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18th Aug 2018

Paddy Cosgrave’s muddle over Marine Le Pen demonstrates that the old ways don’t work anymore

Dion Fanning

Reluctantly, Paddy Cosgrave had to admit defeat in his attempt to change the world one guest speaker at a time this week, but the struggle will surely continue.  

“Web Summit is a place where people should be prepared to have their opinions deeply challenged, and in turn to deeply challenge the opinions of others,” Cosgrave said when he initially defended Marine Le Pen’s invitation to Web Summit, contrasting it with the ‘very easy’ option of not inviting her. 

Shortly afterwards, he was acknowledging that the right thing for Web Summit to do was to uninvite Le Pen, disappointing all those who were hoping that the rise of fascism was going to come to a halt once and for all when Le Pen’s views were interrogated on stage at Web Summit by an app developer. 

“These speakers are not invited to deliver an uncontested address, but are instead invited to have their views thoroughly challenged and scrutinised by a professional journalist,” Cosgrave’s initial explanation stated. 

“Moreover they sit on a panel, surrounded by authoritative and alternative voices who will openly contest the extreme viewpoints of these speakers. This has always been the case, and will be the case with Marine Le Pen,”. It was the right decision then but shortly after “the correct decision” was to rescind her invitation. 

Cosgrave had considered the advice he’d received and “the large reaction online overnight” and concluded that it was “disrespectful” to many to have Le Pen on the bill, something that maybe shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him. 

There were many who felt, of course, that it was another blow for freedom of speech. Yes, it is true that Marine Le Pen will have to struggle on regardless and find a way to get her message across, even if she has to resort to tweeting her two million followers because she is no longer appearing at a tech conference. 

Those who become increasingly fearful about the threat to freedom of speech seem to think there should be no freedom to object. If Marine Le Pen is on the bill, you should not be free to say this is a bad idea or ask what Paddy Cosgrave is thinking. Cosgrave was free to keep Marine Le Pen on the bill and anybody else was free to think he was a bit of pillock for getting himself into this mess. 

Cosgrave – like Jack Dorsey when he called on journalists to expose those who are lying on Twitter – made his respect for journalists clear in his statement, trusting them to expose Le Pen’s views for what they are and making it clear that he, too, considered her “wrongheaded”. 

Professional journalists, however, have their own struggles without doing Cosgrave or Dorsey’s work for them.

But it’s hard to know what benefit comes from challenging someone like Le Pen or Trump, as if the game is still being played by the old rules when in fact it’s a brand new game. 

When Boris Johnson emerged with a tray of tea for reporters last weekend, with every step, he appeared to move closer to reclaiming his position in British politics as the seagull who lands on Wimbledon centre court and won’t fly away. 

For many years, Johnson maintained this position in English life. “Boris Johnson’s speech at Tory Party conference is the one perennial delight that everyone can enjoy,” The Mirror said in 2015 and it seemed then that those Indian summer days would never end. 

He was among that vast collection of unfunny things that people found funny, a list which begins with nearly every joke made at the theatre and peaks with Wimbledon, especially if, say, a bird happens to land on centre court. 

Like the seagull, Johnson is initially treated as an hilarity, one of the funniest things all those present have ever seen. 

Sometimes the seagull flies away and the crowd dry their eyes before reluctantly returning to watch the action, even if they will never forget that seagull and the good times he brought them. Sometimes, however, the seagull won’t budge and while the laughter remains, it dims a little as it becomes apparent that this immovable figure is not a benevolent joker, but a heartless scavenger who will take what it wants from whoever has it before moving on to its next target. 

Cast in the role of the Wimbledon crowd who will laugh at anything -the unfunnier the better – was, unfortunately, the media as represented by those who were presented with tea outside Johnson’s house. 

In this moment, we could see how thoroughly challenging and scrutinising can be more difficult than you’d imagine, especially when presented with a cup of tea.

It was another testing moment for the media as they attempt to work out the correct position in these anarchic times: what should they do when the US president lies to them or when his press secretary backs up those lies? Should they thoroughly challenge and scrutinise the lies or should they walk out? If they object when he calls the media the enemy of the people should they also object when he disparages the more vulnerable? Or can they simply counter all this delinquency with a stirring speech about the values of the republic, mr president, and how he is jeopardising those values with his behaviour. 

In Britain, they have similar issues and maybe it was appropriate for a country which is determined to become a parody of itself that the latest battleground was a tray of tea. 

We should walk a mile in the shoes of anyone before judging them, even if walking a mile in many journalists’ shoes would essentially mean waiting around in their shoes. Who knows how any of us would have reacted if Johnson emerged with tea at the end of a long day, but it would be nice to think the reaction would be, ‘Why is this lying bastard trying to palm us off with some fucking tea?’ 

But the media were playing their part in the pantomime, reacting as they always have to Johnson, most notably when they gathered outside his house to hear him announce he would be backing Leave before the referendum in 2016. 

“The commentariat, and almost no one else, has been waiting excitedly for Boris Johnson to show his colours in Britain’s upcoming EU referendum,” was the Economist’s reaction as they reported on that giddy day. 

Many of that constituency would presumably have seen nothing wrong with his ‘letterbox’ joke about the burka, viewing it as the kind of harmless banter that passes the time in the golf club on a Sunday, a safe space for them to say the kind of things you can’t say these days, even as they say them. 

Of course, Johnson’s tea delivery was an act as one journalist who missed out on it confirmed when he pointed out that when he shouted a question to Johnson through a fence and Johnson’s tennis partner swore at him for antagonising the great man on his private land.

In those moments, we glimpse the truth and it always comes when someone breaks away. When the game, which is always played on their terms, is ignored there is a chance at countering the bullshit. Any attempt to pretend differently, or act as if the rules of engagement are the same, is doomed to fail. You might have noticed, it has already failed.  


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