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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.

10 comments on “Boris Johnson should not have apologised”

  1. “liverpudlians bury their heads in the sand over hillsborough”; are you shittin me dale? you clearly fail to possess an accurate conception or any practical knowledge of the tragedy that unfolded in sheffield. although over zelousness on behalf of the liverpool fans may not have helped the situation, and the incompetent actions of the police and the poor organisation of the event were the most significant factors in the deaths of the football fans that day. you need to get your facts straight before you come out with nonsensical, inflamatory judgements.

  2. I must agree with most of the comments posted here – and although most people from Liverpool will bury their heads in the sand over Hillsborough, anyone who regularly attended football matches during that period will in their heart of hearts know the real cause of this tradgedy, irrespective of what any report says.
    This is said as someone who spent many years visiting the town, gaining many many super friends – however that ‘victim’ culture has always existed, and I certainly see no evidence of change

  3. Maybe these people who call Liverpool fit to burn should at least go to the City once in there life and realise how genuine Liverpool people are, its all right calling a place but until youve been there then maybe people should keep there comments to themselves, as for the Hillsborough disaster, well I was there and I didnt see any football fans kicking off, and ive seen fighting at many matches years ago but on that particular day, well there wasnt any. As for Boris Johnson, well he’s had his 15 minutes of fame, but was it worth it. Also when Aintree had the Grand National that was called off, all the local people welcomed all the posh folks into there homes, even if they were strangers to them, but tell me how many other cities in England would have done the same thing. Thank you

    Learn and be educated, you disgraceful people. “Hillsborough was caused by the unruly yob element”….I cannot believe 15 years on people are still being fed off the lies.
    Hooligan paranoia, and the pathetic efforts and atttiudes of the police and the politicians in Britain are what led to so many people dying at Hillsborough. The Taylor report released immediately after Hillsborough removed any blame from the fans.
    Get your facts right and let the 96 rest in peace instead of spitting on their graves.

  5. Boris was dead right in what he said. And in any case, if the Liverpudlians are so God fearing, why then don’t they have special church services for the service personnel who have been maimed and killed in Iraq. Let us not forget the reason Mr Bigley was in Bagdad, to earn extremely high wages. He knew the risks.
    The Hillsborough tragedy was indeed caused by the unruly yob element/crowd, and not the police or authorities.

  6. The Spectator’s worst sin was to perpetuate the myth of Liverpool as being a place populated by people somehow more mawkish or sentimental than the rest of the UK.
    This is a nonsense.
    I watched the BBC coverage of a ‘city in mourning’ and all I saw was a handful of batty old dears attending a local church.
    The simple fact is that whenever anything unpleasant takes place with a Liverpool connection, the news organisations send hordes of crews up the M1 to film scenes of tearful scallies whimpering like puppies. They could do the same with practically any major conurbation in the UK but don’t because it was decided long ago that Liverpool was THE place for this kind of material.
    Talk about the media feeding on itself. First, make up a bogus story about an emotionally devastated city, then say something insensitive about that city, then cover the grovelling apology.
    What a waste of time. All of the recent Liverpool coverage had about as much connection to reality as Tony Blair’s last conference speach.

  7. As I understand it, Ken Bigley had not actually lived in Liverpool for many years; a fact which rather underscores the ‘death of a neighbour’ point (Anon, Oct 20, 10:57).
    There is of course a balance to be struck. The Spectator article was predicably offensive to the people of Liverpool. The same point could easily have been made with less offence. The people of Liverpool are entitled to feel and express their grief as they wish. but how they do it may tell us something about all of us and that should not be a subject which is out of bounds.
    In a way, there is nothing that demonstrates tyranny of the victim culture better than the requirement for Boris Johnson to go to Liverpool to apologise.
    That is not to dilute the horror of what happened to Ken Bigley or the brave Italian hostage.
    But it must be legitimate to consider the consistency of the reaction, measured against how we all (including Liverpudlians) behave to each other daily.

  8. He should not have apologised to the people of Liverpool, since they are no closer to Ken Bigley than any of the rest of us. No-one can claim to be grief stricken at the death of someone they’ve never met, just because they’ve heard he’s from the same town as they are. I wonder how many people lighting candles for Ken Bigley jus tbecaue they saw him on the TV, remained unmoved by the death of an anoymous neighbour that same week? Probably hundreds.
    As for apologising to Mr Bigley’s family, that’s another matter, although we should not fall into the trap of interpreting criticism of the public response to Mr Bigley’s death as a slight upon the man himself. Regarding Paul Bigley, who has done nothing but use the whole affair as a stick to beat the government with and a vehicle for self publicity, Boris Johnson should not have been compelled to be publicly insulted by him. He had every right to tell Paul Bigley to get stuffed.

  9. Whatever Boris’s proclivity for foot-in-mouth journalism, he should not have apologised, and Michael Howard did both the Tories and the country a disservice by his kneejerk response of requiring Boris to go to Liverpool to expiate his offence in a public grovelling session.
    This goes beyond the unfortunate Mr Bigley, and indeed the Hillsborough incident. What Boris was rightly attacking was the sentimental victimism, coupled with a righteous sense that they are in fact God’s Chosen People fallen upon hard times, that pervades Liverpudlian popular culture.
    The only other identifiable group in British society that outdoes the Scousers in the field of self-indulgent victimism are the Afro-Caribbeans, with Gary Younge as their high priest.
    ‘Tis about time both groups grew up.

  10. Totally agree, with the possible exception of your words on Paul Bigley. I imagine that it his situation, you will do anything to get your brother back, and Paul certainly put the effort in. You’re right about Boris though – he certainly should not be made to go up to Liverpool. The media scenes may well finish him…

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