One of the great privileges of being a journalist is that you develop a discerning eye for propaganda masquerading as journalism. A fine example of this occurred in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, when Tory Chairman Baroness Warsi, wrote a column in which she claimed "militant secularisation" reminiscent of "totalitarian regimes" is "taking hold" of societies like ours.
Both she and the paper were shamelessly pandering to the baser instincts of Telegraph readers, tapping into their growing fear that Britain is being taken away from them. Having spent some time on a Comment desk, I know how these things work. An adviser to Warsi thinks up a provocative, headline-friendly phrase. He or she clears it with Warsi, who in turn clears it with No 10. The Comment desk at the Telegraph is given plenty of notice, so that it can work out how to draw attention to this great property. And – hey presto – a write-off by the Political Editor makes the front page, a supportive leader is written and the Today programme talks of little else.
Perhaps now is the moment for a reminder that the absurdly-titled Baroness owes her position not just in our legislature, but in Cabinet, to being the beneficiary of racial, religious and gender discrimination. She stood for election in 2005, but there was a swing against the Conservatives. David Cameron decided he must promote her regardless. If any readers want to pretend that her taxpayer-funded job isn't a consequence of the Prime Minister's need for a Muslim woman to chair his party as part of its re-branding exercise under his leadership, be my guest. As for her actual claim on religious persecution, it is so soul-crunchingly stupid that no serious person could believe it. To invoke totalitarianism – with its gas chambers, gulags and Gestapo – to describe the condition of the faithful in modern, liberal Britain is a disgraceful and inflammatory act, casting doubt on her fitness for public office (if not for Tory chairmanship). As my colleague Mark Steel put it in his unbeatable column yesterday: "If you're going to complain that religion is becoming 'marginal'... it's genius to do it when you're [leading] a Cabinet visit to the Pope."And isn't it ironic that precisely those right-wingers who shrieked about the perils of multiculturalism – a harmful ideology – are now reduced to playing the victim card themselves? Far from improving the quality of public discussion on religion, this Warsi debacle is that unholy trinity: a failure of journalism, democracy and common sense.