Saturday 19 October 2013

Plebgate and the Wisdom of Catiline

How I imagine my mysterious email critics

John Gay, author of The Beggar’s Opera, said that the person ‘who deals in slander, lives in strife.’  I am amidst strife caused by emails from self-important individuals protesting against something I said, live, on the BBC on 24th September 2012.  I was talking about the Conservative MP (and then Government Chief Whip) Andrew Mitchell. I rashly said that I ‘KNEW’, rather than merely BELIEVED IT PLAUSIBLE GIVEN HIS SCHOOLING AND PERSONALITY, that Mitchell had used the word ‘pleb(s)’ when abusing members of the police force. 

Can YOU read the lips of anyone in this?
I made a mistake. Nobody knows whether Mitchell said it or not. The CCTV footage is inconclusive. Other characters and factors have emerged, some of them shady.  Mitchell may be lying, but so may the police.  Both politicians and police, I BELIEVE, tell lies all the time.

I am therefore very sorry indeed that, like an incompetent Socratic interlocutor, I claimed to be in possession of knowledge, rather than a biased opinion, about Mitchell’s choice of words. I hope that saying so will persuade the reactionary tosspots who are crowding my Inbox to go away and Get A Life.

Slander is a real issue in any democracy: over-policing what people say extempore leads directly to suppression of freedom of speech and insidious, invisible censorship and self-silencing. But slander is also perniciously powerful, as every good spin-doctor knows.

Ben Jonson, genius political analyst
Slander in the political arena is expertly dissected in the tragedy Catiline: His Conspiracy by Ben Jonson (1611).  One of Jonson’s chief interests, writing in the paranoid Jacobean world after the union of the crowns of England and Scotland and the Gunpowder Plot, was false accusations. He found a rich source in the Roman historian Sallust’s account of the conspiracy of Catiline and his disaffected followers to take Rome in 63 BC. Cicero saves the day, but only by judicious use of defamation, rumour and unprovable or false allegations.

Everyone involved in the Mitchell fiasco could now meditate on the wise words Jonson gives, paradoxically, to the ‘bad guy.’ Catiline refuses to get upset at false allegations:  ‘Where it concernes himself, / Who's angrie at a slander, makes it true.’  This has a double meaning. If you get angry at something which someone is saying about you, you EITHER prove that that there is truth in the allegation, OR concede that fiction has the mysterious power to damage you. 

Why exactly are the Tories so angry that anyone imagines one of their leaders might suffer from class snobbery? Regardless of what Andrew Mitchell did or did not say, ‘Where it concernes himselfe, / Who's angrie at a slander, makes it true.’