The language of hate

Express columnist Jimmy Young praised the BBC’s decision to invite Nick Griffin onto Question Time:

The BNP is not going to quietly fold its tents and disappear, so surely it is better to allow it to subject its policies to open debate and questioning after which, as the BBC rightly says: “Our audiences, and the electorate, will make up their own minds about the different policies offered by elected politicians.”

The Express, “Jimmy Young: Why BBC’s decision to include BNP will be judged as wise”

Funnily enough, Young managed to write the whole of that column without slipping in a reference to how despicable he considers the BNP to be – leaving readers to draw the conclusion that the BBC will appear “courageous and wise” not because it has contributed to the undermining of far-right politics, but because it has given a platform to a rising moment.

The latter explanation requires the reader to accept that a national newspaper is willing to espouse racist extremism, which seems implausible unless you’re actually looking at a copy of the Express, where today’s headline (“KEEP OUT, BRITAIN IS FULL UP”) is a BNP slogan. Tabloid news feeds public appetite for racist politics, and the language of racist politics feeds back into the news.

Earlier today, I was reading Sarah Hartley on applying the “socially useless” test to journalism, but a front page like the Express’ is not anodyne uselessness. It’s pure harm, driving hatred and dehumanisation. And its existence undermines any arguments that newspapers may make for their own indispensability.

**Edit** This post wasn’t really supposed to be about the QT issue, but as the comments have swarmed on that point, I might as well quote Chris Dillow on why Question Time isn’t going to provide the crushing scrutiny some of the commenters below seem to be hoping for:

But this runs into Paul Sagar’s objection – that QT is not a platform for debate but merely a zoo in which soundbites are vomited into an audience who clap like hyperactive seals. There’s a danger that Nick Griffin could actually emerge well from such a show. His imbecile beliefs lend themselves better to cheap slogans than do arguments in favour of immigration – especially as viewers have been primed by the trash media to give credence to such beliefs, and as his opponents are likely to be discredited ministers who lack the courage to make the case for immigration. Indeed, as Bart Cammaerts notes, Belgian experience suggests the far right does gain votes as it gets media coverage.

Stumbling and Mumbling, “The BNP and our sick democracy”

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