Don’t click on the Daily Mail!

How many visitors to the <em>Daily Mail</em>’s website are angry liberals, peeping at the horrors be

There's a difficulty about writing about Daily Mail columnists without falling into a couple of traps.

It's become something of a cliché, the wringing-wet liberal getting all antsy about something provocative that a Mail columnist has churned out, raising yourself into a sense of righteous anger over someone else's terribly un-PC and controversial views that they churn out, every week, to a deadline and to a word count.

"Oh, there you go again," people will say, shaking their heads and tut-tutting at you, "getting all wound up by the Mail and the sentiments in it. Every week you get surprised by the fact that Richard Littlejohn doesn't vote Labour or that Melanie Phillips hasn't discovered atheism – what do you expect?"

Sometimes it can feel a bit obvious, a bit ordinary, a bit banal, to challenge columnists who are only there to bulk out the newspaper or website with some colour, whose views are bound to vary from your own.

The second trap people can fall into is promoting the very thing you're unhappy about. If you get angry about some terribly controversial and un-PC views, which are nicely laid out every week under the journalist's photo byline and illustrated by cartoons and photographs of celebrities, you might just bring them to a wider audience.

If you get angry about a Mail columnist in the privacy of your own living room, that's one thing. If you do it on Twitter, the power of the hyperlink means that you may well be inviting lots of other people in the echo chamber to get similarly angry about the same thing, who will tell their friends with similar views about how awful it is, and they'll click on the link to look at how vile the views are, and so on, and so on.

Reel 'em in

The Daily Mail's website gets millions of visitors a day. I'm starting to wonder how many of them are angry liberals peeping at the horrors from behind the curtain. It's not recorded in web traffic statistics whether you approve of the content that you've just seen or not; your presence is just added to the total. Advertisers and potential advertisers don't get told that a lot of people who visit Mail Online are swearing under their breath as they read the awful toxic words; they just get shown the numbers.

I say all this because, as I write this, I am reading on Twitter that some people are upset by a piece by the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir in which she talks about the reaction of "gimlet-eyed" celebrities on Twitter to the death of Amanda Holden's baby.

To my mind, it seems like perfect flamebait: it's Jan Moir, of Stephen-Gately-death-nastiness fame, once again spouting off in public after a human tragedy, except this time there's the bonus idea of sticking the article full of celebrities' names and insulting Twitter. It's a perfect pointy stick to rattle around inside the hornets' nest.

I'm not saying Jan Moir doesn't believe her views about public events, which she has been producing once a week in Word format for a long time now; I'm just saying it would be easy for people to think such articles were designed to provoke the kind of reaction that would see the website swamped with traffic.

But, all of that said, if you do disagree with these articles, what can you do? Thousands of complaints to the PCC did not lead to a massive censure being aimed at the author after the Gately piece. Do you complain anyway, just to put your disapproval on the record? Do you write your own response, detailing your emotional reaction to the piece? Do you walk away and try to forget about it, knowing that something which you find unpleasant has gone unchallenged?

My own view is that this Moir piece isn't terribly offensive, but it is flamebait, and should be treated as such. She isn't unpleasant towards Amanda Holden, and saves her attacks for Twitter celebrities, who may write their own responses if they wish. Perhaps we should put away the flaming torches and the pitchforks until such time as they're needed.

Now, I realise that by writing this, and by tweeting about it, I have drawn more attention to the Moir article than it might otherwise have got, for which I apologise in advance. They win, whatever you do. Perhaps the only thing to do in future is not only not to write about Daily Mail columnists, but not to write about writing about Daily Mail columnists. Or is that a cliché, too? I don't know, but if you want a happier day, don't click on the link. I said, don't click!

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.