UK

Jeremy Paxman Brands Conscientious Objectors Of WW1 'Cranks' – Twitter Reacts

04/02/2014 10:51 GMT | Updated 18/02/2014 10:59 GMT
BBC

Jeremy Paxman has come under fire for branding conscientious objectors of World War One "cranks."

The BBC veteran's new series for BBC One, Britain’s Great War, marks, a little early, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

In the latest episode, with typical nostril-flaring consternation, Paxman explained how the whole population of Britain was enlisted to turn the country into a war machine – detailing those who withstood pressure from the government.

The Newsnight presenter has faced a fierce backlash from religious groups and users of social media sites following his "condescending" attitude towards those who objected to the war.

Conscientious objectors, or "conscies as they were mockingly known, weren't exactly popular," he described.

"To be honest extreme conscientious objectors have always struck me as cranks," he said.

Yes the war was bad, he acknowledged, but it had to be fought to stop Europe being turned into some kind of "enormous German colony."

A group of Quakers has said the presenter's comments were "particularly disappointing."

Philip Austin, the Co-ordinator of the Northern Friends Peace Board, told The Huffington Post UK that conscientious objectors in the First World War "broke important ground in creating the now widely (though, sadly, not universally) recognised right to refuse to kill."

"That they did so at such cost to themselves and their families is an inspiration to many and so it was particularly disappointing to hear the apparently glib dismissal of them as cranks."

During WW1, men between 19-40 were ordered to enlist – with failure to attend being branded as desertion. Authorities rounded men up, while courts all over the country heard from those "who believed they had a right to stay at home," Paxman said.

Historically, many conscientious objectors have been executed, imprisoned, or otherwise penalised when their beliefs led to actions conflicting with their society's legal system or government.

"It seems to me remarkable that a country which considered itself in the grips of a struggle for national survival, none the less allowed individual citizens to decide whether they could reconcile that struggle with their personal conscience. It didn't happen elsewhere in Europe," Paxman argued.

Speaking to a surviving relative of one such conscientious objector, Paxman queried whether objectors were "just being awkward."

"No, he really, genuinely believed that it was absolutely wrong to kill another human being," Majorie Gaudie retorted, looking slightly stunned.

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But Paxman, in typical form, pushed his interviewee, asking, with wide-eyed innocence: "Even if it came at the price of your country being invaded...?"

"At any price, that's how he felt," Ms Gaudie replied – firmly.

Her relative, one of the Richmond 16, was ultimately put in jail for much of the war.

Paxman's attitude towards objectors of the war was not the only eyebrow-raising segment of last night's episode.

Many viewers were also left unhappy with the presenter's treatment of union workers who went on strike in the midst of WW1.

As the Government launched stricter rules on enlisting and industrial action, "Britain was learning to do as it was told," he explained.

But not everyone was "learning to knuckle down to Government demands," he said, referring to industrial workers who went on strike over accusations that their employers were callously profiteering from the war effort.

These workers were "difficult buggers," Paxman concluded, pondering whether it was an act of "disloyalty" for the trade unionists to "be difficult," during a time of war.

Many took to Twitter to voice their concerns: