Peter Hitchens is quoted in bold italics, I quote myself in just italics.
This is what happened.
In December 2014 Peter Hitchens apologised to Christopher Jefferies. Jefferies was the man arrested in the Joanne Yeates murder case. The press ruined his character; had he been charged, a fair trial would have been unlikely. When I read Hitchens’s apology, I thought it was quite decent of him to do it, but nothing more than that.
He was apologising for writing nothing in defence of Christopher Jefferies while the man was having his name dirtied by the papers, even though he knew his trade was ignoring the principle of the presumption of innocence. This is the Hitchens apology from December 2014.
One of my great regrets is that I did not stand up for Christopher Jefferies, the eccentric teacher falsely accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates. I felt at the time that the treatment of this man was utterly wrong. I was amazed that members of my trade were breaking what I had been taught were absolute rules to uphold the presumption of innocence. But I never wrote a word. I waited for someone else to stop it. And nobody did. So – reminded of the whole ghastly thing by last week’s powerful ITV dramatisation – I offer my personal apologies to Mr Jefferies for failing to come to his aid when I had the power to do so.
I thought nothing more of this until Peter Hitchens wrote a piece called George Bell and the Presumption of Innocence.
This is a paragraph from that short piece:
Long after his death, the Bishop has been accused of child abuse. I believe that he, like any accused person, is entitled to the presumption of innocence and has not been allowed it.
Reading this made me remember what Hitchens wrote about Jefferies. The principle of the presumption of innocence is just that – a principle, it applies equally to Jefferies as to Bell, so why did Hitchens write for Bell but write nothing for Jefferies at the time?
I wanted to know, so I asked. I asked this on the comments thread of the George Bell and the Presumption of Innocence post:
‘What I’d like to know is why Peter Hitchens hasn’t waited for someone else in his trade to defend Bell and the principle of the presumption of innocence. I shall be careful, here. There was no article by Mr Hitchens entitled: ‘Christopher Jefferies and the Presumption of Innocence.’ Why defend this principle using the example of a dead person when Jefferies was then (and I assume he still is) alive? With Mr Jefferies, Mr Hitchens could have defended the principle AND aided an innocent man. (Zola didn’t wait for someone else to write in defence of Dreyfus.) Why did Mr Hitchens choose to do nothing to help Mr Jefferies, yet he chooses to speak for Bell?’
Peter Hitchens responded to this:
A good point. I have recently, in published work, expressed my shame and regret that I did not do so. It is partly for this reason that I am so engaged in this case.
Is that an answer? Notice the word ‘partly.’ If it is partly because he said nothing for Jefferies that he wrote for Bell this is okay by me – but I wasn’t asking that. Nowhere in his first ‘answer’ does Mr Hitchens provide an answer to my question about why he chose to do nothing for Jefferies. There is no ‘why’ in his original apology from December 2014, either.
Peter Hitchens writes of his first answer (in his appraisal of our exchange, a post called A Question of Tone):
I assumed this would be the end of it. But No. The following day Mr Aspinall returned to the subject.
Yes, because he didn’t answer the question.
Peter Hitchens doesn’t have to answer my questions. He could say, for instance, ‘shove off, I’m not answering you. Who do you think you are questioning me?’ Or something similar and I wouldn’t complain at all.
But if he chooses to respond then I’m justified in repeating the question if it’s not answered.
So, because he didn’t answer the first time, I had another go. This is part of what I said on my second attempt:
‘We know why he started writing for Bell – so what stopped him writing for Jefferies when the same principle applies? Was he instructed to write nothing by editors, because there was a clear Jefferies ‘line’ being taken? Was he worried Jefferies might have been guilty, and that his opponents would have smeared and misrepresented him as having been defending a killer instead of a principle? (Something they almost certainly would have done.)’
Mr Hitchens inserted a comment and clearly stated ‘NO’ on the question about a line being taken; of the second speculation, he said:
I don’t think it was as specific as that. I’d have had to have got a lot nearer doing something than I did to have had such a defined fear. It was just a general cowardice mixed with a consciousness that I was failing in my duty. Has Mr Aspinall never experienced any such thing? I really don’t see why we need to get so profound about this. I failed, through my own fault, and have admitted this in public, in the place where I failed. I can’t say it’s much fun to do this, but if the only response is to be accused of following non-existent orders, I might think twice before making such public confessions again. Unrepentant people seem to get an easier time from this contributor. [My emphasis]
That’s closer to an answer, but what exactly is ‘general cowardice?’ Cowardice caused by what?
Was Peter Hitchens experiencing cowardice ex nihilo?
Peter Hitchens continued, in his appraisal of our exchange, to state:
Mr Aspinall has not elected me to anything, nor appointed me to anything, and I owe him no special duty. He is certainly not my confessor. Never mind. The question had been asked, and I had answered it. But the questioning continued, with the clear implication that I was hiding something and not telling the full story. Why else continue to ask in this ill-mannered interrogative fashion?
This implication is not clear. The questioning continued because I hadn’t got a specific answer, and I had – take note here – decided a specific answer existed.
I decided a specific answer existed because people will say they kept their mouths shut because they didn’t want to “rock the boat” or “cause trouble” or they were scared of reprisals, or being fired, or being thrown into a dungeon, or exiled to Siberia, or banished from Christendom, or excommunicated – there’s usually a reason for cowardice to manifest itself, because persons tend to be scared of something.
So after two attempts all I’ve got is ‘general cowardice.’
After my second attempt, Mr Hitchens made things a little clearer in his in-comment reply:
The insinuation, that I feared some identifiable punishment or threat, is baseless. Fear, as those who have experienced it well know, does not need to be specific. Most fear, in my experience, is a vague presentiment that something unpleasant lies around a certain corner or beyond a certain door, and that it is best not to turn that corner or open that door. This is why people are so reluctant to take the first small steps which would otherwise lead to major changes in life, such as changing their minds. They don’t want their fears to take a specific shape, any more than the child which fears there is a monster under its bed wants to look to see if it is really there, in case it actually is. Instinct tends to guide this far more than reason.
After this I thought – okay, there clearly wasn’t a specific reason behind the fear which prevented him not writing for Jefferies. I was quite surprised at this, but accepted it.
‘On the Jefferies / Bell question, I’m happy to leave the discussion where it is. I was asking only because I thought it was interesting. I (wrongly, obviously) assumed there would have been a specific reason behind our host’s choice to say nothing on the presumption of innocence principle for Jefferies; if there was no specific reason, then there wasn’t – that’s that. I used two speculations about what this reason *might* have been: one was to ask if there was any editorial line being followed – quite a vague speculation because I didn’t offer any guess as to why such a line *might* have come down from the brass. The second was a specific question about how Mr Hitchens’s opponents might have smeared him as defending a killer and not a principle (which I think they would have done) had Mr Jefferies been found guilty. I offered these as being two ends of the ‘who knows?’ spectrum. They were not offered as disguised accusations.’
Then things got strange as one contributor decided to tell me my questions to Mr Hitchens were ‘unpleasant’ and Mr Hitchens himself decided to complain about the ‘tone’ of my questions / comments to him. This is where I lost my patience a little. I can’t stand it when people whine about the ‘tone’ of something: a piece of writing, especially. I said this to one of the Toneists:
‘This is what happens: a person reads some words and imagines them being spoken in a ‘tone of voice’ they find irritating. They then blame the writer of the words for the tone they have just imagined into existence.’
This comment, in the context of reading words, is perfectly reasonable. It is quite proper to get ‘tone of voice’ from ‘tone’ in this context. But the tone became the moan.
Once I had, I think robustly, rebutted a Toneist that the tone exists in the imagination, not the material reality, Mr Hitchens added an inserted comment.
‘The ‘tones’ which Peter Hitchens detected in my questions to him exist, or existed, only in his imagination, and the ‘unpleasantness’ detected by louiseyvette, exists or existed only in her imagination. Which was my point about ‘tone’ of voice to begin with. They imagined it.’
Then Mr Hitchens added:
Interesting that two people imagined it, whereas Mr Aspinall was unaware of it. I am reminded of Don Maclean’s immortal line ‘ I’d heard about people like me, but I’d never made the connection’. Could the problem in fact be one of self-knowledge?
This attempt at humour was not appreciated by me, nor was Mr Hitchens’s shockingly unscientific assertion that a data-set of two persons against one is some sort of noteworthy pattern.
I refuted his self-knowledge point immediately:
‘Self-knowledge isn’t the problem unless this mysterious ‘tone’ can be measured objectively. It can’t.’
That final comment from me was what prompted Mr Hitchens to compose the post, A Question of Tone, from which I have quoted.
In this post he tries to argue that the question
‘Was he instructed to write nothing by editors, because there was a clear Jefferies ‘line’ being taken?’
is a disguised accusation. Now – and just on grounds of logic, grammar and semantics – it most certainly is NO SUCH THING.
Mr Hitchens says of the sentence / question:
It is of course this ‘was he instructed…?’ sentence which is inquisitorial, suspicious and accusatory . Indeed, it contains, in the form of a question, a suggestion that I was acting under instructions which, made in any other way, would be definitely defamatory, especially as it is entirely baseless. It may actually be defamatory. As the late Sir John Junor once painfully discovered, his belief that it is never libellous to ask a question is not true in law.
Well, he might be right about that, but so what? That the law is definitely an ass doesn’t mean I hid an accusation within a question. I did not so this. That question was asked – and not really as a question, more of a speculative opener – a sort of starter for ten – in good faith. I had NO INTENTION of hiding an accusation. Had I wanted to accuse Mr Hitchens of anything I would have done so.
Peter Hitchens is attacked quite a lot, and no doubt is sensitive to attacks, and – weasel word alert! –‘perceived’ attacks. Could it be possible that he just saw an attack where one didn’t exist?
Okay, I’ve just written my way to a thought and possibly realised something.
Maybe he thought I was trying to be ‘clever’ and allude to J’accuse by mentioning Zola early on? I did mention Zola, but that wasn’t what I meant. I just meant to offer a comparison of someone writing for someone else who didn’t wait. I was suggesting a possible different future, a sort of ‘look at what you might have achieved had you acted’ type suggestion.
If Peter Hitchens did think this was what I was getting at, then I can’t blame him for being annoyed, and I understand his irritation, but he’s giving me too much credit if that’s what made him think I was trying to accuse him of something.
It actually pains me (mildly) to be accused of something I haven’t done. This is the reason for this post.