusing to let Ukraine use his Starlink satellite to attack the Russian fleet in Crimea. Should one billionaire wield so much power?

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Never mind that – being journalists, we were all buzzing around Mark Thompson, the new head of CNN, who, as an ex-director-general of the BBC and former chief executive of the New York Times, has now held three top jobs. Isaacson, who headed CNN from 2001 to 2003, said he finally realised what CNN was made for when the twin towers were attacked on 9/11, 22 years ago this month. We all agreed that a hard part of Thompson’s job will be filling the long hours in-between breaking news. But perhaps he will be lucky: Donald Trump’s trial for election interference in Georgia will be televised live next spring. And the nerve-racking 2024 US election should keep us glued to our screens all year.

Grim discoveries

Tina Brown and I share a past: we have both worked for the New Statesman (though not at the same time). We were horrified to discover that Peter Wilby, editor of this magazine from 1998 to 2005, was on 18 August sentenced for viewing child sex abuse images. An Essex judge gave him a ten-month suspended sentence; I would have locked him up. Wilby was found to have more than 100 sexual images of children on his computer, including 22 Category A pictures – the worst kind. His lawyer claimed in mitigation that Wilby, 78, was remorseful and had donated £1,000 to a charity (not much, frankly). I believe he is only sorry to have been found out. Why else did he conceal news of his arrest and prosecution from the New Statesman? Having betrayed the trust of former colleagues and readers, he should have been contrite enough to tell the truth. It turns out he had been viewing child abuse images since the late 1990s. Wilby also wrote articles in several publications criticising supposed hysterical overreaction to child sex abuse scandals.

A visitor from Nepal

If I sound furious, it is not least because the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, where I am director, is hosting Shraddha Verma, a visiting fellow from Nepal and an expert in protecting children from trafficking and abuse at orphanages in her country. She is clear that those who watch children being violated online are active participants in an evil trade. “Every single time the video is being watched, the child is being abused again,” Verma says. It perpetuates their belief that “this is me, this is my identity”, and makes it more difficult to leave their past behind. Those such as Wilby fuel a global demand for child sex abuse.

Paedophiles have a nasty way of seeking out the vulnerable. When Matthew Smith, the former deputy head of Prince George’s old primary school, Thomas’s in Battersea, was imprisoned for 12 years on 9 August for sexually abusing children, I noticed he had once worked at an orphanage in Nepal. It was probably regarded as a plus on his CV. Wilby was considered to be a charming editor. Smith was thought to be a charismatic teacher. They both belong in jail.  

[See also: Leaving politics behind on a liberating coastal wander]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites