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Anyone old enough to remember the Cold War will have winced to hear terrorist murderers of soldiers and policemen in Northern Ireland described on the BBC last month as "dissident republicans". To dignify the thugs of the "Real" and "Continuity" IRA with the name of dissident is to insult Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, Bukovsky and countless others who were the real heroes of the Soviet Union. Yet every other media outlet followed the BBC's lead, just as they follow the practice of treating Hamas and Hizbollah as "resistance" movements, or describing al-Qaeda and Taliban killers as "militants" and "insurgents". The term "terrorist" is now used mainly in the abstract, seldom of individuals and never in connection with Islam.

Yet the media are not the sole or even chief culprits. Just as the government is rapidly debasing the currency, so it is debasing the language of public discourse - in both cases to postpone the day of reckoning with the electorate. The chilling phrase used by the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was "the court of public opinion", which she explicitly contrasted with the rule of law. Now, the Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP knows all about the law. She comes from a family of lawyers. She made her name as a civil liberties activist. She was Britain's first female Solicitor-General, Minister of Justice and now Leader of the House of Commons. Yet she did not blush to threaten to confiscate the pension that had been negotiated with Sir Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. "It might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract," she said, "but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in."

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