The Jewish Chronicle
Douglas Murray: Stand up to Muslim Council
The attack on BBC presenter Emma Barnett is designed to ensure no one can challenge it
BBC PRESENTERS sometimes have legitimate grievances. One is that they get it in the neck whatever they do. Ask softball questions and some license-fee payers will ask why they didn’t play hardball. Subject your interviewees to hardball questions and people who love the interviewee will accuse the interviewer of bias. The best broadcasters ride through this. Andrew Neil was never soft on anyone. Jeremy Paxman pulverised everybody who sat opposite him. In a similar vein you could never claim any fear or favour in Emma Barnett. Though not a rottweiler in the Paxman mode, the radio and occasional television presenter for the BBC is one of the corporation’s brightest stars. She is deeply inquisitive, sharply intelligent and has the manner of the perfect interviewer — someone who wants to help the listener find out what is going on. It is surprising that the BBC does not use her more.
But thanks to an interview she carried out earlier this month, a dedicated group of high-profile figures is trying to make sure that we only hear less from her. Recently, Barnett was presenting BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. In one segment, she interviewed the new head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Zara Mohammed.
Mohammed recently made some news by becoming the first female leader of the MCB, which describes itself as the largest umbrellagroup of British Muslims. So it was perfectly appropriate that Mohammed should be asked onto Woman’s Hour.
However, when it comes to the MCB, nothing is simple. For over a decade, the group has been deemed so radical that consecutive UK governments will have no dealings with it. In the 2010s, the then-Labour government cut off all dialogue with the MCB because of its links to extremism. This included the fact that during an engagement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, one of the MCB’s senior members signed a declaration which the government said called for attacks on British naval vessels and on Jews around the world. The Labour government — and all governments since — rightly regarded the MCB as beyond the pale.
Still the MCB have spent recent years trying to make inroads into government and communal bodies. A common aggravation inside government has been how many Jewish “representative” communal groups have continued to partner with and promote the MCB, even as government refuses to.
So there are more than enough questions to ask the MCB, and in her interview Barnett tried to get into one of them. Using a tone which was no more or less hostile than usual, Barnett pushed Mohammed on one question in particular. Obviously it was nice that the MCB had its first female leader, she said, but how many female Imams are there in the UK? Mohammed claimed that she did not know the answer. Barnett pushed again, carefully and politely. Mohammed claimed that it depended what you meant by an “Imam”. This went on for some time. Of course, listeners were able to come to their own conclusions — such as that Mohammed was avoiding the question because the answer is a big fat zero.
There are a couple of female Imams in Europe. I have met Germany’s first, a remarkable woman who has 24-hour protection to defend her from extremists in her own faith. In 2008, it was national news in the UK when a woman first lead the prayers at Muslim worship in Oxford.
And if the answer is zero then that is interesting. Some astute listeners may even have had the chance to wonder whether the appointment of a woman leader to an organisation as controversial as the MCB is not intended precisely to distract attention from darker questions about the group. Given the questions she could have asked, Barnett was at the respectful end of the spectrum.
But a coalition of public figures thought otherwise. A letter of complaint about Barnett’s interview was sent to the BBC and made public last week.
Signatories included Diane Abbott, Naz Shah (the Labour MP who has her own track-record of overt antisemitism) and the embittered Tory peer Baroness Warsi. All condemned Barnett for being “strikingly hostile”.
They also made sure to damage Barnett’s reputation by smearing her with the all-encompassing and deeply vague accusation of “Islamophobia”. MCB-supporters in the media gleefully smeared the presenter. Radical activists on social media did the rest.
Of course, these activists know what they are doing. They want to make sure that groups like the MCB have a free ride, not just on the BBC but in the culture as a whole. They want to ensure that questions that would be asked of any priest or rabbi are deemed out of bounds for any representative of the Muslim faith.
What is more, these activists wish to make everyone who does not follow their rules pay a reputational cost.
To date, the BBC has refused to apologise for the interview and has rightly stood by their excellent presenter. But it is interesting how many “public figures” have exposed themselves again in this episode. Not just because they want to protect the dubious MCB, but because they genuinely seem unable to cope with the idea that equality means being treated in exactly the same fashion as the rest of us.
And that includes having to answer the same difficult questions that anybody else would if they were sitting in the same chair.
TO ALL appearances, I don’t have much in common with Dr Yoni Birnbaum. He’s bearded, I’m clean shaven. He’s Jewish, I’m Catholic. He’s married, I’m widowed. But sitting in his kitchen in Barnet, watching two of his five children playing with plastic bricks, I recognise a deeper kinship. Not only are Yoni and I begetters of big broods — I am a father-of-six — we are cheerleaders for the benefits of larger families, too.
Our meeting in 2019 was for a BBC documentary exploring the unfashionable case for family expansion. Afterwards Yoni, then rabbi at the Hadley Wood United Synagogue, put it better than I could in his column for the JC:
“A family lucky enough to have two or more children creates future citizens who better understand what it means to think of others, rather than their immediate needs. There are always younger or older siblings to consider.”
Yoni and I believe that it could do with a push, the baby. As with pubs and retail, Covid has accelerated existing trends. Predictions of a boom in coronababies were way off. Britain, in common with many other developed nations, is experiencing a sharp new slump in fertility.
Lockdown means couples aren’t getting together and those who already have are delaying children because of The Uncertainty. But the virus is a catalyst, not a cause. Birth rates had tanked to an all-time low six months before the UK recorded its first case of Covid.
As with populations of other developed nations, the desire to be a parent is no longer a given for many young Britons. Childlessness has always been a personal tragedy for some. Now it’s also a widespread environmental or lifestyle choice.
This has got many people worried. In Israel, where I worked in the 1990s as a journalist for Sky News, I was always struck by the urgency of the demographic question. Recovering the lost millions of the Holocaust gave it an existential edge. But even things like peace-making were touched by it. The median age of Gazans is 18, the equivalent for Israelis is 30. A Jewish friend would ask: “Can you guess who’s more likely to compromise?”
Faith remains part of the equation. As the demographer Paul Morland, author of The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World, told me, it’s not so much a matter of religion as religiosity. “The Chassidic Jews in Israel have among the highest fertility rate of any people in the world, the secular Jews in America have among the lowest fertility rates,” he said.
Certainly, the Charedi have helped put Israel top of the West’s league table of fecundity. But just as Israel’s worldbeating vaccination programme is an outlier, so is its cultural, political and social support for large families.
Which isn’t to say that the rest of the developed world isn’t worried about a birth dearth. The response in some countries has been to subsidise babymaking. It works a bit, as do appeals to God and Country. But they can feel top down — old men telling young women how to lead their lives.
In countries which don’t have Israel’s specific pro-natalist environment, a new approach might be overdue. One which sees parenting as a progressive cause, not an atavistic habit. That’s about marching behind — not athwart — a banner of reproductive rights. In the 20th century, this meant giving women a choice to have smaller families. Now it means not the reverse, but supporting the option of women having all the children they want.
Research shows nearly half of Western women currently don’t do this. In Britain the estimated ‘baby gap’, between the number of children women want and the number they are actually having, is likely to be more than 100,000 a year. Were those children born, the UK’s fertility rate would reach replacement level. The staffing and funding of our public services would be future-proofed.
But, to me at least, that greater good is of secondary importance. All too often, demographic debates focus on graphs — on the viability of welfare models, on the desirability of avoiding a populist backlash against immigrants by boosting ‘indigenous’ birthrates or, indeed, on replacing those murdered by the Nazis. However, Israel aside, I believe the focus should not be on the value of children to the state. Not even to their parents, but to other children.
In spite of assertive contrary voices, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that — generally speaking and all other things being equal — a brother or sister is good for a child. They help them cope better with disruptive events, like the disappearance of a parent (true at whatever age that happens). More significantly, siblings are less prone to the epidemics of modern childhood — mental illness, bullying and eating disorders. Having grown up in a culture where these scourges are endemic (and may have worsened dramatically during lockdown), our Millennials may be more receptive to the idea of radical counter-measures.
Of course, some will recoil from what they might see as another tiresome assault on the only child and “snowflakes”. Many will see no causal link between growing up without siblings, the helicopter parenting that invites, and a sense of unearned entitlement. But others, those who yearned for a childhood confidante in the flesh and not on a smartphone, may think that when it’s their turn to choose a family, the more will be merrier.
I believe the case for siblings is strong, if undernourished. It’s a positive argument. But is it enough to sway that growing cohort of young westerners who say they don’t want a child — never mind a child with siblings — lest the planet suffers? How do you even start to debunk an argument advanced by a no-less sainted figure than David Attenborough?
First, global overpopulation should be shown for what it is: a temporary function of historic demographic momentum. A young Briton will be around to see humanity shrink, as even sub-Saharan Africans embrace smaller families. They will certainly see the crippling effects of depopulation in a majority of countries. Anyone under 30 will live to witness not only the impossibility of importing labour from developing countries which face their own demographic crunch, but the misery that increasingly accompanies disproportionate ageing in places like Japan.
Second, the role of resource consumption — and the cant that frequently goes with it — must be exposed. The number of people living alone in the UK recently topped 8 million for the first time. The environmental gains of smaller British families are being undermined by the fashion for solitary,
— rather than inter-generational, living.
It’s important to be sensitive to those who cannot have a family, while questioning those whose ideologically motivated childless lives are paraded as exemplars of green martyrdom.
And third, as with the Covid vaccine, messaging matters.
I would love to see the case for large families reflect what it really is: a subversive and countercultural argument. I’d like to see a campaign with billboard posters and online ads asking awkward questions. “This Christmas, why not give your child the greatest gift — a sibling?” Or “Doesn’t grandma deserve grandchildren?” Maybe just, “O brother, where art thou?”
Of course, by behaving as if the decision to have children is part of a contest of ideas — no longer an iron rule of natural law — we open ourselves up to the rough and tumble of the culture wars.
And here I’m reminded of something Yoni Birnbaum said. Sometimes, when he and his wife Elishiva go out with their five kids, heads turn “disapprovingly”. For a growing number of Britons, a large family is not something to admire as an example of parental sacrifice and tangible optimism for the future. It is weird. Or worse — an act of environmental vandalism or religious fanaticism. It need be neither. And we need to learn how to say so.
Siblings are less prone to the epidemics of modern childhood — mental illness, bullying and eating disorders’
Former Sky presenter Colin Brazier has joined the soon-to-belaunched GB News Channel and is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings (Civitas)