Is Boris to blame for telling the truth on grief?

Last updated at 08:54 20 October 2004

Public opinion has been divided over whether The Spectator editor and MP Boris Johnson should apologise over an editorial which accuses Liverpudlians of 'overreacting' to the death of Iraq hostage Kenneth Bigley.

The editorial, which appears in the current issue of the magazine, claims that people from Liverpool see themselves as victims 'wherever possible' and were 'hooked on grief' stretching back to the Hillsborough disaster 15 years ago.

The ill-advised comment sparked instant fury in the city which prides itself on solidarity and friendliness.

Tory leader Michael Howard immediately reacted with anger and demanded that Mr Johnson apologise and then head up north to put things straight with the people whose reputation he so sullied.

So, tail between legs, the usually flamboyant MP has now made two apologies and bought a train ticket to serve his penance on Merseyside.

But was the charming MP for Henley actually within his rights to pen his observations on the propensity of Britons, and Liverpudlians, to mourn and grieve someone they do not personally know?

Was Michael Howard's demand for a grovelling apology an impingement on Mr Johnson's freedom of speech or just punishment for an ill-informed cheapshot?

Here, we publish your views from our Current Affairs message boards:

Posted by: marshwiggle

I have just heard on the news that The Spectator magazine is running a story saying that Liverpool has overreacted to the death of Ken Bigley, and that they love to see themselves as *victims*. How disgracefull of them... they should print an apology!

Posted by: bella_donna

Well, sometimes I do think that whole swathes of people tend to jump on the bandwagon.

OK, Bigley came from Liverpool, but the great majority of Liverpudlians knew Bigley no better than they knew the American hostages, and nothing much was said about their horrific deaths either in Liverpool nor in the British Press.

However, I can't claim to be able to speak for the population of Liverpool, perhaps they had their reasons.

Posted by: marshwiggle

You don't have to know someone personally to feel horror at what has happened to them. The liverpool people are a very close people, they are like Dubliners - we stick together.

Posted by: jimmyschick

And nor was Ken Bigley's execution, or those of other nationalities, covered as much on the news in the States either, a brief 30 second mention on their news. Did Terry Waite and John McCarthy (albeit they weren't executed) get the same amount of press coverage during their hostage and during their release?

I think its down to the press, going around Liverpool broadcasting feedback. The thing is, Scousers are passionate, compassionate people, which if you ask me, couldn't go amiss in other parts of this country and world! Whats wrong with showing you care?

Posted by: miserere

I've just read the article and its main point is about over sentimentality in the UK in general. It is pretty scathing on Liverpool - I don't know enough about that city to comment on whether it is right or wrong - but I have some sympathy with the main thrust of the argument the article's put forward.

Posted by: huggybear1

We all felt shock, naturally, and disgust at the manner of KB's last few weeks and his death.

However, I agree with The Spectator largely, we don't feel grief, in the true sense of the word at the death of someone we don't know. It devalues true grief, as is undoubtedly being suffered by KB's immediate family and friends.

Grief, to the extent of a two minute silence for one individual, largely unknown to most people in Liverpool, IS in my book overreacting.

Having been married to a Scouser for many years, I do feel that there is an element of wallowing, many of them DO sort of "steal" public outrage and take it up a notch. A bit semi detached from the rest of the country at times.

The Hillsborough thing was going a bit far for the article, I agree, and The Spectator may have got a better response to the general gist of their words if they had left that alone. However I do get a bit tired of the "victimhood" stuff, even regarding this. They never discuss the Heysel Stadium Incident anymore, when 39 Italian fans were killed as a result of Liverpool fans behaviour.

Posted by: cutesypie

I'm livid at the comments in The Spectator magazine regarding the people of Liverpool.

I thought it was very moving and a mark of respect for the people of Liverpool to have a 2 minute silence in honour of Ken Bigley. I thought it was lovely that they had special church services for him and books of condolences. I think people here in London would never do something like that, cold fishes that they are! (I'm from Merseyside myself).

It's bad enough that the Spectator said horrible things about Liverpool's reactions to Ken Bigley but bringing the Hillborough disaster into it left me deeply offended.

Basically, saying that Liverpool people made the police a scapegoat and they refused to acknowledge the part of the drunken fans. As my boyfriend was at Hillsborough and other friends, I know a great deal about what happened that day.

And I can categorically state the police were very much at fault before, during and after the disaster. Like The Sun newspaper, I hope the whole of Merseyside boycotts The Spectator for their offensive comments and utter lies.

Posted by: bella_donna

Well, Boris has apologised now.

But magazines such as the Spectator and Private Eye are always contentious and controversial; over the years there have been many many articles in a similar vein.

We do have free speech in this country, or we're supposed to have, and if The Spectator truly believed this story then I can't see any harm in publishing it, to be honest.

There were no defamatory comments about Bigley himself, simply a veiled criticism of the hype that went with his death.

Posted by: jmitchy

I have not read this specific article, so cannot comment on whether it was crass or tastless, but I do think that in general terms this country wallows in public grieving in a way it never used to do.

I thought the reaction to Diana's death was, frankly, ludicrous, and many tragedies have been played out since where the public reaction of outrage and grief lasted much longer than you might (ok I might) expect.

This is either because we are changing as a nation, or the press, of which I am a member, is becoming obsesses by reporting grief, and does in itself perpetuate and magnify the degree to which

national grief is felt.

Public reaction to a tragedy should be reported but to play something out for days and days on end with pages and pages of tributes (I am not talking about this case in particular) I think in the end minimises the degree in which we feel.

Now, I think, the general public, and some sections of the media, have got themselves into a position where no newspaper or news station wants to be the first one to take an item off the lead.

For example, simply to make a comparison, and not saying one family is right and one family is wrong, but we had the situation where a hostage died in a graphic and horrible way, and his family had to bear the trauma of waiting weeks before knowing what was happening, and this story has had huge coverage before and after.

And this week a UK civilian, also choosing to earn his or her living in Iraq, was shot dead and it has barely got a mention. Mainly it is not a media circus because the family have chosen not to go public.

But there is no outpouring of national grief for him or her.

I do think, that in general terms, The Spectator had a point, not about Liverpool liking its victim status, but about our nation becoming obsessed with public grief.

Posted by: axisofliberty

I don't think there was an over reaction to ken bigley's death... but the point of mawkish hysterical grief is valid... it did start at the death of diana... and most of that grief was fake posturing by emotional drama queens who like a good cry because it tells us how "good" they are...

Posted by: jackybelle

It seems a once a year out-pouring is necessary to sell papers. I much prefer the stiff upper lip... reserve and loathe all this hysteria... but emotion is easier to manipulate...

Posted by: niconoclast

There seems to be a British tradition that if a politician speaks the truth he must do the decent thing and resign. We elect liars and we expect them to deliver. Occasionally a politican seeks to rebel and actually tell it straight. This is an unforgiveable transgression and punishment will be swift.

Expect a penitent Boris grovelling on hands and knees in Liverpool restoring the British people's confidence in our twin virtues of cant and humbug.

Posted by: ramblemania

I think one point everyone has missed is that it suits Michael Howard very well to see Boris Johnson grovel.

Howard knows that there is a growing feeling in the Tory party that Johnson can out-Blair Blair, by being younger, better looking and appealling to the female vote.

So Howard and Johnsons' enemies in the Tory party are quite happy to see Boris in the mire - but so are New Labour.

Posted by: alicemb

The Spectator's view on Hillsborough was similar to that of Brian Clough at the time of the incident. And many more football followers also had the same opinion that Liverpool fans' own behaviour had a part to play in what happened - so the whole article is no new revelation to many of us.

As for Liverpool fan Michael Howard - what's HE got against free speech. I can't see him picking up too many votes in Liverpool anyway.

But I thought the other week he was ranting on about the stupidity of political correctness - seems like he's changed his tune and wants only sheep under his leadership.

What the British people should be demanding is more free speech from politicians - then we'd give them a bit of respect and vote for them.

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