It is astonishing how little news Britain gets from the Continent. Lest this be thought to be a post-Brexit thing, it is worth noting that this has been the case for years. In a spirit of reconciliation, could all of us agree — leavers and remainers alike — that a positive result of Brexit would be an upsurge in serious media coverage from the Continent?
During visits to Paris, Berlin and Stockholm in the last month the way in which our media has let us down has struck me more than ever. The British print and broadcast media are happy to lead on news about celebrities and even their relatives. But regular news even from a capital city such as Berlin is almost wholly absent. Consider a single day’s news while I was there.
On the front pages was news of the fire-bombing of a mosque in Dresden — a fairly common event, though no one was injured, and the building was not badly damaged. The inside pages included the sort of stories that now wash across every day in Germany though fail to make news elsewhere. A story of a violent clash in a small village between a gang of German bikers and a gang of refugees. And another story relaying events at an asylum centre the day before. A migrant phoned the police because he had seen a young girl being assaulted in a bush by another migrant. Three policemen arrived and caught a Pakistani man in his late twenties raping a six-year-old girl from Iraq. One of the policemen took the girl away while the other two handcuffed the Pakistani migrant.
As they were putting him into the back of the police car the father of the girl, who had obviously heard about what had happened to his daughter, came running out of the centre wielding a knife, clearly intent on attacking the perpetrator. At which point the two policemen shot him dead. Just one of a thousand stories every day in Merkel’s Germany.
My stay in Sweden — my second this year — ended with a speech at a conference in Stockholm to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the country’s Freedom of the Press Act. Although this freedom certainly exists in Sweden it is not widely exercised. Indeed Sweden probably has the most uniform press of anywhere in Europe. In the 1990s when a newspaper broke the consensus that existed even then and published a poll revealing that the majority of the public did not want mass immigration the only result was that the editor was fired. As a result Sweden was even less able than Germany to prepare itself for the onslaught of entirely avoidable stories which it is still trying to suppress. Sweden was, of course, the only country to take in a comparable number of migrants per head of population last year to Germany.
Having spent the last year travelling even more regularly and widely than usual across Europe my main point to my Swedish audience was that the politics goes bad when the ideas go bad and the ideas have gone bad in Europe because free speech went bad. People spent so long trying to shut down contrary opinion that they didn’t prepare themselves or their countries for the times they were heading into. Sure enough, you can now see the results in absolutely every direction. Having tried to present every migrant coming to Sweden as a legitimate asylum-seeker whom the country must help, and in the wake of the Cologne-like rape outbreaks that have occurred in Sweden, you can now hear people talk of the refugees as “rapefugees”. In Paris I met someone who referred to all the migrants as “refu-jihadists”. Unamusing as well as offensive. But it is a sign that thanks to the actions of European leaders as well as the complicity of the media the language looks set to go wrong in the years ahead in ways they cannot possibly have imagined.
A happy moment in Stockholm is that one of the other speakers is Hamed Abdel-Samad, the Egyptian-born German writer who has done an extraordinary amount to break the silence that still exists around these subjects in Germany. Among his books is the German bestseller Islamic Fascism. Earlier this year his French publisher announced that they were not in fact going to publish a French translation of the book because they feared that there could be Charlie Hebdo-style reprisals on their offices. Abdel-Samad himself lives under armed protection. And as usual, because of his presence and because we were all in Stockholm to talk about free speech the place was — as is now the European tradition — packed with police officers and security guards. It doesn’t give one much hope, though at the end of my talk, when Abdel-Samad asked me if I saw any signs of hope at all in Europe, it was good to be able to say honestly that although I see very few such signs, he is among them.