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13 November 2019

First Thoughts: The FT’s first female editor, the launch of the Critic, and the tuneless Welsh

Lebanon-born Roula Khalaf is set to succeed Lionel Barber at the paper.

By Peter Wilby

Contrary to popular opinion, most politicians don’t lie. They ignore questions and answer completely different ones. Or they use true statements to give a false impression, as President Bill Clinton did when asked on TV if he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. “There is not a sexual relationship,” he replied, cleverly changing the question’s tense.

Boris Johnson is different. Though he sometimes ignores questions, he more often tells straightforward lies, assuring Northern Ireland business people, for example, that, under his Brexit deal no extra forms will be needed to trade with the rest of the UK.

Polygraphs (lie detectors) wouldn’t work on him. To Johnson, truth and falsehood are neutral categories with no moral content and no consequences. He says whatever he thinks people want to hear. A polygraph relies on physiological reactions that betray stress. Since Johnson doesn’t care (or even know) whether what he’s saying is true or not, no stress would be detectable.

Perhaps we should revive the medieval practice of pouring boiling water on suspected liars in the belief that honest people can better withstand it. Once the Tories have finished with the Human Rights Act, that would probably be allowed.

Pressing the button

If Johnson is a compulsive liar, Jeremy Corbyn struggles to tell even little white ones. Why can’t he say that, if a nuclear bomb falls on London, he would press the retaliatory button? If he doesn’t, not many people would be around to complain.

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Khalaf in the pink

Another bastion of white male supremacy falls. The Financial Times has appointed its first female and first non-white editor, Lebanon-born Roula Khalaf, in succession to Lionel Barber. Early this century, the FT was regarded as an industry leader in equal opportunities. Barber, aged 50 on appointment in 2005, was accused, in the early years of his editorship, of reversing that. The three most senior positions below him, previously held by women, went to men. The journalists’ union complained that women earned on average 11 per cent less than men. But then Barber appointed Khalaf as his deputy in 2016, and now she has the top job.

Criticising the Critic

After the NS series on “the closing of the conservative mind”, with contributions from both left and right, the morning post brings the first issue of the Critic, a new monthly magazine that promises to campaign against “the closed mind”. The “high priests” of closed mindedness, an editorial explains, are in the universities, “the civil service, the BBC, the courts, the churches, the arts and the quangos”, and so on.

The magazine in part depends financially on Jeremy Hosking, a pro-Brexit financier. Contributors include the usual suspects, David Starkey, Douglas Murray, Peter Hitchens and Toby Young. A co-editor is a former chief of staff for the Democratic Unionist Party. Several staff defected from Standpoint, which declares itself “in favour of Western civilisation”. This doesn’t seem a very promising team for opening anybody’s mind. For a start, it doesn’t have John Gray, perhaps our most challenging political philosopher, writing for it. [Peter: it’s because he writes for the NS Ed]. And neither Standpoint nor the Critic has any real digital readership.

The Critic has a “good luck” message from David Goodhart, founding editor of Prospect, who writes: “Does the world need another magazine of tastefully written… conservatively inclined thinking? Probably not.” I would say probably yes, so why do we never get one?

In the land of song

To Cardiff, to see the magnificent castle and bay and the glorious Llandaff cathedral. Good food; excellent service; friendly people. But in the hotel bar, there comes an all-too-familiar and unwelcome sound: men singing, loudly and tunelessly. I don’t think I have ever stepped into a Welsh bar without native men (always men) breaking into song. Welshmen have fine singing voices, heard to good effect at rugby matches. But, please, not in pubs.

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This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold