Benito Mussolini wrote romantic fiction. Of course he did. Maudlin sentimentality is at the very heart of fascism, which is why we should be keeping a closer eye on Mrs Brown’s Boys.
The Cardinal’s Mistress (or to give it its typically grandiose full title: Claudia Particella, Lamante del Cardinale, Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo) was written in the first decade of the 20th century, when the future dictator was still playing with socialism before he came up with his big idea. It was originally published as a serial in La Vita Trentina, the weekly supplement of socialist newspaper Il Popolo.
Reviewing an English translation of the work in 1928, Dorothy Parker, who admits to er, struggling with the book, dreamed of a scene “in which I tell Mussolini ‘And what’s more, you can’t even write a book that anyone could read. You old Duce you,’” before deadpanning, “You can see for yourself how flat that would leave him.”
It’s unclear whether or not Mussolini was left flat, or even read Parker’s New Yorker magazine review. But it’s possible to imagine that the negative review haunted him to the very end, that Il Duce spent his last days still pondering whether to write an angry letter to the New Yorker, pointing out that since Parker had admitted that she HADN’T EVEN FINISHED THE BOOK, it was a SERIOUS LAPSE of journalistic and critical standards to even run the review, and a sign of how a ONCE GREAT publication had been given over to cheap jibes and sarcasm instead of proper discussion of literary works [and so on, ad lamppostium].
One can imagine his supporters on Twitter, furiously @-ing the poor Parker: “Call yourself a journalist? #NewYorkerBias”, “MSM once again Misreprasents #IlDuce. #NoSurprise (@medialens)”, “So apparently this ‘Parker’ woman is actually a ROTHSCHILD? #BoycottNewYorker”, and so on and on and on and on and wearily on.
You know the kind of thing, because we see it every week now. The dull, thudding obsession with the idea that the media, or a section of the media is involved in some enormous conspiracy against you and your views, and subsequently the belief that that is the only reason not everyone shares your views.
The Scottish independence referendum was a case in point. Yes supporters became curiously obsessed with the BBC’s Nick Robinson and his apparent conservative sympathies. Now, Robinson, like many BBC hacks before him, (Andrew Marr? Socialist Organiser; Paul Mason? Workers’ Power; Jennie Bond? Class War), was politically active in his youth, rising to be president of the equal parts hilarious and horrendous Oxford University Conservative Association. This, plus a terse exchange between Robinson and Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond over a media conference question Robinson felt Salmond had not answered properly, led to hundreds of nationalists converging on BBC Scotland’s headquarters claiming the BBC was biased against them and demanding, well, something.
This was bad enough, but they were egged on by Salmond himself, who said he thought there was “real public concern in terms of some of the nature and balance of the coverage”.
Calls for “balance” are almost always, in fact, calls for more-of-my-side and less-of-the-opposition. This was beautifully demonstrated by the number of complaints logged against the BBC in August about the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict. That month, 938 people complained that the BBC’s coverage was too favourable to the Palestinians, while 813 felt it the corporation was too favourable to the Israeli side. (Incidentally, in the same month over 350 people complained that the BBC had been too pro-independence in its broadcast of a Scottish referendum debate.)
The most embarrassing spectacle of the entire referendum came the days after the vote, when the nationalists had lost. The SNP sulkily decided they would bar right-wing, pro-union newspapers from the morning media conference. Salmond allegedly then tried to handpick which reporter from The Guardian would be allowed attend. The Guardian, doubly affronted by the ban on their press pack colleagues and Salmond’s demands upon it, rightly told Salmond they would skip the conference altogether.
The SNP are far from the only people to think they can demand good coverage and prevent dissent. Mark Ferguson, of the left-wing, trade-union-supported website Labour List, was recently informed that he would not be given a press pass for the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. It was only after other journalists raised their objections via Twitter that the Conservative party relented. It’s probably true to say that the Labour blogger’s coverage would not be the most pro-Tory, but that’s really not the point.
Meanwhile, in the wide world of sport, Newcastle United’s controversial owner owner Mike Ashley has decided that the Daily Telegraph’s Luke Edwards (and anyone else from the Telegraph, for that matter) will not be allowed near the club’s ground again, after Edwards reported rumours that Ashley may be seeking to sell the club.
There is an argument that Ashley generates enough bad publicity for himself without the assistance of apparently hostile journalists (Ashley recently caused confusion after telling a reporter with The i newspaper that club manager Alan Pardew would be “finished” and “dead” if Newcastle lost their next game), but that doesn’t make the move any less thin-skinned and censorious.
Football has form on this. Sir Alex Ferguson may have been the greatest manager of the modern era, but he was also so petty as to refuse to talk to the BBC for seven years after he objected to a documentary about his son aired by the national broadcaster.
Perhaps this tetchiness is what’s needed to get ahead, but it feels increasingly like a retreat from argument, and a retreat from the idea of open debate and a robust public sphere. We won’t accept arguments counter to our own, and if those arguments prove more popular than ours, it is not because ours may need rethinking. No, it is because the world is biased against us. We’re either being silenced by the metropolitan liberals, or censored by the public school Tory elites. Our public conversation is in danger of becoming a public whinge.
Correction 15:40, 2 October: An earlier version of this article stated that Paul Mason was in Workers’ Hammer.