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.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder