Samantha Brick, Carole Malone: rewarded for “saying the unsayable”

There is a place for divisive opinions, but it is unpalatable to express horrible thoughts and get p

The columnist Carole Malone has been causing controversy this week. It's seen her upset a bereaved family, be vilified on Twitter and have her profile considerably raised — so, all in all, job done.

Yes yes, the bereaved family, blah blah blah, but can't you see the big picture? The phone will be melting soon as calls come flooding in to be a talking head on future discussion programmes. If you've got a deadline, you need someone to say something deliberately controversial and/or outrageous — and David Starkey is for some reason uncontactable — you now need look no further than Malone.

Some columnists seem little more than paid trolls, rewarded for the bravery of "saying the unsayable" — or, as the rest of us might call it, expressing thoroughly disgusting thoughts in a way that creates as much of a buzz as possible.

Do they know what they're saying? Malone was talking on live TV, where there is a huge impetus to fill the silence with something — anything — that comes into your head. Perhaps we might be generous and imagine that the words were poorly chosen on the spur of the moment, and that she didn't mean to be so crass and insensitive in the wake of such a family tragedy. But it is so hard to tell.

You suspect that some happen to be deeply sociopathic individuals whose casual misanthropy, vacuum of empathy and disregard for the feelings of other human beings happen to coincide perfectly with their chosen profession.

Others have to be a little more cold and calculating, confecting extreme outlying "contrarian" positions on the issues of the day not because they even believe what they're saying, but simply to annoy the people they know will react with the most anger. The very best, perhaps, if you can use the word best, are a combination of the two.

Whatever it is, you can't argue that if you make waves, you get rewarded. Samantha Brick is the Daily Mail's Aunt Sally du jour, having driven a huge torrent of traffic to Mail Online with her recent article about how beautiful she is. It must have been like writing the follow-up to Sergeant Pepper ever since for poor Samantha, but this week's column has a familiar ring, as she's doing the "Some people have been mean to me" one (as well as the "Ooh, look at her!" one).

Says Brick:

Since I wrote a piece for this newspaper expressing how difficult life can be when you are beautiful, my popularity has plummeted to an all-time low in the rural village where I live. Yes, I have received hate mail from women around the world, but none of it as vicious as that from French women. Much of their condemnation is unprintable and I have been stunned at their choice of language.

Sound familiar? This is fast becoming a trope for columnists: say something controversial; get some abuse for it; focus solely on the most extreme examples of abuse you get; write a column in which you make yourself out to be the victim; repeat until the cheques run out.

Now, I'm not saying that anyone deserves to be abused, but the "My hell at the hands of the evil Twitter mob" column from a handsomely paid columnist is fast writing itself. Want to raise your profile as a writer? Why bother with reasoned arguments when you can go for broke, "do a Moir" and see if the fruit machine's going to pay out on that particular day? You've just got to hope that the useful angry liberals on Twitter aren't busy getting annoyed by someone else when you fly your brightly coloured kite.   

Brick's column is familiar in another way, too. It's reminiscent of the Mail's Liz Jones, who wrote about her "faintly Amish" neighbours and then expressed shock that they were annoyed about it.  You have to wonder if Jones and Brick might fight for supremacy as Top Pro Troll at the Mail any time soon, but the message is clear: write without fear, without shame, without thinking of the consequences, and you will be rewarded.

I'm sure Malone will do very nicely out of this incident. She was on the programme to stir things up a bit in the first place, and that's what she went and did. It's the reason why you see people like Starkey, Malone, Kelvin MacKenzie and friends on television; their kind of opinion-spouting makes for more exciting fare than someone who's going to umm and ahh and agonise about what they're going to say.

At the time of writing, Malone's Wikipedia entry had quote marks around the word "journalist". There's a place for fierce opinions in journalism, divisive opinions, maybe even sickening and appalling opinions, if they're sincerely held. No one wants a world in which only those in broad agreement dominate debate. On the other hand, though, some of us might think it's a little bit unpalatable to express horrible thoughts and get paid for it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital