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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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear