Press Gazette's top 50 comment writers

Print journalists dominate the list of the UK's top commentators.

This month's Press Gazette contains a list of the UK's top 50 comment journalists, rated by the public and a sample of comment journalists.

The top ten is as follows:

1. Matthew Parris, Times
2. Simon Jenkins, Evening Standard, Guardian
3. Jeremy Clarkson, Sunday Times, Sun
4. Quentin Letts, Daily Mail
5. Polly Toynbee, Guardian
6. Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail
7. Charlie Brooker, Guardian
8. Rachel Sylvester, Times
9. Janice Turner, Times
10. Rod Liddle, Sunday Times

What really jumps out about this list is that they're all print journalists, even though both sets of respondents were allowed to name bloggers. In fact, 38.1 per cent of those surveyed (the biggest proportion) said that they preferred reading comment pieces in print.

This is reflected across the whole top 50 -- the only blogger who made it on to the list was Stephen Fry (at number 42), mainly from the public vote.

Jeremy Clarkson was also included by virtue of the popular vote. He was the public's favourite commentator, but received no votes from the panel of journalists. The controversial Clarkson is an increasingly influential media player, ranking 74 on the Guardian's list of top 100 media figures in 2007.

A survey last November by Continental Research suggested his Sun column was the one that consumers would be most willing to pay to read online.

The public's top two were Clarkson and Richard Littlejohn, showing that their taste diverges somewhat from the reasoned comment favoured by the panel of journalists (their top two were Simon Jenkins and Matthew Parris). Perhaps there are lessons to be learned there.

Finally, some shameless self-promotion. Two New Statesman columnists also made it on to on the list -- Steve Richards (31) and Peter Wilby (44).

Press Gazette is owned by Progressive Media, which also owns the New Statesman.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.