Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 146
4th May 2006
The Daily Mail, Forgery, and the Corruption of Debate
by Sean Gabb
The first is that, while several hundred of my readers did take up my invitation to write to The Dover Express, not one letter by anyone whose name I know was published the following week or the one after that. There was one letter that did not make complete sense, and that looked as if written by someone trying to conceal his approval of the British National Party. So much, I suppose, for the idea of an open media.
The second is a confession of error. In my article, I said that Dover District Council was run by the Labour Party, and that this helped to explain why a local newspaper should be acting as an organ of Labour propaganda. This is not so. One of my readers, who lives, I discover, just a mile down the road, assures me that the Council is run by the Conservatives. What this does to the force of my article I leave to my readers. I will say, however, that if some of the facts on which it depends are, on this occasion, are wrong, my argument remains correct—that the formally private media in this country are in fact vital to the manufacture of consent to the tyranny of our new ruling class. But some of my facts, I must confess, were wrong.
Now, this brings me to the principal theme of my present article, which is the need to base opposition to that ruling class wholly on the truth. Yesterday, I found a copy on my railway train—I never buy newspapers unless I am in them—of The Daily Mail from the 2nd May 2006 On page 54, allegedly written by Joan Leggett of Bognor Regis, is this letter:
ON MARCH 4, 1899, the editorial of the Daily Messenger included this comment: ‘With no more than months left until the beginning of the new century, the focus of our concerns must be the signs we see around us of a deterioration in the national character.
‘There is a degeneration of a once moral people, careering down in a headlong descent to barbarism. This not only alarms decent men and women, but emphasises the ever greater divide between the haves and have-nots, with the feckless poor being encouraged by anarchists and the continual threat of violence in our once safe land.
‘Everywhere we see evidence of an underclass, creatures whose lives are dominated by crime, loutishness and sexual licence. Brutes made more brutish by their daily diet of cheap, popular entertainment, alcohol and drugs. Lives lived in gaudy imitation of the less edifying aspects of the U.S.A.
‘These individuals, many of them homeless, some openly unmarried but still with children, others begging on the streets, complain of lack of opportunity and unemployment, but we all know there are jobs to be had, and places to stay, for any who choose or can be bothered to look for them. It isn’t only the unsightly presence of these lowlifes which make our streets unsafe for decent people. There is now the increasingly unavoidable menace of motor cars congesting our roads and choking out children.
‘What, we ask, are the police doing to protect us from all of this? They are more concerned with harassing honest citizens over petty rule-keeping than the real criminals, leaving them to carry on with their nefarious activities.
‘This is Great Britain, our country, the centre of an Empire of which we could once be proud. Let us act before it is too late.’ This was from over 100 years ago, and nothing much has changed.
During the last two years of his life, Chris Tame persuaded me to a fuller appreciation of The Daily Mail. Leaving aside the petty-minded authoritarianism of many who write for it, this is the only newspaper that has made any principled attack on the doings of the Blair Government. It has consistently opposed the shredding of the Constitution since 1997 and the wars of aggression fought since then. It has revealed and opposed the hypocrisy of our masters, who talk softly of human rights and diversity while setting up a politically correct police state. In exchange for this, putting up with Melanie Phillips and all that whining about women who get pregnant at the age of 63 or whatever is a price worth paying.
The publication of forged evidence, though, is another matter. I have no idea if there is a Joan Leggett in Bognor, and, there being one, I should never dream of imputing to her any wish to deceive. Even so, what she claims to be an extract from an 1899 editorial is an obvious forgery.
Take the mention of The Daily Messenger. There was no national newspaper in England of that title. There may have been local newspapers, but the lack of any locational adjective is suspicious. It indicates a fabricated title. The 4th March 1899 was a Saturday—but, even choosing dates at random, a forger has a six in seven chance of avoiding a Sunday.
Take next the reference to “the new century”. There has always been some popular confusion over the change from one century to another. But the Victorian media were reasonably united in their insistence that the 20th century should begin on the 1st January 1901. Nor was this just chronological pedantry. Because there was no year zero, and because the transition from one century to another marks a further progress from the Birth to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, any believer of reasonable devoutness and education will insist that the transition should be marked at the proper time. This is then a mistake unlikely to have been made in a newspaper editorial before the late 20th century.
Take next the language. Look at the reference to “haves and have-nots”, or to an “underclass”, or to “loutishness”, or to “sexual licence”, or to “unemployment”. The first and third of these would not have been used in the stately prose of a newspaper editorial. the fourth would have been replaced by something less open in its description of the sexual act. the second is a word that may have existed before Charles Murray brought it into common use in the 1980s, but is unlikely to have been used with exactly the same meaning. The last word might have been used—the first reference to it in The Oxford English Dictionary is from 1888. Even so, the word “unemployment” retained something of a technical feel at least until the social conflicts that preceded the Great War and possibly until the 1920s. As for the use of “isn’t”, contracted negatives are barely tolerated now in formal prose. They would not have been tolerated in a newspaper editorial of 1899. Nor would verbless sentences like “Lives lived in gaudy imitation of the less edifying aspects of the U.S.A.”. This is a corruption introduced, I think, by American journalists, and taken up in this country by politicians during the late 1980s. And I am not aware that anyone in England would in 1899 have called America “the U.S.A.”
Finally, take the substance of the letter. Complaints about the degrading nature of American popular culture only became common on the eve of the Great War. Until the end of the 19th century, American culture at all levels tended to follow trends established in England or in Europe. There was much concern at the time about the effect of alcohol on the working classes. But there was almost no concern about the use of other recreational substances. And, returning to issues of language, these were not called “drugs” without some adjective to describe their effects. I am not sure if motor cars were yet known by that name. I do know, however, that there were not enough of them until a good decade later to be perceived as more than a curiosity. There was no suspicion that they could, in any numbers, threaten harm to the lungs of children. And, once again returning to language, whether or not there might have been enough motor cars in 1899 to fill the roads, I cannot believe that the word “congestion” had yet been extended to describe the problem.
Given time and access to a dictionary, I could do the same for this alleged letter as Lorenzo Valla did for the Donation of Constantine. But there is no need. It is a forgery that needs little unmasking. In general, its tone is that of someone with limited historical understanding and few writing skills who has set out to fabricate past evidence to support present opinions. It dwells on issues that were not then regarded as problems. It ignores others that were. Anyone with the slightest feel for the English language and English social history must know at once that nothing like this could have been produced before perhaps 1999. Because of references to transition from one century to another that would have no relevance before our own millennium, I think it reasonable to say that it was fabricated then.
But let us leave aside the matter of whether Joan Leggett exists or whether she knew when this quotation was produced. If she does exist, she probably pulled it unawares from the Internet. What, I ask, was the Letters Editor of The Daily Mail thinking when he accepted this for publication. We can forgive any degree of ignorance in those who write letters to newspapers. We cannot forgive such ignorance in those paid to edit them. I feel still more outraged by this trash than even by plagiarism by my students from the Internet.
Regardless of politeness, however, the use of fabricated evidence is a dangerous tactic in debate. Unless done skilfully, it is too easily detected. Look at the evidence produced by the Blair Government in support of the Iraq War. This was discovered as lies within a few hours. More importantly, look at the poor scholarship and consequent low reputation of the American conservative movement. There is a forged quotation from a certain “Adolphe” Hitler about the benefits of gun control. There are forged quotations from Cicero and I think Benjamin Franklin about the the corrosive effects of inflation.. Michel Foucault might have got away with the use of fabricated source material, or of no source material at all, for his various statements. But he seems to have had a theory of knowledge that relieved him of any need to tell the truth. We are supposed to be rather better than that.
If we in the libertarian and conservative movement are ever to defeat the enemies of our civilisation, it will be because we have won the battle of ideas – because reflecting people will have decided the balance of truth to be on our side. We cannot even begin to win that battle if we countenance fabrications of evidence.
This is, I begin to feel, an extended diversion from the fact that I have not been as careful as I should have been about checking my facts. So I will end here. Even so, the Letters Editor of The Daily Mail should at least consider resigning in disgrace.
Various matters arise from my last issue of Free Life Commentary. The most important I have no time to discuss at the moment. This is the request, made by several readers, that I should explain why is is right to tolerate those with whom we disagree beyond the mere avoidance of coercion. I will give an answer when I have more time. for the moment, I will deal with matters of secondary, though still considerable, importance.