An open letter to Melanie Phillips

Alan White's open letter to the Daily Mail columnist about the promotion of a prematurely-sexualised culture on the paper's website.

This letter was submitted to Melanie Phillips through her website on 2 November. It also appears on Alan's website here.

Dear Ms Phillips,

In a piece published on 21 October (“Jimmy Savile and how the liberal left encouraged the sexualisation of our children”) you bring to the public’s attention the shameful relationship between the Paedophile Information Exchange and the National Council for Civil Liberties — known today as Liberty. You go on to say:

“Now we are being told by commentators that the culture which covered up Savile’s abuses belonged to a quite different age, that times have radically changed and paedophilia would no longer be tolerated. But this is just not true.”

As evidence for this, you cite the recent child abuse cases in Rochdale. You quite rightly add: “For while paedophilia has become a word that engenders not just social opprobrium but a degree of hysteria, at the same time Britain has, in effect, turned into a paedophile culture. It accepts — even expects — that the very young will be sexually active.”

Ms Phillips, I can find little flaw with your argument. However, I believe you make a significant omission from your piece. You fail to mention a relatively modern institution which appears to have done its utmost to promote the prematurely-sexualised culture which you describe. It is the website of the newspaper for which you write.

I find it very difficult to believe you are not aware of this. The blog post that outraged me so much that I felt compelled to write to you was published today. It now carries the title: “Little Lady Liberty! Teenager Elle Fanning pays homage to New York landmark”. It is viewable here:

This has changed from its original title, which made reference to Ellie Fanning’s “womanly curves”, which, according to an earlier version of the piece, she apparently wasn’t afraid to “flaunt”. You can see a screengrab of it here:

Ellie Fanning is 14 years old.

I believe the title of the article was changed due to the outrage that was sparked on social media. These pictures were taken from her personal Instagram account. The article, as it now stands, is just about respectable, assuming one doesn’t take offence at the reference to her “best angles”.

This is not a one-off mistake, Ms Phillips. As the journalist Martin Robbins has pointed out, this type of “journalism” (can it even be called that?) is a regular feature of Mail Online – a website on which your own writing appears. Indeed, it is endemic to the website’s culture. Tragically, this is because its editors know it generates traffic.

Here is his blog post on the subject.

And here is a video of him discussing it:

As Mr Robbins points out, “Remarkably, there is nothing in the PCC code to stop Mail Online publishing images of young children accompanied by such commentary. Section 6 of the code, focusing on children, says that “young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion” and that editors “must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s life”.

You may be entirely unaware of all this. You may file your pieces, blissfully unaware of the nature of the site on which they are subsequently hosted. But I would appreciate a response from you as to whether you feel that this behaviour, from a website which has now broken the 100 million unique web browser mark, is morally acceptable. I understand you are the mother of two children. Would you be happy to see them portrayed using the language that this website chooses?

You have my email. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Alan White

Social media was outraged by the Mail's depiction of 14-year-old actress Elle Fanning. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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As the Gaslighter-in-Chief takes office, remember: you're not going mad

Why do I feel so angry and anxious about Donald Trump? Because I've seen what happens when you can't trust your own mind.

This might sound strange, but it was on a psychiatric ward that I first gained one of the most important insights into covering politics. I must have been no more than 12: I was there to visit a relative who had been sectioned after putting his hand through a window. He was convinced that the local newspaper had a front-page news story mocking him. My dad brought him a copy of the paper to show that wasn’t true. “They must have changed it,” came the stark response.

It was then I realised: your mind can lie to you. And losing your grip on reality is like being trapped down a well with sides made of slippery, moss-covered stones. Where are the handholds to pull yourself out? You can no longer trust what you hear, what you see, what you think you know. There is no evidence that can change your mind.

Our acknowledgement that this feeling is frightening partly explains the strong social taboo against lying in politics. Do politicians lie any more than normal people? Probably not. But their lies have traditionally been more stigmatised – for good reason. Any discussion of politics relies on basic agreed facts, from which flow a common reality. It’s why the experience of being lied to is so disorienting. You begin to question yourself: did that really happen? Do I know what I think I know?

I remembered that moment when I first saw Donald Trump deny that he had ever “mocked” a disabled reporter. A lie that brazen induces a kind of mental vertigo. I saw him do it. I saw the video! During the US election I saw him standing up in front of a crowd at a rally in South Carolina and say: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy.” Then he bent his hands in at the wrists, jerking wildly, adding: “Ah, I don’t know what I said! Ah, I don’t remember.”

The impression was a textbook example of what my school playground would have called a “spastic”. The reporter in question, Serge Kovaleski of the New York Times, has a disease called arthrogryposis, in which his joints contract, bending his wrists.

Immediately after the incident, Trump claimed: “I have no idea who this reporter . . . is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him.” (Let us pause briefly to note Trump’s casual and telling conflation of physical and mental disability.) Unfortunately, Kovaleski tells a different story. “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” he said. “I’ve interviewed him in his office.”

For the past few months, I’ve been asking myself why, exactly, the election of Donald Trump has made me so angry and anxious. Is it because I hate democracy, because I think working-class voters are stupid, that I am a swan-eating metropolitan who wouldn’t go outside the M25 if my life depended on it? (No, no and no. Come on, guys, I sometimes go to Brighton!)  I think it’s because that moment on the psychiatric ward – and seeing several loved ones suffer mental illness since – taught me that drowning in your own mind, unable to climb out, is an almost indescribably horrific experience. So what kind of person inflicts that on others by wilfully distorting reality for their own political gain? It is cruelty. I’m in charge, and let me tell you: you don’t know what you think you know. I didn’t mock that reporter you saw me mocking. I didn’t even know he was disabled. I don’t remember him. What kind of politician deliberately makes his audience feel as though they are losing their minds?

I’ve written before about “gaslighting” one of those internet-friendly buzzwords that normally make me flinch. It’s what happened to the families of the Hillsborough dead, where their grief was compounded by the message that their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, had brought it on themselves. It’s what happens in abusive relationships, where the victim’s sense of self is slowly chipped away until they internalise the lie that “he only hits me because I make him so angry”. It’s what happens in America when a police officer fires shots into a black man’s back and the community is told it was self-defence.

That was why Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes was so powerful – and why Trump’s itchy Twitter finger served up a swift reply. We longed to see our version of reality reassert itself. “There was one performance this year that stunned me,” said Streep, collecting a lifetime achievement award. “It was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it.”

Streep called on her audience of movie stars – the kind of people Trump hates, except for when they offer him a cameo in Home Alone 2 – to stand up to this kind of bullying, and to defend journalists’ ability to “safeguard the truth”.

Inevitably, Trump responded in his usual thin-skinned way. He called Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and added: “For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!” So brace yourself. This is what we should expect for the next four years. All hail the Gaslighter-in-Chief.

History is written by the winners, and now we can see a false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet. Yet those of us who understand even a little how painful it is to be a prisoner of your own mind have to remind each other: no matter what he says, we still know what we know.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge