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10 February 2021

First Thoughts: The DUP’s reunited Ireland, Andrew Neil’s revenge channel, and academic espionage

Andrew Neil needs GB News to get even with Rupert Murdoch and the Beeb. Nobody else does.

By Peter Wilby

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, being old-fashioned British patriots, didn’t want to stay in the EU or even settle for a soft Brexit. They didn’t want a hard border with the Irish Republic because business demands “seamless and frictionless” trade. They certainly didn’t want anything resembling a border in the Irish Sea, separating them from the rest of the UK. So what did they want?

I didn’t know the answer until the other night, when I heard Ian Paisley Jr ranting on BBC Two’s Newsnight about post-Brexit problems with goods entering Northern Ireland from the British mainland. If I understood him correctly, he wants a border between the Irish Republic and the EU single market. In other words, the Republic should, in effect, leave the EU to preserve the UK’s integrity. And no doubt, it should put the clock back 99 years and rejoin its former colonial master as the UK embarks on a post-Brexit golden age.

Old news

Andrew Neil, chairman and leading presenter of GB News, which is due to launch next month, presents the new TV channel’s manifesto in the Sunday Express. Shattering my foolish hopes in a previous column that he wouldn’t get involved in the culture wars, Neil proclaims: “Our national conversation has become too metropolitan… some journalists… seem too confident that their liberal left assumptions must surely be shared by every sensible person… We will not operate on the assumption that every problem demands a government solution or…  more taxpayers’ money… GB News will be proud of our country.” It will challenge the “woke world-view” of “the usual suspects”, presumably the BBC and Channel 4. You can read this sort of drivel in the Mail, Sun, TelegraphExpress and occasionally the Times. You can hear it on Talk Radio, LBC and even the BBC, which gave ample airtime to Nigel Farage. Who needs more of it on a new TV channel?

Go back to the 1990s when Rupert Murdoch pulled the plug on a magazine programme that Neil was to front on Fox News. Go back to Neil’s years with the BBC, which refused to give him a regular prime-time slot. Neil needs GB News to get even with Murdoch and the Beeb. Nobody else does.

[see also: Why the Foxification of the British media must be resisted]

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Stamp duty

The Royal Mail, it is reported, may tell postal workers to check during their delivery rounds on the well-being of the elderly and vulnerable. This service would be available for a monthly fee. One should be wary of romanticising the past, but I am fairly certain postmen and postwomen once looked out for old folk as a matter of course, particularly during bad weather. They would get to know who was lonely and sometimes stop for a chat and even a cup of tea. Nobody thought of charging. That was before privatisation and before postal workers were ordered to operate “efficiently”.

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Gleaming spies

The security services, the Times reports, are investigating nearly 200 UK academics for exporting militarily useful research to China, which is deemed a hostile state.

What goes around comes around. Ministers have told British universities to act more like businesses and earn their living in the global marketplace. Now many face financial disaster if deprived of Chinese customers. China’s military scientists come here to research technologies linked to missiles and jet aircraft; its students provide more than a quarter of the fee income at some universities; Oxford has just renamed a physics professorship after a Chinese firm that donated £700,00.

Academics probably expected prizes for contributions to export earnings. Instead, the Times reckons, some may get up to ten years in jail.

Ashes augury

The England men’s cricket team have won a Test match in India, a rare feat. They have won nine, and lost only one, of their last 12 matches. They also hold the World Cup. Are they on the brink of greatness? We shall find out next winter when they travel to Australia hoping to win back the Ashes. To true cricket lovers, nothing else matters. 

[see also: What is the solution to problems with the Northern Ireland protocol?]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair