Boris Johnson should not have apologised
David Green, 18 October 2004
The editor of the Spectator, Boris Johnson, should not have apologised for the leading article in last week’s issue. Instead, he should have offered someone from Liverpool equal space to reply.
The Spectator leader drew attention to legitimate concerns. It may be that, in the light of criticism, the writer would want to amend or tone down some of what was said, but the main concern was valid: that the one-minute silence at the England/Wales football match and the two-minute silence in Liverpool were not justified.
But isn’t it a good thing if people come together in periodic acts of solidarity? Yes it is and, perhaps, we don’t do it often enough. But when a decision is made to display our unity we should be careful about the message that we are sending. The focus of the criticism in the Spectator was on the motivation of Liverpudlians for taking part. They stand accused of wallowing in victim status. In reality, I suspect that many were drawn in, as they were into the public displays of grief after the death of Princess Diana, for far worthier reasons. Above all, they felt a wish to belong, to be part of something bigger than themselves. But such a longing can be made to serve noble or ignoble, wise or unwise, purposes and it is reasonable for us all to ask ourselves what exactly we are giving our loyalty to when we take part in public displays.
In particular, should we not limit demonstrations of national solidarity to celebrations of the best in people? We should not be too severe in our judgements of Ken Bigley. He is very likely to have been tortured or threatened with torture, but we cannot ignore the fact that he made public statements calling for the government to give in to terrorist demands, thus endangering the lives of other British citizens. This has not been true of all kidnap victims. One Italian hostage acted with sheer defiance and, at the moment of his death, shouted ‘I will show you how an Italian dies’. Whatever our sympathies for Mr Bigley’s plight, if we are going to carry out a symbolic act of respect, the conduct of the Italian was more deserving of public praise and recognition.
And what message are we sending about the way that Bigley family members conducted themselves. Mr Bigley’s son set an example to everyone. His television appearances were calm and measured. He said that responsibility lay entirely with the terrorists and asked them to show mercy, which could only mean abandoning their demands. Paul Bigley, the victim’s brother, could hardly have behaved more badly. He played the terrorists’ game, tried to direct blame at the British Government instead of at the kidnappers, and allied himself with opponents of the war who milked the situation to embarrass Mr Blair. The message to extremists everywhere was that, if you want draw attention to a cause, it will be well worthwhile kidnapping other British citizens.
Acts of national solidarity are often justified and the desire to belong that leads people to participate should not be belittled. But, before taking part, we should think carefully about the ideals being celebrated and the future consequences. Because the messages are mixed, Mr Bigley’s callous murder was not a good choice for a display of solidarity.
In any event, Boris Johnson should not have apologised. As an editor, he should have given space to his critics and, as a politician, he should have refused to play the apologies game.