Not Saussure

May 20, 2007

Owen Barder and the Daily Mail

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 3:15 pm

A magnificent post from Tim Worstall in defence of a blogger, Owen Barder, who has been monstered by The Daily Mail. Tim writes, and I concur with every word of it. To my mind, anyone who blogs should associate themselves with Tim’s defence of Mr Barder.

The Mail, yesterday, launched a quite incredible attack on Owen Barder. I think it’s worth responding to in detail and would hope that we can get the word around a bit. If people can be attacked by a newspaper in this way and then find their livelihoods jeopardised then none of us who scribble online are safe. [my italics].

A little publicity for this please?

Via the UK Daily Pundit (who, oddly, seems to approve of this) I see that Owen Barder has been attacked in The Daily Mail . You might note that Owen’s blog is now down, which is probably sensible given the shit-storm that is about to descend but it’s also true that it makes pointing out what’s really going on here a little difficult.

I should perhaps point out that Mr. Barder and I have our little differences, he sees me as little less than a parody of a spittle flecked saloon bar Thatcherite while I regard him as a hopelessly wet leftist, but despite these (only slightly overstated) caricatures we have been able, on occasion, exchange pleasant words and even interesting information.

So, what does the Mail say that Owen has done which is so heinous?

A former aide to Tony Blair has posted on his website an attack on the Prime Minister which compares President George Bush to Hitler.

Really, has he?

The attack, which has shocked Whitehall, appears on the outspoken, sexually explicit, website blog of £100,000-a-year civil servant Owen Barder.

Sexually explicit? I’ve been a regular reader there for some time and really not noticed all that much smut or anything close to it.

It features comments and links on a range of subjects from his opposition to the Iraq War to whether marathon running makes men better in bed.

Margaret Thatcher is described as ‘pernicious,’ while ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock is praised for making ‘one of the finest speeches in British politics’.

I do recall the calling of St Mags “pernicious” and I also recall his praise of the Kinnock speech. Neither view is all that uncommon and by the miracle of the Google cache I can actually bring you his post on it .
Neil Kinnock’s speech in Bridgend, Glamorgan, on 7 June 1983, rates as one of the finest speeches ever made in British politics.

It was two days before the General Election. He scribbled the notes from which he delivered the speech in the car on the way to the rally, and his voice was hoarse from campaigning. He was elected leader of the Labour Party at the party conference in October 1983, after Labour’s resounding defeat. He went on to transform the party to make it fit for government.

Here is the full text of what he said.
The rest of it is the actual speech (which is indeed an excellent piece of political rhetoric) and then several of us squabbling about it in the comments. Nothing too awful there, eh?

As to the pernicious? Ermm, no, that’s not quite what was said. It’s actually someone else, in his comments section, who uses the word pernicious, in itself being a play upon the words of a quotation, from yet another blog. Owen actually says things like (re the Thatcher era):

We tend to take for granted some of the really good reforms and policy changes of that era, such as the abolition of exchange controls and the agreement to the Single Market Act. Maybe they would have happened anyway; maybe not.

Thatcher and Lawson should be commended for persuading the chattering classes that increasing trend economic growth is primarily challenge for microeconomic policy (ie improving the supply side), whereas controlling inflation is primarily a challenge for macroeconomic policy. This seems obvious today but it was a total reversal of the then prevailing wisdom which saw macroeconomic policy targeting growth (demand management) and microeconomic policy controlling inflation (price controls, wage freezes, hire purchase controls etc).

The Thatcher Government has not got the opprobrium it deserves for breaking the link between the state pension and the growth of wages. Allowing our old people to fall behind rising living standards of the rest of the community year after year, creating a generation of retired people living in poverty, was unforgivable.

I think Mrs Thatcher did, in some undefinable way, change our attitudes – largely for the better – to the role of the state in private enterprise. Before her, there was a widespread assumption, under both Labour and the Conservatives, that the state should step in to prevent the collapse of particular firms or industries. That was mainly an expensive mistake, and Mrs Thatcher was robust in refusing to come to the aid of many sunset industries. (She was, however, not entirely consistent on this: her friends in industries such as aerospace continued to receive large public subsidies.)

Now I wouldn’t want to have to sign up to all of those views myself but I think it’s a very fair overview, given the starting point that Owen is on the left. It’s his father, the retired Ambassador, Sir Brian, who is actually rather harsher in the comments.

Mr Barder, who heads the DFID’s Global Development Effectiveness Department, is a former economic private secretary to Mr Blair.

Indeed, Owen was, just as in earlier years he worked for a Tory Chancellor (I think it was Kenneth Clarke) about whom he has been (anonymously) complimentary at times.

Just one little point that might be worth mentioning here? All of the above, none of which is as remotely awful or incendiary as the Mail tries to portray, was in fact written while Owen was on a two year sabbatical (an unpaid one, by the way).

Which means that absolutely none of it has anything to do with his position in the Civil Service either past or future. Private citizens do, for the meantime at least, possess freedom of speech.

His website features an article entitled “Fascist America in 10 easy steps’ which says: “From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all.”

Yes, indeed it does. He quotes the opening lines of this article in The Guardian by Naomi Wolf. Actually, not even the opening lines, rather the header put there by the sub-editor, then suggests that we should go and read it.

Now I do realize that by this point Owen was back in the Civil Service but really, quoting the Guardian is hardly a crime and nor (unless one is talking about Polly T or the Mahdi Bunting, both banned for the serious impacts they can have upon mental health) is recommending that someone read an article in that paper.

He says: “George Bush and Tony Blair must be very proud that they have created the precedent, through their action in Iraq, which has allowed Russia to announce it will take pre-emptive strikes anywhere in the world.”

That’s err, from September 2004…not, as the article implies, from his commentary about Fascist America, which is from a few weeks ago.

Mr Barder condemns ‘extraordinary renditions’ whereby America – allegedly using UK airports with Mr Blair’s support – snatched Al Qaeda suspects and tortured them.

“I do not understand why extraordinary rendition is not causing more outrage in the UK,’ he states.

And quite rightly. The kidnapping of innocents to be tortured somewhere convenient is indeed an outrage.

And he disputes whether Osama Bin Laden is ‘hostile’ to the American way of life.

Can’t find that quote, sorry.

Mr Barder also gives extraordinary details of his private life with partner, Grethe. Discussing his hobby of marathon running, he quotes an unnamed ‘sex fiend’ female friend as saying: “I had a fling with a marathon runner. Damn that boy had stamina. It shows there is a correlation between fitness and all night sh******.”

Mr Barder adds: “Well, possibly, the ones who aren’t knackered running 80 miles that week.”

In his frank account of a vasectomy, he says: “Today I had a vasectomy. I realise this is relatively unusual for a man of 36 with no children.

“But I have no doubt, and nor does my partner, that we do not want children. Some men think it makes them less manly but that is rubbish. I feel a little nausea, as though I have been kicked in the b***s. I have iced the area to keep the swelling down.”

The problem with any of this is what? When a substantial part of Rod Liddle’s column today is a complaint that Jerry Hall should keep her vagina to herself the use of the *** is really rather sweet.

Mr Barder’s family are no strangers to controversy: his father, Sir Brian, resigned from the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in 2004, accusing Home Secretary David Blunkett of deporting terror suspects detained without trial.

Indeed, despite having as many strange ideas about economics as his son, stand up bloke Sir Brian is.

Surprisingly, Mr Barder junior criticises his former boss, ex-Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull who recently attacked “Stalinist’ Gordon Brown.

“Civil servants have no business revealing their views of Ministers and their behaviour,’ says Mr Barder, apparently without irony.

Which, when he’s been a Civil Servant, he hasn’t done. Nor, in fact, do I recall (other than a rather light hearted post about which cabin of the aircraft you get to fly in when travelling with a Cabinet Minister) him giving any details of his views of the Ministers he has worked for, nor of their views.

I have to admit that I think this piece in the Mail is really rather extraordinary. As above, you can see that it’s a mixture of gross distortions, garbled (and wrongly attributed) quotes and in general a hit job.

Which is really something that all of us other bloggers might want to start thinking about. If they hound Owen out of his job on the basis of the above farrago and tissue of innuendo and misquotation then that’s rather going to be the end of this enjoyable pastime for most of us, isn’t it? Anyone writing tens of thousands of words over the years is open to such an assassination of the character.

Traditional here to start quoting Voltaire but the problem with that is that Voltaire never actually said it. I think we all know the Pastor Niemoller quote by now as well, don’t we? So I’ll just content myself with a small in joke shall I?

I am Spartacus!

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  1. I have given it a supportive link.

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — May 20, 2007 @ 4:43 pm

  2. Moi aussi.

    Comment by Fabian Tassano — May 20, 2007 @ 6:58 pm

  3. I haven’t!

    I knew a time, many, many eons ago, when civil servants (repeat, ‘servants’) who were, and still are, paid for out of the earnings of their fellow subjects, were expected to keep their opinions private on the very sound grounds that any such expression to the Left or Right of centre was bound to infuriate at least 50% of the people who were forced to pay for them! Nowadays, the likes of Mr. Barder positively flaunt their political likes and dislikes to the world. Is it any wonder then, that ‘NuLabour’ quickly set about installing their own political puppets into the higher reaches of the Civil Service, thus corrupting what had been a very decent aspect of British public life. Hitherto, ministers (albeit, very reluctantly recently) have fallen on their own swords rather than pass the blame on to civil servants. How much longer will that last? Perhaps the time has come to politicise the entire Civil Service which can be sacked wholesale on a change of government in the American style. Perhaps that’s the answer, but I don’t want to pay for it out of my taxes.

    Comment by David Duff — May 21, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  4. I was waiting for you to join in the fun, Mr Duff, and, as always, you do not disappoint me.

    My late father was a very senior civil servant; in consequence, I understand something of the importance of Her Majesty’s (not the goverment’s) civil servants keeping their opinions to themselves.

    However, my late father was also a man of strong views himself, and of course he expressed them — God, did he express them to Labour ministers — in conversation. He would say, to friends in the pub or at a dinner party, exactly what he thought about various aspects of government policy. Of course he would.

    He wouldn’t, of course, ever have betrayed a professional confidence; that you can, of course, never do. But what you can, it seems to me, perfectly properly do is say a few things, based on your knowledge and experience of a subject that’s related to your professional life. What you can also do, it seems to me, is tell anecdotes and jokes, even bad ones, without some journalist then jumping up and down and crying ‘Sir Humphrey, the Permanent Secretary for whatever it is (not that Dad was at quite that level, but almost) said such and such in the pub last night…’

    Look at it this way. I am very conscious that there are things I’ve written in this blog that I would not, for both professional and personal resaons, want picking up by an an ill-intentioned journalist, twisted out of all recognition, and published in the Daily Mail. If I seriously thought that was going to happen, then of course I’d stop what I regard as a harmless and entertaining pass-time.

    So would you, if you thought about it, I think.

    I’m sometimes tempted to write a few things I kow about certain journalists. Indeed, I’m sometimes very much tempted to hire a private inquiry agent and ask him to provide me with an account of a day or so in the life of some journalists. I mean, I know what I know from dealing with some of them socially and on business, so who knows what one of my chaps might uncover if I turned him loose. Then I could have great fun with writing about the results.

    Of course, I don’t do this, because I’ve got a few standards of common decency left.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 21, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

  5. You are right, of course, there “are no neutral men” even in the ‘pristine’ civil service of yesteryear, but there was an understanding of discretion allied to a sense of duty. Not duty in furtherence of a personal ideology, just duty to the political master whom the British public had chosen for the job. That was an admirable arrangement now utterly destroyed by Blair and Co. Thus, I suspect we shall have to follow the American system and have a politicised administration with wholesale changes every time a government changes colour. Pity, but there it is.

    Comment by David Duff — May 22, 2007 @ 7:49 am

  6. Shorter Duff: They were only obeying orders!

    How the hell can you have an independent, professional civil service if you’re not allowed to have an opinion? Being “independent” and a member of a profession implies that you most certainly do have an opinion, judgment, and the right – the duty – to express them.

    Otherwise, if you have no principles or opinions of your own and merely obey the powerful, how is this different from “the American system of a politicised administration”?

    Comment by Alex — May 22, 2007 @ 11:47 am

  7. Back briefly. Alex, I think you’re being a bit unfair on David Duff (not a phrase I ever thought I’d utter, but there you go). I certainly understand the importance of professional duty and discretion, as did my late father. As, indeed, does Owen Barder, to my mind.

    It’s not a question of obeying the powerful. Nor is it a question of furthering your own career. There are some instructions you carry out, since, even though you’ve given what’s politely called ‘robust advice,’ your client chooses to ignore it, and then you try to limit the damage. And then there are some you can’t possibly carry out and, in those circumstances, you have to resign.

    The distinction I’d try to draw is between breaking professional confidences, which obviously isn’t on, and drawing experience of life, including your professional life, to express, as a private citizen, a political opinion and then having the Daily Mail jump up and down all over you for your temerity in so doing.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 22, 2007 @ 12:36 pm

  8. Perhaps Double-D would like to reread this part of Tim’s post:

    All of the above, none of which is as remotely awful or incendiary as the Mail tries to portray, was in fact written while Owen was on a two year sabbatical (an unpaid one, by the way).

    Which means that absolutely none of it has anything to do with his position in the Civil Service either past or future. Private citizens do, for the meantime at least, possess freedom of speech.

    Comment by Larry Teabag — May 22, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  9. […] include some links to others who have written more eloquently and comprehensively about this sorry episode than I can.(5)(6)(7) However I doubt that this will […]

    Pingback by » Bardergate — May 30, 2007 @ 9:38 am

  10. I hope you post more information on this? cheers

    Comment by caryl @ senior fitness — December 30, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

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