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
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left