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2 December 2020

First Thoughts: Carole Cadwalladr vs Arron Banks, the truth about The Crown and no more full stops

A courtroom drama about the meaning of lies – and “inaccuracies” on Netflix. 

By Peter Wilby

Tory MPs and newspapers demanding an end to lockdowns in any form, local or national, base their arguments on a single figure, quoted repeatedly: 82. That, they point out, is the average age of death in the UK from Covid-19, and it’s a little higher than average life expectancy. This is broadly true though, for most individuals at risk, somewhat irrelevant since, at 75, the average man can expect another 11 years of life and the average woman another 13.

What, then, are the implications for government policy? Opponents of lockdown say that while ministers should advise vulnerable age groups to stay safe and avoid social contact, people’s liberties should not be curtailed. But the point of compulsion is to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. Is the anti-lockdown brigade therefore saying that anyone in their eighties with Covid-related symptoms should be refused treatment and told they’ve had their allotted life span and, if they wanted to hang around longer, they should have been more careful? Unless they answer this question, the MPs and journalists who oppose lockdowns cannot be taken seriously.


Fact over fiction

Each new series of The Crown is greeted with outrage over “inaccuracies”. Among complaints about the fourth series are that Princess Margaret wasn’t rude to Margaret Thatcher; Lord Mountbatten didn’t write to Prince Charles warning that his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles could “ruin” the monarchy; and Charles didn’t continue that affair in the early years of his marriage. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, it is reported, will formally request Netflix put a “health warning” – that the series is largely fiction not fact – before each episode.

I am surprised Tory ministers and newspapers do not trust the British people to make up their own minds on this subject, as they were trusted to decide on whether to stay in the EU. Shouldn’t claims that the NHS would get £350m a week if we left and the country would be overrun by Turks if we didn’t have been prefaced with health warnings?

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[see also: First Thoughts: How Suzanne Moore split the Guardian]


Courtroom drama

Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who won the Orwell Prize for her Observer articles about the finances and data sources of the Leave campaign and the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign, faces another chapter in a libel case that some journalists see as pivotal for press freedom. Arron Banks, the Leave.EU co-founder, issued a libel writ in July 2019. Rather than suing the Observer or claiming damages for anything in the paper, he sued Cadwalladr personally for allegations she made during a Ted Talk about his contacts with the Russian government. She depends on crowdfunding to contest the case.

The argument so far is about what a “reasonable” person would have thought Cadwalladr meant when she accused Banks of “lies” about his relationship with the Russian government. She did not mean he discussed or accepted funding, she insisted. The judge in the case ruled that her words could reasonably be interpreted that way, compelling her to drop her defence that what she said was true. But she will continue to contest the case in the High Court in the new year, pleading, as is now common in libel cases, that it was in the public interest for questions to be raised.

Is this a rich businessman vindictively pursuing a brave reporter? Or an irresponsible pro-Remain journalist making allegations unsupported by evidence? Your answer probably depends on which side you backed in the referendum. As the judge has observed, the two sides “could not be more divided”.


Rules of language

Support for millennials who object to full stops comes from Susie Dent, the 56-year-old lexicographer on Channel 4’s Countdown. Replying “Great.” to someone who texts about their new job “definitely indicates resentment”. Text “Great!” instead, Dent recommends. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But from Whitaker’s Almanack you can learn the correct ways to address letters to a duke (“His Grace”), a marquess (“The Most Hon”) and an earl (“The Right Hon”). More or less ridiculous than rules about full stops? 

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed