We must open our minds and have more empathy with those we do not agree with

Published: 31 May 2020

Dominic Cummings speaking to the media last week

Dominic Cummings speaking to the media last week

I care about free speech and a free Press, without which corruption and injustice flourish, but at times there is a heavy price to be paid.

After some weeks of watching how journalists were feeding the lynch mob in pursuit of Dominic Cummings, a 1930 poem by Humbert Wolfe keeps going through my head:

“You cannot hope/to bribe or twist,/(thank God!) the/British journalist./But, seeing what the man will do/unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

In 1988 Hugh Cudlipp, the most famous of Fleet Street’s tabloid editors, looked back in anguish at the era in which Rupert Murdoch had dragged tabloids downmarket: “The age when investigative journalism in the public interest shed its integrity and became intrusive journalism for the prurient, when nothing, however personal, was any longer secret or sacred and the basic human right to privacy was banished in the interest of publishing profit.”

In a disturbing article in the Sunday Times Matthew Syed wrote of the spreading of the rot as social media encouraged polarisation in the Press and in Western democracies.

Rather than using the internet to expand our horizons and challenge our prejudices, users deliberately block out opinions they don’t like and line up uncritically behind those they agree with.

For some years I have had a free speech page on Facebook, where I hoped that people of different persuasions would engage constructively, but as with my free speech Twitter account, most people seem happier to be politically tribal rather than curious about the views of others.

Close to home many nationalists and unionists assume, wrongly, that everything that comes from respectively the News Letter or the Irish News will be blindly partisan.

Cummings’s most dangerous haters, however, are Left-wing and Europhile editors and journalists

Syed gloomily concludes that social media inflames mutual hostility rather than increasing empathy or understanding.

What happened with Dominic Cummings is an unusual case study because he’s not just hated by the Left, but by Remainers; members of the Establishment fearful of his commitment to shake it up as ruthlessly as is required; civil servants frightened by his impatience with inflexible bureaucracy; MPs he ignores, his obvious inability to suffer gladly those he regards as fools, and, of course, most of the Press, whom he refuses to court.

He does not seek or attract personal loyalty.

He is, however, the person who, with Michael Gove at the Department of Education, railroaded through vital reforms like free schools to help underprivileged children despite opposition from what they called the Blob – those bureaucrats and union officials who are implacable enemies of change.

And without Cummings there would be no Brexit and no substantial Tory majority.

Cummings’s most dangerous haters, however, are Left-wing and Europhile editors and journalists.

For me one of the saddest things has been that the media have fed hatred and class envy to people who throughout this crisis have been exemplary in their charity and kindness

Just over a week ago the saga began with The Guardian and Mirror running as their top stories that Cummings had been investigated by Durham Police after breaking coronavirus lockdown rules.

He hadn’t. But the whole Press pack saddled up, galloped after him and set off the lynch mob.

There are exhaustive analyses now of what actually happened in the Cummings household. I believe his story. What is definite is that faced with a sick wife, a four-year-old child, and the likelihood of his having caught coronavirus from his boss, he decided the best option for everyone was to drive to an empty cottage on his father’s land in Durham, where his family could self-isolate knowing there would be food on the doorstep and, if necessary, childcare available.

The Press ran with what turned out to be false stories and at a time when the public wanted to know about what was going to happen to them, made the Downing Street Press conferences a Cummings-obsessed farce.

For me one of the saddest things has been that the media have fed hatred and class envy to people who throughout this crisis have been exemplary in their charity and kindness.

Matthew Syed fears the BBC’s reputation for impartiality is being corroded as unapologetic bias “is wrecking the credibility of the entire institution and turning a great organisation into a facet of polarisation rather than a bulwark against it”.

That is something of which we should all be very afraid. We need to open our minds and show empathy.

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