Even as the Brexit debate continues to rage, there are some out there who have forgotten what happened not long before the vote: Labour MP Jo Cox was not just attacked, she was targeted and assassinated by a Britain First supporter called Thomas Mair. This act of far-right terrorism was denied by many in the apparently respectable part of the media establishment with suggestions of “lone wolf”, or “mental health issues”.
Mair was fit to plead, was sent down for life, and given a whole life sentence. There was nothing wrong with Thomas Mair. But there is everything wrong with a newspaper whipping up incitement in the same way that caused Mair to go out and kill, knowing what went before. And that paper is the increasingly desperate and downmarket Telegraph, which is now pushing the suggestion that Theresa May is guilty of “treason”.
The Tel was, within living memory, a proud paper of record. That all changed when the Barclay Brothers took over and brought in the likes of Tony Gallagher. Since then, it has become a downmarket version of the Express, its substance hollowed out and is now trading almost exclusively on its reputation. So when its Twitter feed proffered “Is Theresa May guilty of treason? Plenty of readers think so. Politicians would be wise to listen up”. the condemnation was swift, overwhelming, and deservedly so.
Former Kosovar foreign minister Petrit Selimi mused “I see British papers start throwing around [the] word ‘treason’ carelessly. That didn't end all too well in [the] Balkans”. Toby Harnden was surprised. “Blimey. @Telegraph suggesting a Prime Minister - and a Conservative one - might be guilty of treason” (Harnden spent several years at the Tel).
Mic Wright was repulsed. “I don’t like Theresa May … What I don’t like even more is the casual use of the word ‘treason’ by papers like The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. It’s further poisoning an already vile political culture”. And Robert Harris had a characteristic teachable moment from 1963: “The flyer distributed in Dallas just before Kennedy was shot. Never accuse a leader of treason. Shameful Telegraph”.
Labour MP Lisa Nandy was aghast. “Treason?? Seriously @Telegraph, a trial is currently taking place about the attempted murder of an MP. Whatever you think about Brexit, this tweet is dangerous and irresponsible and you should delete it”. But Arron Banks’ batshit Westmonster site loved it. “FURY: Telegraph readers angry with Theresa May, accusations of treason … Not since the summer of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 has such an angry invasion force taken the Letters page by storm”. There was more.
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas remembered all too well what had happened two years ago. “Utterly deplore this shockingly irresponsible tweet by @Telegraph. May is incompetent, untrustworthy & reckless, but that is not ‘treason’. Editors need to remember that it is just two years since an MP was murdered, and that many receive regular death threats. Just grow up”. Andrew Marr, himself a former editor of an upmarket title, simply added “I’m with Caroline”. And, in any case, what defines “treason”?
Nick Denys had the answer. “The Treason Act (1351) defines treason as being: Murdering the sovereign, Violating the sovereign's wife or daughter, Levying war against the sovereign, Giving the sovereign's enemies aid and comfort. So I'm going with ‘no’”. As for the shameful behaviour of the Telegraph, James O’Brien had something to say.
“My late father left school at 15 & worked his way from weekly to daily regional newspapers before getting on to the Telegraph staff in 1975 when I was three. It’s going to be hard to explain to my children why that was such a proud achievement. Bill Deedes would be disgusted too”. Dead right he would have been.
Many - probably most - of those who pass for Telegraph journalists nowadays would not, in Deedes’ time, have been allowed through the door. Now we know that an allegedly mainstream and responsible newspaper wants Brexit to have a body count.