Rewriting history the tabloid way

20th October 2000 at 01:00
IT doesn't matter what you say; what counts is who says it. The voracious public appetite for revelation is turning the media into a daily confessional. Everyone has to confess; and if they are lucky they will receive absolution from the College of Fleet Street's Cardinals. It may make some people feel better; but it won't help us to reach better decisions.

Take the drugs issue. Every day a leading politician goes public about their youthful experiments with cannabis. These episodes are all conveniently in the past, and brief, we are told. So what do we make of this? Does it add authority to the confessor's views? Or are we being invited to share their pain? Or does it tell us anything about the impact of cannabis use on human physiology? I don't think so. In practice it merely obscures the facts of the issue under debate. I suppose that the argument is that if so many people use it then the law is, in practice, becoming an ass.

But does the fact that a lot of 40-something MPs took dope 20 years ago indicate widespread use today? Unless you argue that the wearing of afros, 22-inch flared trousers and stack heels that went along with dope smoking also should be subject to public prohibition I don't see the point.

Equally, reading the right-leaning press last week, you would have imagined that the Runnymede Trust's Commission into the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was written under the influence of some very powerful weed indeed. I hope not, since I commissioned it while chairman of the Trust, three years ago. Though I cannot claim much input, I think that the ferocity of the attack on the document is bizarre. Most of the recommendations are about practical steps to give all citizens an equal chance to play a part in Britain's future. The biggest single group of proposals covered education, ranging from targets on school exclusions, through monitoring, exams, ad inspection to improved recruitment of staff.

Yet all the attention was focused on the two pages or so which examined what is meant by the term "British"; the extensive discussion of schools was reduced to the suggestion that British history should be "rewritten". Never mind that the report settles on the side of those who feel that we ought to call ourselves British - Black British, British Muslim, British Jews and so forth - the tale that was told was that of a bunch of lefty "polytechnic" lecturers who had set out to destroy the nation.

The canard was given weight by selective quotation from a range of black and south Asian Britons. They were asked if they felt British, and understandably answered in the affirmative. Interestingly, no one asked them if they felt that most white people regarded them as English, or British. If they had, I suspect that the result would have been different. The self-evident truth is that black and South Asian Britons are not treated in the same way as their peers.

One Daily Mail columnist asked why black and Asian people who had benefited from living in Britain should insult the "host" community in this way. That's the point, surely. We may be black and brown Britons; but apparently this gives us only a qualified right to citizenship. As long as we win medals abroad, we have every right to wave the Union Flag; but we cannot have opinions about the future of a Britain we have spent four centuries building, defending and rebuilding. No one has asked, by the way, how many black or Asian people there were in the editorial conferences at the Telegraph, Mail or Sun which discussed this report. I'll give a tenner for each one that the editors can name. If I don't have to pay out more than 50 quid, I think we can say that the most unpleasant thing we saw last week was that old vice of the British ruling classes, hypocrisy.


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