Last week the columnist and former Today programme editor, Rod Liddle, was censured by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for writing a blog on The Spectator's website in which he claimed that the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London was carried out by young Afro-Caribbean men.
This was a striking judgement for two reasons. First, the PCC does not normally censure journalists for getting their facts wrong. Second, although Mr Liddle could not prove to the PCC's satisfaction that his assertion was correct, the PCC has not proved that it wasn't.
We can agree that Mr Liddle entered a controversial area in a deliberately provocative manner. He did not set out to write a carefully argued piece about ethnicity and crime in London. If he had written what he wrote for The Spectator itself, rather than on its instant blog, the magazine's editor would surely have asked him to tone it down. Beware of blogs, is one lesson of this case.
Nor can there be any doubt that Mr Liddle enjoys baiting the politically correct, and does so in such a brazen way that he is sometimes his own worst enemy, inviting, even though he probably does not deserve, the charge of racism. For example, he sometimes refers to himself as Rod "Seacole" Liddle after Mary Seacole, the mixed-race nurse who tended British soldiers in the Crimean War. This is intended to enrage.
In his Spectator blog last Wednesday, he tried to justify his original assertion. On gun crime, he claimed that a Metropolitan Police inspector called Steven Tyler, who worked for Operation Trident, said two years ago that 75 per cent of all shootings in the capital involved a black victim and a black perpetrator. I don't know whether Mr Tyler is accurately quoted, or whether his statistics are correct, or whether he has an axe to grind.
On street crime robbery, Mr Liddle admits figures are hard to come by, and falls back rather unconvincingly on a Sunday Times story. (He does not refer to the controversial statement, made by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon in 1995, that 80 per cent of muggings in some areas in the capital were committed by young black men.) On knife crime, Mr Liddle refers more persuasively to a leaked 2008 Scotland Yard report that suggested that, of those convicted of knife crime, 55.1 per cent were young black males.
On sexual violence, he relies on a black journalist called Sorious Samura who, he claims, suggested that blacks or mixed-race men have a disproportionate involvement in gang rapes. I am more suspicious of this contention, not least because Mr Liddle describes Mr Samura as someone who "worked for The Independent", whereas in fact he wrote a single article for the newspaper about a television programme he had made.
Where does this leave us? Mr Liddle does seem rather free with his facts. He does not offer any figures covering violent crime such as domestic murders or non-gang rape. Nor does he appear to make any distinction between crimes committed by young Afro-Caribbean men and those of African parentage. If his original blog was top-of-the-head stuff, his fuller defence last Wednesday was hardly very convincing.
And yet is it not possible that some sections of the young black community in London commit a disproportionate amount of certain sorts of violent crime? This might have to do with poverty or role models or other social factors. Even Mr Liddle writes that "this is a culture issue, not a race issue". One problem is that the Government does not release figures, though occasionally some leak out.
What worries me is that the PCC cannot be sure Mr Liddle is wholly wrong. Rather than demolish his entire argument – which, I suggest, would be impossible – it censures him for not having substantiated his case. If a similar test were applied to everything journalists wrote, there would be a lot of blank spaces in newspapers. The effect of the judgement will be that ethnicity and crime will become even more of a "no-go" area for journalists, some of whom may be more measured and rigorously analytical than Rod Liddle.
A dispatch from the bunker at the Berliner's home
Following Carolyn McCall's resignation as chief executive of Guardian Media Group last week, the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, distributed a rambling, overwrought memorandum to Guardian journalists, dismissing his critics and asserting that everything was absolutely fine. I am happy to reproduce an eyewitness account, written by a member of his personal staff, who has remained with his leader in his King's Cross bunker. It casts some disturbing light on Mr Rusbridger's mental state.
My master's mood has become darker since he heard of Carolyn's desertion at the crack of dawn [he writes], at one moment cursing her for leaving him, the next declaring that he will triumph on his own.
He is obsessed with his reputation and legacy, and rails against his real and imagined enemies. When I entered his office this morning, he was bent over the latest circulation figures, which he continually jabbed with a trembling forefinger. I knew they were the worst for at least 40 years. "They say I was wrong to spend £100m on new Berliner presses," Herr Rusbridger exclaimed. "Envious fools! Don't they know we needed new presses anyway?"
The irreverent thought occurred to me that with plummeting sales these expensive presses are being used less and less, but because they produce such an unusual format no one else will ever want to hire them.
"Yes," I replied. In such a mood my leader can be very volatile.
"And they dare to criticise me for my digital policy," he went on, "when it has only cost a net £2m." Really, I wondered? Surely it was much, much more. Hadn't we lost £37m last year? "Why do they think we have more online readers than anyone else?" he demanded. "Well, actually," I began. "Our online readership has been slipping too, and is no longer the highest ..." I stopped when I saw his wild and menacing look.
"The Independent has a new Russian owner," he mused. "I want advertisements in Cyrillic script, emphasising that Alexander Lebedev is a foreigner." This time I had to speak. "That might seem rather narrow and illiberal, coming from us ..."
He fixed me with that unhinged stare. "You should not contradict me," he said. "I am right and my critics are wrong. Print the advertisements!"
"As you say, master." I wondered how much longer this could last and, for the first time, asked myself whether I would stay until the bitter end.