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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.