I have to admit that I missed David Cox’s article about Hunger on the Guardian’s film blog, which was published on November 3rd, and only discovered it retrospectively after seeing the reader’s editor piece on it.
For those not familiar with the film, it deals with the 1981 IRA hunger strikes inside the Maze prison.
It premiered to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and it also garnered similar reviews on it’s UK release.
Despite some early articles predicting ‘controversy’, it hasn’t really materialised, mainly because the film doesn’t seek to be a political polemic, but rather an exploration of the reasons and realities of life inside the prison.
One of the actors in the film (Liam Cunningham) recently told me that when it was screened in Belfast last month, the reception from both sides of the political divide was positive because it took a human look at this dark chapter of The Troubles.
So it is extremely disappointing to read Cox’s silly and offensive rant about the film, which possibly qualifies as one of the worst articles I’ve ever read in a paper I generally admire and respect.
I would encourage you to read it for yourself but there are some sentences worth highlighting.
On the conditions in the prison, as depicted in the film, he says:
Far from being shocked at seeing the inmates roughed up a bit, I found myself wishing they’d been properly tortured, preferably savagely, imaginatively and continuously.
So, a Guardian journalist advocates torture. I realise we have had an historic week for other reasons but I really never thought I would see the day.
I assume he is making a feeble attempt at a joke but given the appalling torture scandals in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, you’ll have to excuse me for finding this both trite and disgusting.
But I don’t need to tell you that as even Cox admits that what he is writing is ‘immoderate’ and ‘reprehensible’:
I appreciate that my responses to this beautifully made film are uncharitable, immoderate and indeed reprehensible.
Yet, the men heroised in Hunger chose to murder my fellow citizens, on their own island and mine, indiscriminately and brutally, in pursuit of a cause I consider unimpressive. What do you expect me to feel?
Well, you can feel what you like, but before putting your thoughts down for a serious newspaper, I would suggest you think a bit more deeply about not only the long and complex history between England and Ireland, but also about a film which is clearly operating on a level far above your shameful ramblings.
For good measure he even chucks in an offensive term for Catholics when discussing the nationality of the director Steve McQueen:
Admittedly, some of my compatriots seem better able to contain their rancour.
Hunger’s writer/director, Steve McQueen, isn’t some baleful, unreconstructed Fenian, but a Londoner sporting an OBE.
Given that the term ‘Fenian’ has often been used as a derogatory slur against Catholics, I would suggest this was unwise at best and more to the point, what has McQueen’s nationality got to do with anything?
Clearly this is something of a pet peeve, as he goes on to question why British directors like Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass should have the gall to use British money in order to make films about one of the most important historical episodes in our recent history:
His film was funded not by Libya Movies or the Boston Irish Benevolent Society but by Film Four, the Wales Creative IP Fund and the UK Film Council.
Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but there still seems something a little odd here. Wasn’t the United Kingdom the entity that the IRA was created to destroy? Would Israel subsidise an admiring biopic about Leila Khaled?
Yet, Hunger isn’t alone. The UK Film Council also found cash for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, whose sturdily English director hails from Nuneaton. Granada had a hand in Bloody Sunday, and that film’s director was born in Cheam.
Cox seems to be implying that there is some kind of irony in British directors making films that ‘glorify’ an enemy bent on ‘destroying’ the UK.
Neither film glorifies terrorism or indeed the Republican cause, so what exactly is his point?
Furthermore, if the UK Film Council were to go insane and select directors for subjects based on their nationality, then surely this is the kind of prejudice and narrow minded thinking that leads to division and conflict?
But clearly levelheaded tolerance is in short supply on this corner of the Guardian’s film blog:
Doesn’t it ever occur to the British film industry’s luminaries that Britain’s role in The Troubles could also be celebrated, at least occasionally?
It was, after all, shaped by the call of duty, rather than misplaced nationalist fervour.
What kind of film is he talking about here?
A possible subject comes to mind. Captain Robert Nairac, a maverick undercover agent, was abducted, savagely tortured and killed by the IRA. His assassin subsequently said, “Nairac was the bravest man I ever met. He told us nothing”.
Yet Nairac was a Catholic. His last words were “Bless me Father, for I have sinned”. All of this seems to me to make him a more interesting as well as a more heroic character than Bobby Sands.
Is Hunger making Sands out to be a hero? I don’t think so, but to go down the road of making films celebrating either the Unionist or Republican position on the Troubles strikes me as a very slippery one indeed.
Surely this is nonsensical – it is best to just let artists and writers bring their vision to the screen and judge them on the final result.
If you read through the comments on the post (currently 848 as I write this) you’ll find that many have taken offence and complained at the lowering of standards at The Guardian.
The reader’s editor posted her own piece about this, saying:
More than 700 comments were posted to it, but let’s not confuse that with popularity: “grossly antagonistic”, “hysterical”, “uninformed view of Irish history”, “rabble-rousing”, “anti-Irish”, “bigoted” and “a spittle-flecked BNP-style rant” were just some of the objections to it.
How did Cox offend readers? Let me count the ways. Talking about scenes in the film that showed the brutal treatment of republican prisoners at the Maze he said: “Far from being shocked at seeing the inmates roughed up a bit, I found myself wishing they’d been properly tortured, preferably savagely, imaginatively and continuously.”
Many commenters and nearly all of the 21 people who complained to me objected to that statement, which appeared to advocate torture, being published by the Guardian.
It’s obvious that the Guardian doesn’t endorse all of the frequently diverging views in all the comment pieces it publishes, and other articles about Hunger had a different slant. However, fragmentation of web content means that readers of Cox’s blog may not have seen them.
It’s not that a dissenting view on Hunger is a bad thing, it is more that a bone-headed and offensive pile of rubbish was spewed all over a normally respectable and intelligent part of the web.
But Siobhain goes on to get Cox’s reply and that of the film site’s editor, which is revealing to say the least:
Cox went on: “You see, what kept coming into my mind (although not into the film) was the treatment that these same victims of the shovings and beatings had meted out to the victims of their own bullets and bombs.”
What on earth this has to do in a serious discussion of the film (as distinct from the actual horrors of the Troubles) is beyond me, but anyway let’s continue:
He told me that it was a misrepresentation to suggest that he was actually advocating torture and the film site’s editor said that his blog was a gut response to Hunger.
Well, it isn’t a ‘misrepresentation’ if he actually wrote a sentence advocating torture is it? And if he is making an attempt at satire, then I would humbly suggest that it has failed miserably.
Just because scenes in Hunger made him think of the victims of the IRA doesn’t really mean anything unless he forms that ‘gut reaction’ into a sensible point about the film.
I bring this up because one of the most shocking scenes – which he neglects to mention – is actually a brutal and callous murder by an IRA gunman.
The site’s editor says:
“Film-makers provoke a reaction and the film blog is a forum for discussing reactions to films,” she told me.
Well, that’s all fine except I think this particular comment piece crossed several lines.
Furthermore, it annoys me that some editors on newspapers appear to think that tendentious crap can be passed off as colourful comment simply because ‘its on a blog’.
Whether it is in print, online or on a podcast I expect there to be some quality and consistency from a news organisation like The Guardian.
To be fair, the reader’s editor does admit:
It was an extremely provocative blog that deliberately treated a sensitive subject insensitively.
…As more than one objector said, it was “incendiary”, but in the end Cox appeared to be hoist by his own petard.
There was limited support for his diatribe and, while his approach to the subject matter was a recipe for a polarised and nasty debate, there is evidence that many commenters resisted the urge to match Cox’s intemperate tone.
Generally, they raised the level of debate and the discussion was, in many places, markedly courteous.
Which is more than can be said of Cox, who is fairly unrepentant in his final reply:
Cox has no regrets about causing offence.
“There is a strong tradition in English journalism, dating back to Swift … of robust expression on matters of great sensitivity,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s true that we can debate just as effectively if we all express ourselves in as genteel fashion as Victorian maiden aunts might have done.”
I’m all for robust debate but I want intelligence and facts too, which is ironic because as this one perceptive comment points out:
Swift was Irish, you ignorant pillock