Friday 5 March, 2021

Bob Satchwell RIP

It’s been one of those weeks. Bob Satchwell, another old friend, has died. In one way he was the archetype of the old-style British hack, schooled in the ways of ‘Fleet Street’, when that was a synonym for Britain’s print newspapers and not much had changed since Evelyn Waugh wrote Scoop. He had even been Deputy Editor of the News of the World in its heyday and, believe me, you can’t get more downmarket than that. And he had the bluff, boisterous style to go with it.

It was all on the surface, though. Beneath that hard carapace was a shrewd, intelligent, thoughtful and very nice man. He had been a student at LSE in the heyday of the student revolution. And he had in his time been a gifted and determined investigative journalist: his reporting as a youthful hack on a provincial paper, for example, brought down a corrupt Chief Constable in the north of England. Not quite Watergate, perhaps, but still a hell of an achievement in a society where Establishment villains are hard to unseat.

I got to know him when he was Editor of the local paper, the Cambridge Evening News. He became a great supporter of the Press Fellowship Programme that I run at my college (Wolfson) and eventually became a Senior Member of the college. I used to be puzzled by the fact that many of our overseas Press Fellows seemed to have an inordinately high opinion of British journalism and eventually twigged that it was because none of them ever read the tabloids. And so from then on, one anchor-point of the Programme was a breakfast seminar to which I brought all the newspapers of the day and Bob conducted a bravura analysis of the content and the machinations that underpinned it. The Press Fellows were simultaneously charmed by him and appalled by what they were learning about the realities of the British media landscape.

He and I argued all the time about those newspapers. As Director of the Society of Editors, the association of 400-odd British editors, he became the public advocate for the right of newspapers of whatever stripe to print whatever they wanted within the laws of libel and public order. He was also a fierce opponent of judges and lawyers who thought that injunctions were a legitimate weapon to use against inquisitive reporters. He had a Menckenian disdain for politicians of all parties, and always laughed when I accused him of defending the indefensible. And yet, however fierce our disagreements, we were good friends because we both respected what the other was trying to do. And he was terrific, rumbustious company, not least because he enjoyed a drink or three. May he rest in peace.

Quote of the Day

”I’m all for bringing back the birch. But only between consenting adults.”

  • Gore Vidal

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Salieri: La Fiera di Venezia | Act 3 – Vi sono sposa e amante | Cecilia Bartoli · |Rachel Brown


I’ve always thought that Salieri was given a bum deal by Peter Shafer.

Long Read of the Day

Death is a feature, not a bug

This is Doc Searls’s astonishingly vivid meditation on the planetary impact of our species. He sent me the link after he read my rant the other day about billionaires wanting to colonise Mars rather than sort out the problems of planet earth.

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars. This is a very human thing to want. But before we start following his lead, we might want to ask whether death awaits us there. Not our deaths. Anything’s. What died there to make life possible for what succeeds it? From what we can tell so far, the answer is nothing. To explain why life needs death, answer this: what do plastic, wood, limestone, paint, travertine, marble, asphalt, oil, coal, stalactites, peat, stalagmites, cotton, wool, chert, cement, nearly all food, all gas, and most electric services have in common? They are all products of death. They are remains of living things, or made from them.

It’s a sobering piece, written in 2018. Here’s the payoff line:

But why fuck up Mars before we’re done fucking up Earth, when there’s still some leverage with the death we have at home and that Mars won’t begin to have until stuff dies on it?

Like I said, sobering.

The legal SWAT team that prepared for anything Trump & Co might throw at democracy

An absolutely riveting New Yorker piece by Jane Meyer about Seth Waxman and two other former former Solicitors General of the United States who teamed up to anticipate — and combat — the worst that could happen before, during and after the Presidential election. They only thing they didn’t anticipate was the ‘insurrection’ of January 6.

Night after night, Waxman tabulated every possible thing that could go wrong. Having advised several Democratic Presidential campaigns, he was familiar with the pitfalls. But none of the nightmares conjured by Trump “corresponded with anything I’d worried about in earlier campaigns,” he said. He ended up with a three-and-a-half-page single-spaced list of potential catastrophes.

Eleven months before the Senate impeachment trial exposed an unprecedented level of political savagery, Waxman quietly prepared for the worst. He reached out to two other former Solicitors General, Walter Dellinger and Donald Verrilli, who served as the Clinton and the Obama Administrations’ advocates, respectively, before the Supreme Court. By April, they had formed a small swat team to coördinate with the Biden campaign. They called themselves the Three Amigos, but the campaign referred to them as SG3. Their goal: safeguarding the election.

The squads of lawyers the trio had assembled “produced thousands of pages of legal analysis, and what I call ‘template pleadings,’ ” in preparation for every conceivable kind of breakdown in the democratic system. “Some of these scenarios were beyond unlikely, such as federal marshals seizing ballot boxes, and federal troops at polling places. But we had to game out what someone of Trump’s ruthlessness and lack of concern for the law would do.”

Even before the Capitol riot, the group had prepared Supreme Court pleadings in case Trump strong-armed Vice-President Mike Pence into rejecting the certification of the Electoral College votes. “We were fully prepared to go to the Supreme Court by nightfall,” Dellinger said by phone from North Carolina, where he teaches at Duke Law School. “We had paper filed and ready.”

And Waxman’s reflections now?

“The lesson we learned, is that the state of our democracy is perilous—even more so than we thought. I am very, very worried.”

He’s right to be. See the post below.

The Facts of Life

Remarkable column by William Kristol, normally the most conservative you could meet in a month of Sundays. He has come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has basically given up on democracy.

When Margaret Thatcher commented that “the facts of life are conservative,” she wasn’t adding “the facts of life” to a list of arguments for conservatism. She was saying she was conservative because the facts of life are what they are.

And one of those facts of life is that a dangerous, anti-democratic faction—which pretty clearly constitutes a majority—of the nation’s conservative party is not committed in any serious way to the truth, the rule of law, or the basic foundations of our liberal democracy.

My only question is: what took him so long?

Many thanks to Hamid, who alerted me to the piece.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • A murmuration of starlings briefly create the image of a giant bird. Yes, you read that correctly. According to a reputable dictionary a murmuration is “starlings returning to their winter roost in a swirl after feeding”. The video is extraordinary. Link

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