Posts Tagged ‘Newspapers’

Counterpunch on Udo Ulfkotte’s ‘Bought Journalists’

August 2, 2016

Today Counterpunch published a very interesting article by Thomas Harrington, ‘Europe’s “Bought Journalists”‘, on the promotion of pro-American, pro-Israel neoliberal imperialist policies in the European press, even in traditionally left-wing papers like the Groaniad, El Pais, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde and La Reppublica, heavy weight papers with a record of supporting progressive politics. Harrington states that future historians will be amazed how a continent, with a sophisticated and critical intellectual culture, came to be dominated by American elite interests. He notes that America has always been keen to ‘manage the perceptions’ of its various allied countries as part of its Cold War campaign against Communism and the Soviet Union. It is an intrinsic part of what Donald Rumsfeld described as ‘full spectrum dominance’. This has now got to the point where American neoliberal interests now override those of Europe’s own peoples in the minds of their journalists. He compares this absolute belief in American, neoliberal cultural hegemony with religion in that this is uncritical accepted in absolute faith. He also states that when explanations are sought how this situation came about, the standard explanation is that the European population has got older, and so more conservative. But this can’t explain how Moises Naim, who was previously a member of one of South America’s corrupt governments, an arch-Zionist, former director of the World Bank, and also a former editor of Foreign Policy, which Harrington describes as the ‘in-house Bible of American imperialism’, came to be the weekend foreign policy ‘guru’ for Spain’s El Pais, a newspaper which is pro-welfare and anti-interventionist, while Spain is also generally pro-Palestinian. He suggests that it is due to the co-option of European journalists by the American secret state, and urges his readers to watch a linked interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s Udo Ulfkotte. The Frankfurter Allgemeine is Germany’s foremost newspaper, with a centre-right bias, rather like the Times over here. Ulfkotte in the interview describes Germany as an American colony and a ‘banana republic’ because of the way its journalists have been deeply compromised through their collaboration with the CIA and the German intelligence agency. Ulfkotte has written a book, Gekaufte Journalisten – ‘Bought Journalists’ – about this corruption. It’s a bestseller over the North Sea in the Bundesrepublik, but for some strange reason an English translation keeps being put off.

The article’s at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/08/02/europes-bought-journalists/

I’m not surprised at Ulfkotte’s allegations, which seem only too plausible. Lobster has published several pieces over the years about the way the press has been used and manipulated to push the Atlantic alliance against the Soviet Union, and the role of particular journos in publishing disinformation and propaganda on behalf of the British intelligence agencies. Ulfkotte doesn’t mention it in his interview, but leading British journalists were also included in the British-American Project for the Successor Generation, a Reaganite project to train up pro-American future politicians, such as Tony Blair. But you won’t read much about it, because when one journo on one of the papers did – I think it was in the Times – he found the article spiked by the editor because he was another of BAP’s alumni.

As for the problem of getting a translation of Ulfkotte’s book into English, it struck me that what might be needed here is a version of the old ‘samizdat’ underground publication system for the nominally ‘free world’. Samizdat was the underground publishing system in the former Soviet Union, in which literature that had been suppressed by the Communist authorities was illegally copied and circulated. Among the works published and distributed in this way was Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. The people, who read samizdat literature described how they did so in utter secrecy. A book was often read in a single night, because it was too dangerous to keep hold of such books for very long. If a system like this is what is needed to publish book’s like Ulfkotte’s in Britain – or at least, England, if Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland go their own way after Brexit, then it will show very clearly that Jeremy Corbyn is right, and that David Cameron has created a ‘zombie democracy’. Though the credit mustn’t go just to the Tories. Tony Blair also did much to create the surveillance state and the system of secret courts that Cameron expanded, and which May will probably preserve and extend even more.

Mussolini, Press Censorship and Contempt for Newspaper Readers

April 16, 2014

Mussolini Pic

Mussolini before becoming the Duce, Italy’s Fascist dictator, had been a newspaper editor. Denis Mack Smith in his biography, Mussolini (London: Paladin 1983) describes both his style of journalism and his contempt for newspaper readers, which he used to justify stifling the freedom of the press.

The new premier was exceptional in having made his name as a newspaper editor and journalism continued to be one of his great passions. He was probably the best popular journalist of his day, and his ability to simply and vulgarize issues, to disregard consistency where necessary – in his own words, to over-dramatize or even invent facts – all these early lessons greatly helped to him effective in the kind of populist politics he was drawn to instinctively. They made him a successful politician, if a bad statesman.

He now decided to change the rules of journalism so that no one else could succeed as he had done. While in opposition, he had condemned censorship of newspapers as shameful and dangerous, and his pledge to maintain freedom of the press received unanimous support in the first fascist party congress; but as a dictator he seized on the fact that anyone who could manipulate the press might be able to change public opinion overnight, and even before the march on Rome he had prepared measures to control the newspapers. Here was the main novelty of Mussolini’s revolution and one of the principal reasons for his success. His sort of fascism could never have appeared before the days of popular journalism; nor in all probably could it have happened later, once Italy became a more literate and politically more sophisticated society. (pp. 78-9).

Censorship was something Mussolini had once condemned outright and some of his associates still disliked it. But once he was in power he meant to control journalism. Newspaper readers were gullible and impotent; he owed them no respect but claimed he had a duty to protect them from irresponsible editors whose lies were discrediting Italy abroad. Suddenly on 20th June 1925, late in the evening, he caught parliament unawares and proposed new press laws. All was over in half an hour with no debate and only five dissentient votes; parliament was then closed until the end of the year. (p. 105).

Mike once quoted Lord Beaverbrook to me as an illustration of the conscious bias of the press: ‘I print nothing but propaganda, propaganda and propaganda’. Members of Blair’s cabinet have said that during his administration he always trying to formulate policies that would gain the support of the press barons, such as Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail; and that Rupert Murdoch was a constant, silent presence over the cabinet meetings. And Murdoch’s attitude to his newspapers – the Sun, News of the World and the Times indicates to me that he had a similar contempt for his readers, cynically manipulating the news to sale papers and push through his right-wing policies. And the Tories were perfectly willing to violate the press monopoly laws in order to give him the papers and journalistic influence he wanted. He operates in a democratic system, but there’s still much of Mussolini’s attitude to politics, the press and its readers in his style of journalism and management.

Bernard Ingham, the Press Office under Thatcher and Mussolini and the Fascist Spin City

August 11, 2013

All regimes to a greater or lesser extent have attempted to manipulate public opinion to their own ends. A curiously modern example from the Middle Ages is the use of political ballads against Henry VI’s wife, by his opponent, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the father of the infamous Richard III. Richard had been England’s Lord Protector, governing the country. reacting to the king’s incompetence and weak-mindedness, Richard launched a political campaign against him. Political ballads attacked the queen as a ruthless, foreign princess, intent on conquering and oppressing her husband’s lands while misleading him as to her intentions. He and the king’s supporters also launched campaigns against each other in parliament, culminating in a general election, as well as fighting each other on the battlefield. Although a medieval conflict, the Wars of the Roses also appears strikingly modern, almost like the founding archetype of the coups that have been staged since. Richard III at one point even made speeches from the balcony, like great 20th century dictators like Mussolini.

Informal Influence over the Press in Democracies

During the 20th century much of the control of the press in the democracies was informal. Presidents and prime ministers arranged press conferences and dinners with sympathetic press barons. There were censorship rules, that could be invoked in times of national crisis, such as laws against the dissemination of enemy propaganda during First and Second World Wars. Some of the restrictions on what was printed in the press was simply through the personal relationship between the editor and the family of leading politicians. At the Cheltenham Festival of Literature one year, the British caricaturist Gerald Scarfe told the story of how one of his early cartoons was spiked by the editor of the Times. It was of Winston Churchill in his final period as an MP in parliament during his declining years when the powers that had inspired the country to keep on fighting during the War were fading. Scarfe said that at the time Churchill was senile, and the cartoon showed him at the end of the green benches, asleep and drooling. The Time’s editor rejected it on the grounds that it would upset the great man’s wife, Clemmie, when she opened it at breakfast in the morning.

Bernard Ingham and Thatcher’s Press Office

This relationship with the press changed slightly when Mrs. Thatcher established a press office under Bernard Ingham. Now Ingham strongly rejects the description of himself as a spin doctor. Nevertheless, as Maggie’s press officer he institutionalised the government’s manipulation of the news and public opinion in a way previous administrations had not. This in turn prepared the way for its expansion under Peter Mandelson during Blair’s government, and the consequent use of spin and propaganda by the governments following them.

Rigid Control of Press in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy

Totalitarian regimes are notorious for their absolute control of the press and media to garner mass support. In Hitler’s Germany, they were placed under the control of Josef Goebbels, the ‘Minister for Public Enlightenment’. This prompted the satirical joke, said with one eye looking over the shoulder for the Gestapo, that the Goeb was the minimum amount of power required to turn off 100,000 radio sets. Despite the Nazis’ claim that they were enthusiastically supported by the great German public, you can gather from this what that public really thought of their leaders’ rantings.

Control of the press in Mussolini’s Italy was similarly strict. Under a law of 1924, an area’s prefect could warn any editor who ‘damaged the credit of the nation at home or abroad’, ‘aroused unjustified alarm in the public’, and published ‘false or tendentious news’. Editors were also at risk if they published material inciting class hatred or urged disobedience to the law. An editor that was warned twice could be dismissed from his post by the prefect. Another decree gave the prefects the right to sequestrate the issue of a particular paper that had broken the above rules. Originally this legislation was used only against the Socialist and Communist press and papers that had very small circulations. In 1925 it was expanded against the last remaining liberal newspapers. Mussolini tried to encourage the newspapers to adopt a friendly attitude towards to his regime. When this failed, official censorship increased, while the newspapers’ proprietors were threatened with forcible closure and the destruction of their equipment. Under Alfredo Rocco, the former leader of the Nationalists and Mussolini’s Minister for Justice, a corporative Order of Journalists was set up. This was under the control of the Commissione Superiore alla Stampa, composed of other journalists, rather than magistrates. Despite Rocco’s claim that the Commissione ‘realizes both the autonomy of the class and its link with the State’, he himself appointed its members and the Order as a whole was an instrument for controlling the journalists. No journalist, who was not on its rolls was allowed to practise his profession. Stalin used a similar organisation to control writers in the Soviet Union. This was the Writers’ Union, which had actually been founded to protect literature and the press from control by the old tyrant. From 1927 to 1928 there was a sustained campaign in Italy to purge the press of non-Fascist journalists and editors. By the end of the 1920s two-thirds of the newspapers outside the major cities were owned by the Fascist Party. At the same time, the magazines and newspapers published by the individual local Fascist groups, the federations or the Fasci, were reduced by Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo, for greater economy and to make their control by the central Fascist organisations easier.

Censored Subjects in Fascist Press

In September 1928 the regime issued new guidelines detailing what newspapers were and weren’t allowed to print. All news was intended to be optimistic and present the regime in a positive light. Newspapers were ordered to give minimal coverage to rail disasters, bank failures and air crashes. Journalists were to treat natural disasters ‘with great sobriety’. Mussolini himself decreed that the crime column should be ‘demobilized’, especially stories of suicides, tragedies of passion, violence and child molestation. Editors were also banned from publishing photographs of nude or scantily clad women. I wonder how the Right-wing tabloids like the Sun, Star, Daily Mail and so on would cope under a Fascist dictatorship, considering that much of their content consists of photographs of nude or scantily clad women, and in the Sun, a hysterical campaign against paedophiles in which innocents were targeted and persecuted.

Informal Control of Press by Mussolini; Purchase of Newspapers by Industrialists for Fascist Regime

In other ways, however, the Fascists’ control and manipulation of the press was much more subtle. From 1922 to 1924 this was done informally. Il Duce’s Press Officer, Cesare Rossi, arranged deals in which private financiers sympathetic to the regime bought up opposition newspapers. The radical Milan newspaper, Il Secolo, was purchased for the regime by a group of industrialists headed by Borletti and Cesare Goldmann. Another newspaper, the Corriere Italiano, founded by the regime, was financed by consortium consisting of Fiat, Ilva, Terni, and the shipping magnate, Odero. This approach was discredited in the crisis following the regime’s assassination of the dissident philosopher, Matteotti, in exile Marseille. This revealed the sordid intrigue surrounding the Corriere Italiano and its companion Fascist paper, Nuovo Paese. In the unrest that followed, the headquarters of opposition newspapers were occupied by Fascist squads, and were only allowed to resume publication after submitting to the orders of the local Fascist ras.

In fact simple economic reasons meant that the party and the government could not afford to own and control all the Italian newspapers and magazines. The most important Italian papers thus remained in the hands of the private owners and industrialists, who held them long before the Fascist seizure of power. These proprietors continued to use them to influence the government’s economic policy and secure favours from the regime.

Pre-Fascist Staff Retained under Fascism

There was also some continuity with the pre-Fascist press, in that the regime permitted newspapers and magazines to retain their previous, non-Fascist staff, provided they did not produce material criticising the regime or its policies. Indeed, Mussolini appears to have intended to present some degree of political pluralism. He allowed the trade union newspaper, Il Lavoro, to resume publication in Genoa after it had been closed down. Il Lavoro was the paper of a group of CGL leaders that had capitulated to the regime, and continued to employ a number of well-known opponents of the regime. Mussolini appears to have kept it going in order to appeal, unsuccessfully, to the working class.

Press Office as Institution Common to Thatcher’s Britain and Fascist Italy

While the control of the press by the Italian Fascists was extreme, there is some comparison to the situation in today’s early 21st century Britain. Following Mrs. Thatcher and Bernard Ingham, subsequent British administrations have employed a Press Office like Mussolini and Cesare Rossi. Favourable coverage by the press has been seen as vitally important. From Blair onwards, the government has been sensitive to projecting a positive image through press barons such as Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre of the Mail. These industrialists have similarly been active, like the right-wing press baron Alfred Hugenberg in Weimar Germany, to build up massive media empires presenting their view of current events with an eye to influencing government policy. One former member of Blair’s cabinet said that Murdoch was a quiet presence at all the premier’s cabinet meetings, meaning that Blair was constantly concerned what Murdoch’s reaction to his policies would be.

Grant of Newspapers and Broadcasters by British Governments to their Supporters

Like Mussolini, Mrs Thatcher and subsequent prime ministers also have been active to ensure that particularly important newspapers were owned and acquired only by their supporters. Mrs. Thatcher made sure that the Times and other newspapers were bought by Rupert Murdoch, rather than the left-wing, and corrupt, Robert Maxwell. Blair and his cronies also waved through the acquisition and merger of various satellite firms by Murdoch despite concerns that this set up a dangerous monopoly, concerns that were also raised when Richard Desmond, the owner of the Express, purchased Channel 5. Mrs. Thatcher also acted to support the press barons in their destruction of the print unions, when the press finally moved out of Fleet Street after centuries of occupation.

‘Death on the Rock’ and Thatcher’s Closure of London Weekend Television

Equally significantly, Thatcher acted to close down a TV company that did not follow her line on the killing of a group of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. According to Private Eye, the Prime Minister was angered by the World in Action documentary, Death on the Rock. The IRA squad in question had travelled to Gibraltar in preparation for an attack on the British army there. The documentary presented evidence that the security services had had the squad under surveillance the whole time they were preparing for their attack. It stated that there had been numerous occasions where the terrorists could have been stopped and arrested without, or with minimal bloodshed. This was not done, and the entire squad was shot dead in what appeared to be an extra-judicial killing. In short, rather than straightforwardly protecting the servicemen and women stationed on the Rock, the SAS had acted as a Death Squad. Lady Olga Maitland said as much a few years later in her biography of Thatcher, when she declared that the purpose of the exercise was to send a sharp message to the IRA.

This is a strong and highly contentious claim. Now the IRA and the other terrorist groups in Ulster were responsible for acts of horrific violence against innocent civilians and members of the security services that left hundreds killed or mutilated, and showed little remorse or compassion for their victims. Most Brits supported the armed services in their campaign against them. There is, however, a line in such military campaigns that cannot be crossed by a democratic regime governed by human rights. This is what prevents nations with a proud democratic tradition, like Britain, from descending into arbitrary government and gun law like the South American Right-wing dictatorships. World in Action argued that this line had been crossed. World in Action was produced by London Weekend Television, which as a result lost its broadcasting license. This was granted instead to their competitors, Carlton, whom Thatcher obviously felt could be relied on to produce more positive coverage.

Conclusion: Increased Government Control of Media and Decreasing Political and Social Freedom in Post-Thatcher Britain

The result is that the freedom of the press in contemporary Britain is far more fragile than it appears. Mussolini was unsuccessful in gaining absolute control of the press, but was also concerned to present the semblance of pluralism. Press diversity in contemporary Britain is also coming under increasing pressure. Newspapers and magazines are increasingly owned by a very few proprietors, who see to it that their monopolies are protected and expanded by the governments of the day. In return, they support a Right-wing agenda that demands further privatisation, the suppression of working class political organisations and the curtailment of welfare benefits and the eventual dismantlement of the welfare state. Finally, broadcasters that present evidence of flagrant government violations of human rights will be penalised and closed down. Perhaps the difference is that in Mussolini’s Italy, it was a case of private industrialists aiding an extreme Right-wing state. In post-Thatcher Britain, it’s an extreme Right-wing state aiding its industrialists. The gap between freedom and tyranny is increasingly a fine one.

Sources

‘Press’, in Philip V. Cannistraro, ed., Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press 1o9i82) 437-40.

Adrian Lyttelton, The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929, 2nd Edition (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1987) 394-400.

Colin Richmond, ‘Propaganda in the Wars of the Rose’, History Today, July 1992, 42:12-18.

‘Toadying the Line’, reviews of Margaret Thatcher: The First Ten Years, Lady Olga Maitland (Sidgwick & Jackson); Margaret Thatcher: The Woman Within, Andrew Thomson (W.H. Allen), in Francis Wheen, ed., Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion (London: Verso 1994) 224-5.

Dave Allen: God’s Comedian

April 30, 2013

Last night the BBC screened a documentary about the late Anglo-Irish comedian, Dave Allen. It was ironically entitled, ‘God’s Comedian’ as Allen was an outspoken atheist, who took a certain delight in mocking religion and particularly the Roman Catholic church. The show began with the great man himself saying ‘I’m an atheist – thank God!’ Despite his lampooning of the Church, he didn’t really sneer at its adherents. He always ended his show with the farewell, ‘Goodnight, and may your God go with you’. You can’t imagine any of the loudly anti-religious comedians who have emerged over the past decade, such as Paul Sina, uttering such a farewell of goodwill to the theists in their audiences. Allen’s wife stated that he wasn’t against religion. In fact, he had enormous respect for it. He just hated bigotry and being told what to think.

Allen’s Early Career in Australia and British Independent Television

The son of an English nurse and a Dublin journalist, Allen’s family moved to England after his father’s death. Allen’s father was a talented story-teller, and Allen hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a leading gentleman of the press. When this didn’t happen, he became a Butlin’s redcoat. His television career began when he was given a job hosting a chat show Down Under in the 1960s. Moving to England with his new wife, Allen was fortunate enough to get a similar job for ITV. This involved performing all manner of daft, and potentially lethal stunts in the studio. In one edition he demonstrated how to get out of a car underwater. To show how to do this, a car with him in it and the cameraman were dumped in a tank. Luckily nothing went wrong, and the show even helped to save the life of a young boy. A family wrote to him to say how appalled they were when their parked car fell into the sea with their son in it. Fearing that the boy was dead, they were amazed when he reappeared on the surface alive and well. He told them he knew how to get out of the car after watching Allen’s programme. Allen said that he was still in touch with the family.

Dave Allen At Large and Anti-Religious Sketches

He then moved over on to the BBC to star in his own comedy show, Dave Allen at Large, which ran from 1971 to 1976. Allen had turned against religion and the Church because of the cruelty he experienced at the hands of the Carmelite nuns who taught him at school. The show had a clip of Allen, sitting on his trademark bar stool, saying ‘I was taught by Carmelite nuns – the SS in drag!’ This contrasted strongly with the love and warmth he was given at home by his parents and siblings. As a result, he lampooned the Church and its clergy in sketches that were shocking in their day. Several of these involved sex, such as the sketch in which the crozier held by a seated bishop straightens out when his ring is kissed by an attractive nun, only to collapse again when it was kissed by a plainer, older nun. One sketch was particularly shocking and generated outrage and denunciations by the Roman Catholic church. This involved Allen, dressed as the Pope, doing a striptease in front of a chorus line of priests and nuns in front of St. Peter’s. The BBC was inundated with letters condemning the sketch and the Roman Catholic church boycotted his show. He even received death threats from the IRA and Provisional IRA. Various commentators described just how extremely shocking the sketch was at the time. Ireland in the 1970s was an extremely conservative society, and in the villages in the south and west of Ireland the priest was the most important person in the community. At the same time Allen caused further religious outrage by starring in a controversial play, A Pagan Place, by Edna O’Brien. Footage was shown of Allen stating that the BBC took the death threats very seriously. Mercifully, the terrorists never carried out there threat, and Allen carried on to entertain and provoke Britain.

Documentary Work and Controversy for Swearing on ITV

The programme noted how, when alternative comedy emerged in the 1980s it didn’t really affect Allen. His material was very different from the other comedians of his generation against whom the alternative crowd, Alexei Sayle, Clive Anderson, Rik Mayall and Adrain Edmondson, reacted. Indeed, it’s been remarked before on a BBC arts show a long time ago in the 1980s that these angry, Politically Correct comics, actually like Allen and his observational humour. Allen also continued his career as a straight actor, appearing in a drama about a man undergoing a mid-life crisis who takes up home in an office block. He also tried his hand at making documentaries. One of the first was about British eccentrics, some of whom were very bizarre indeed. One of the eccentrics interviewed effectively lived in what looked like the main chassis of an old-fashioned coach. This tiny room was so small he couldn’t lie down, so he had built a small, box-like compartment bolted on to it in which he could put his feet when he wanted to sleep. Another wore a red top hot with white mice scurrying on its brim. This fellow lived only on what he grew himself, which seemed to be mostly cabbages. Allen and the other producers had decided beforehand not to interview anyone who was insane. The commentators – Allen’s wife, children, and writers – said how Allen didn’t judge them. Indeed, he seemed to like an admire the passion with which they lived their lives without giving a dam’ about what anyone thought about them. In his quiet questioning of these eccentrics and non-judgmental approach to their lives, the programme said, Allen paved the way for later explorers of the weird like Louis Theroux. I also remember that sometime in the 80s he appeared in a straight role as the title character in a production of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya on Radio 4.The programme noted that Allen was off the air for many years during the 1980s, concentrating on his career as a stand-up comedian. In 1990 he returned to television, this time to ITV. This show lacked the music, actors and sketches of his BBC shows: ‘Let’s face it’, he joked, ‘it’s cheap’. He then managed to outrage public opinion again during a monologue in which he used the ‘F’ word. The actual subject was clocks, and Allen joke was about how, after forty years of doing everything to the clock, when you retired they gave you ‘an f===ing clock’. The letters poured in condemning Allen’s foul language.

I remember this incident from when it happened. A Conservative MP got involved and attacked ITV for broadcasting such filth. Contemporary comedians are far more foul-mouthed, so it’s hard to remember just how shocking this was over twenty years ago. In the early 80s Jools Holland’s career on the great Channel 4 pop show, The Tube, ended after he said the ‘F’ word on air. He was suspended, but returned after a couple of weeks, only to say it again. This time the ban was permanent. In Allen’s case, I wondered if the attack by the Tory MP weren’t actually because of something else he’d said earlier in the show. 1990 was the tail end of the Thatcher administration. Just before the clock monologue, Allen had told another monologue attacking the Leadereen and her policies. It struck me that this was what really outraged the Tory MP. He couldn’t criticise Allen for that, however, without appearing humourless and an opponent of free speech. He could, however, join in the outrage at Allen’s foul language. Allen more or less retired from television after this. He devoted his life to his family and hobbies. He was, amongst other things, a talented painter. He died in 2005 at the age of 68.

Allen’s Anti-Religious Material Reconsidered

Watching the documentary about Allen I was impressed by his great talent, but also felt unease at his constant attack on religion and the Roman Catholic church. I’d seen some of his ant-religious sketches along with the rest of the programme when I was younger, and I never found them particularly blasphemous or shocking, though I was very much aware of his reputation. Some of this was simply denominational. I’m Protestant, and Allen was attacking Roman Catholicism, and so it didn’t really affect my church or offend my faith. Another reason was simply because many of the sketches simply didn’t have any relationship to the Catholic Church or doctrine, except that it was simply another group of authority figures who were shown behaving ridiculously. For example, in one of his sketches Allen plays a priest. Coming into the church, he kneels down and leans against a pillar. This falls over and knocks against the next pillar, setting off a chain of pillars falling over like dominoes until the entire church collapses. Is it blasphemous? Not really. The programme showed a later, but similar sketch in which a tourist leans against one of the great trilithons at Stonehenge, only to topple that and the entire monument over in a similar domino effect. Others seemed inventive, and based on rather mundane and inoffensive truths. In another sketch, a bishop is shown dozing off during a particularly boring sermon. His crozier then gives a beep, and he takes it off like a telephone to receive a wake-up call. Now sermons can be notoriously boring, so that sketch is actually a rather playful treatment of a simple reality, and the perceived similarity between the shape of a crozier and a telephone handset. Another reason why I wasn’t really concerned by the anti-religious content of his show at the time was because of the political background in Northern Ireland. This was at the height of the Troubles when bombings and assassinations occurred regularly. Against this backdrop of sectarian violence between Roman Catholic and Protestant, one could sympathise with his anti-religious stance. Speaking on Radio 4 in the early 90s, Allen said that he had played in Lebanon, and was critical of the role religion there played in dividing society and the country’s civil war.

Legacy of Anti-Religious Material in General Attitude of Contempt for Religion and Christians in General

Looking at his material now, however, I feel rather more uneasy. Church attendance has declined dramatically since the 1970s and there is, in certain sections of society and the media considerable hostility to religion and Christianity. While much of Allen’s material is actually far less offensive than it was considered to be at the time, I do feel that it contributed to the modern climate of indifference and hostility. It can produce a superficial familiarity with religion, a feeling that one knows all about it and is free to sneer at it, based on something a few comedians have said on TV or the radio. This extends to Christianity as a whole, not just to the Roman Catholic Church. I feel strongly that against the bitter attacks Christians now face, the churches – Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, need to support each other.

The way to combat these attacks on Christianity should be through good humour, and polite and witty rebuttal. No-one deserves death threats for their religious or political opinions, no matter how offensive they may be. The only decent way to combat anti-religious attacks, like those you can hear regularly on the Beeb or Channel 4, should be through rational counterargument. The churches are capable of this, and should use it more to rebut their critics. It doesn’t have to be very difficult. Quite often all the New Atheist crowd do is trade in prejudice and received opinion, without any background in philosophy, theology or history.

Dave Allen: One of the Great British Comic Geniuses

As for Dave Allen, it was brilliant being reminded just how good a comedian he was. One of his younger writers said that it was Allen’s monologue about explaining how to tell the time, in which the comic master was shown saying, ‘And the third hand on the watch is the second hand’ – that really he couldn’t teach Allen anything about comedy in a million years. Much of Allen’s material is about how absurd life can be. In one of his monologues he talked about how he went past a building. Painted on the door was the sign, ‘This is neither an entrance nor an exit, and should be kept closed at all times’. ‘Why then, ‘ asked Allen rhetorically, ‘don’t you just brick the dam’ thing up!’ Some of the sketches are simply morality plays on greed and vanity. There’s one which features Allen as a city gent. Walking past a car, he notices a ten-pound note jammed under its wheels. This sketch was made in the early 1970s, when ten pounds was worth far more than it is today. Unable to pull the note out, the gent spots a cafe over the road and walks to it to wait for the car to drive away. The gent is shown sitting in the cafe, ordering more and more cups of tea, having false starts when it just looks that the car is about to be driven away, only for the supposed driver to continue walking past. Finally the driver comes back, gets in the car and drives away. At last the commuter sees his chance, gets up to go to the door, only to be beaten by everyone else in the cafe. Another sketch was set during the Russian Revolution. Against a backdrop of stirring music and a map of Russia in flames, the streets are full of rioting mobs. The limousine of one of the capitalist masters and his chaffeur pulls into one of these streets, only to be halted. The two are pulled out of the vehicle and lynched. Two of the mob, played by Dave Allen and his long-time supporting star, Peter Vincent, take the duo’s clothes. Amid mocking cheers Allen puts on the capitalist’s fur coat and monocle, while Vincent dons the chauffeurs hat and jacket. Amid shouts of applause from their fellow workers they get in the car and drive off. They then turn a corner into the next street, where they meet another band of revolting workers, who take them out and lynch them in turn.

Despite his mockery of religion, Allen was indeed a comic genius. Nearly three decades later, I still find him far funnier than some of the comics who replaced him. Goodnight, Dave, and I hope the Almighty was with you in the end.