Speak ill of the dead if they deserve it

By Stephen Pollard
May 22, 2007

In his Times Noteboook, Oliver Kamm refers to the curious notion of not speaking ill of the dead:

Is there merit in the mild hypocrisy of not speaking ill of the recently deceased? Not in the case of public figures who influence policy or exercise office. After 9/11, Falwell held responsible not the theocratic fanatics who ordered and committed mass murder, but American feminists, homosexuals and civil libertarians. A toxic figure in life is not less so in posthumous influence.

Quite. A while ago I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph about Peter Ustinov:

The praise heaped on Sir Peter Ustinov since his death last week has been stomach-churning. He may well have had a gift for anecdote and he was a perfectly adequate actor; but his politics were so vile, and his judgment so warped, that it beggars belief that his death should have been met with praise such as "great humanitarian", "selfless" and "visionary".

Except, of course, that it doesn't beggar belief at all. Ustinov was representative of, and admired by, a loathsome strand of thinking that infects the British establishment, which holds that if a man is clubbable and witty, he is a "good chap". And, even better, if he is a man of affairs: then he is a "very good chap". It doesn't matter what he thinks.

I have tried to fathom how else a man with Ustinov's record of excusing tyrants and defending tyranny could have been so eulogised. The butchers of Tiananmen Square, Stalin, Milosevic, bin Laden, Saddam: he defended or gave succour to the lot.

Among his many accolades, Sir Peter was chancellor of Durham University. In an address to the university in 2000, he made clear that, as far as he was concerned, Chinese dissidents are not real human beings: "People are annoyed with the Chinese for not respecting more human rights. But with a population that size it's very difficult to have the same attitude to human rights." So it is fine to kill them or let them rot in prison. We really should be more understanding of the Chinese government.

Hardly surprising really, given his attitude to the gulags. In his book, My Russia - a grotesque piece of Soviet sycophancy - he conceded only that Stalin had caused "suffering" to "thousands" - as if the gulags were a nasty outbreak of food poisoning on a busy night in a Solihull balti house. Then there was his television series, Peter Ustinov's Russia. Noel Malcolm's review said it all: Ustinov showed "all the investigative inclinations of an Intourist guide with a coach party and a lobotomy".

...Not that it was only Communists he defended. He opposed the military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan and criticised moves against Osama bin Laden: "You can't fight terrorism without becoming a terrorist yourself." Is that right, Sir Peter? What a shame he won't be around to point that out to al-Qaeda's next victims.

He opposed - as if I needed to tell you - the Iraq war and thus would rather Saddam Hussein were still in power. Not just Saddam: he considered it quite wrong that Slobodan Milosevic should have been removed from power and put on trial. He should have been left alone to murder at will. Intervention against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo "was a mistake because it was not done through the UN".

There were some people he did want to convict, though: businessmen. "The formation of the committee for the World Criminal Court is very important because there are corporations more powerful than many governments." Stalin: OK; business: criminal; al-Qaeda and the US: moral equals. Murdering Chinese dissidents: good; removing tyrants: bad. That was the world view of Sir Peter Ustinov, "humanitarian".

I was bombarded with emails, and the Sunday Telegraph received many letters. Almost all attacked me for being unseemly enough to point out Ustinov's disgusting sycophancy towards tryranny in the week after he had died. I still don't get it. If a man was a sh*t then he was a sh*t, and it makes no difference whether one says that the day after he dies or ten years later.


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