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Things that cannot be told

08 April 2016

More on Bishop Bell: Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday

More on Bishop Bell: Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday

YOU will have to take the rest of this sentence on trust: by the standards of British journalism, I am a pretty high-minded person. But by the standards of Swedish journalism — and I am writing from Sweden — I am the lowest sort of tabloid racist reptile.

This is because I believe in naming the perpetrators and victims of serious crimes, even when this may heighten racial tension. Swedish papers will not do that, except in really unusual cases, and the same applies to the Swedish police.

I have spent part of the past week looking through the extraordinarily detailed documentation of a nasty, racist, triple murder that took place in a school last year. There are 450 pages of eyewitness statements, crime-scene reports, debriefings of all the police and ambulance personnel, and interviews with the murderer’s Facebook friends. Except for the murderer himself, almost every name has been carefully blotted out.

There is, in this instance, a technical reason for it. The case never came to trial, because the murderer was shot dead at the end of his rampage. The tabloid papers published pictures and names of the victims as they were buried, but, in most cases, the naming just wouldn’t happen.

This is the result of a deliberate policy. It is feared that, if the crime reports in the papers were full of Middle Eastern, Balkan, or Somali names — and, for some crimes, they would be — it would stir up hostility towards refugees and immigrants in general.

There certainly is hostility to stir up: an anti-immigrant party which, 20 years ago, had clear neo-Nazi roots, now hovers at just under 20 per cent in the opinion polls. Vigilantes calling themselves “The Soldiers of Odin” have fought in the street with immigrant youths. (It is worth noting in this context that Swedish nationalism has taken a religious expression in paganism, not in Christianity.)

But to justify the present policy, you would have to say that things would be even worse if the respectable media were open about the background of convicted criminals and their victims. That is hard to believe.

The officially admissible causes of gang crime are poverty, unemployment, segregation, and lack of education. It is perfectly acceptable to talk and write in those terms, because that frames the problem as one that society could solve. In fact, it is more or less the justifying myth of Social Democracy that it did solve all those problems in the 20th century. It is also perfectly acceptable to talk about immigration in the context of social exclusion, because the link is undeniable.

What cannot be done is to link the two aspects, and write about gang crime in terms of race or immigration. The result is a gigantic disconnect between what the respectable media will report, and the way that most people actually talk and think.

The gap has been filled, of course, by the internet. There are large, popular sites where you can discover all the details of crimes that the papers will never report. At least half the comments there come from full-on racists, in my rather unscientific sampling. Both their anger and their racism are strengthened by the conviction that the media are biased and dishonest. That is the opposite of how the policy is supposed to work.

Since this is a Swedish story, it has to have a moral; but I’m afraid that the moral is rather low-key. We cannot, as journalists, decide what is irrelevant to our readers. We can tell them relevant things they did not know — in fact, that is a huge part of the satisfaction of the job — but we should curb our aspirations to the higher truth. Reaching even the lowest truth is hard enough.


I AM afraid that I still don’t think the Church reached far enough in the case of Bishop George Bell. The group assembled in his defence has produced evidence to show that, in instances where her word can be checked, the accuser has been wrong twice. Yet the whole case against Bell rests on her uncorroborated word about things that happened nearly 70 years ago. The response has been the most extraordinary flannel, which deserves the treatment Peter Hitchens gave it in The Mail on Sunday:

“Archbishop Justin has now told the BBC that George Bell — a man he believes to be a filthy child molester who dishonestly and selfishly abused a little girl — is also ‘the greatest hero that most of us have’. I’ve heard of a broad church, but this is ridiculous. One or the other. Not both.”


THE other notable piece of journalism last week was Cole Moreton’s interview with Bob Geldof in the Mail, pegged to an anniversary of his daughter’s death, which avoided mawkish exploitation and dishonesty without, apparently, disappointing the editors.

Now I return to study the stuff that the Swedish papers will actually print; in this instance, a comic strip about a flatulent elk.

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