The Observer | Themes of 2016: the battle to decide one’s own identity


This is one of five pieces by different writers commissioned by the Observer to cover the big issues of 2016: you can also read Carole Cadwalladr on tech disruptionRyan Avent on how technology puts millions of jobs in jeopardyIan Buruma on the rise of autocrats, and (in print only at the moment) Michael Sandel on what progressive parties need to reckon with to retain relevance.

In 2016, body politics went definitively mainstream. Transgender people, having previously been objects of niche curiosity and prurience at best from most of the media, became the subject of mid-morning current affairs debates, in-depth documentaries and sympathetic profiles. What does it mean to be trans? How should society change to give trans people necessary rights and protections?

These questions received urgent discussion, while other issues were more implied than addressed: how much is anyone able to control their own body, both in terms of what they choose to do with it and how it is perceived by other people? That problem of rights and responsibilities, and the tension between the individual and society, simmered away not only in the context of gender but also when it came to many other matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the full column at the Observer

Bully for The Observer

The Observer did a good launch. The redesign is subtle, efficient and readable – and, as Jeremy Leslie says, it benefits from cutting away a lot of the excess sections. A Sunday paper that doesn’t leave me with a depressing jumble of unread newsprint to scrunch into the recycling come Monday? That’s something I might actually buy semi-regularly.

But it’s not just what The Observer team were selling: it’s how they sold it. Securing the Rawnsley extract for the relaunch meant that The Observer was dominating news coverage for the whole weekend. Anyone who was likely to buy a newspaper on Sunday would have known that The Observer was offering an agenda-setting story, and had to consider buying it.

A few people think it was wrong to print Rawnsley’s analysis of Brown. I don’t: The Observer isn’t the house journal of the Labour party, and “Prime Minister is a bully” is absolutely newsworthy. So, good for the paper, and probably not that bad for Brown. After all, it’s hardly a surprise if powerful men have volatile tempers. People who already thought that Brown was a cracked paranoiac will take this as confirmation; people who feel better disposed to him will see it as an unfairly exaggerated portrait, sweetened by Rawnsley account of Brown’s creditable reaction to the banking crisis in 2008.

Anyway, regardless of Rawnsley’s terribly civic minded editorial about how the voters have a right to know the character of their leaders, all the stabbing-a-chair-with-a-Biro, was-a-bit-rude-to-a-typist stuff is gossip and scandal. Interesting, but not exactly the stuff of poll booth conversions – general elections aren’t referendums on the sort of workplace environment the No 10 staff should enjoy, and if it was, we’d be a nation of vicious sadists to offer Andy Coulson to the Garden Girls instead of Brown.

Thanks to Christine Pratt and the mysterious intervention of the now-imploding National Bullying Helpline (ace exposé work done by Adam Bienkov), the bully-Brown story was too smudgy to leave an impression by dawn today anyway. It did its weekend work, and now it’s been sucked into the rolling narrative of unstable PM/aggrieved statesman (depending on where you stand) that’s pretty much guaranteed to continue until Brown steps aside to become a cheerful economics professor or whatever he has planned for afterwards. And if NBH is discredited off the back of this, the BBC has taken a hit too for its credulous reporting of a dubious source.

When the next round of polling comes out, I’d guess that Rawnsley’s revelations will have done relatively little to affect the relative standing of the Tories and Labour – and had a much, much bigger impression on his paper’s launch circulation. The Observer did a good launch. And that’s probably all the bullying story comes to.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010


True art is purposeless, says Victoria Coren. Therefore, she continues (not totally logically, but we’ll get to that), no one gets to critique Martin Amis on his politics:

The young rapscallion (60) is in trouble again, after calling for euthanasia booths where pensioners can be dispatched “with a martini and a medal”. This extreme and evidently unserious solution to what he describes as a “silver tsunami” threatening to flood the domestic coast has been written up in high dudgeon by a disapproving press, studded with furious condemnations from all the obvious places.

They are missing the point entirely, just as they do when they slam Martin Amis for making “misogynistic” or “Islamophobic” statements. He isn’t a politician, a religious leader nor even a philosopher. He’s an artist. It doesn’t matter what he says, as long as he says it beautifully. Which he always does. Never mind the content, feel the form!

The Observer, “All hail Henry Dagg – he’s a true artist”

The Henry Dagg story doesn’t really get us anywhere near to Martin Amis. Dagg’s work – an impossible, impractical sculpture delivered four years after deadline – had no political content (assuming we discount the politics of aestheticism that make a useless, pretty object so desirable to Coren). Amis’ work absolutely does. He cleaves to the modish big issues as compulsively as a newspaper columnist, only his columns come several inches thick, five years late, and with even more made up stuff.

But let’s take a look at Amis the artist’s amazing doings with words. Here he is in an interview with Tom Chatfield of Prospect magazine:

We had a ten-year holiday from this feeling (of imminent apocalypse)  in the 1990s. The nuclear cold war, then a ten-year holiday, then Islam. Islam only up to a point, one mustn’t exaggerate: the number of people killed by terrorism in the west is the same as the number of Americans who drown in the bath. […] But then again, the weather, climate change…

Prospect, “Martin Amis: the Prospect interview”

Here, “the master” before whom Coren thinks all writers should prostrate themselves deftly manages to draw an equivalence between 1. nuclear war, 3. climate change and 2. Islam. Not “Islamist terrorism”. Not even “radical Islam”. Just “Islam”, the world religion. (You could argue that he was provocatively suggesting the objects of sequential modern terrors without endorsing the fear of them – could, only you’ve almost certainly read his “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order” interview.)

If we were following Coren’s critical injunctions, we’d never be able to appreciate the delicate way Amis conveys his irrational fright of Islam by weighing it syntactically with potentially civilization-destroying horrors like climate change and nuclear war. You just can’t appreciate how linguistically gifted Amis is until you begin to see what gnarled little bigot he really is.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

The Paperhouse guide to free speech

Freedom of speech is a solid old principle. Shame, then, that it gets rolled out so often by dullards trying to shield other dullards from criticism. Catherine Bennett is – I’m guessing – aware that no one is trying to ban Rod Liddle. The campaign to stop him from becoming editor of the Independent has a pretty clear aim: to let the potential proprietors know how utterly Liddle’s appointment would alienate the readership. I’d suggest that Lebedev should be grateful for the anti-Liddle Facebook group giving him a preliminary market research report for free, only the mismatch between Liddle and the Indy is obvious like a flasher’s knob (and even more so now we know about his message board comments).

So, there’s no organised effort to get Rod Liddle imprisoned, tortured, fined or even made to sit on the naughty step for what he’s published. Just a strong and widespread feeling that he’d be a disaster in the job. And despite what Bennett suggests, freedom of speech means, exactly, freedom of speech. Not “freedom to edit national newspapers”. And definitely not “freedom from being criticised by anyone who doesn’t have a newspaper column”. Because when Bennett worries that “Public figures will become ever blander in their views” if they continue to be exposed to opposition, what she’s arguing is that public figures should be protected from opposition.

There’s a depressing implication here: Bennett is positing free speech as an end in itself, not as the necessary preliminary to debate. If Bennett was the Lord Chamberlain of the internet, presumably we could all say exactly what we liked about anyone or anything, so long as we weren’t rude enough to offer anything as ghastly as a direct response. It’s the same measly logic used by Nick Cohen: freedom of speech, if it means anything, means journalists never having to be told they’re wrong. It’s astonishing that people with such an infantile idea of civil liberties can offer themselves seriously as defenders of democracy, but there you are.

Because if you’re making lofty civic claims for journalism, I don’t think – and hug yourselves now, because I’m about to be shocking – that being bland is the biggest thing you have to worry about. I’d be busier stressing the importance of getting stuff right, which is hard to do when you’ve ruled all criticism illegitimate. And if Bennett thinks that Lebedev is going to bring devastating redundancies to the Indy, maybe she should take a moment to imagine the sort of restructuring it’s going to need once Liddle has managed to repulse every loyal reader.

See also: Next Left, “Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?

Save the Observer, 2003 edition

It seems a bit unfair that the Observer has been singled out as Sunday Paper Most Likely To Fold. As The Media Blog points out, sliding circulation and slumping ad revenue hardly make it a singular failure in the newspaper world. And nor do its journalistic failures – most grossly, its uncritical publication of the false claims in the 2003 Iraq dossier. Detailed by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, the Observer’s coverage was hasty, credulous, and depressingly handy in pushing forward the war. A factual failing, and idealogically a fairly devastating failing for a supposed paper of the left – especially if its defenders, like Donald Trelford in the Newsnight segment below, have to resort to some sort of radical heritage of as an argument for its survival.

After the jump, the Newsnight discussion with Donald Trelford and Harold Evans on the Observer’s future.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

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TV hates itself and it wants to die

I don’t buy The Observer anymore because I’ve decided I can never forgive them for employing Nick Cohen or for the bullshit they pulled over MMR, which means I totally failed to notice that the lovely David Mitchell writes a column for them. It occasionally falls into the Columnist’s Great Dialectic Error of jumping from issue to opinion to exaggeration like an attention-hungry frog, but it’s mostly pretty good, especially where he expresses his horror and fear towards new media like in this section of his column from the 22nd February:

I’ve found the internet frightening from the start and spent many years in denial of the threat it poses to the established media and, by threat, of course I mean opportunity. But let’s leave opportunities to the opportunists, I used to think, and get back to working on our studio-audience sitcoms, silent movies, epic poems and morality plays – there’ll always be a market for them.

I love Mitchell for being culturally conservative and recognising the futility of conservatism at the same time: audiences and technologies develop irresistibly, but there’s still something unseemly and self-destructive in it when old media starts sniffing frantically after the novelty of the internet. And Mitchell is smart enough to acknowledge that his ambivalence comes partly from the fact that his occupations (TV actor and writer, broadsheet journo) are among the ones being squeezed hardest by internet aesthetics. From this weekend:

Teenagers are not all or even mostly morons, but almost everyone is at their least prudent and reasonable at that age. […] But I’m particularly bitter about feckless teenage spending because of the disastrous effect it’s had on television.

Television audiences are falling but not plummeting. Purely in terms of numbers, there’s no need to panic. But they are plummeting among the young, who are deserting TV in favour of new media, and the advertisers and their money are following, leaving commercial broadcasters skint. Last week ITV announced job cuts and huge losses – it’s unclear whether it will even remain a viable business in the long-term. Channel 4 is not much better off with a vast hole in its budget to fill. On the plus side, Five is also in trouble. Advertisers’ obsession with youths and their money doesn’t just cause financial problems. It also affects programming as TV executives cravenly try and tempt teenagers back. This has become BBC Three’s raison d’être even though it’s not even dependent on advertising revenue. It seems to want young viewers purely because they’re sought after by its competitors. And the programmes that are produced by this demographic thinking are so often shit.

Lily Allen’s show, Lily Allen and Friends, on which I was once a guest, was a hopelessly misconceived attempt by older producers to appeal to the young. Emptily flashy and effortfully flippant, it made the cardinal error of constantly mentioning the internet. You might as well put up an Aldi price list in Waitrose.

Cynically targeted programming of that kind is hardly ever any good and is immediately seen through by the targets, who find it patronising: “Here’s your first bike without stabilisers – soon you’ll be ready to watch proper programmes.” Proper programmes are what they want like the rest of us. However irresponsibly they spend their money, teenagers will still watch dramas that are gripping, comedies that are funny, documentaries that are interesting and reality shows that you can’t turn off even though they make you hate yourself.

It’s not just the big TV channels who are struggling to live on advertising at the moment, of course, and if YouTube or Twitter suddenly decide that their business models need to include ‘making money’ I’ll suddenly find myself with a hell of a lot more time to waste. But what Mitchell’s right about is how much of the damage to the TV channels seems to be self-inflicted, regardless of the advertising squeeze. Fatally, the networks have been trying to rub some of the internet’s new-media glamour onto their shabbiest product and neglecting the qualities which can make big, lumbering old media worth the big, lumbering money it costs to create. If the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five decide that the best way to compete with online media is by offering the same sort of content with less flexibility and at greater expense, then they deserve to fail. And if the networks kill off glorious things like Peep Show in the process, then they thoroughly deserve to die out themselves.

Close reading: Cohen on MMR

Nick CohenA couple of years ago, I was at a graduate conference on English literature, attending a panel on research approaches. One of the speakers said that she simply didn’t understand the designation of “close reading” as a critical technique – surely, she said, everyone reads closely, whatever their outlook. Actually, I’m fairly sure that almost nobody pays more than cursory attention to the things they read, otherwise the perpetual deluge of illogic and solecism which rushes from the national press would have have been long ago stopped up by embarrassment. Really, if Nick Cohen thought anyone was going to read this attentively, do you think he would have submitted it? Let’s practise our close reading skills, oh Paperhouse visitors, and find out what secret inanities are buried in the big inanity of this column:

Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs – at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.


Perhaps Wakefield, the Lancet, the Mail, the Eye and Channel 5 should be more worried about the people who took the mania so seriously they didn’t give their children any vaccines, single of multiple. In my experience, they were determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers.

If there should be a measles epidemic…

So class! What have we noticed? Let’s start with Cohen’s opening shuffle of responsibility: “Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?” Clever Nick is one of the ones who “guessed”, of course, and so by implication are you. Isn’t it nice to be embraced in his little circle of intelligence? Don’t you feel validated and warm and distinct from all those raving hysterics? But before we get too cosy, let’s give some attention to the word “guessed”. Cohen “guessed” that the panic was just a panic. Of course, if he’d read some of the studies in question and wrapped his head around a small portion of the science of epidemiology, he wouldn’t have needed to guess – he could have made a rational assessment of the evidence and got to the right answer that way. But he didn’t, so poor Nick had to suffer that niggling “what if”.

Nick wasn’t alone in this, of course. I had my first child in 2002, so I was right in the thick of the scare: one mother talked to me earnestly about her fear of vaccinating, saying that she knew “three children who got autism from the jab”. People were genuinely alarmed – although it’s fair to say that very few of the fearful parents took their concerns from the original paper in the Lancet, which doesn’t feature quite as regularly on middle-class coffee-tables as the Mail or the Observer. Cohen doesn’t mention the Observer as one of the organs he might sue for his £140 quid. Maybe he missed some of the great moments in science journalism featured in his own paper: “The only complete vaccination I have given my three-year-old daughter is tetanus and, after attending a lecture on MMR by the homeopath Trevor Gunn, I wish I had not” , said sub-editor Kate Edgley, presumably applying the full force of her proof-reading skills to the interpretation of medical data. (The Observer started out with a fairly rational line of reporting, but after the Blairs refused to give up their baby son’s medical history for public consumption, began recklessly issuing opinion pieces from the frontline of doubt.)

Reckoning With RiskIt’s the job of a medical journal to publish medical research so it can be debated. In publishing Wakefield’s research, the Lancet was doing what it is supposed to do. Ideally, the national press would have made a responsible assessment of the paper in question and reported on it proportionately. What they actually did was produce reports on unsubstantiated fears which then became the cause for more and more widespread fears. I feel confident in saying that I and my partner are one up on Cohen, because we took our own case of “what if” as the occassion for doing more research: we confirmed that the single jab was without doubt the best option, and afterwards watched my son for fever and rashes a little more closely than we would have done normally. That is all.

Then again, I’m not one of the “determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers”. But hang on! Nor is Nick – he might be scientifically illiterate, bar the odd happy guess, but he is absolutely, definitely a father. So that “large section of the supposedly adult population” from whom Cohen distinguishes himself, even though he partook of their terrors? That would be the women. Cohen might have had doubts, but it’s the mothers who were in a “raving panic”. Covert misogyny alert!

Of course, “if there should be a measles epidemic”, we’re all liable to suffer, whether we’re vaccinated or not. The MMR isn’t 100% effective, but it’s effective enough to foster herd immunity. When take-up rates dip low enough for measles, mumps or rubella to spread in a community, even the immunised are at risk. So even if you did the right and responsible thing, your children could contract a sometimes-deadly, often-debilitating disease. Although on the plus side, you could then sign up with Cohen for a class action – if he suffered some loss that was not self-inflicted (the ill-health of a child caused by other people’s failure to vaccinate, say) then maybe he could sue someone. Until then, he had better look on that £140 quid as a loss incurred in the course of being an irrationalist, conspiracy-hungry idiot.

Bad Science talks, rightly, about the importance of giving people (journalists particularly) a proper grounding in the understanding of statistics. People need to know how to interpret numbers to make decisions using them. And people (journalists particularly) should learn the basics of making an argument as well – how to distinguish a genuine case from a self-serving blob of commentary. Smarter readers would demand smarter writers. But brash, sloppy editorial is easy to churn out, and easy to position as “debate” on “controversial issues” when it isn’t going to be read closely.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009