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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.