A safe stirrer

Kilroy-Silk and the limits of populist punditry.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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‘Why has it suddenly gone wrong for the silver-haired smooth operator?’ asked the UK Observer about oily daytime TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, following the outraged reaction to his Sunday Express column about Arabs. The Commission for Racial Equality accused him of inciting racial hatred; the police, always quick to flash their ‘anti-racist’ credentials, are investigating; and the BBC has suspended Kilroy-Silk indefinitely.

Kilroy-Silk’s comments were certainly ill-informed – but they were hardly dissimilar to the saloon-bar bile that the Express regularly serves up. As some commentators have pointed out, it is odd that there is an investigation into the article now, when the original passed without comment nine months ago. Some have suggested that BBC executives, tired of Kilroy-Silk’s bloated ego, are using this incident as an excuse to drop him.

There are many reasons for Kilroy-Silk to be taken off the air – his transparent insincerity, his daft interview questions, his orange tan – but his loathsome opinions shouldn’t be one of them. The current furore has exposed, not just Kilroy-Silk’s prejudices, but his lack of backbone. Instead of being a ‘showbiz rabble rouser’, as he styles himself, he is a safe stirrer, a populist pundit working within limited areas of controversy. He’s no Howard Stern.

Much has been made of Kilroy-Silk being ‘defiant’ over the row, but there is a strong whiff of panic. Kilroy-Silk’s anguished explanations for why he wrote the article have further undermined his reputation for being outspoken. His PR team point out that he never makes racist remarks and that his production staff are ‘racially mixed’.

Yet for many liberals, this doesn’t wash. Kilroy-Silk is seen as having crossed the boundary by making value judgments about another, non-Western culture. Public acceptability today rests, not just on expressing anti-racist platitudes, but on dismissing much of Western culture and modernity. If Kilroy-Silk had penned an article declaring ‘We have a lot to learn from Islam’, he would have been praised rather than pilloried.

Criticising other cultures can land you in a lot of bother, as French author Michel Houellebecq recently discovered. He may be a million miles removed from our perma-tanned TV presenter, but the reaction to both had something in common. In 2002, his second novel Platform generated considerable outcry for its abrasive comments about Islam. In an interview, Houellebecq declared that ‘Islam is a stupid religion’ and subsequently refused to back down.

Even in an avowedly secular society such as France, there was considerable unease at Houllebecq’s Koran-bashing. As one newspaper report put it: ‘While others might have had the entire French literary establishment cheering them on to defend free speech, Houllebecq has won the backing only of diehard free speech activists and a handful of fellow writers.’

The real disgruntlement was over the fact that Houllebecq broke the protocol of multiculturalism – by being critical of a non-European culture and beliefs. Though some publishers made high-minded but fairly sensible statements such as, ‘Literature’s calling is….to worry and to offend’.

There are unlikely to be any such lofty statements in support of Kilroy-Silk. He has clearly alienated too many BBC big wigs to be able to count on their support. But it is clear that the conformist grip of official ‘anti-racism’ grows ever tighter.

Read on:

The Kilroy side-show, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Free speech

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Topics Politics


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