I was once one of those people who was pretty happy to be described as a Guardian reader. In favour of equality – check. Against capital punishment – check. Wary about the glory of markets – check. Dubious about academies – check. Not owned by a Tory magnate – check. I retained an affection for the old rag even when I eventually gave up taking it because it did become an endless succession of moans about the awfulness of the world. I used to buy it once or twice a week as balance to the Times (5 of whose last 8 lead stories have been about the awfulness of Labour) or Telegraph (editorial policy for sale to highest bidder). I still do that actually – avoiding the Tuesday education special, to prevent opening old policy and career scars – but not sure I would want anyone to call me a ‘Guardian reader’ any more, for a number of reasons.
The first one is the way it has unquestioningly placed itself in favour of revealing government secrets. Now, I’m no admirer of the blanket use of the Official Secrets Act, and would like to access to a wide range of information on policy issues, where that puts nothing at risk apart from some Minister’s career. However, I am not naïve, and I do feel that some matters do need to be kept confidential. I also think that democratic countries have enemies in the world. No point in being needlessly adversarial, but sometimes you have to be needfully adversarial. A foreign policy which was based on the idea that we have no enemies, only countries to whom we have not made enough concessions, seems likely to lead into deep trouble. The recent article revealing that UK intelligence has tried to recruit North Korean spies seems to be an example. I (a) do think we need intelligence services – isn’t the critique of Iraq that our intelligence wasn’t good enough ? – and (b) do think that North Korea is an enemy. A real story would be if our government was not trying to gain more information about North Korea. Some of these stories have been actually dangerous to the very people who risk their lives helping us as informants.
The second problem for me is the consistent anti-Israel line. Again, I am not a one sided fan of Israel, and Benjamin Netanhayu seems a particularly loathsome individual. However, it is a democracy, and (unlike any Arab nation) has integrated its refugees into its population, finding jobs and homes and an education for all those expelled from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and so on, rather than putting them into refugee camps. The Gaza episode was appalling, but it is difficult to see what else a country can do when a neighbour is lobbing rockets into it. I also believe that abolishing Israel would lead to more human suffering than not doing so: I gather that makes me a Zionist. The story yesterday – quite a big story – condemned Israel for imprisoning an adolescent girl for throwing stones at soldiers. It even told us that throwing stones at soldiers was a practice approved of by Palestinian opinion, a curious paragraph in an article pleading her innocence. Her family say she didn’t do it. Hmmm. The issue of adolescents in custody, and their interview by police, is indeed an issue, and it is one we have had to take a long time getting right in the UK, and we’re not there yet. But if my daughter were to be arrested by any police force anywhere between Turkey and Australia, I think I would choose Israel.
And then we get extraordinary articles like Owen Jones’ effort recently, entitled “Is ISIS the ultimate evil ? They would like you to think so”. Who, one wonders, are ‘they’ ? Wicked western leaders who believe in democracy, the rule of law and welfare states, I guess. And how much effort do they need to persuade us that men who behead, rape and burn their victims are actually not so nice ? Do we really need a beauty contest involving the SS, President Assad and the Spanish Inquisition ? Jeez. I was delighted to see I wasn’t alone when I read Tim Lott’s article – I could go through it and tick each point he makes.
There’s much still to cherish about the Guardian,. Polly Toynbee is consistently good, and so is George Monbiot: it is the only paper that will question the modern religion of austerity. Steve Bell is a great cartoonist. But I’ve moved from being a fan to a neutral observer. When I first wrote my will, many years ago, I asked that a barrel of beer be bought for the “Guardian” newsroom for the pleasure they had given me over the years. That paragraph is no longer there. Sorry, lads.