The Murder of Jo Cox
Allan Pond smells a rat
No, what follows is not some mad conspiracy theory. A mother of two small children was murdered in the street of a quiet Yorkshire town. An appalling and shocking event. It is not the event but the accounting of it, the commentary, the outpouring of grief which has a synthetic and frankly nauseous feel to it. That may sound heartless, yet the story that we are being told is not the account of an event and the understandable shock that follows from it, but the creation of a very convenient narrative which is both troubling but also extremely dangerous.
Not having heard of Jo Cox before the tragic news of her killing was reported there is no particular reason why one should have done. Most people have never heard of 90% of MP’s. Politicians rarely cross the paths of ordinary people, less so today than maybe years ago when public meetings and hustings and canvassing for votes on the doorstep was the norm rather than the rarereties that they have become today. But the media’s transformation of an obscure, though undoubtedly conscientious and by all accounts likeable, MP into a liberal icon is wondrous to behold. She seems in these accounts to have been a combination of Mother Theresa and Winston Churchill. Her sister described her as a ‘perfect person’ and grief of course excuses that exaggeration. But of course none of us is perfect. We are all flawed. The troubling aspect is that her promotion to a secular sainthood seems to be part of a much wider and far more convenient narrative especially at the present time. Let us try to deconstruct this narrative; to show its architecture as well as its underlying purpose; partly by pointing to some of the holes and contradictions in the story as told; clever and subtle though in many ways it is, it is certainly not seamless. It uses the death of a person to try to make a political point certainly but that is not the only reason why one finds this narrative worrying, indeed dangerous. It is because it seems designed to bolster the contemporary mood of pious liberal totalitarianism that is increasingly infecting our public discourse and silencing dissenting and contrarian voices.
First the events themselves. A woman was stabbed and shot by a man outside a library and she subsequently died from her injuries. That much is agreed on by everyone. After that everything becomes cloudy. Of course in any event, especially a fast moving and frightening one, eye witness accounts will often vary and sometimes flatly contradict each other. Instant recall can be difficult and memory can play strange tricks. Events can become distorted, telescoped, transposed; possibly even imagined. Allowances have to be made and the police are expert at sifting out the false, or, more benignly, distorted memories from the true. Original accounts in the immediate aftermath, as reported, suggested that an argument had developed outside the library between two people, one of whom was the alleged killer. The commotion was heard inside the library which caused the MP to come outside to see what was going on. It was said by some witnesses that she tried to intervene; some mentioning that one of the two men was already lying on the ground having been stabbed and was now being kicked in the head by the other, and then the assailant turned on her and stabbed, then shot her.
This was the first account that was active late on the same day that she was attacked. But even at this early stage some contradictory elements were already present and working their yeast to feed a wider, more tendentious, narrative line. One witness at least claimed that he heard the killer, as he assaulted the MP, shout either ‘Put Britain First’ or ‘Britain First’. Now these are clearly not the same. ‘Put Britain First’ is a general statement of intent that could mean a number of things; put Britain before the EU, or before foreigners, or before political party advantage, or indeed a whole host of things only known to the mind of the person uttering such a slogan. ‘Britain First’ could have the same meaning but was almost immediately taken to refer to an organisation with the same name which immediately was linked to ‘the far right’ and speculatively to ‘the BNP’ and ‘former’ members.
Britain First is an anti-Islamist group that stands for a strongly unionist platform. It is a perfectly legal organisation. But the link immediately served the purpose of contextualising this attack as political and not just that but as ‘right wing’ political and therefore as obviously extreme, rather than a motiveless action by a disturbed individual.
Other eye witnesses denied that they had heard the alleged attacker utter anything at all. However, the hare had already been set running in these first few minutes of broadcast reporting of the incident, that this was obviously an attack by a right-wing nutcase. To set up this particular reading further interpretative and elaborative work had to be done and this indeed was soon put in place. The initial account, of two men arguing, perhaps fighting, and the MP coming out to remonstrate or to help calm the situation that soon tragically escalated, still has the plausible ring of truth to it. So many times things like this do happen.
Very early on, while this account was still the dominant narrative, it was embroidered on, again by the media reports of ‘what an eye witness had said’, that one of the two men arguing had been a muslim and that it was the muslim that was the one on the ground being kicked and that the MP had gone to his aid. So now we have a white man attacking a muslim. Although this quickly disappeared from other accounts, it clearly was the one informing that evening’s Channel 4 News coverage since their reporter at the scene Matt Frei had cobbled together an instant panel that included an immam from the local Mosque and the tone of his questioning was along the lines of ‘has this harmed community relations’ ? ‘can community relations be healed ?’ and so forth, thus framing the story as an attack on muslims as well as a murder of an MP. Though this partly reflects a curious Channel 4 obssession, noticeable in much of its news coverage, that muslims are constantly the victims of white ‘racism’, the muslim man quickly disappeared from the account, yet it set off another hare that was weaved into the narrative as time went on.
We shall return to the developing creation of the wider narrative in a moment. What about the alleged killer? Although his political motivation was already up and running it had to lie alongside more inconvenient information (for the eventual narrative) about the man’s mental state and indeed other aspects of his character. He was clearly an emotionally disturbed person but unlike some he was very honest about his condition and had indeed sought help on a number of occasions in the past. He had become a volunteer in a local conservation charity and had found gardening helped with his feelings of depression. People living near him who knew him described him as a quiet but friendly man. He had helped Asian children learn English. No one who knew him had heard him express any political views whatsoever. This was clearly proving awkward for those pushing the right-wing nutter angle. A reporter directly asked a lady who knew him well whether she had ever heard him make racist comments. ‘No, never’ was her reply.
Now that of course proves nothing either way. It merely points to a tension in the attempt to spin a certain line that was already beginning to emerge on the day of the event; that this was a politically motivated murder; an act of ‘terrorism’ carried out by a white ‘racist’. This remained the dominant theme, though soon it was underpinned by melodic variations that we will return to shortly. Now the alleged killer could of course have been all these things I suppose; a kindly, quiet man, suffering from bouts of depression, who liked to help Asian children learn English and old people carry their shopping and who had some right-wing views. And why not? None of us are one-dimensional, we all have depths some unplumbed even by us. Is there any reason why right wing views should not be allied to a quiet, kindly nature, or is it only the left who are kind? Is helping Asian children learn in contradiction to being patriotic? Does one not actually imply the other, that we want those who have come to live among us feel welcome, learn our ways and speak our language ? And suffering from depression can strike anyone irrespective of their political views or whether they have any at all. So though none or all of these factors might be relevant, we have no way of knowing without his direct testimony why the alleged killer did what he did. And even his testimony itself might be contradictory. When depressed we are often confused, unsure of what our feelings or motives actually are. But none of that caution stops the rumour mills or the instant rush to judgement which our 24 hour news cycle now demands.
It has to be fed and so we return to the unfolding narrative, now some hours and into days after the sad events themselves. And now the story changes significantly as some new characters are introduced onto the stage to replace the old ones. Enter first an American organisation called the Southern Poverty Law Centre, who reported that the alleged killer had purchased various Nazi pamphlets, subscribed to an obscure pro-apartheid magazine, and acquired a manual on how to make a home made gun – and they sent the media copies of the receipts to prove it. These purchases had been made about fifteen years ago. How they came by this information – presumably they didn’t sell these items to the killer directly themselves! – remained unexplained and the media didn’t seem that interested to try and find out. However it effectively secured a central narrative pin, the right-wing extremist nature of the crime.
And then by Sunday morning the narrative had taken a rather new line in terms of the actual events themselves. The stabbed man, no longer a muslim, was in fact a retired miner and working class Labour Party supporter who had been passing and went to the aid of the MP rather than vice-versa. Something of a local hero in fact because thirty years ago he had risked his own life rescuing colleagues from a pit flood in which seven miners died. But the muslim angle, still clearly central and necessary for the narrative to do its wider work, was now provided by the hijab wearing (a very necessary detail this obviously) personal assistant to the MP who went to her aid. The story now is now that far from coming out of the library to calm an altercation between two fighting men, the MP had not even got to the library at all, but was apparently ambushed as she got out of her car which was being driven by her muslim p.a. who attempted to fight off the knife and gun wielding assailant with her handbag and thankfully remained uninjured. This account was provided to the media by her father, a former Labour councillor in the town, as his daughter was still in shock and unable to provide a statement.
And now the circus is in full swing. Abroad Angela Merkel gets in on the act and blames the referendum debate for the killing, soon copied in foreign press coverage, but this merely is rear guarding the column of commentators already drawing the same lesson here. Campaigning in the referendum is suspended as a mark of respect. David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn do a joint photo opportunity in the town to demonstrate that ‘extremism will not defeat democracy’ and Cameron and the Liberals then announce they will not contest the bye election in the dead MP s constituency, which is surely a denial of democracy. (When Ian Gow was blown up by an IRA bomb in the 1990s, the opposition parties contested that by election and in due course the government lost the seat). Memorial services and vigils are held up and down the country, flags flutter at half mast, and tears are shed and hands are wrung over the sorry nature of the tone of debate that has characterised politics, especially the EU referendum recently and people talk about a change of mood and a new, kinder, saintlier political discourse in future.
One does not want to be cynical but isn’t this all a bit too convenient ? The spatch cock construction of the narrative line, the changing cast of characters and the transformation of a seemingly random act of violence into a premeditated political assassination has served a wider purpose than merely to slow the momentum of the ‘leave’ campaign in the referendum although that was clearly the hope. The wider purpose is to demonise all those who do not sign up to a liberal view of the world and to depict those who oppose the EU as ‘racist’, extreme, swivel eyed loons who hate foreigners.
The killing of Jo Cox was an awful act and a real tragedy. She wanted us to stay in the EU. I want to leave. But the many many thousands if not millions of other ‘leave’ supporters would not dream of murdering their opponents. To even suggest that this act of violence might be motivated by one side or other in the debate is despicable. The outpouring of grief may well be genuine, though it seems to demonstrate a level of emotional incontinence. Mary Riddell in The Telegraph called the killing of the MP an ‘atrocity’ which is absurd. As George Orwell perceptively noted many years ago, when we abuse and inflate language in this way we are left defenceless and unable to name the evils of this world. And one of the evils of this world is a liberal bigotry that when its back is against the wall will opportunistically use almost any event, even the murder of a mother, to serve its cause.
ALLAN POND is the author a forthcoming book on conservatism. He writes from Northumberland