More single mothers please, says Mail

The Mail is keen for there to be more unmarried mothers. Don’t look so staggered, it’s on today’s front page.  “NHS spends £1m a week on repeat abortions: Single women using terminations ‘as another form of contraceptive'”, the headline wails, and the body copy adds plaintively, “According to the statistics, single or unmarried women account for five out of every six repeat terminations.” There’s only one implication I can see: the Mail thinks abortion should be available exclusively to those with a ring on their finger. Continue reading

“There are upsides to being this obnoxious”: why newspapers hate me for being successful

By the Daily Mail

The other day, I got over 1.5 million hits. “They’ve come from Twitter,” explained the digital editor, “to tell you what a repulsive pustule on the face of journalism you are.”

You’re probably thinking, “What a lovely surprise!” But while it was lovely, it wasn’t a surprise. At least, not for me.

Throughout my online life, I’ve regularly had hordes of readers sent my way by people who think they’re better than me and want their friends and followers to share in the glow of moral superiority that only right-wing rags can shed over liberal-leaning punters. Continue reading

The political myth kitty

Criticising the media gets boring. Even Chris Morris – who did it better than anyone with The Day Today and Brass Eye – found that he couldn’t bear to do it anymore when he came to work out his response to the war on terror: “I did formalise some ideas,” he told the Guardian, “but the jokes were all concerned with media coverage and perception, rather than the issue itself. And when you’ve already had a crack at media language, you can only do it a few times before you know how it works.” Continue reading

PCC rules on Mail homophobia: snippy is fine

At the beginning of October, Iain Dale suddenly noticed that The Mail was not very nice about gay people and put in a complaint to the PCC. Or at least, he noticed that The Mail was not very nice about him, and the focus of their abuse was his sexuality. Anyway, the PCC have issued their judgement on the case – and the original column is ok with them:

In coming to a conclusion on the matter, the Commission had to have regard to the context in which the remarks were made. They appeared in a diary column which is well known for its mischievous – and sometimes self-consciously fusty – remarks that poke fun at the antics of public figures. The piece followed the complainant’s own comments to Pink News – a news website aimed at gay people – about his attempt to secure the nomination in Bracknell. It may have been an uncharitable account of the complainant’s position – and any intended humour may have been lost on some readers – but the item appeared to be relevant to the news, and to fit into the column’s style, rather than constitute an arbitrary attack on him on the basis of his sexuality.

This might strike some as a fine distinction to make, but where it is debatable – as in this case – about whether remarks can be regarded solely as pejorative and gratuitous, the Commission should be slow to restrict the right to express an opinion, however snippy it might be. While people may occasionally be insulted or upset by what is said about them in newspapers, the right to freedom of expression that journalists enjoy also includes the right – within the law – to give offence. The Commission regretted that the item had upset the complainant, but the complaint was not upheld.

PCC, “Adjudicated – Iain Dale v Daily Mail”

Within the broader politics of the Daily Mail, which consistently figures homosexuality as some sort of threat to the nation (see this report, where the US electorate’s rejection of same-sex marriage is called “a victory for traditional marriage”), the Ephraim Hardcastle column was mild stuff. And given that the PCC has previously asserted that Mail columnists are entitled to claim plain untruths about homosexuality as “facts”, it would be hard for them to penalise the Mail now for using a snide tone to report something that actually happened.

In fact, snarking that “gays all stick together, don’t they?” is barely worth more than a quiver of outrage when there are those who object to extending basic human rights to gay people – the right to marry someone they love and fancy, the right to have a family. The Conservative Party’s group in the European Parliament, for example, includes Valdemar Tomasevski MEP, who describes homosexuality as an “evil” from which children must be “protected”. It’s easier for the Tory party to ally with outright homophobes than it is for them to confront their own Eurosceptics. If Dale really is distressed by hate and prejudice, he might want to modify his support for Cameron’s European policy.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

The Tories, the Mail and the homophobes

The Daily Mail would like its readers to consider homosexuality. In particular, the Ephraim Hardcastle column invites you to reflect on Iain Dale, prospective Tory candidate for Bracknell, in light of his sexuality – “overtly gay”, because in Mail-land the appropriate attitude for gayness is “closeted and depressed”. But there’s more! “Overtly gay” Iain has invited other gays to participate in the political process by giving an interview to PinkNews. “Isn’t it charming how homosexuals rally like-minded chaps to their cause?” sniffs Hardcastle, because the Mail just knows that these gays keep their politics in their jeans’ back pocket.

I hope Iain and his readers will be successful in registering their polite disgust with the newspaper’s editors. And maybe, having been roused to concern over the malign influence of homophobia in politics, they’ll also question their party’s associations in Europe and the alliances that have been formed with overtly gay-hating political groups – although Iain has seemed pretty sanguine about that so far. Maybe they’ll even decide that ad-hom attacks are off-limits, or that tabloid reporting is broken and unreliable. Maybe. But for now, good luck with those complaints.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Littlejohn and the English language

Richard Littlejohn’s enconium on Keith Waterhouse reads like a list of the absolute minimum that could be expected of a professional writer. You turn your copy in on time. You write the appropriate number of words. You don’t fuck up the grammar. These are probably rarer skills than they should be, and reliably accurate writing deserves celebrating – all the same, Littlejohn’s praise for Waterhouse is a bit like greeting the death of a lifelong publican by saying, “He always had bitter on tap and never forgot to wash the pint pots.”

Presumably, if he hadn’t managed that much, he wouldn’t have been running a pub for long. And you really hope that a career in journalism would be founded on a bit more than the scanty essentials deified by Littlejohn:

Keith never missed a deadline, however poorly he was, however hungover. His column was always immaculate and written to length. Quality control worked overtime at the Waterhouse words factory.

“Language affects values so much,” he once said. “Your vocabulary includes everything you want, cherish, own or aspire to. Language is a great liberator.”

Mail, “Richard Littlejohn: My friend Keith Waterhouse – the man with the champagne touch”

But then, the Waterhouse quote which Littlejohn uses tells us that the obiturist sees style as something of huge moral importance – and more than that, huge positive moral importance. The equally plausible idea that the journalist’s language can subject the user to harmful beliefs, ideals and systems is dusted away, although Littlejohn’s constant beration of political correctness shows that he’s painfully aware of the ways in which vocabulary shapes attitudes. In his screed against the National Trans Police Association, for example, he dismisses the validity of the PTPA by dismissing the word “intersex” – first of all by tactlessly turning it from an adjective into a noun (“intersexuals”) and then by asking the aggressively dehumanising question “whatever the hell they are”. (Incidentally, Littlejohn’s funny feelings about truncheons and knobs have given him a very productive muse throughout his career.)

Littlejohn generally claims to “merely report the facts” and uses post-publication reader agreement as proof to justify his position. But writing about Waterhouse, Littlejohn becomes abnormally open about the columnist’s persuasive imperative:

He once told me the art of writing a column is not to say what the man in the pub is thinking, but what he will be thinking once he’s read it.

Waterhouse didn’t go in for polemic. He knew that if you want to make a point, it’s best to make ’em laugh. Hearts and minds will follow.

Although Billy Liar, the hero of his seminal novel, stage play and movie, was his most celebrated character, his cast of comic creations was legion.

Clogthorpe District Council’s Ways & Means Committee, the National Guesswork Authority plc, shop assistants Sharon and Tracy and the wonderful Arnold, British Rail’s spivvy brother-in-law.

Through these caricatures, Keith parodied the nonsense and pomposity of petty officialdom and illuminated to devastating effect so many essential truths about society.

Mail, “Richard Littlejohn: My friend Keith Waterhouse – the man with the champagne touch”

A comic caricature can be a wonderfully amusing thing. But a parody can’t illuminate anything – except Littlejohn’s delusion that “making it up” verifies the prejudices which inform such hilarious pen sketches as “Screaming Lord Mandy” (he’s gay, you see), Centaurs in the police service (they’re only half human, you see, which is a bit like being transgender) and ethnic minorities with their alleged “rights, privileges and lavish welfare benefits” (there are people in the world who aren’t from the same gene pool as Richard Littlejohn, you see, and that’s outrageous).

Here are some other journalistic qualities Littlejohn might want to look into the next time one of his own dies: factual accuracy, thoughtfulness, self-criticism, wit. And when Littlejohn himself pops it, we can be ready with the well-earned tribute: once a week, every week, Richard Littlejohn managed to write something that was both in sentences and made of words, and at least his syntax wasn’t disgusting.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009