By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 06/11/06):
The last time I was in Kazakhstan, the hotel had lifts, and they went up and down. No wandering Kazakh ignoramus supposed them to be his bedroom. Almaty itself seemed a buoyant, bustling place: 36 or so nightclubs open till dawn. And Kazakh TV, beaming a live Question Time from a sophisticated set in a shopping centre that left the Elephant and Castle for dead, was thoroughly professional. I delivered my pitch for press freedom to camera (the reason for the visit) and was politely applauded. The dreaded Borat and his awful hairy assistant were nowhere in evidence.
But that’s nil surprise, of course, because Sacha Baron Cohen’s parody reporter comes from some universal parody land, Neverneverstan, where foreignness itself is funny: and since he’s a brilliant, anarchic clown, that’s more than enough to set cinema box offices bulging. Who, apart from Kazakhstan’s small, smart-suited president could possibly grow aggrieved? Oz coped with Dame Edna, after all. Can’t Kazakhs laugh with the world and forget that the world laughs at them? In a sense, their outrage only makes things worse.
But pull the noose of such outrage a little tighter. I was talking the other day – about press freedom again – to a group of five young Albanian journalists. They were clever, sympathetic and effortlessly bilingual. They were also pretty sore about AA Gill.
You may remember the Gill article in question – from a Sunday Times supplement in July. He called Albanians “short and ferret-faced, with the unisex, slightly bowed legs of Shetland ponies” and “surprisingly fair skins”. He called Albania “a Ruritania of brigands and vendettas” where, out of four million people, one million live abroad “and what they do is mostly illegal”, like running “the Asda of mayhem” for covert arms trading. He called the Albanian language “a ready-made code for criminals”.
Maureen Lipman once wrote that the four little printed words which gave her the greatest joy read simply “AA Gill is away”. The difficulty here, though, was that he’d been away in Tirana – and Albanians were both incensed and hurt. They are still seething, three months later. My furious five, none of them remotely as physically caricatured, all of them intelligent and increasingly proud of Albania’s progress (“Every year you must come back and see the difference,” one said) didn’t know why they had to endure such spleen with a sporting grin. Neither, to be frank, did I.
You could gallantly try to argue that Gill is similarly grisly about the English – “the lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd”, and about those “dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls”, the Welsh. But parity of putrescent invective doesn’t quite do the trick. Nor does a Press Complaints Commission ruling that AA is “entitled to take a negative view of the place and to share it with the readers, who would be aware from the manner in which it was presented that the article represented his own subjective position rather than an indisputable statement of fact”.
A bit of beefy-bummed case law, I fear. Anything goes if sufficiently over the top. Don’t be surprised then that Albanian rancour lingers. What have they done to deserve swallowing this poison Gill? Why can’t they hit him back where it hurts? British “freedom” can dish it out OK – but how do we feel about taking punishment? Remember the fuss when Jacques Chirac sniffed loudly over UK cuisine. Remember the old scrapbook of slights named “Jacques Delors”.
Wince over too many Time magazine cover stories, as a dismissive word out of place sends the red-tops into lathering overdrive. We can foul our own nest, to be sure. We can lead front pages and bulletins with compotes of gloom about overweight, Asbo-flouting teenagers more prone to hooliganism, drugs and crime than any others in Europe. We can dub the denizens Downing Street liars and scream for more prison places in a land the dear old Daily Mail knows has gone to the dogs. But the moment somebody over there (as opposed to somebody over here) weighs in, we mass ranks and snarl defiance.
Albanians? Painted black with a broad, broad brush. Bulgarians? They’re first in line for a kicking now that Dr Reid, not the FO, is in charge. Romanians? See them clutching babies and begging at traffic lights? They are, all of them, somehow menacing and malign and coming to get us. They are foreign immigrant hordes of the very worst kind, unlike the unmentioned one million Brits (half of them unregistered) who have pushed off to Spain and star in movies like Sexy Beast. We love Borat, or even AA Gill, as long as the joke isn’t on us. We adore parodyland, as long as it’s not GB.