Commentary Magazine


Topic: British Parliament

America Could Use Some “Question Time”

The death of Margaret Thatcher has, predictably, led to an outpouring of remembrance of this remarkable human being, including her zest for political combat. This has resulted in numerous clips of her at question time, that hour every day when the queen’s ministers face often very hostile questions from the opposition across the floor of the House of Commons (and, far less often, from their own party). Powerline has posted one such video, of Thatcher’s last appearance in parliament as Prime Minister. She is obviously thoroughly enjoying herself.

I have often thought that it is very unfortunate that nothing like question time has developed in this country, for it has been an enormously positive force in British politics. Unlike journalists, who are inescapably locked in a mutual back scratching society with politicians and thus can’t be too tough on them, the opposite party is only too happy to force them to respond—on the fly—to embarrassing questions. This, in turn, has empowered British journalists to ask tougher questions than American journalists usually ask. The Sunday talk shows in this country are all too often softball exhibitions.

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The death of Margaret Thatcher has, predictably, led to an outpouring of remembrance of this remarkable human being, including her zest for political combat. This has resulted in numerous clips of her at question time, that hour every day when the queen’s ministers face often very hostile questions from the opposition across the floor of the House of Commons (and, far less often, from their own party). Powerline has posted one such video, of Thatcher’s last appearance in parliament as Prime Minister. She is obviously thoroughly enjoying herself.

I have often thought that it is very unfortunate that nothing like question time has developed in this country, for it has been an enormously positive force in British politics. Unlike journalists, who are inescapably locked in a mutual back scratching society with politicians and thus can’t be too tough on them, the opposite party is only too happy to force them to respond—on the fly—to embarrassing questions. This, in turn, has empowered British journalists to ask tougher questions than American journalists usually ask. The Sunday talk shows in this country are all too often softball exhibitions.

It has also forced British politicians to be very nimble on their verbal feet, and wit—which is often in very short supply in American politics—is greatly prized on the other side of the Atlantic. Many of Winston Churchill’s famous turns of phrase, such as “terminological inexactitude” and “parsimonious with the truth,” came out of question time. And then there was the famous exchange in the 18th century when one member, losing his temper, said of another, “You, sir, shall die of the pox or upon the gallows!” His interlocutor instantly replied, “And which it is to be, sir, depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles!”

Wouldn’t it be great if the entire cabinet and the heads of the major agencies had to appear in the House of Representatives once a week and answer whatever questions the other party chose to throw at them, while members hooted their derision or shouted, “hear! hear!”? At the very least, it would make for great political theater, once they sharpened their debating skills. Senator John McCain in his 2008 campaign for president said that if elected he would ask the Congress to appear before both houses regularly to answer questions. I doubt that would have come to pass, however, for constitutional reasons.

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Is a Government Entitled to Say Who is Fit to Run a Media Company?

The hacking scandal at the British newspapers owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch has transfixed the English press in the last year and become a major political issue. So it’s not surprising that the parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the matter would seek to heap opprobrium on Murdoch for the various sins committed by his employees in the cause of digging up dirt on the famous and not so famous who became the subject of notoriety. If laws were broken then, as would be the case in the United States, the chips must fall were they may and the guilty brought to book. But the committee’s published conclusions about the scandal went beyond that. In its report, the committee stated that Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run an international media conglomerate.

Murdoch is an easy person to dislike. His unparalleled success in publishing and broadcast media is unprecedented and widely envied. He is identified (not always correctly) with the political right and therefore is considered an enemy of all that is good by the political left, especially those in the media who dislike his visionary decision to create outlets where the traditional liberal consensus will not predominate. But even if one were to agree with those who think his influence on the industry pernicious and his politics odious, how can anyone, especially in the media, regard the attempt by some in the British parliament to determine who can and who cannot own a media company?

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The hacking scandal at the British newspapers owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch has transfixed the English press in the last year and become a major political issue. So it’s not surprising that the parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the matter would seek to heap opprobrium on Murdoch for the various sins committed by his employees in the cause of digging up dirt on the famous and not so famous who became the subject of notoriety. If laws were broken then, as would be the case in the United States, the chips must fall were they may and the guilty brought to book. But the committee’s published conclusions about the scandal went beyond that. In its report, the committee stated that Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run an international media conglomerate.

Murdoch is an easy person to dislike. His unparalleled success in publishing and broadcast media is unprecedented and widely envied. He is identified (not always correctly) with the political right and therefore is considered an enemy of all that is good by the political left, especially those in the media who dislike his visionary decision to create outlets where the traditional liberal consensus will not predominate. But even if one were to agree with those who think his influence on the industry pernicious and his politics odious, how can anyone, especially in the media, regard the attempt by some in the British parliament to determine who can and who cannot own a media company?

In making such a statement, the narrow majority of the committee that voted to approve the report (It passed by a vote of 6-4 with Labor and Liberal Democrat members voting in favor and Conservatives opposed), have taken this issue beyond any wrongdoing committed at the now-shuttered News of the World owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation. Though the leaders of the company may have failed to act to stop illegal wiretapping and other scurrilous practices, for a government committee to seek to force Murdoch to leave his position at the top of the company he founded is an abuse of power that is no less sinister than anything Murdoch may have done or not done.

The implications of this statement go beyond a mere committee report. Blowback from the scandal forced the Murdoch family to withdraw a bid for control of a satellite broadcast outlet. And by seeking to tie British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to the scandal, it’s clear that there is more at work here than a disturbing case of media misbehavior. The goal of much of the left-wing media from the start of this scandal has not been to focus on what were once quite common if arguably criminal actions undertaken by tabloid press outlets that would stop at nothing to get gossip or news about celebrities or those involved in crimes that interested the public. Rather, the objective from the start has been to get Murdoch and to drive him out of the media.

Whatever crimes were committed or mistakes made at his company, it is fairly obvious that Murdoch knows what he is doing in the media business. If the day comes when he, his family or other members of his management team are no longer capable of doing their jobs, we assume that, as in the rest of the real world not controlled by politicians, they will either be forced out by stockholders or driven out of the business by more successful competitors. That is the essence of free enterprise and an open marketplace.

But as much as the public is entitled to be outraged at the News of the World’s misbehavior, the idea that the British parliament or any group of politicians can attempt to determine how private companies operate is abhorrent. It speaks to a desire by many on the left to control the media and to restrict freedom of speech to those who agree with them rather than their opponents. That totalitarian impulse is at the heart of the Murdoch lynch mob. Any journalist, be they on the left or the right, should regard this tendency with horror and utterly condemn it.

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Why Obama Won’t Be Going to Israel

Jen’s post on the White House rabbinical meetings contained this summary of the rabbis’ input:

[Rabbi Jack] Moline said the major responses from the rabbis were to urge Obama to visit Israel, to express some concern of there being a double standard for Israel and to tell Obama that they were not “confident from the President himself that he feels Israel in his kishkes.”

The rabbis thus echoed the request that 37 Jewish Democratic lawmakers made in their own meeting with Obama last week: go to Israel and give a speech (“Message: I care”). It is the same request that liberal Israeli and American columnists made last year. It will be ignored again, for at least four reasons.

First, Obama cannot give the speech without changing the underlying policy that necessitated it in the first place. He has adopted a foreign policy that relies on putting daylight between the U.S. and Israel to “reset” our relations with the Arab and Muslim world. There cannot be a Jerusalem speech to offset the Cairo one — because one of the principal purposes of the latter was precisely to demonstrate that Israel no longer enjoys its former position in American foreign policy.

Second, Obama is unlikely to risk a less-than-admiring reception from the Knesset, which often — as does the British Parliament — features simultaneous rebuttals from the floor. These days, Obama does not even risk prime-time press conferences in the United States. His last interview was with Bono.

Third, a Knesset speech would invite comparisons with George W. Bush’s Knesset address — which, Seth Lipsky correctly observed, “will stand as a measure for those who follow him” and which captured an extraordinary moment in history. Speaking on Israel Independence Day, Bush began as follows:

We gather to mark a momentous occasion. Sixty years ago in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, founded on the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate.” What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David — a homeland for the chosen people, Eretz Yisrael.

Obama cannot approximate Bush’s address, because he does not share Bush’s perspective.

Fourth, even if Obama gave a comparable speech, it would not be believed. His actions — reneging on his pledge of an undivided Jerusalem; failing to honor U.S. understandings regarding settlements; ignoring the commitments in the 2004 Bush letter, given in exchange for the Gaza withdrawal; failing to visit Israel when he visited Turkey, failing again when he visited Egypt, and failing again over the past 12 months; slurring Israel in his Cairo speech; telling U.S. Jewish groups that closeness to Israel had resulted in “no progress” in the peace process; attempting to attend the Durban II conference; awarding a presidential medal to Durban I’s Mary Robinson; granting legitimacy to the anti-Semitic UN Human Rights Council; demanding compliance with Palestinian preconditions for peace negotiations; repeatedly humiliating Israel’s prime minister during his U.S. visits; castigating Israel for planning Jewish homes in the Jewish area of the Jewish capital; endless patience with Iran combined with public impatience with Israel; etc. — represent a record that cannot be corrected merely with a speech, even if it begins with “Let me be clear.”

The rabbis hope for a speech in Israel to show how Obama feels in his kishkes, but it is not going to happen. In any event, we already know how Obama feels, and the gently-phrased response of the rabbis (they are not “confident” about him) suggests that, despite their reluctance to admit it, they know it too.

Jen’s post on the White House rabbinical meetings contained this summary of the rabbis’ input:

[Rabbi Jack] Moline said the major responses from the rabbis were to urge Obama to visit Israel, to express some concern of there being a double standard for Israel and to tell Obama that they were not “confident from the President himself that he feels Israel in his kishkes.”

The rabbis thus echoed the request that 37 Jewish Democratic lawmakers made in their own meeting with Obama last week: go to Israel and give a speech (“Message: I care”). It is the same request that liberal Israeli and American columnists made last year. It will be ignored again, for at least four reasons.

First, Obama cannot give the speech without changing the underlying policy that necessitated it in the first place. He has adopted a foreign policy that relies on putting daylight between the U.S. and Israel to “reset” our relations with the Arab and Muslim world. There cannot be a Jerusalem speech to offset the Cairo one — because one of the principal purposes of the latter was precisely to demonstrate that Israel no longer enjoys its former position in American foreign policy.

Second, Obama is unlikely to risk a less-than-admiring reception from the Knesset, which often — as does the British Parliament — features simultaneous rebuttals from the floor. These days, Obama does not even risk prime-time press conferences in the United States. His last interview was with Bono.

Third, a Knesset speech would invite comparisons with George W. Bush’s Knesset address — which, Seth Lipsky correctly observed, “will stand as a measure for those who follow him” and which captured an extraordinary moment in history. Speaking on Israel Independence Day, Bush began as follows:

We gather to mark a momentous occasion. Sixty years ago in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, founded on the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate.” What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David — a homeland for the chosen people, Eretz Yisrael.

Obama cannot approximate Bush’s address, because he does not share Bush’s perspective.

Fourth, even if Obama gave a comparable speech, it would not be believed. His actions — reneging on his pledge of an undivided Jerusalem; failing to honor U.S. understandings regarding settlements; ignoring the commitments in the 2004 Bush letter, given in exchange for the Gaza withdrawal; failing to visit Israel when he visited Turkey, failing again when he visited Egypt, and failing again over the past 12 months; slurring Israel in his Cairo speech; telling U.S. Jewish groups that closeness to Israel had resulted in “no progress” in the peace process; attempting to attend the Durban II conference; awarding a presidential medal to Durban I’s Mary Robinson; granting legitimacy to the anti-Semitic UN Human Rights Council; demanding compliance with Palestinian preconditions for peace negotiations; repeatedly humiliating Israel’s prime minister during his U.S. visits; castigating Israel for planning Jewish homes in the Jewish area of the Jewish capital; endless patience with Iran combined with public impatience with Israel; etc. — represent a record that cannot be corrected merely with a speech, even if it begins with “Let me be clear.”

The rabbis hope for a speech in Israel to show how Obama feels in his kishkes, but it is not going to happen. In any event, we already know how Obama feels, and the gently-phrased response of the rabbis (they are not “confident” about him) suggests that, despite their reluctance to admit it, they know it too.

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