Ben Lowry: The sacking of Kevin Myers silences one of the best columnists in the British Isles

Kevin Myers, who was dismissed as a columnist from the Sunday Times last week for an opinion piece that was said to be anti Semitic and misogynistic
Kevin Myers, who was dismissed as a columnist from the Sunday Times last week for an opinion piece that was said to be anti Semitic and misogynistic

Last week one of the best columnists in the British Isles was axed from the Sunday Times within hours of publication of his regular contribution.

By Sunday evening millions of people in the UK had heard of Kevin Myers for the first, and perhaps last, time.

But instead of being sacked, the very opposite should be happening.

Myers is such a talented writer that his columns were worthy of appearing in the full edition of the Sunday Times, not just the Irish one.

He would have been well placed alongside such names as Rod Liddle, Dominic Lawson and Jeremy Clarkson.

Myers thinks that his career as a columnist is now over and he is probably right.

I still hope that two things happen now to somewhat mitigate this sad outcome.

First, that some of the key thinkers in Great Britain, who were previously unaware of his work, search online for his past submissions. If so, Myers might emerge from this sorry saga with influential new admirers.

His controversial final column was behind a paywall until the Sunday Times pulled it from their website, but can be found online – critics of Myers have tweeted out an image of the article.

The column, about BBC pay and female equality, is far from his best work but is still an effortless description of some absurdities of an equality-at-all-costs mindset.

For more than a century commentators including George Orwell have charted the unintended consequences of such inflexible thinking when it is applied in practice.

Since last weekend, some London-based writers have indeed delved into Myers’ work. Writing in the i, a sister paper of the News Letter, the former editor of the Independent Simon Kelner, in an otherwise ill-informed dismissal of Myers, did recognise that a 2009 article of his on the holocaust “was a well written exposition of the danger in turning historical events into political dogma”.

The second thing that I hope happens is that Sunday Times staff in Dublin mount a defence of their decision to publish the article, which is now reported to be subject of an internal investigation at the newspaper.

Anyone who reads Myers regularly will not need to have heard him tell RTE or BBC Radio Ulster Talkback last week that he admired Jews because it was clear from his past writing.

When I re-read his references to Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz I think he could have re-worded to make clear if he genuinely “admired their chutzpah” in negotiating fees (as a friend of mine assumed on reading it).

But had he gone down that route, of caveating what he was saying and inserting sub-clauses to make clear he was not being anti Semitic, it would have interrupted his flow. That is not his style.

In libel law it is established that what the courts call the defence of “honest opinion” should be considered in the context of a commentator’s distinctive voice. If they have a consistently hard-hitting or dramatic tone, their words should be read with that in mind.

Our overall assessment of commentators should also be mindful of their voice.

Myers’ style is to barge through widely (but often wrongly) accepted societal wisdoms. He did not do this to shock, but to illustrate stupidity and injustice.

Frequently in columns he used satire – often hilarious, but at times it flopped.

At points it was unclear which tactic, funny or ferocious, he was deploying.

On occasion his whole thread became hard to follow, but that is often the way with great minds.

His Sunday Times former colleague Rod Liddle uses a similar mix of satire, anecdote and apparent cruelty to expose inconsistencies and muddled thinking that can lead to real cruelty in society.

Week after week Myers’ brilliance came fizzing off the page. His columns were unmissable.

I read so many newspapers and magazines, for both work and pleasure, that I try not to read stuff that looks interesting but non-essential. Otherwise all my time (as opposed to a large chunk of it) would be spent reading.

Often with Myers I began his column, wanting not to read it because I was short of time, but one paragraph would pull me into the next.

This is why he lasted so long at the Irish Times, and why there was a gap in that distinguished title when he left it. Likewise at the Irish Independent.

Now the Sunday Times has a hard gap to fill.

Myers, who has a flavour of the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, deserves a wider audience. But wider audiences might not understand how he commented on the world through the prism of Ireland, such was his love of the place (despite his exasperation with it). But his themes were universal.

He was an early critic of appeasement of violent Islamic fanatics.

He mocked the naïveté of anti war demonstrators who inadvertently help protect war mongering dictators.

He was one of the first people to see that if Europe accommodates large numbers of migrants, more will come (or die in the Med).

He ridiculed environmental opposition to nuclear power that resulted in more carbon emissions.

One of his final Sunday Times columns, a demolition of the Shell to Sea protest in Co Mayo, had a poignant reference to a young German man who died constructing a tunnel that Myers said was an unnecessary sop to the protestors.

His penultimate Sunday Times column, about Ireland and the EU, included this line: “Was their ever a campaign so devoid of ecological or socialist principle as the loud-mouthed left’s thuggish crusade against water charges, thereby allowing the rich in the over-plumbed homes, where even the kitchen has its own bidet, to waste water aplenty?”

An average Myers column would include several such inspired paragraphs.

As he said on the radio last week, his contempt for what he called “feminazis” was misconstrued as misogny.

He was popular in Northern Ireland for skewering apologists for republican murder and their appropriation of the language of human rights.

He tore into loyalists too. I remember a column about recently deceased killer that began with the memorable observation that the man had “just made an interesting discovery”(ie whether or not there’s a hell).

It is particularly unfortunate that Myers has been smeared an anti Semite when he defended that ultimate manifestation of the Jewish genius, the shining civilisation that is Israel.

He often charted how some ‘pro Palestinian’ activists ignore or excuse any wickedness if it is done in the name of anti Zionism.

By making enemies, Myers suffered snubs. He has been writing since the 1980s about Ireland’s failure to recognise southern Catholics who died in the Great War, yet he was not invited in 2011 when the Queen visited the Dublin memorial to them. Invitees included nationalist politicians who based careers on being unfriendly to the UK (the British Legion stepped in to give Myers one of their places).

I hope a paper hires Myers. I would want us to do so at the News Letter if we had a budget for a flank of columnists (as a small title we don’t).

If he doesn’t get a berth, perhaps he will set up a blog, where his fans will flock to read his common sense.

Or maybe he will write a mighty book on one of the grand themes on which he often touched, such as the threat to civilisation posed by well-meaning idiocy and sentimental thinking, as Douglas Murray has just done about Europe.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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