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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.