Dear Koba

The recent report about censorship in West Belfast led to some rummaging around in the forgot about folder. This is what came out.

Dear Koba
17 April 2008
‘Citizen Chief, we love the President of Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people from the bottom of our hearts, we ask forgiveness of the President of Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people. Thank you to the Chief, food is good, health is good, everything is good’ – An obligatory refrain chanted by prisoners 500 times a day in Navoi city prison.

In his ‘Dear Koba’ letters to Stalin, the imprisoned Bukharin plummeted to the depths of ingratiating despair. ‘I am preparing myself mentally to depart from this vale of tears, and there is nothing in me toward all of you, toward the party and the cause, but a great and boundless love.’ Koba of course did not listen to him. Being a megalomaniac unable to brook any opposition to his authority the destruction of Bukharin was what mattered to Koba. The obliteration of the opponent’s self respect - in Bukharin’s case his physical existence as well - would satisfy the dictator’s demonic power lust.

In its own much discussed Dear Koba letter the Andersonstown News seemed determined to emulate the German flagellist movement of the middle ages. Its frenzied whipping of its own credibility earned it the pejorative, ‘grovel sheet’, gleefully fired at it from one of its rivals in the media industry. The correlation between ‘craven’ and ‘Andersonstown News apology’ reaches the high nineties in the word association matrix. All resulting from the paper’s mea culpa to Gerry Adams for having caused him offence courtesy of a political column.

Newspapers worthy of the name are not given to any form of apology, let alone an emblazoned front page one, to a politician for an opinion piece that, even if harsh, mocking or cruel, was not libellous. Newspapers analyse, grovel sheets apologise. If newspaper columnists are not annoying politicians they are hardly doing their job. Imagine the following scenario: the Irish News runs a column written by its editor which lambastes without libelling Mark Durkan. Durkan then throws a hissy fit and the Irish News issues a front page apology. It is not rocket science to predict diminishing credibility levels in response to columnists who express only opinions approved by the SDLP.

As if the public apology from the paper he edits was not considered punishment enough for Robin Livingstone he was unceremoniously trailed back to the stocks so that the baying crowd could throw a few more insults his way in protest at his errant behaviour. The Sinn Fein president by telling the Irish News that the Andersonstown News had no need to apologise in the first place was depicting Robin Livingstone as having indulged in unsolicited snivelling. Robin, it is implied, did not apologise under pressure as most people suspect but because he had nothing but a great and boundless love for Dear Koba; he was overcome with eagerness to apologise. That somebody higher than Robin most likely decided on the apology while he was in Scotland will be missed in the cacophony of allegations about Robin’s supposed supineness.

The entire affair from beginning to end was, like a show trial, conducted in public so that the admonishment and subsequent atonement would be all the more pronounced. Livingstone was convicted of heresy; an apostate who no longer believed in the greatness of the great leader. At a book launch in Belfast last week, the Andersonstown News apology was discussed as avidly on the floor as the book we were there to see launched. Quips were made that an apology for having apologised would be the next thing to appear in the paper.

I have never been a fan of Robin Livingstone’s goonda journalism which always seemed to defend the strong against the weak. The latter will wait a long time for an expression of contrition to come their way. The abiding purpose of goonda journalism is to dragoon contrary to what journalism should be about which is to enlighten. Yet, while it may be the done thing to sneer at his misfortune, Livingstone’s position was not enviable. The isolation he experienced was enormous. Few would have withstood the tidal wave of animosity that was generated against him. He had annoyed the local caudillo and stood to lose a lot had he persisted with his stance. He wasn’t exactly embroiled in a slanging match with one or two of his usual adversaries whom he could forget about after a day or two, but was pitched against a machine with the power to sanction severely. Nor could he call upon years of experience in the stand alone camp, which would have developed his immune system to the point of imperviousness to the inevitable threats and innuendo that come with the dissenting turf.

Despite the criticism of him, Gerry Adams is not such a terrible MP that he could not have mounted a credible defence against the Livingstone allegations. But Sinn Fein’s draconian response to the matter revealed not only the party’s totalitarian instinct but publicly underscored its own reliance on the goonda journalism so long practiced at the Andersonstown News. It was the only type of journalism Sinn Fein could countenance. The party could simply have said ‘you are wrong Squinter and this is the MP’s track record to refute you.’ Instead it went for a ‘how dare you Robin Livingstone’ menacing tone. The democratic note that had been introduced to the column had to be crushed and the paper made revert to type; diktat rather than dialogue the rule of thumb.

The subsequent attempt by the party to backtrack on the matter suggests its antennae grew sensitive to how its position was perceived. But the damage was done. The ‘how dare you gang’ in virtually threatening Livingstone effectively blurred any difference between it and the ‘do you know who I am gang?’ The image of the bully had not gone away.

As for Robin Livingstone, his one time backers now revile him. They will not forgive him for having harboured an independent thought that had been vocalised and caused embarrassment to Dear Koba. But there was no reason whatsoever, other than the sheer love of gooda journalism for him to have resumed his Squinter column. Damaged goods, it will carry little weight. Those abused in the column in future will simply look in his direction and dismiss him as ‘big hat, no cattle.’ His best course of action would have been to stand over his initial polemic, dissociate himself from the subsequent apology and then openly call on Sinn Fein not to put pressure on the Andersonstown News management, which disgracefully failed to stand by its editor, to sack him.

While many of his critics are now gloating because the rebellion lasted only a week, the real story is that it was ever mounted in the first place. It took courage and in that week Robin Livingstone opened a window on a world of censorship and the marshalled policing of independent thinking.

For the week that was in it, seven days of Squintergate shook West Belfast.

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