My colleague and friend Peter Oborne is an ornament to journalism, but when I read in his Thursday column in this space that he had “apologised on behalf of the British people”, I gasped. I had not known until then that any newspaper columnist, however distinguished, had that mandate.
Being, unlike the plenipotentiary Peter, but one of those 60 million people, I can speak only for myself. I feel cross. Peter was apologising for an alleged wrong that has not yet come before a court. He says it is “a story to make any patriotic Briton … weep with horror and shame”. I say, hold on a minute. Part of the “decency and the rule of law” that Peter rightly identifies with our national spirit is, surely, not to believe the worst of British citizens and British institutions before a case is proved in law, especially when the accusations are hurled by foreign citizens who, to put it politely, have axes to grind.
The person who received from Peter the contrition of 60 million Britons “in his vast suite of rooms at the top of Tripoli’s Radisson Hotel last week” is a Libyan revolutionary called Abdulhakim Belhadj. Mr Belhadj used to be head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, widely regarded as his country