A castle-creeper presses the Hate Button

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The Independent Online
WHILE I have been on holiday, this newspaper's campaign on the siege of Sarajevo has attracted some unpleasant attention. I refer, in particular, to Paul Johnson, who wrote a couple of weeks ago in the Spectator a piece so splenetically nasty and silly that he cannot be allowed to get away with it.

His argument was, first, that 'the left', which for these purposes apparently includes the Independent, was originally against the breakup of Yugoslavia 'because it was Communist' and 'opposed freedom for the Croats and Slovenes because they were Catholics and, by definition, fascists'. Now, there are few writers on the Balkan tragedy who have been right all the time - I got it badly wrong a year ago. But Johnson's account bears no relation to Independent editorials during the relevant period. ('Tomorrow EC foreign ministers will consider whether to recognise the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. They must do so.')

Never mind. Mere facts. Let's press on. Johnson then complains that 'the left' changed its mind and became rabidly pro-intervention because Bosnians are Muslims 'and all non-Christians are in the eyes of the left goodies unless proved otherwise'. Nothing to do with mass murder or mass rape, you understand, just an overdose of anti-Christian political correctness.

Finally, Johnson attacks the Independent for leading 'this Chattering Class Crusade'. It was, apparently, a disguised circulation drive: 'a mixture of altruism, humbug and commercial calculation'. If Johnson thinks covering a front page with names of readers is a cynical wheeze to gain circulation, I'm glad that he was never in charge of any organ I ever worked for.

I'm glad anyway. I have never met him. He is a serious historian. His writing on painting and on bibliophilia is entertaining and sometimes perceptive. But his political journalism involves a relentless nastiness that rarely fails to leave its readers just a little bit less decent and tolerant than they were five minutes earlier. Johnson is a skilled manipulator of the baser instincts of the Daily Mail's Middle England. His fingers know where the Hate Button lies.

Part of his trick is the assumption of sturdy omniscience, the pose of the plain-speaking man forever proven right in his homespun predictions. Thus, in a recent Mail article about the 'supreme conceit' of Neil Kinnock, he reminded us that 'there was never, in my view, any chance that the voters would entrust the country to Kinnock'.

It was, of course, an entirely different Paul Johnson who told readers of the Spectator during the last election campaign: 'On Saturday, reflecting that there was now a real risk the socialists would come in, I decided to spend some money before they got the chance to confiscate it.' That piece ended with a characteristic rant about 'the prospect of Neil Kinnock, ignorant, unreflective, almost unread' and his cultural commissars 'imposing on us their repellent notions of moral, civil and artistic conduct . . .'

At least Johnson was consistent in his hatred of Kinnock, whom he fears (on scant evidence) might be chosen by a future Labour government as Foreign Secretary. Kinnock, said Johnson, had never had 'a job of any kind outside politics' and was thus unfit to govern. In sharp contradistinction, presumably, to Lord Hesketh, the 42-year-old landowner and Chief Whip in the Lords.

What is the relevance here of Lord Hesketh? Well, he is keenly tipped by Johnson as our next Foreign Secretary. I wonder why. Could it be that there is another difference between Mr Kinnock and Lord Hesketh which persuades Johnson to place them in different categories?

It could. Hesketh is, drooled the Sage recently, 'a portly gentleman - or rather, nobleman . . . the only real grandee at the top of the Government, as John Major will have seen for himself when he spent a weekend at Hesketh's Northamptonshire palace, Easton Neston . . .' (Lucky little Mr Major, to rise so far]) Johnson clearly moves in pretty strange circles for, 'There are many who believe that Hesketh has just the right presence to awe the rather grubby and undistinguished group of politicians who at present are running Europe.' Many?

Well, perhaps many of the chaps at the Beefsteak. Johnson is what my grandfather would have called a 'castle-creeper', a snob. He is also a self- dramatising Roman Catholic, a scatterer of crucifixes and Bibles through his prose. Which perhaps goes a little strangely with the relentless public choler, the corrosive hatreds.

I have wondered whether his life, with its mixture of journalism, learning, Tory polemics, piety and professional grumpiness, is a conscious emulation of that other Johnson, the great Johnson. But I fear the newcomer resembles the Bear only in Cobbett's unflattering description: 'Old dread- death and dread-devil Johnson, teacher of moping and melancholy'. There's no rogue like an old rogue.

Why, finally, you ask, is he worth discussing at all? Only because nonsense, unanswered, can drip into the public mind. There's no doubt that for this newspaper to stay independent is a hard struggle in a naughty world. But if any of us ever doubted such exertions were worthwhile, the hostility of Paul Johnson provides an ample source of reassurance.