Eamonn McCann - ‘Not the worst he’s said’

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BBC presenter Andrew Marr has been battered by a barrage of anger for his disrespectful comments on the Titanic celebrations.

“Are we going to be doing this for fatal air crashes in future?” he asked on his Sunday morning BBC2 programme. “I think it is sordid and tasteless and very dull and I hope after today we won’t hear any more about this sad story except from the driest of dry historians,”

MLAs, newspaper columnists and ‘phone-in crazies have been hopping with outrage ever since. But surely this was one of Mr. Marr’s less offensive outbursts. It hardly compares with his cheer-leading for the war on Iraq, for example.

Back in 2003, Marr was the BBC’s political editor. On the night the bombers went in to blitz Baghdad, he reported live from Downing Street.

Blair, he told viewers, had promised “to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right….Tonight he stands as a larger man.”

Neither Marr nor the BBC has ever apologised for passing off this piece of crude war propaganda as news - as egregious a breach of journalistic standards as has ever stained the corporation’s reputation.

It is one thing to make a mistake or to be carried away by emotion. It is another to misrepresent the facts in a matter of war and peace, life and death, and then, despite prompting over a number of years, repeatedly to refuse to correct the misrepresentation.

Despite all this, I find myself having to say that I am fully with Marr when it comes to the Titanic. Or, more accurately, when it comes to the circus-celebration of the centenary of the ship going down.

However, balanced and objective as ever, I should pass on to readers one positive Titanic story which, surprisingly, hasn’t surfaced in the mainstream media but which has been brought to my attention by Margaret Ward of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency.

It seems I was wrong when I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the chivalrous old principle of “Women and children first!” had been tossed overboard from the Titanic the instant the faulty rivets starting popping. Swedish researchers Mikeal Elinder and Oscar Erixon have studied the relative gender survival rate in 18 maritime disasters involving 15,141 people. They found that men were twice as likely as women to survive a sinking - 34.5 percent of men, only 17.8 percent of women. The two most striking exceptions were the Titanic and the Birkenhead (which went down off the coast of Cape Town in 1852). In both these cases, it appears that women and children were, indeed, first into the lifeboats and the most likely to survive.

On the Titanic, 26.7 per cent of women perished and 50 per cent of the children. But the death-rate for men was 80 percent.

Compare this with the Estonia disaster in the Baltic in 1994, in which 852 of 989 people on board perished: 22 percent of the men survived, only 5.4 percent of women.

Viewed in this perspective, the captain and crew of the Titanic behaved altogether admirably.

Strange that this doesn’t figure in the standard narrative of the disaster. Even stranger - it has hardly been mentioned in the obsessive retelling of the tale over the past month.

Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal every Tuesday