To what extent should liberal, left-of-centre publications provide a platform for illiberal or reactionary opinions? It could be argued that it’s a fundamentally liberal strategy to offer a space in which differing points of view can be debated. And some might suggest that, when leftish social democracy is the governing orthodoxy, the radical press should encourage voices that challenge the status quo, even when that challenge comes from the right.
But even if we accept these arguments (and I’m not sure that I do), it’s one thing for a left-of-centre newspaper or magazine to spice up its pages with occasional pieces by writers who challenge its readers’ liberalism. It’s another to make those writers your commentators of choice, or to offer them regular, high-profile columns. And it’s something else again to select from among those right-of-centre, illiberally-inclined commentators the most cranky and reactionary voices. One of the reasons for my gradual falling out of love with the New Statesman was its decision to offer regular columns to the likes of Anne Widdicombe and Amanda Platell. As if these people don’t already get enough exposure in the Spectator, Telegraph and Daily Mail.
The past couple of days have provided further evidence of the Guardian’s apparent desire to turn itself from the voice of the liberal-left into a mouthpiece for reactionaries and crackpot conspiracy theorists. Who did they choose to comment on Kosovo’s independence yesterday? None other than John Laughland, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and apologist for Slobodan Milosevic who has also written warm words about Jean-Marie lePen, and who David Aaronovitch has accurately described as 'PR man to Europe's nastiest regimes'. And who was given pride of place today to reflect on the passing of Fidel Castro? Ignacio Ramonet, who co-wrote a book with the ex-dictator and whose column is the purest hagiography:‘He has a tremendous moral and ethical sense…passionate about the environment..a normal man, albeit one who is incredibly hard working’. Nothing here about Castro's undemocratic 49-year stranglehold on power or his regime's Stalinist repression of political dissent.
By consistently giving preferential treatment to illiberal, anti-democratic and reactionary voices in its comment pages, the Guardian has forfeited the right to be described as a liberal or left-of-centre newspaper. At the same time, its editorial strategy reflects a wider malaise in the contemporary British left, specifically a tendency to mistake knee-jerk opposition to America and supporting any movement that opposes the west, however reactionary and undemocratic, for genuine radicalism.