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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

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