Richard Ingrams' Week: We all need a lesson in morals, or so it seems

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The Independent Online

Britain is heading off the cliff, says the cover of this week's Spectator in big, black letters. It refers to an article in the current issue of the magazine by Mr David Selbourne, lamenting the decline of Britain and the "moral cowardice" that now reigns in the corridors of power.

It is not the first time that Mr Selbourne has appeared wearing the mantle of the prophet of doom. A few years ago, he issued a clarion call on behalf of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, in which he deplored a Britain "ruled by evasion and cynicism in which few dare speak of right and wrong".

Selbourne is a mysterious figure. In 1997 he featured in a notable literary scandal when he published a translation of a book called The City of Light purporting to be the account of an Italian merchant, the first Westerner ever to visit China (pre-dating Marco Polo). When an American professor denounced the book as a clumsy hoax, which resulted in its being withdrawn by the publishers, Selbourne, the only person who claimed to have seen the original medieval manuscript, said he had been sworn to secrecy by its Italian owner whose name he refused to disclose. The episode only helped to cast a cloud over Selbourne's credentials as one of our leading moralists.

By a curious coincidence, the name of that pioneering, and probably imaginary, Italian merchant was Jacob D'Ancona, a name he shares with the editor of The Spectator, Mr Matthew D'Ancona. By another coincidence, while his magazine deplores the "moral cowardice" of the times, Matthew found himself accused in this newspaper of cowardice for censoring a review of the new Bill Deedes biography in order not to offend his proprietors, the Barclay brothers, and their acolytes, referred to by the late Deedes as "a stinking mob".

Planes, trains and endless problems

"Train fares set to go up to stop people travelling." This is the latest headline news from Virgin Trains as a result of the dramatic increase in the number of passengers and the company's failure to add any extra coaches to its trains.

The move could possibly explain recent events on the railways, such as the repair works over Easter which overran their allotted time, resulting in yet more chaos after the holidays. The usual apologies were given but, in view of the attitude of Virgin, one wonders if behind the scenes there is a move afoot to deter people from travelling by train. Higher and higher fares are one way of going about it but regular reports of chaos and confusion at holiday time could also be helpful in cutting down numbers.

Could a similar mindset be at work in the field of air travel? Are the authorities worried that there are just too many people wanting to go by plane? With lengthy queues to check in, degrading security checks, cancelled flights and the discomfort of the journey itself, many people are now anxious to avoid getting on an aeroplane.

In the past few days they will have seen the chaos at Heathrow's new Terminal 5; they will have heard the talk of plans to fingerprint all passengers, and there are reports that mobile phones will soon be permitted on aeroplanes. All will attract what looks like negative publicity for the airlines, but it is perfectly possible that they too are worried about the growing flood of passengers. If chaos at Terminal 5 persuades a lot of us never to go near an airport again, that might be the very result they are hoping to achieve.

* A new word, "misspeak", has been added to the vocabulary of political lying this week by Hillary Clinton, caught out giving a completely fictitious account of her visit to Bosnia in 1996, pictured above. For obvious reason politicians have always been reluctant to use the word lie. Hence a variety of euphemisms such as the famous "terminological inexactitude" or being "economical with the truth", an expression coined by the civil service mandarin Lord Armstrong during the Spycatcher affair. Put on the spot over the arms to Iraq scandal, defence minister Alan Clark likewise talked of being "economical with the actualité".

Hillary Clinton has no let-out after film was broadcast showing that her version of the Bosnia story was a total fabrication. In the circumstances she could only gibber: "I think that, a minor blip, you know, if I said something like that, you know, I say a lot of things – millions of words a day – so if I misspoke it was just a misstatement."

It reminded me of senator Edward Kennedy following the death by drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969: "Oh there's – the problem is – from that night – I – I found the conduct, the behaviour, almost beyond belief myself. I mean that's why it's been – but I think that's that's, that's the way it was. That happened to be the way it was. Now I find it as I have stated that I have found that the conduct that in in that evening and in in the – as a result of the impact of the accident – the – and the sense of loss, the sense of hope, and, the and the sense of tragedy, and the whole set of circumstances that the behaviour was inexplicable." As good an example of misspeaking as you could hope to find.

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