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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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