Who's the twerp and who writes twaddle?

How rapidly the press marginalises subjects such as the brutality of British colonialism and puts th

Is Johann Hari, the Independent's twentysomething columnist, a twerp? Does he write twaddle? Since I brought Hari into journalism - I gave him his first job, on the NS - I rather hope not. The charges have been levelled, in the Sunday Times, the Independent itself and, bizarrely, through the medium of the Daily Mail diary, by two historians of the British empire, Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James.

Hari's thought crime was to propose that the empire was "a psychopathic and murderous form of totalitarianism" on a par with Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union. I accept the youthful Hari (or "Horrible Hari", as Ferguson called him, borrowing from the title of a children's book series) is prone to overstating his case. But my interest is in how rapidly the press marginalises subjects such as the brutality of British colonialism and puts them into a box marked "loony".

You don't need to read lefties to learn about, say, the British response to the Indian Mutiny. A N Wilson's The Victorians records how bayoneted prisoners were roasted over fires and Muslims sewn into pigskins before execution. You may or may not find that as reprehensible as what Stalin or Mao did. Either way, I'm not sure comparing the numbers of victims resolves the argument.

Hari's column was concerned with another issue: the Indian famines of the late 19th century in which, he claimed, 29 million died. This figure comes from Late Victorian Holocausts by the University of California lecturer Mike Davis, which was reviewed sympathetically by, for example, Amartya Sen in the New York Times. Davis argues that, though weather conditions triggered the famine, the effects were greatly exacerbated by dogmatic free-market policies which, in some cases, included the active obstruction of relief efforts. The implication is this: if we are to hold Stalin and Mao responsible for the millions who starved as a result of their socialist agricultural policies (as many counts of their victims do), we ought to hold the British empire's rulers responsible for those who starved as a result of laissez-faire policies. Equally, if we are to defend the British, as James does, by pointing out that our colonial subjects held us in such esteem that they adopted our laws and even came to live here, we should also note that millions of former Soviet citizens revere Stalin to this day.

Again, I do not think detailed comparisons get us very far. These were different crimes committed in different circumstances; league tables of atrocity are pointless. But you will find few apologists for Stalin in the British media. Apologists for the empire are everywhere: Ferguson has a Channel 4 series, writes a column in the Sunday Telegraph and has been profiled or interviewed in several papers recently. Davis is hardly ever seen outside the pages of the New Left Review.

Does it matter? It certainly does. Nobody of any significance seriously proposes a return to Stalinism. But a dogma similar to the Victorians' belief in free markets rules most of the world. And Ferguson is so impressed by the British empire that he thinks the Americans should openly embrace a similar imperial role instead of pussyfooting around as (in his view) they do now. Hari's views may be open to challenge; they may even be wrong. But he is not, on this evidence, a twerp.

Funny thing, progress

Writing last week in the arts pages about an exhibition of the past 100 years of newspaper headlines, I observed that "progress is a funny thing". That thought is prompted again by the much-discussed Sutton Trust report which shows that most leading press and broadcasting journalists went to fee-charging schools. It was once Fleet Street's boast that young people started by making the tea, and then rose to editorships. Now one of the commonest routes into journalism is the unpaid internship. The interns come armed with degrees, but still make the tea. The difference is that the tea-makers of old received wages.

North London bias

On 16 June, Simon Jenkins and Andrew Gimson, occupying the main comment positions in the Guardian and Telegraph respectively, both wrote about parking problems in Camden. This is a north London borough with a population of 194,000, which makes it considerably smaller than, say, Rotherham.The national press is often accused of a metropolitan bias, but this is not quite right. Rather, it is a bias towards a few north London boroughs. A search of the Guardian archive produces 2,346 references to Camden, 2,912 to Hackney and 3,173 to Islington. South London boroughs such as Lambeth, Lewisham, Croydon and Wandsworth all have fewer than 2,000 references, as do, for example, Rotherham and Gateshead. I am sure, however, that parking problems in Camden are very pressing.

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 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?