In defence of Richard Littlejohn

His columns have the same effect as switching on the lights during an orgy.

A couple of years ago I went to Krakow. I visited some salt mines, which had been sculpted and carved by erstwhile miners. Empty caves had been transformed into cathedrals, opulent and glistening in brilliant synthetic light; a monument to the ambition of humanity.

And then, as I walked from one mine to another, I noticed something in the lowlight: a crude doodle in black marker of an ejaculating phallus. That doodle, so inappropriately scrawled against a backdrop of genius, was more a metaphor for humanity than any of the mine's carvings.

If social commentary is that Polish salt mine, Richard Littlejohn is its phallic graffiti. He represents an unseemly but apparently inevitable element of public life; the ultimate internet troll. That doesn't mean we should make light of the damage his 'journalism' sometimes causes.

For me, the nadir of his career was his piece on the prostitutes murdered in Ipswich, in which he wrote: "It might not be fashionable, or even acceptable in some quarters, to say so, but in [the victims'] chosen field of "work", death by strangulation is an occupational hazard. That doesn't make it justifiable homicide, but in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss."

Yet as nasty as that is, sometimes I am glad Richard Littlejohn exists. Sometimes I read his columns and think, "thank God for you, Richard". Yes, he may be offensive and cavalier with facts, but I appreciate his uncanny habit of exposing the worst elements of ourselves. His columns, probably unintentionally, have the same effect as switching the lights on during an orgy: they make everyone look around and guiltily ask, "what are we all doing?"

Take today's Littlejohn missive, for example. His response to the crisis in the eurozone was to write a piece, accompanied by a cartoon of Angela Merkel sporting a Hitler 'tache, in which German politicians romped around to his self-penned Nazi song. Whilst this is wildly offensive, it took me back to a Channel 4 news report I watched last night on the same subject.

The report, analysing Germany's current position on the European Central Bank, made its point by sending a reporter to the Reichstag and reeling off some facts about the country's situation in the run-up to World War II. I was uncomfortable with the report's jingoistic unease at Germany's position in the European economy -- I felt there was an implication that the country would, true to form, get drunk on power and cause us all a load of bother again.

I wanted to take to Twitter and express my discontent (take that, Channel 4!) but I feared I'd be dismissed as a hand-wringing lefty, taking things too seriously. I needn't have worried though, because there in the Daily Mail this morning was Richard Littlejohn; merrily jazz-handing away to his own imperialistic bigotry. When Channel 4 was subtly hinting at the return of the Blitz, Richard Littlejohn was writing a musical about it.

I'm grateful for moments like that. Littlejohn is the media's id: he says what the rest of the press is dancing around, and he says it proudly. It may not be noble, it may not be nice, but at least you know what you're dealing with. At least you know what you're up against.

So until we can get to a stage where Channel 4 is reporting on Germany without saying 'old habits die hard', I'll be perversely grateful for Richard Littlejohn's unrestrained, overpaid career. It's not so much "telling it like it is" as "telling it like it shouldn't be", and I don't see the point of Littlejohn fading away until the sentiments he espouses so grotesquely have faded away too.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.