Angry Oborne’s brush with pseudo-Cicero

Oliver Kamm

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, is angry. He often is. The latest spark for his anger is The Times, which he thinks is not a properly run newspaper. Oborne’s criticism should be judged on its merits; so should Oborne’s qualities as a commentator.

I’ve never met Oborne but I did an ill-tempered radio debate with him once, on the tenth anniversary of the euro. Oborne would presumably claim that the eurozone crisis has vindicated his prediction of the currency’s eventual demise (it hasn’t), but his reasoning stays with me. He argued that the yield spread between German government bonds and the debt of other eurozone members showed that markets expected the currency to fail – not the size of the spread, but the fact that there was a spread at all between different eurozone countries’ bond yields.

That’s like saying that the difference in municipal bond yields between Massachusetts and California shows that the market expects the dollar to collapse. In other words, it’s nonsense. Different countries within Europe’s currency union have different borrowing histories and (obviously) different credit ratings. Within the eurozone, fiscal policy remained with national governments, some of which borrowed too much. That’s why we are where we are.

My favourite Oborne column was a screed, when he was at the Daily Mail, against a welfare system that “blatantly rewards the workshy and the idle”. He concluded:

Writing more than 2,000 years ago, a Roman politician made the following observation: “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”

These words were uttered by Cicero in 55BC. Today they are every bit as apposite.

It will seem incredible, but Oborne copied this passage without checking it or apparently even noting the fantastic anachronism of a Roman statesman’s referring to “assistance to foreign lands”. The “apposite” quotation is entirely bogus.


If the press is to serve the people, Parliament should not seek to be its master.

The report from the Leveson Inquiry into the conduct of the press will be released on Thursday. Today, James Harding, Editor of The Times, sets out his alternative vision for press regulation; a middle ground between self-regulation and statutory regulation. Click here to read the article for free

Read The Times’s award-winning columns…for free!

To celebrate The Times’s haul of seven gongs in yesterday’s Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards, we’re giving one and all the chance to read the best from our winning columnists. But hurry, the doors are only open until 3pm on Friday, October 19…

David Aaronovitch wonCommentariat of the Year, the most highly-regarded award for a columnist:

Read his piece about Liam Stacey, the student who was given 56 days in prison for posting an offensive tweet about Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton footballer who collapsed on the pitch during an FA Cup match earlier this year.

Hugo Rifkind picked up Media Commentator of the Year:

Read his piece on Facebook and whether our desire to share everything with everyone might one day fade.

Tim Montgomerie was Political Commentator of the Year:

Read his column on how political competence trumps political celebrity.

Ann Treneman was Sketch Writer of the Year:

Read her lyrical piece on “a mud-slinging, cage-boxing scream-fest” between Ed Balls and George Osborne.

Write a column for The Times

James Dean

Columnists come in all shapes and sizes. Political heavyweights, lifestyle gurus, feminists, chauvinists, geeks, foodies, TV obsessives…sometimes all rolled into one (and also known as “polemicists”). But what makes them stand out from all the other talking heads? Why should they have a thousand or so printed words to play with every week?

It’s not usually their argument, but the way they put it. When they tell it, they tell it well. They grab your attention from the outset. An anecdote? A joke? A clever play on words? Maybe they wrap a friendly arm around you with a short scene-setter?

We’re giving final-year undergraduate students the opportunity to rub shoulders with The Times’s award-winning writers and have their own column published in the newspaper. The London Library Student Prize, in association with The Times and Milkround, is now open for your essays on Gap years: a new form of colonialism?

Abstract academic articles, poetry or short stories won’t win; we’re after a clever, beautifully written piece that will satisfy even the most discerning Times reader. The winner will also receive £5,000, one year’s membership of The London Library and a one-year subscription to The Times.

A few words from last year’s winner, Ben Mason:

My internship at The Times was fantastic beyond my expectations. I was allowed to get stuck in from the outset on the Arts desk, and on my third day I interviewed Benjamin Zephaniah, the performance poet, for a Times 2 feature.

What I enjoyed the most was seeing the workings of the paper at all levels. And all this while rubbing shoulders with David Aaronovitch and Hugo Rifkind, the writers I really look up to.

Separating the cream from the milk will be Bill Emmott, former Editor of The Economist and chairman of The London Library; award-winning author Patrick Ness; Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times; and Tom Gatti, Saturday Review Editor at The Times.

The prize is open to all final year undergraduates studying at higher education institutions in the UK. Entries must be no longer than 800 words and must be submitted by midnight on Friday, January 11, 2013. Click here for the entry guidelines, here for the terms and conditions, here for Ben’s winning essay and here to submit your entry.

First Prize: £5,000, one year’s membership of The London Library, one year’s subscription to The Times, entry published in The Times & The London Library magazine and the opportunity of a mini-internship at The Times.

Three Runners-Up: £1,000, one year’s membership of The London Library, one year’s subscription to The Times and the opportunity of a mini-internship at The Times.

For more information, go to the London Library website, e-mail or call 020 7766 4704.

Everywhere in the world there are people whose instinct on being upset is to smash or burn whatever or whoever it is that has upset them. Political maturity tempers their influence in two ways, first by creating a surrounding awareness that other strategies of opposition (such as campaigning, law or simply not caring) might be more effective and second by creating a fairly high threshold for the sorts of sins people have to have committed for smashing or burning to feel like a proportional response.

After the riots sparked by controversial film The Innocence of Muslims, Hugo Rifkind ponders the political maturity of Muslims in the Middle East

The main message of Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics, is not the incompleteness of Barack Obama. It is that cutting spending and long-term government borrowing is almost impossibly hard – even in America where there is strong political pressure to restrict the size of the State.

And this is why Britain should stick to its policy of deficit cutting despite foundering economic growth, says Daniel Finkelstein

As fast as staff are being cut back at Department for International Development, consultants are being appointed to fly around the world business class. Duke University has just been handed £5 million to produce a report on effective aid spending; another US consultancy has been given £10 million to advise Indian state governments on how to run their health services; management consultants for Christian Aid have been given a £24 million contract to advise Indians on how to narrow the gap between rich and poor. So while the Chinese, Germans and Americans compete to build roads abroad, the British are still following a paternalistic programme of advice and handouts.

At around £11 billion a year, Britain is second only to the US in terms of foreign aid spending – but we’re not doing the best we can with the money, Alice Thomson believes

Sadly, there is nothing in the early autumn air to suggest that the economic crisis is over. Things still look wobbly, messy and somewhat depressing. There is, moreover, one thing to note: a striking sort of unity among Western governments. None of them knows what to do. All are following the great Micawber’s principle: hoping that something will turn up.

And governments are making things worse by sticking obsessively to their austerity programmes, says Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist

Enjoyed our Olympics front covers? Want to know more about how they came into being? Then hit ‘play’ for a look behind the scenes at The Times.

You can also check out the covers photosets here and here.

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