The Diary: In time of war, beware the fifteenth columnist

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The Independent Online
No ship of state ceaselessly pounded from all sides by foam-flecked waves of defeatist opinion can be expected to steer a steady course. This is a serious enough problem in times of peace but it becomes unbearably acute in times of conflict. Of course, as a newspaper columnist myself I am part of the problem rather than of the solution, but being semi-retired perhaps I am more disposed than most of my colleagues to risk fouling our cushy professional nest. So here goes. Individually columnists can be a good thing but collectively we are far too much of a good thing. I have suspected this for quite a time, but the columnar coverage of the Kosovo conflict has turned suspicion into conviction. Ideally there should be a voluntary mass self-sacrificial falling on pens, but since that is too much to expect the best solution would be a ruthless columnar cull.

Needless to say, in the real world, there will be no such thing. The signed column has now become so much an integral part of the press that any attempt to limit our number, let alone to do away with us altogether, would be seen as an infringement of press freedom - ie, a crime against humanity. So a surfeit of columnists would seem to be just one more disagreeable aspect of the modern world which we have to learn to live with.

Not easy for me, as it happens, because I am old enough to remember the good old days when the only opinions regularly published in a newspaper - apart from on the Letters Page - were the unsigned corporate ones expressed in the leader column. So if you subscribed to three newspapers, say, you got a daily dose of only three opinions - more than enough to be going on with. Nowadays, if you subscribe to three newspapers, as I do, you usually get as many as 15 opinions. This is just about bearable, even enjoyable when there are many different topics of the day; but when there is only a single burning topic and you're getting 15 opinions on that one topic, mostly adversarial - as columns tend to be - then the combined impact is not only confusing but also demoralising. In times of crisis a patriot instinctively wishes to give his country the benefit of the doubt, and while this is possible to do if doubts come singularly, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, if they come in battalions.

It seems any young man or, increasingly, young woman able to raise a spark by rubbing two ideas together can expect to get a column, and with modern university education, particularly in sociology, now geared to mass-produce such types almost on a conveyor belt, supply greatly outstrips demand, with consequences that are little short of cacophonous. This is not at all to say that most columns are badly written or stupid. Most of them are well written and clever.

But if there is one thing worse that an embarrassment of silly opinions it is an embarrassment of intelligent ones; intelligent opinions, which invariably do more to muddle than clarify the springs of action; more to disperse than mobilise public confidence and, most pernicious of all, more to dissolve than concentrate the national resolve.

No, I am not arguing that ignorance is bliss, although in wartime it very often is. Too many opinions chasing too few facts, subtract from the comforts of ignorance without adding to the sum of knowledge. Perhaps I know the columnists' tricks too well, being a veteran conjurer myself. Opinions are very often thought up to fill a space, not unlike flowers grown to order in a hothouse - blooming today and faded tomorrow.

In quiet times a daily downpour of columnists is harmless enough, even beneficial, clearing away prejudices and opening up the public's mind. But when action is called for an open mind is a curse rather than a blessing, draining more blood out of the body politic than any number of open wounds.


IF ANYBODY imagines that escaping to the countryside is a good way to guarantee a peaceful retirement, let me disillusion them with an all too modern tale of what happened when, nine years ago, I did precisely that. It has been one long battle ever since, not with nature - which would be normal in the countryside - but with what can only be described as alien forces. First came a giant operation, honourably conducted, it has to be said, by Tarmac Laing Joint Venture, to colonise much loved adjacent fields for widening the M40; followed by a successful demand by Tesco, the supermarket, to build a new store over our much cherished and well preserved neighbouring railway station; and, worst of all, a bid by an as yet unnamed conglomerate to build a major motorway station with parking for up to 500 lorries alongside our favourite woodland.

Compared to ethnic cleansing such threats are indeed paltry. But the feeling of outrage, of injustice, of, in a word, enmity, which these threats arouse are not wholly different. For if these developments take place we, too, will be driven from our homes, in this case by the forces of commercial greed which are even more difficult to excuse than the age- old religious rivalries still bedevilling the Balkans.

All over the country local patriae are being destroyed on the altars of the car, the lorry and the supermarket without our rulers seeming to realise that national patriotism is no more than the summum bonum of all these small patriae, and will itself perish with them. Yes, motorists may need more service stations lest they fall asleep at the wheel, but how any thoughtful patriot can make this relatively minor requirement paramount, over the need to preserve the beauty of the countryside, passes all understanding.

Yet this is what is happening, by order. As a result such patriotism as is left in England is increasingly taking the form of hating the nation state and its governors, who are seen as despoilers and even traitors. When I moved to the country I thought I would be escaping to the political shallows. Little did I expect to find myself, as I have, swimming, for the first time, in the deep end.