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March 13, 2006

Mark Steyn: Banned in Britain?

Via Instapundit, Little Green Footballs and Tim Blair, a story about Mark Steyn no longer writing in the UK press, specifically the Telegraph and The Spectator.

LGF says that it’s:

And there’s very little doubt that it’s because of his clear-headed, uncompromising writing about Islam.

Even Glenn asks if he’s "Banned in Britain".

Err, no. There was a column from a month or two ago which I can’t find right now in which he announced that he was working out his notice. But the interesting question is why? Try this from way back:

Apropos this newspaper, the Barclay brothers have agreed to buy Conrad Black's controlling stake in Hollinger Inc. I don't see why buying the Canadian parent company of the American parent company of the Telegraph should fall within the remit of a British government agency. But as it stands, it could be months before I find out whether it's worth me kissing up to these Barclay guys.

The Telegraph and Spectator were both owned by Conrad Black via Hollinger. Mark Steyn has long been associated with, almost a protege of, Conrad Black. Yes, indeed he is all of the things attributed to him, a lively writer, fun to read, both informative and outrageous in equal measures. An excellent freelance columnist in fact. And very much a star of the Hollinger empire, his pieces in appearing in a number of Hollinger owned papers around the world.

But he was also very closely connected with the ancien regime at Hollinger. The non-appearance of his column is nothing to do with him being banned, nor to do with his attitude to or reporting of Islam.

It’s about the change of ownership of the specific outlets he used to write for. Or, perhaps, if you prefer, that since January 2004 when he wrote the above quote, he didn’t in fact suck up to the Barclay brothers enough.

March 13, 2006 in Media | Permalink


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Just because Steyn was a Conrad Black protege doesn't necessarily mean this is the whole explanation for him not being kept on under the new management. I still suspect it has something to do with his robust political views in our current over sensitive climate. Whatever - I sure miss his columns.

Posted by: Oscar | Mar 13, 2006 11:59:49 AM

But Steyn wasn't the only Spectator columnist who has said some quite unpleasant things about Islam: Rod Liddle has done the same, I think Boris Johnson has also been there. And the Spec is not the kind of publication to worry about these things - nor, I suspect, is its readership the kind that would expect it to.

This sounds to me to be just another example of the dangers of viewing a country 3,000 miles away through the prism of your own country's politics.

Posted by: jonn | Mar 13, 2006 12:11:54 PM

If I were the new editor of the Sunday Telegraph, I'd consider trying to get Steyn on a monthly contract at least. Might be a good way to reel in the disgruntled readers who fled during the ST's recent bount of insanity.

As an aside I thought this week's copy was already a vast improvement compared to the previous, vapid effort.

Posted by: Andrew Paterson | Mar 13, 2006 1:50:29 PM

"This sounds to me to be just another example of the dangers of viewing a country 3,000 miles away through the prism of your own country's politics."

John - I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this (or indeed if it's a comment directed at mine). For the record I'm English and live in England. True lots of Speccie writers slag off Islam - but that was under Boris' editorship and the editorial tone is distinctly different now. Besides no-one goes for the jugular in quite the same incisive, funny style that Steyn does it.

Posted by: Oscar | Mar 13, 2006 1:56:33 PM

There's not much evidence disgruntled readers fled. Sales were down year-on-year in February 0.44%, much better than the S.Times and no worse than when Sands took over (probably better, but month on month comparisions are very hard to make accurately).

Posted by: Matthew | Mar 13, 2006 2:01:43 PM

Odd Matthew. I can only assume that such a rapid firing was the result of actions which were badly effecting the bottom line of the newspaper in some way or form, which would most likely be sales.

Posted by: Andrew Paterson | Mar 13, 2006 2:53:57 PM

At the very least, it's a case of taking a kernel of commentary and turning into a blossoming tree of wrongheadedness.

LGF, no surprise, takes Shriver's initial uncertainty and firms it up into an entirely decontextualised untruth. Note: the company has jettisoned its notoriously conservative Canadian boss (and his notoriously conservative Canadian wife) and had a much wider editorial change of late. There's a logic in continuing this changing of the guard, which should surprise nobody that it includes dumping syndication of a notoriously conservative Canadian protege of the previous boss.

British papers aren't usually too worried about carrying material that may offend - just look in the Mail or the Sun and you'll see plenty that makes Steyn look pedestrian. It's his connections, not his output, that is the problem (after all, he is a fine and funny writer, which is what most editors like).

Tim adds: Barbara Amiel? Canadian? Well, looking it up, yes, maybe. Born in Watford, went over as a teenager.

Posted by: Bobbie | Mar 13, 2006 3:09:25 PM

(Apols if this turns up twice, the last version seems to have gone missing)

"John - I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this (or indeed if it's a comment directed at mine). For the record I'm English and live in England."

Sorry, wasn't referring to you but to the American bloggers cited above. I meant that in my experience it's difficult to understand the political situation on the other side of the Atlantic purely on the basis of media reports. (Look at the continuing failure of most European commentators to understand how Bush ever won a second term.)

I can't see a good British columnist being sacked for raising questions about Islam, particularly not from rightwing publications like the Spec. The Express sacked Kilroy-Silk, but only for a column that was little more than racist. Steyn's ideas may be lively, but they are neither as inflammatory nor as brainless as Kilroy's. (Plus, he's about a hundred times better a writer).

By assuming that it must have been his views on Muslims that got him sacked, I'd suggest that the American commentators Tim cites are seeing events at British publications through the prism of American political concerns.

Posted by: jonn | Mar 13, 2006 3:33:11 PM

OK John and Bobbie - I get it. Two journalists one with New Statesman connections the other working for the Guardian. The words 'you would say that wouldn't you' do spring to mind. But why exactly are Steyn's 'connections' with Conrad Black such a reasonable excuse for sacking him - but interpreting it as an editorial decision is somehow unthinkable. That I don't get. And if he's so good - why aren't they employing him? That I really don't get.

Posted by: Oscar | Mar 13, 2006 3:36:18 PM

I never said I didn't think it was an editorial decision - just that I'd be shocked (and mildly appalled, frankly, despite the fact I've just been dismissed as an unreformed lefty) if it was because he has said some not particularly complementary things about Islam. At least, I'd be horrified if that were the only reason.

However, I have heard from a friend who subs at the Telegraph that Steyn is... touchy in the way he deals with editorial staff. I'm personally more inclined to believe that he clashed with the new regime than that he was thrown out for thoughtcrime.

A shame. The man's opinions drove me nuts but at least he was always a good read.

Posted by: Jonn | Mar 13, 2006 4:11:22 PM

OK - lets call a truce on this. I'm willing to accept Steyn can be 'difficult' to work with - how could he not be and write the way he does? That might well have been a contributing factor. But not the whole story. Nor do I think it was solely his line on Islam that was the problem. I think it was Islam plus the whole pro-Bush deal which was always full-on to say the least that has played a part in new editors at the Speccie and DT distancing themselves (this is just a hunch). Politically we are clearly worlds apart.

Posted by: Oscar | Mar 13, 2006 6:23:19 PM

Perhaps the Barclays thought better of paying Steyn good money for resubmitting what were in effect the same three articles (with subtle amendments) over and over again. If anyone out there misses Steyn that much just dig up one of his old pieces and re-read it.

Posted by: Mike Power | Mar 13, 2006 8:01:33 PM

I think part of the problem was that he was notoriously unwilling to allow his articles to be edited. I remember one not appearing at all (this of course, happened after Hollinger) and Private Eye used to make lots of references to his deal with Black that meant his content got posted wholesale. (Usual disclaimer about reliability of Private Eye).

Posted by: Ken | Mar 13, 2006 8:18:33 PM

Also guys, we all believe in free markets! The idea that the Barclay Brothers can't use their capital as they want - which might mean not employing Mark Steyn - is pretty socialistic. C'mon, markets work.

Posted by: Matthew | Mar 13, 2006 9:55:14 PM

Just to clarify, as I wasn't as clear as I would like then, the alternative to saying the Barclays were within their rights to sack Mark Steyn, is to say that the Government should decide who we get to read in our newspapers. This is absurd. Remember Stalin?

Posted by: Matthew | Mar 13, 2006 10:07:29 PM

Matthew, your comment was quite clear the first time - and quite obviously a straw man. Who has denied that the Barclay Brothers had the right to sack Steyn?

A supporter of free markets can, without inconsistency, regret a particular outcome of market forces in the same way that a supporter of democracy can, without inconsistency, regret the outcome of a particular election.

Posted by: Natalie Solent | Mar 13, 2006 10:18:31 PM

Natalie, I think you haven't read the post. InstaPundit, one of the leading bloggers, is claiming (when he uses question marks that's what he is doing) that "Britain" has banned Mark Steyn. Tim has argued at length that 'censorship' can only be done by the government; if private actors do something it is merely the working of the free market.

Posted by: Matthew | Mar 13, 2006 10:47:23 PM

I read it. My turn to clarify, I should have said, "who here has denied..." meaning who in this Tim Worstall comments thread. Tim is of course correct to say that the decisions of private actors cannot be described as censorship, and Glenn Reynolds is incorrect to say that Britain has banned Steyn - although I doubt Reynolds was being serious.

Now let us get back to your comment. The "C'mon, markets work" bit certainly seemed to suggest that supporters of markets are obliged to like Steyn's departure because it was a result of a legitimate free market process.

And what on earth was "Remember Stalin" in aid of?

Posted by: Natalie Solent | Mar 13, 2006 11:10:32 PM

Fortunately, in the age of the internet, we'll be able to read Steyn's columns no matter who he works for. I'm going to really miss his film reviews in the Spectator though. His way with words is second to none, wether you like his opinions or not.

For what it's worth, my Dad thinks the Telegraph has gone downhill since Conrad Black left. I wonder if the sales figures will at some point show he's not alone?

Posted by: Tim Newman | Mar 14, 2006 4:18:38 AM

Their sales are down, but it's pretty hard to make comparisions as obviously a lot has changed in the market since then, with most sales down, relaunches of the Times, Independnet and Guardian, and for the Telegraphs including two new editors. I rather liked the end of the Black reign when Newland was in charge, though it was rather odd to tell people you were interested in news values and then put a headline, without quotation marks, of the Pope, "His faith is so full and so strong he is already touching the Lord"

Tim adds: Newland was interesting. It wasn’t until he’d gone that I realised that he was in the same House, a year ahead of me, at school. Same House and year as Peter Briffa actually. I don’t keep in touch with any from those years so I’m not one hundred percent sure but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he’s the only one still taking the Catholicism seriously.

Posted by: Matthew | Mar 14, 2006 8:07:52 AM

Good debate here which I have read with interest. I don't normally comment, and I've been offline for a spell, but as an avid Mark Steyn fan I find this discussion difficult to resist.

I agree with Tim about the fundamental point that Steyn was a key Hollinger figure, and therefore really out of step with the Barclay regime.

He's doubtless quite difficult to work with from an editorial staff point of view: I've read numerous accounts from the man himself detailing encounters with petty or pc editing. His position seems to be that editors need to change, or to remember how to leave alone.

I know he was angry over the Telegraph's treatment of Black and Amiel- again from things he's written; I doubt he was especially friendly to some of the Telegraph staff who tended to denigrate their former boss.

However, while all the above may be true, I must take issue with one commenter here:

Mike Power said:

'Perhaps the Barclays thought better of paying Steyn good money for resubmitting what were in effect the same three articles (with subtle amendments) over and over again. If anyone out there misses Steyn that much just dig up one of his old pieces and re-read it.'

This man needs to receive a biscuit for totally missing the point! That was Steyn's genius. To say repetition is a disavowal of genius, let alone value for money, is wonderfully ignorant. All the best writers throughout history have repeated themes with combinations of anecdote, referentiality, humour and wit. That's the thing I loved about Steyn: picking up the in-jokes, the variations on the themes, and judging him and his views by how they stood up over time.

The thing is that this kind of skill is not easy- in fact it's highly skilful and requires a breath of intellect and strategising mind which I would call genius.

The Telegraph is a hapless ship of fools which appears to be sinking quite quickly. Throwing out Steyn shows not only lack of principle but also imaginative bankruptcy.

Finally, I think that indeed the market will decide, and it will decide against the Telegraph.

Posted by: ed | Mar 15, 2006 9:40:47 AM

I'm not sure what the three articles are meant to be. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a couple of people assert that demographics is the only thing he writes about, so I’m assuming that’s one. Just from this week's selection at Steynonline.com, he's got an article on Muslims. I'm guessing that "Islam is a threat" is one of the "articles", but it's more a field than an article. Krugman restricts himself to economics, but that doesn't mean that the NYT could run repeats and get the same value. In this article, he goes into depth on the UNC van assault, a topic that he had not looked at, to my knowledge, much elsewhere. The most interesting themes in the article, to me, were ones that I have not seen much in Steyn’s writing.

“But surely it's worth asking why in 2006 the Washington Post needs a man with a name like "Ronald Stockton" to explain Islam to us? The diversity bores in the media go out of their way to hire writers of color, writers of gender, writers of orientation. Yet, five years after 9/11, where's the New York Times' Muslim columnist? Where's the ''Today Show's'' Islamic weather girl? Why, indeed, are all the Muslim voices in the press broadly on the right -- Amir Taheri in the New York Post, Stephen Schwartz in the Weekly Standard, Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal?”

Of course, the Guardian is notably ready to ask credentialed terrorist organizations to write in its pages and everyone has the occasional moderate Muslim op-ed. Still, for the most part Islam is treated as “radically other” by the western press, and this was, to me, a new way of showing it.

That said, he does regularly call for more dialogue, and this could be considered to be an article in that vein.

So, “Islam & Demographics” is one obvious theme.
“Islam and Dialogue with the West” is another.
“Civil Rights and Islam” is a third, with an article this week in the Western Standard about the way that freedom of speech is defended in the west. Amongst other ideas is the way that some of the classic media validations are attacked: ‘"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," [and] "News is what someone doesn't want you to put in the paper."’ It includes a line that struck me as wonderful, possibly stolen from somewhere else, but not one that I’d come across before.
“It's often observed that when president Kennedy famously declared he was a Berliner he actually said "I am a donut." If ever there was a time to say "I am a Danish," this was it.”
It might seem like these two are similar themes, but I challenge anyone to read both articles and propose a merger that would be substantially shorter than the two together without losing integral elements. One is talking about our understanding of Islam. The other is talking about our understanding of ourselves, with Islam shedding some light on the false “bravery” of the media.
There’s a MacLean’s article on cultural and economic differences between the US and Canada, another common theme of Steyn’s writing. A fourth article topic.
There’s an Atlantic Monthly obit for Eugene McCarthy (who, in case you’re not familiar with the chap, was not a Canadian nor a Muslim, nor a journalist). He regularly does these obituaries, the fifth obvious article topic.
He’s got some showbiz stuff that I’m assuming you’re not counting (unless his movie, music, musical & theatre reviews, along with his showbiz gossip, are all the same article and are one of the claimed three).
There’s the occasional sporting article (although it’s more sport and culture or sport and politics than the stuff you’d find in the proper sporting pages), here represented by a note on the Commonwealth games. It’s a sixth obvious article topic, assuming you’re not counting the showbiz half of his work.
In a few minutes, he’ll be on the Hugh Hewitt show, talking, one assumes, about US electoral politics. Indeed, I’m sure there are some people who might feel that the three topics were “Islam, US Politics, & Canadian Politics”. Perhaps you could include the showbiz by making it “Culture, religion, and politics”. What kind of a intellectual pygmy would limit himself to such a small sphere?
Really, I’m curious. Can you describe the three articles you feel he writes? I’ve long felt him to be the finest living columnist and it might save me the time I spend daily reading his articles if I realized that the information, ideas, and humour were actually the same as they had been the article before.

Posted by: James of England | Mar 16, 2006 10:45:12 PM

James: I don't for a moment think that Steyn had three articles with subtle variations. I think his themes evolved over time, and there was continuity between them. If a man is right about something he can't go changing the fundamentals which help him to frame that rightness until they too change. Demographics and the Islamic threat would be a classic point, since I don't really think either played much of a part in the writings of Steyn in the early 90's.

The greatness of a writer like Steyn is, I think, precisely the grasp of fundamentals which leads to a certain merited repetition. Then again, I can't say that he didn't anticipate having different audiences in say, the Jerusalem Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. A little strategic recycling would be perfectly reasonable. I've always got something out of everything Steyn has written. I've felt privileged these last few years to have read him in such diverse publications, and seen him address different audiences with the same global view tailored to them.

Final point: what about his unparalleled writing about cinema and theatre? Sure, even there there are core themes, but then there is such a thing as the zeitgeist, and there's rarely been a writer so attuned to it as Mark Steyn.

Posted by: ed | Mar 16, 2006 11:03:20 PM

Ed, I think I'm with you in every regard, although I think I'm less of a fan of Steyn's writing in the early 90s. Bush's coming to power seems to have done him an awful lot of good as a writer. Lots of good stuff before, but it seems less consistent.

Posted by: James of England | Mar 17, 2006 10:31:31 AM