Back in the eighties a gnarled old tabloid editor, Derek Jameson—dubbed “Sid Yobbo” by Private Eye—become an unlikely TV success with a BBC programme, Do They Mean Us?
The idea was a simple one: each week Jameson would ridicule foreign media coverage of Britain. The underlying premise was that foreign journalists were by and large stupid. And that, in the immortal couplet of the 1960s songwriters Flanders and Swann: “The English, the English, the English are best/ I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest!”
Jameson’s programme came back to me this week when a German journalist, Birgit Maass of Deutsche Welle, won the top prize at the annual Foreign Press Association awards in London for a film she’d made about the UK.
The short film was titled Public order versus civil rights: is liberal Britain under threat? But it would have been poor fodder for Jameson, had the old boy still been going, since it was far from stupid. Indeed, it might even make a fair number of Brits a bit uncomfortable that it takes a German broadcaster to point out a trend to which, by and large, most domestic news outlets have turned a blind eye.
Maas looked at three areas—the right to protest, the right to strike and the right to asylum—and examined how, within a few short years, the British government had moved to curtail rights that were once accepted, even hard-won.
Do they mean us? I’m afraid they do.
In the same week, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and climate change was in the news for criticising the punitive sentences imposed on two Just Stop Oil demonstrators who were jailed for up to three years for a stunt climbing the QE 11 bridge at Dartford in protest against oil and gas exploration.
You may remember the case. It involved two activists, Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland, who caused a fair amount of disruption on the M25 in October 2022 by rigging up hammocks and sleeping above the Dartford crossing. Decker, who is German but in a long-term relationship with a London-based pianist, Holly Cullen-Davies, is now threatened with deportation.
The special rapporteur, Ian Fry, an Australian barrister, expressed concern at these sentences—significantly more severe than any such in the past—and criticised recent legislation as “a direct attack on the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly.”
Fry demanded an assurance that climate change protestors and human rights defenders could carry out “their peaceful work free from fear of threat, violence, harassment or retaliation.”
Mr Fry’s letter received little coverage from UK media, though the prime minister was reported to be dismissive. You could almost hear the snort of derision from news editors as they binned it.
It boils down to the ancient English saying: “None of their bloody business.” Which, broadly, sums up the Braverman tendency’s attitude to the European Court of Human Rights. Who needs foreigners to lecture us about human rights? The English, the English, the English are best.
As it happens, I was once rather grateful to the ECHR for backing journalists’ rights when the English courts turned out not to be quite the best. Along with the Financial Times and the Independent, the Guardian was anxious to protect the identity of a source who had sent us documents relating to a takeover bid of the Belgian brewing company, Interbrew.
Our own High Court had ordered the return of documents, which could well have identified the source. None of the editors were willing to do that—even though we had faced the prospect of punishing fines, or even prison for being in contempt of court.
Unaccountable Euro judges eventually came to our rescue—as they had with a number of other protection of sources cases involving British journalists—not to mention an important ruling involving mass surveillance programmes which could also compromise whistleblowers.
So, many British journalists have quite a lot for which to thank the ECHR (though others, it has to be said, are cross with the court for introducing concepts of privacy which clipped time-honoured traditions of, say, “kiss and tell” stories).
But something sad has happened to British discourse since Brexit. We have gone all Sid Yobbo about foreigners. What right have they got to lecture/judge/intervene/comment… or even help us? We are—in the memorable framing of 1066 and All That—“Top Nation”. Or rather, we used to be, and want to be again.
This dismissive trend to all outsiders feels increasingly insular, thin-skinned, myopic, defensive and unconfident—none of them very winning characteristics when applied to human beings. But, when applied to countries it can, in the wrong hands, become a form of nationalism—a cause a new breed of politicians on the right are trying to rehabilitate. Look no further than Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
You may remember the rallying cry of the “public intellectual” (as we must call him) Douglas Murray at the National Conservatism Conference in May when he cried: “There was nothing wrong with nationalism in Britain… I don’t see why no one should be allowed to love their country because the Germans mucked up twice in a century.”
“Mucking up.” So careless of them. But it is best not to criticise Mr Murray’s indulgent views of that, um, tricky period of German history as he has been known to set posh London lawyers on those who misunderstand his approach.
We have travelled a long way from Derek Jameson, when it all—just about—seemed a bit of a laugh. Now it seems somewhere between dismal and ever so slightly menacing.
Yes, they do mean us. And maybe, instead of laughing, we might listen.