This is our truth, tell us yours
Nick Cohen is one of the most coherent opponents of the post-Leveson report proposals to regulate the press in a systematic fashion backed by legislation. He is also one of the most fluid, powerful writers of his generation, an articulate and powerful critic of all those he considers to be wrong, or badly informed, or who simply disagree with him.
Sadly, he rarely produces a deeper analysis or a manifesto of his own. He’s brilliant at excoriating those he believes to be beyond the pale, but less forthcoming with solutions or a route forward. In his heyday, the Blair years he was brilliant at highlighting the all pervasive fuckwittery that surrounded the anti-imperialist left and its preference for other people’s dictators so long as they were anti-American.
From another perspective however it’s easy to see Cohen as an attack dog for his brand of liberalism, lashing out at all and sundry and using his platform, privileged and published in ways mere mortals can only envy, with neither accountability nor care.
Sure enough, Cohen’s attack dog tendencies have led hm to label, by implication, adults whose sex lives he does not approve of, as paedophiles or apologists for them, with neither evidence not good reason.
It’s a good, but partial account of how Cyril Smith managed to escape prosecution for systematic and vile child abuse. It’s used to argue that state regulation of the press would prevent a future Cyril Smith from being exposed although Cohen, coherent as ever, but inconsistent to the end, never manages to explain how Smith escaped exposure in the unregulated press environment of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s hard not to conclude that Cohen is carried away by the force of his own arguments. That’s the only generous explanation of the following paragraph;
The temptation here is to say there is something creepy about the Liberal Party. It professes to be feminist, but has no women MPs in prominent positions. The sex scandals that hit it with such regularity suggest its “liberalism” is of the porny, readers’ wives, suburban swingers’ variety, where any restrictions on sexual conduct, including limits on the age of consent, are oppressive impositions by the “squares”.
I like porn. I like amateur porn of the kind that features in Readers Wives. I don’t mind swinging in the right company, whether suburban, urban or emphatically rural. To imply that that means that I am an apologist for paedophilia, in the way Cohen does, is abuse, the use of an accusation of an unacceptable thought crime to stigmatize me because Cohen doesn’t approve of my sex life.
I don’t need Nick Cohen’s approval for my sex life. My liberalism is broad enough to accept that, provided all involved give and are capable of giving informed consent, then there is no need for restrictions on sexual activity.
Nick Cohen, judging by the slapdash, bile flecked outraged paragraph, doesn’t agree, and he has the platform and the privilege that allows him to say that as part of an article arguing that, despite the fact that the unregulated press didn’t expose Cyril Smith, it should remain unregulated so that Cohen can carry on calling people he doesn’t approve of paedophiles or apologists for paedophilia.
One further point deserves to be made. If Cohen was more concerned with politics, and less concerned with making cheap debating points, he’d know that the Liberal party of 1960s and 1970s Rochdale had very little to do with the kind of Liberalism the modern LibDems espouse. The Orange Liberals of northern cities and industrial towns in the Wilson years had more in common with Ulster Unionism or the right wing Labourism of Bob Mellish than with the rural small town Liberalism of Jeremy Thorpe. Also, and Cohen is so busy being angry he can; entertain this thought, Smith was exactly the kind of man whose political track record would make him useless as an exemplar of the politics of whichever party he happened to be in at the time. Smith was a Liberal, then a Labour supporter, then a Liberal again, shifting parties when it suited him but never losing his commitment to right wing totems like anti abortionism and the death penalty. The Liberals of Rochdale could tolerate Smith precisely because he reflected what they thought; they were the last remnants of an anti Tory right wing populism that espoused free trade and a small-state that ruled with a firm hand and a craven reverence for power. (There’s probably a politics phD that deserves to be written about the rise in Liberals in local government and the associated decline in local Rent and Ratepayers parties.) There’s also a relevant point to be made there about Nick Clegg and modern-day Liberal Democrats that Cohen misses because he’s so busy lashing about him at all those who dare to disagree with him that he hasn’t room for it. Which is a shame, because Cohen’s talent deserves a purpose beyond whatever annoys Nick Cohen this week, just as our press deserves a better system of accountability than Cohen, and his colleagues, telling us that they should not be called to account for the things they write, or, in the case of criminals like Smith, Saville and Hall, the things that they didn’t write.