“Those who live by television shall die by television” observed the Independent’s resident sage Howard Jacobson last Saturday, as he surveyed the wreckage of David Starkey’s ill-advised exposition on Newsnight. The piece – Jacobson’s customary weekly column for the paper – was titled “Foolish vanity of a public intellectual”.
Perhaps it was because he wasn’t on the television that Jacobson equally foolishly followed Starkey into foot-in-mouth territory yesterday: his howler came in an interview given to Liz Hoggard for the Evening Standard. Here, Jacobson is given free rein as he rambles on about life in Soho, where he can walk to from there, and how you can never exhaust London.
Then the conversation turns to the recent rioting, and there is a promising start as Jacobson tells of a “renewed sense of community” emerging after the disturbances. But then he asks “How does one put this without sounding gross?” and you somehow know he is about to insert boot. Sure enough, he continues “it was terrific to see the Asian communities on telly and not have to think about terrorism”.
Er, what? Perhaps I’ve not been paying attention for the past few decades, but when I think “Asian communities”, the kind of descriptions that come to mind include warm, welcoming, hard working, often close knit, tolerant, self-reliant, and yes, invariably good neighbours. The only conclusion I can reach is that Howard Jacobson lives on a different planet.
Moreover, the thought does not appear to enter that he may have given significant offence, and in this he is not alone, and certainly not the first prominent media figure so to do. Last December, NPR sacked contributor Juan Williams after he had appeared with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) and started with “I mean, look Bill, I’m not a bigot”.
Williams then casually lobbed in his unpinned grenade: “But when I get on a plane ... if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think ... they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous”. He later stressed that he had not been talking about “all Muslims”, but by that time the grenade had already detonated.
Both Williams and Jacobson gave the impression that there was nothing exceptional in their remarks or stance. And that should concern a wider audience than that of the Independent or Fox: maybe we aren’t over prejudice as much as we would like to believe.