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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.