Ben Walker writes that ‘top-flight football’ is returning to the BBC for the first time since 1992 (LRB, 18 June). The Premier League’s first season began in 1992, but the BBC had lost the rights to show live league football four years earlier, in 1988. That year, British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB), which was about to launch, secured the support of 91 of the 92 football league clubs for its exclusive bid, but its failure to sign Liverpool left a gap for ITV to exploit. I was director of programmes at Thames Television at the time, and the chair of the ITV network finance group. Greg Dyke – my counterpart at London Weekend Television and the chair of the ITV network sports group – and I first had to fend off the BBC’s proposal that we stick with the joint approach which had prevailed for some years.
In the event the BBC couldn’t afford its half of a bid to compete with BSB’s offer. At a meeting at Villa Park with all the clubs, I offered to match BSB’s £11 million a year bid (a fourfold increase on the going rate), in a deal that would be underwritten by ITV’s shareholders. I invited the clubs to ask BSB whether its shareholders (which happened to include Granada TV, part of the ITV network) would guarantee a four-year deal. Realising this would not happen, they all agreed to accept ITV’s offer.
Soon afterwards, Greg and I were visited at his LWT offices by Richard Branson, who was a shareholder in BSB. He suggested a match-sharing pact, to avoid a renewed bidding war. Greg and I concluded that BSB was unlikely to make a higher bid, and declined his proposal. Soon afterwards, Branson sold his shares in BSB. No further bid was made.
Four years later, in 1992, ITV failed to match the offer (again, a fourfold increase) from BSkyB, the company formed by merging BSB and Sky Television, for coverage of the Premier League. Thames TV having lost its licence, I was not involved in ITV’s strategic planning, though BSkyB’s boss, Sam Chisholm, did consult me. If asked, I would have told ITV that the value of winning the rights wasn’t the advertising revenue they would generate, but the strategic opportunity they represented for a subscription business yet to turn a profit. A crucial element in the negotiation was the BBC’s decision to back BSkyB, in order to recapture Match of the Day highlights (and take its revenge on ITV for the betrayal in 1988). This gave the Premier League confidence that the audience for its product would not be limited to the owners of satellite dishes.
Once BSkyB had established itself as a formidable competitor for sports rights, the BBC changed tactics, campaigning for key sporting events to be ‘protected’ from capture by satellite operators. The idea of listed events – including Wimbledon, the Olympics, the football World Cup and domestic test match cricket – was enthusiastically endorsed by the prime minister, John Major, and duly enshrined in legislation. That the BBC might lose test cricket to a terrestrial rival – Channel 4 – had not been anticipated.
By the time it became clear that Channel 4 couldn’t afford to maintain its coverage, the BBC had lost interest (live test cricket, spread over five days and subject to unpredictable weather delays, was a high-risk proposition for terrestrial channels). Test cricket was demoted to a lower-listed category, requiring only that highlights be available on a terrestrial outlet. Sky took over, and has provided exemplary coverage. It will only be when a new format of just two hundred balls for an entire match is introduced that cricket will return to the BBC.
No one reading Thomas Laqueur’s review of my book Learning from the Germans would suspect that I addressed every one of his objections with arguments based on years of research (LRB, 18 June). Indeed, the book was written to challenge familiar views such as his. He may, of course, disagree with those arguments, but it is misleading to write as if they did not exist. Here are the most significant.
I regret that Laqueur’s friends and relations received such miserly reparations payments from the Germans. They were not alone. As my chapter on reparations states, the payments were ‘stingy’ and the procedures for attaining them ‘stone-hearted’. In this, as in other aspects of postwar German history, Learning from the Germans does not idealise Germany, as Laqueur intimates. On the contrary: whole chapters are devoted to showing how slow it was to acknowledge guilt, and how unpopular was the payment of any reparations at all. Germany did, however, set precedents from which other nations can learn – as well as learning from its mistakes.
Laqueur dismisses my claim that East Germany did a better job than West Germany in facing the Nazi past. It would have been relevant to examine (or at least to mention!) the evidence I offered: numbers of former Nazis put on trial, numbers convicted and imprisoned, numbers of former Nazis forbidden to work in state jobs, numbers of school lesson plans revised. In addition to quantitative data I conducted many interviews with former citizens of the GDR, most of whom were once dissidents. While they criticised various elements of the GDR system, often at personal risk, all experienced its anti-fascism as important and genuine.
Laqueur acknowledges that the GDR was anti-fascist, but claims it ignored the Holocaust. This charge is so common that Learning from the Germans examines it at length. In fact, more than a thousand books, and as many films, about the Holocaust were produced and widely viewed there at a time when the subject was taboo in West Germany. It is true that the GDR – unlike many states to this day – also acknowledged other Nazi crimes. It is not trivialising the Holocaust to recall that Nazi troops slaughtered 14 million Slavic civilians in the East.
Laqueur asserts that I neglect the work of historians of the American Civil War, writing that the infamous Dunning School ‘was on the wane by the late 1930s’. My interest, as the book often repeated, was less in the work of historians than in the public understanding of history that often ignores them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote during the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, ‘whether she knows it or not, is retelling a racist – though popular – version of American history which held sway in this country until relatively recently … sometimes going under the handle of the Dunning School.’
Laqueur calls it ‘far-fetched’ to think a better understanding of the Civil War would affect American racism, and enumerates many racist policies and practices that continued long after the war. No reader of his review could guess that most of my book was not about the Civil War itself, but about the ways in which white supremacy was written into law for nearly a hundred years after the war ended. It is this gap in historical memory which is just beginning to be filled.
Perhaps Laqueur’s real animus is revealed in his insistence that the German-Jewish epoch ended with Hitler’s election. This would be news to those who have made Berlin’s Jewish community the fastest growing in Europe.
Wiedergutmachung, the German word for ‘reparations’, translates literally as ‘making good again’. It is the cornerstone of what is regarded as Germany’s exemplary attitude towards the Holocaust, its admirable willingness to embrace its responsibilities vis-à-vis the past. Recently, it has been suggested that the UK and the US could learn a thing or two from this approach: replacing, as it were, the nationalist rhetoric of ‘making the nation great again’ with the more edifying ‘making good again’.
In reality, as Thomas Laqueur argues, rather than signifying a genuine coming to terms with historical wrongs, Wiedergutmachung is really just a subtle exercise in public relations. As he points out, the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, a fund for reparations to those persecuted by the Nazi regime, ‘wasn’t so much part of “working through the past” as an attempt to “protect the brand” – the sort of thing a company does when confronted with an embarrassing or damaging incident’.
However, much as I agree with Laqueur that Germany is undeserving of its status as a moral compass for reckoning with the legacy of slavery in the US, he fails to grasp fully the racist logic of the German brand, the logic that consists not only in the soft power of Wiedergutmachung, but in the erasure of Germany’s colonial past as a history that calls for moral reckoning too. ‘The crimes Germany remembers and atones for represent a small part of its national history,’ Laqueur writes. ‘The Nazi period is brief and circumscribed.’ This is to state as historical fact what is already the product of successful German branding: that Nazism is a historical aberration, rather than the German normal.
Instead, colonial German racism, was, in many ways, a condition of possibility for the Nazi regime, the historical experience in which its biopolitical aims and ideologies were formed. For example, the Nazi eugenicist Eugen Fischer conducted his first experiments on ‘racial mixing’ in concentration camps for the Herero in colonial Namibia. German social anthropologists developed their Social Darwinist theories in order to declare the superiority of the ‘white race’ to black and other colonised people. To portray the Nazi period as ‘brief’ and ‘circumscribed’ in order to emphasise the comparative longevity of US slavery is to erase the ways they are connected, over time, by shared ideologies of white supremacy, eugenicist racism and the colonial exploitation of racialised populations.
Germany may not have many statues dedicated to the leaders of the Third Reich, but like other colonising nations, it continues to showcase its imperial exploits proudly – most recently through the initiative to erect a museum complex, the Humboldt Forum, in a reconstructed imperial palace in Berlin. If there is anything that other Western nations can learn from Germany, it is not how to do Wiedergutmachung for racist crimes, but that building an imperial hall of fame named after a known colonialist is precisely not the way to do it.
SOAS, University of London
Thomas Laqueur mentions the German Stolpersteine, ‘brass bricks set in the pavement just high enough to cause the passer-by to stumble, stop and read the name of a murdered victim of the Holocaust who lived in a nearby building’. It’s worth noting that these installations are not a state-sponsored commemoration. The initiative was conceived by Cologne-based artist, Gunter Demnig, and began with 31 brass plaques being fixed illegally to Berlin’s pavements. Some 75,000 have now been placed in more than twenty European countries. The project remains controversial even among Jewish groups – Munich still refuses to permit them – and Demnig has received death threats from neo-Nazis.
John Lanchester nominates Maigret Meets a Milord as ‘a serious candidate for the worst translated title ever’ (LRB, 4 June). As he will know, this is a prize for which there is fierce competition. French cinema has furnished at least two candidates, though its Anglophone distributors must carry the blame. François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups has spent its life outside France with the meaningless title The Four Hundred Blows. More recently, Claude Barras’s Ma vie de Courgette – the touching story of a small boy orphaned when he accidentally causes the death of his mother, whose pet name for him was Courgette – has been distributed as My Life as a Courgette (or, in the US, My Life as a Zucchini).
It would not have taken a genius to come up with ‘Big Trouble’ or ‘Up to No Good’ (which is roughly what ‘faire les quatre cents coups’ signifies) for Truffaut’s film, and with almost anything other than My Life as a Courgette for Barras’s, even if it was only to drop the indefinite article.
John Lanchester’s observation about Simenon’s amazing work rate reminds me of Deirdre Bair’s story of Hitchcock telephoning Simenon at his home in Switzerland, only to be told by his secretary that the writer couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, aware of Simenon’s prodigiousness, replied: ‘That’s all right, I’ll wait.’
Patrick Cockburn mentions Salk’s discovery of a vaccine against polio in 1954 (LRB, 7 May). The massive human trials carried out to test the vaccine also turned out to be a classic case study in ‘randomised assignment’. This is the practice of first defining your group of experimental subjects and then randomly dividing them into ‘treatment’ and ‘control’. In this case everyone agreed that vaccinated children must be compared to controls. But who should be in these groups? Parental consent was needed for the vaccination of children. One proposal was to vaccinate the second-graders who had consent and compare them to those who didn’t. Another was to divide second-graders with consent randomly between vaccinated and unvaccinated, and record those without consent separately.
The main trial used the second method. The results (number of ‘consent’ kids per 100,000 who got polio later) were: 28 of the vaccinated kids, 71 of the unvaccinated. But for children without consent, who were unvaccinated, the figure was 46. About 550,000 kids were tallied: the differences were not a matter of chance. What accounts for the difference between the unvaccinated groups?
The consensus at the time is supported by Cockburn’s memoir. Polio was an old disease: most children got it before the age of four, still protected by their mothers’ antibodies, and became immune. From the late 1800s, those with access to clean water and better sanitation skipped this step, but could become infected later, with far worse results. Poorer people maintained the old pattern – and as parents, they were more likely to refuse consent for the trial. Hence the fraction of immune kids among the ‘refuse’ group was larger than among the ‘random-control’ group.
Santa Barbara, California
Diane Vaughan correctly identifies the Sabin vaccine as the oral version of polio vaccine (OPV), typically administered on a sugar-cube (Letters, 18 June). However, it isn’t the sweetness of sugar that should be credited with the preference for OPV. To quote a paper in the Journal of Infectious Diseases from 2014, ‘it induces superior mucosal immunity, is easier to administer, and is more affordable (approximately $0.15/dose)’. Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), by comparison, requires an injection and costs $1.68 per dose plus the cost of the syringe and its safe disposal ($0.05). Having spent many years working with the WHO developing safe injection policies, I know that the safe administration of vaccines is a major challenge. But ultimately, because of the risks from OPV of vaccine-induced polio, IPV will have to be used if the disease is to be fully eradicated.
Adam Shatz uses James Baldwin’s phrase ‘guilty eroticism’ in connection with ‘spectacles of white contrition’ in America (LRB, 18 June). For me the phrase brings to mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson on 1 August 1844, in an address on the subject of Emancipation in the British West Indies:
We sometimes say, the planter does not want slaves, he only wants the immunities and the luxuries which the slaves yield him; give him money, give him a machine that will yield him as much money as the slaves, and he will thankfully let them go. He has no love of slavery, he wants luxury, and he will pay even this price of crime and danger for it. But I think experience does not warrant this favourable distinction, but shows the existence, beside the covetousness, of a bitterer element, the love of power, the voluptuousness of holding a human being in his absolute control.
Can anyone watch the film of the death of George Floyd without seeing the voluptousness in Officer Chauvin’s mien? What’s going on in the US is far more than a semi-insurrection related only to racism and police brutality. It stems, after all, from the fact that millions of men and women in America were once property.
Eliot Weinberger lists ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ as one of the slogans on signs held up at US state capitols during the anti-lockdown protests (LRB, 4 June). The image of this sign that appeared most often in the media featured a comma after ‘Frei’ followed by the initials ‘J.B.’. This refers to J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, who had refused to end the state’s lockdown. Pritzker is Jewish. A reporter asked one woman holding this sign what she thought of its antisemitic message. ‘I have several Jewish friends,’ she said. The sign next to this one featured a swastika and the phrase ‘Heil Pritzker.’
I am 85. I believe that the majority of people under fifty in the US neither understand the significance of the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ nor (in my monolingual country) what it means literally. Few in the younger generations will ever have seen photographs of the phrase spelled out in metal, silhouetted against the sky and mounted above the gates of several concentration camps including, most famously, Auschwitz.
Steven Shapin writes that ‘it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the modern story about malaria emerged’ (LRB, 4 June). That may be when it became widely understood that mosquitoes rather than nebulous miasmas were the active agent in many illnesses, but some individuals had made the connection much earlier. In 1853, Louis Daniel Beauperthuy, a French-trained doctor and naturalist working in Cumana, Venezuela, witnessed a severe earthquake and tsunami, followed by outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever. Beauperthuy identified ‘a striped-legged mosquito’ (now Aedes aegypti) as the likeliest vector for his patients’ yellow fever. He went on to link paludisme, or malaria, to a different species of mosquito. Elephantiasis (filariasis) was common around the local marshes too, but he wasn’t certain which biting insect might be responsible.
Beauperthuy’s findings were recorded in journals, but never widely publicised. However, his work did have an impact locally. When Cumana was rebuilt after the earthquake, it proved difficult to drain the swamps, both the physical and the political kind. Beauperthuy instead recommended the widespread use of mosquito nets.
Jacqueline Rose and Neil Foxlee debate the significance of Tarrou’s critique of violence in Camus’s The Plague (Letters, 21 May). Rose rightly argues that Camus doesn’t just have communist revolutionary violence in mind, but state violence altogether, for Tarrou’s attitude can be traced to ‘the moment his father, as prosecuting attorney, condemned a criminal to death’.
There is perhaps a further context for Camus’s thinking in this respect. After the Liberation and before Gallimard published La Peste in 1947, the purges (‘épuration’) of collaborators began. Those who had committed treason by ‘intelligence with the enemy’ or who had perpetrated the new crime of bringing about ‘national indignity’ (‘dégradation nationale’) were prosecuted. Gisèle Sapiro, in La Responsabilité de l’écrivain (2011) records that 224 (3.5 per cent) of the accused were writers and artists, twice their proportion (1.7 per cent) in the total population. In January 1945, Robert Brasillach, the editor of the fascist periodicals Je suis partout and Révolution nationale, was tried for intelligence with the enemy and sentenced to death. A petition was mounted asking for clemency. Writers were divided between those who asked for mercy, the ‘indulgents’ (usually from the older generation, with elite origins), and those, the ‘intransigeants’, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who refused to sign. Camus was in the former category. This wasn’t because he was indulgent towards those writers who had ‘erred’: he fully accepted the severity of their crimes (Brasillach had denounced Jews, fully collaborated with the Nazis and issued incitements to the summary execution of Resistance fighters). Rather, Camus was opposed to capital punishment, which had been abolished in France between 1848 and 1939. In the event no grace was granted: Brassilach was executed on 6 February 1945.
I’m grateful to Alexander Wyndham Ashworth for filling in further details about the case of George Cony (Letters, 4 June). He illustrates the ticklish choice facing all the lawyers in the case after Cromwell’s high-handed intervention: whether to knuckle under to the Lord Protector or to do justice as they saw it and risk being sent to the Tower.
Did John Lambert lose his reason during his 22 years in captivity, first on Guernsey and later on Drake’s Island in Plymouth Sound (then called St Nicholas Island)? Or did he just read his books and grow his tulips, as David Cressy says? Sir Charles Firth in the old Dictionary of National Biography follows Bishop Burnet’s report that by 1678 Lambert ‘had lost his memory and sense’ and so could not have been mixed up in the Popish Plot, as Titus Oates alleged. So does Austin Woolrych in Britain in Revolution (2002), and Richard Ollard in his Life of Pepys (in the last year of Lambert’s life, Pepys, an incurable celebrity hunter, visited him on Drake’s Island, referring to him as Lord Lambert, as he had been known in his glory days). But David Farr in the new DNB and in his Life of Lambert finds no evidence of dementia. On reflection, I prefer to believe that Farr and Cressy are right and that the most brilliant of republicans and the lead author of Britain’s only written constitution kept his marbles to the end, along with his loyalty to ‘the Good Old Cause’.
As for Jamie Jackson’s comment on my describing Charles I’s diligence as ‘almost Thatcheresque’, I can only say ‘Touché!’
As Patrick Cockburn suggests, Julian Assange faces an ordeal at the hands of the US justice system, and is entitled to resist his extradition (LRB, 18 June). However, like the Assange campaign itself, Cockburn glosses over much else. Assange committed a serious crime by breaching bail in connection with the investigation of suspected sexual offences. And the Mueller Report, on Russian interference in the last US election, exposes Wikileaks’s co-operation with Russian security surrogates and the Trump campaign. Assange’s own emails are quoted, revealing his personal intention to damage Hillary Clinton and favour Trump.
This brings to mind the role of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole in the Dreyfus Affair. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it may well have told the truth all or most of the time, but it did so selectively and as part of a campaign. ‘Free speech’ can be abused in many ways. ‘Exposing the truth’ is not the sole guarantee of journalistic integrity.
Doughty Street Chambers
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