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The Scruton affair

The readers’ editor on George Eaton’s interview with the philosopher Roger Scruton.

In the issue of 12-17 April, the New Statesman published in the magazine’s Observations section a 900-word article by George Eaton, joint deputy editor, on the Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who was appointed in November last year as chairman of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission.

Based on a 54-minute interview, it went online on the morning of 10 April. Eaton issued four tweets from his personal Twitter account publicising “a series of outrageous remarks” by Scruton. Islamophobia, Scruton argued, was “a propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue”. He said that “each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one”. He insisted that “anybody who doesn’t think there’s a Soros empire in Hungary hasn’t observed the facts”, a reference to the financier George Soros, a Holocaust survivor who suffers persistent abuse from Viktor Orbán’s government. It was “nonsense” to accuse Orbán of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, Scruton added. “The Hungarians were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims.” Eaton linked to the article in each tweet.

The Labour Party and several leading Conservative figures immediately demanded that ministers remove Scruton from his unpaid position. They included two backbench MPs and the former chancellor George Osborne, now a newspaper editor. That afternoon, barely four hours after the article appeared, James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, dismissed Scruton. Eaton posted on his personal Instagram account a picture of himself drinking champagne in celebratory fashion, alongside an insulting description of Scruton’s opinions. Eaton later deleted and apologised for this post.

Eaton has been accused of deliberate entrapment. Left liberals, argued Paul Goodman on the ConservativeHome website, are trying “to shut down voices on the right”. According to Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, writing on the Spectator website, the government was guilty of “despicable behaviour” and “cowardliness”. Scruton, in one of several articles he wrote on the interview, called Eaton “a slimy whippersnapper”.

The NS initially declined to release a transcript of the full interview, which was recorded on Eaton’s Dictaphone. However, Murray obtained a copy from unknown sources and the 27 April issue of the Spectator ran a cover story headlined “The hit job”. Inside, Murray used the transcript to compare what Scruton said with Eaton’s characterisation of those remarks on Twitter and in his NS article. He accused Eaton of trying “to lure Scruton on incendiary matters”. The story was taken up by the Mail on Sunday under the headline “Framed by the thought police”. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme also broadcast excerpts from the recording. On 26 April, the NS published the full transcript on its website “in the interests of transparency”.

After the story broke, the NS began an internal inquiry, which is ongoing. Scruton, meanwhile, was offered a prompt right of reply, which he accepted. Although at one stage Scruton emailed to say he had written a piece for publication in the New Statesman, he has not so far acted on this offer. Nor has he accepted the NS’s offer to publish a “clarification” of certain points and to apologise for how the interview was promoted on social media. He also declined to discuss with me why he had not accepted the offer.

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I write here as the NS readers’ editor, a position created in the wake of the Leveson report in 2012. My role is to consider complaints from readers if they feel the editor has not handled them satisfactorily. Scruton has not asked me to intervene but NS readers are entitled to some explanation. I should say at the outset (because, if I don’t, others will) that I am a regular columnist in the magazine, though not now a staff member, and a former editor (1998-2005).

As editor, I was accused of running an anti-Semitic cover, for which I apologised at length. On another occasion, I was accused of running an interview that distorted what the subject said. I can therefore claim, along with a large measure of humility, some empathy with both sides in the present case.

Before I consider whether Scruton’s views were misrepresented and whether Eaton set out, as Murray alleges, to “lure” him, some background is necessary.

Scruton, now 75, has had a distinguished career, including a period as NS wine columnist. He has written more than 50 books on philosophy, conservatism, music, art, religion, animal rights, hunting, sexual desire and other subjects. He was knighted in 2016 for “services to philosophy, teaching and public education”.

Scruton, a public intellectual, has long experience of political controversy. He wrote a weekly column for the Times during the 1980s; the then editor Peter Stothard said no one he commissioned “provoked more rage”. When Scruton was appointed to the buildings commission last year, opposition MPs unearthed a number of contentious comments from the past. In the Daily Telegraph in 2007, for example, he wrote that “although homosexuality has been normalised, it is not normal”. In a book in 2017, he described “Islamophobia” as “a propaganda word”. Speaking in Hungary in 2016, he said “many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros empire”. (He added that “indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics”.)

The NS has no partisan political interest in bringing Scruton down, least of all under the present editor, who has tried to broaden the magazine’s appeal beyond its traditional Labour heartlands. Jason Cowley’s NS is not in the business of doing “hatchet jobs”. Cowley has for instance interviewed Theresa May and Nigel Farage, without complaint from either. I wrote a long profile of the then Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, again without complaint. Eaton points out that he has written about the American conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama and the Vote Leave campaign leader Matthew Elliott. Neither complained of misrepresentation.

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Eaton was clearly at fault in his Instagram post. A journalist should not interview a subject and then insult him or her. One tweet – concerning Scruton’s comments on the Chinese as “replicas of each other” – was misleading. Both the published interview and the full transcript make clear, as the tweet did not, that Scruton was criticising the policies of China’s rulers (“they’re creating robots out of their own people”) rather than echoing racist stereotypes.

The other tweets took words somewhat out of context as many (perhaps most) tweets of that sort inevitably do. Whether Scruton’s words were “outrageous”, as Eaton claimed, depends on who is reading them. MPs, former chancellors and present ministers can make up their own minds. Yet Eaton’s use of the adjective “outrageous” suggested, as did the Instagram post, that he approached the interview as a political activist, not as a journalist.

It is more difficult to judge the extent to which the published interview was misleading. Certainly, the full transcript shows that most of Scruton’s comments on Muslims, Orbán and anti-Semitism were more thoughtful and nuanced than those highlighted by Eaton. But all journalism is necessarily selective. The NS should consider two questions. First, is a 900-word “Encounter” a sufficient length for a wide-ranging interview with an author of more than 50 serious books on diverse subjects? Second, should it more readily release full interview transcripts, when the contents are complex and controversial, even though that is not normal print journalistic practice?

As for the entrapment charge, the interview was arranged after Scruton’s publishers, Bloomsbury, sent the NS some of his books, republished to mark his 75th birthday. Scruton has written that he expected a discussion of “ideas” in the books. He told me in an email that he “assumed it was ancillary to a book review”. No journalist, however, could have neglected to question Scruton on areas where he has made such controversial – and, to some people, offensive – comments. The transcript shows that Scruton raised no objection to Eaton’s line of questioning. “I thought he might retract some of the comments made previous to his appointment, that he would try to cool things down,” Eaton told me. “I was surprised that he doubled down on them. I didn’t have to provoke him.”

The NS should consider one further point. What is the aim of an Encounter with a public figure? Is it to explore the subject’s thinking and give readers some insight into opinions with which they may expect to disagree? Or is it to elicit “outrageous” comments that will create controversy?

The headline on Eaton’s article, written by Eaton himself, was a direct quote from Scruton: “Cameron renounced leadership when it was most needed.” Underneath, the standfirst (as journalists call it) read: “Roger Scruton reflects on the true meaning of conservatism.” This unsensationalist presentation suggests the first aim. The tweets suggest the second. Yet thousands of readers now form their first impressions of an article from a tweet, not, as they once did, from a headline. Curiously, newspapers and magazines continue to give careful attention to headlines and standfirsts – which will be seen by several colleagues – but often allow journalists to tweet their own pieces without consultation.

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It is not just the New Statesman that should learn from this episode. Journalists of all political persuasions are too eager to claim “scalps” and to seek support on social media in doing so. They are frequently encouraged by politicians of right and left. In his Spectator article, Murray, himself a none too gentle tweeter, writes of what he calls “social media hate-mongering” and continues: “For generations, interviewers have sought to make mischief with quotes – but before they tended not to result in people being fired before teatime… Our world is replete with complex matters that need discussing. We need philosophers, thinkers and even politicians of courage to help us find our way through this.”

I disagree with Douglas Murray on much – and cannot resist pointing out that more discussion of “complex matters” is found in the New Statesman than the Spectator. But I agree with every one of those words.

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 appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal