In April, a left-wing magazine editor set out to get an eminent conservative thinker fired from a government post. Three months later, the magazine finally apologized for what was obviously a frame-up and a smear job accomplished by the distorting effects of selective quotation. The conservative lost his job. The editor still has his. Why?
Britain’s The New Statesman, roughly the equivalent of The New Republic, has issued a correction and an apology for how it twisted the words of philosopher and polymath Sir Roger Scruton in a now-notorious interview published on April 10. That isn’t nearly enough. The liar has not been punished — and yet Scruton’s punishment stands, at least for the moment. This ought to be loudly condemned until restitution is done. That means reversal of Scruton’s ritual humiliation — and equally condign sanctions against the man who willfully deceived his readers and the public about Scruton’s views. If a thief steals your watch and gets caught red-handed, he doesn’t get to keep the goods found in his pocket. The victim isn’t told, “Why don’t you just forget this happened and move on with your life, you big baby?”
The duplicitous attack on Sir Roger is an outrage, but it’s not only that. It’s an important lesson about the natural skepticism we ought to, by now, direct at social-media shame-storms in general. To review, New Statesman journalist George Eaton conducted an interview with Scruton in bad faith. The term is overused, but in this case it’s apt, because the purpose of the interview was not to elicit information about the views of Scruton, who chaired a committee advising the (allegedly) Conservative government about architecture.
Eaton made clear his purpose in a jubilant Twitter posting: His intent was to get Scruton fired for being a perceived ideological opponent of Eaton, The New Statesman, the Left, and orthodoxy. Eaton wrote (and subsequently deleted) the following remark on Twitter: “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.” In the accompanying photo Eaton guzzled Champagne. After The New Statesman ran its hit piece on April 10, Scruton was fired within hours. The magazine denied requests from Sir Roger and everyone else to make available a tape or full transcript of the interview. Eaton continued to rejoice.
We know now that Eaton summoned the social-media mob by calculated, malicious omission of context from the Scruton quotations he published. We learned this only because The Spectator journalist Douglas Murray somehow conjured up a tape of the interview. Scruton, 75, was naïve enough to think that Eaton simply wanted to discuss or debate his views, so he did not make a recording.
Murray published excerpts from his recording way back on April 25. It became obvious that the full interview provided little or no evidence for Eaton’s charges that Scruton was a homophobe and a racist. The New Statesman waited until July 8 to issue a statement that twice noted the need to “clarify” its original misrepresentations, adding that “links to the article were tweeted out together with partial quotations from the interview. . . . We acknowledge that the views of Professor Scruton were not accurately represented in the tweets to his disadvantage. We apologise for this, and regret any distress that this has caused Sir Roger.”
Yet Scruton has not been made whole. He has not been restored to his post, or a similar one, though the likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson, supports the idea. Eaton remains employed by The New Statesman, albeit with the title “assistant editor” rather than “deputy editor.” A previous statement by Eaton in which he said he stood by the “accuracy” of his original story has disappeared from The New Statesman’s website.
Not until a week after The New Statesman’s apology did the government apologize, in dismal fashion and in the passive voice. Housing, Communities, and Local Government Secretary James Brokenshire — the man who fired Scruton — finally said on July 15, “I regret that the decision to remove you from your leadership role within the commission [the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission] was taken in the way that it was.” Mistakes were made. Brokenshire sacked Scruton the same day the original interview was published. Why so slow to acknowledge error? It has been crystal clear since Murray’s April 25 report that Scruton was wronged and should not have lost his government post, much less suffered such a despicable public assault on his good name.
Brokenshire’s cowardice in the face of a mob drunk on misleading reporting was appalling. His refusal to acknowledge his blunder in the months that followed is almost equally vile. Scruton has been invited to meet with the government to discuss next steps. He deserves speedy and full rectification, much more than has been granted him so far.
As for Eaton, he committed massive journalistic malpractice. What he did is far worse than plagiarism, which generally results in loss of job even if it amounts merely to laziness in cutting and pasting, not deliberately misrepresenting reality for the purpose of inflicting harm. If copying a boilerplate passage in the course of research should end a journalist’s career, what of willfully getting the story wrong, with malicious intent? Eaton provides us with a perfect example of how to smear someone by wrenching words out of context. Yet he has not been punished in any meaningful way.
The New Statesman hoped that dragging its feet — it doesn’t take three months to listen to an interview tape — would cause tempers to settle. It hoped that time would be such a balm that everyone would gradually forget about its atrocious misrepresentations. Every day it retains Eaton on its payroll, oblivious to the damage he has caused its reputation, is a fresh indication that The New Statesman places ideological partisanship above truth, and that when the two come into conflict, the latter is simply expendable. Like many others on the left, on both sides of the Atlantic, Eaton has found that progressivism is a get-out-of-jail-free card.