The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

15 July 2017

9:00 AM

15 July 2017

9:00 AM

For some time now, banks have wielded hamfistedly the concept of the ‘politically exposed person’. They have withdrawn bank accounts from — or refused them to — not only kleptocrats from crazy dictatorships but also blameless citizens of parliamentary democracies like our own. Now, I gather, they have started to persecute the fringes of the British royal family. One such royal person tells me that he had to resign from the board of a charity before the bank thought it safe to let it open an account. He adds that he has two royal relations who have been refused accounts. In the case of an American bank, it declined the customer because it wanted nothing to do with ‘present or past non-US officials, their families or close associates’. Strange that the family whose head appears on every British bank note and coin should encounter this difficulty. Does royalty have no human rights?

In the row which has rumbled on about Laura Kuenssberg’s allegedly biased coverage of the general election, one significant factor has not come into the public domain. Early in the campaign, Kuenssberg was assailed by Labour supporters. But later on, and in the post-election recriminations, it was Conservative supporters who were the more annoyed with her. Perhaps this is simply explained by the fact that Labour did better than expected and the Tories did worse. However, the bit the Tories haven’t said in public but keep complaining about in private is that the BBC never reported that Kuenssberg was so badly threatened online by Corbyn supporters that she was given personal protection. They feel that this subdued her capacity to cover the contest clearly. They suspect that if Theresa May had possessed fans as thuggish as Mr Corbyn’s, the BBC would have made a meal of it. I do not know the details of this story, and the BBC won’t comment on security questions, but I have had it informally confirmed from within the BBC. If it is correct, surely the BBC should disclose it. For my own part, I don’t share the resentment against Laura Kuenssberg. She is guilty of the generic sin, encouraged by the BBC in political reporters — including, over the years, Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson, Norman Smith and others — of giving smart-arse analyses with pithy punchlines rather than just telling us what is happening. For this the Corporation, not the individuals, is to blame.


There was a small but historic moment on the Today programme last week. John Humphrys introduced a report on Saudi Arabia’s support for terrorism as being by the ‘highly respected’ Henry Jackson Society. This flustered the BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner, to whom Humphrys turned. Gardner said that he needed to explain at once that the Henry Jackson Society was ‘right of centre’, not ‘absolutely bang down the centre’. What Gardner meant, but dared not quite directly say, was that in BBC theology ‘highly respected’ means centre-left. Thus the King’s Fund and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are ‘highly respected’ (or, sometimes, ‘independent’). ‘Centre-right’, ‘right of centre’, ‘right-leaning’ think-tanks can just about be tolerated, but can never be ‘highly respected’. A ‘right-wing’ think-tank, tout court, means ‘really bad’. So Gardner was clearly shocked by Humphrys’s description of the Henry Jackson Society and was trying to steer the listener in a different direction. It will be interesting if the Henry Jackson Society remains ‘highly respected’ when it next pops up on Today. Was this a bold move by the excellent new editor, Sarah Sands, or just freelancing by Humphrys?

A history teacher from an east London comprehensive writes to me. The staff, he recounts, had been looking to decorate their classrooms with pictures of successful women in history. He had suggested Mrs Thatcher as our first woman prime minister. No, they said, Mrs Thatcher had not been a feminist, so she did not deserve a place of honour. He pointed out that, to many working-class women of his mother’s generation, a female prime minister provided ‘enormous motivation’. He added that if all figures of the past had to conform to contemporary standards of feminism, this would rule out Florence Nightingale. That’s right, his colleagues replied, Nightingale was ‘too pastoral and reinforced negative female stereotypes’. He gave up the argument, but stuck Mrs Thatcher on his classroom wall all the same.

For many years now, I have had the company medical test which is provided by Nuffield Health. It is well done, and the nurses are quite clearly ‘too pastoral’, constantly reinforcing ‘negative female stereotypes’ by being kind and competent. I hope that left-wing east London teachers don’t have to endure that sort of indignity when they have medical treatment. Over the years, I have been pleased to notice that more and more data about the human body is collected by painless monitors, so nowadays blood tests seem oddly primitive. Given the way tiny samples can now yield the medical knowledge required, why does a needle still have to plunge into a vein and the syringe suck out so much blood?

Over the years, the Nuffield Health form has also changed. In addition to the traditional questions about diet, urination, chest pains etc, have come more subjective ones. I am invited, for example, to mark, on a scale of one to ten, how good my life is, how much good I do in it, and whether I put the interests of others first. I decided that the best course was to avoid ethical self-certification, so I scribbled on top, ‘It is for others to say.’ At dinner recently, I sat next to a judge who told me that those applying for high office in the judiciary are now asked to cite an example of when they have behaved with integrity. Since a judge must behave with integrity at all times, it is a pointless question, like trying to distinguish between dairy farmers by asking each how often he milks his cows.

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