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1 November 2019

Rod Liddle’s latest column shows just how low the Spectator will go for attention

Everyone in the media is chasing eyeballs, but not all of us are prepared to use bigotry to get them. 

By Jasper jackson

Even followers of Rod Liddle’s Spectator columns, which have regularly been condemned for bigotry, were surprised by his latest offering. In a single paragraph he belittles the experiences of domestic abuse survivor Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, then suggests that Muslims be prevented from voting.

The paragraph in question has been screenshotted and shared widely:

“It was principally the student vote that won Canterbury for the sobbing and oppressed Rosie ‘#MeToo’ Duffield. Please don’t let that happen again. My own choice of election date would be a day when universities are closed and Muslims are forbidden to do anything on pain of hell, or something. There must be at least one day like that in the Muslim calendar, surely? That would deliver at least 40 seats to the Tories, I reckon.”

It is both horrifically and unnecessarily offensive, and deeply irresponsible when hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise and three women are killed by their partners every week in the UK.

The former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, has suggested on Twitter that Spectator editor Fraser Nelson will have to say something to defend or excuse the piece, and quickly.

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Nelson’s previous defences of Liddle have argued that his is simply one voice among the pages of the Spectator, and that to deny him the magazine as a platform would infringe his freedom of expression.

He may not get away with that line this time. 

The paper’s own assistant editor, Isabel Hardman, has distanced herself from the piece, saying that she is “profoundly upset by Rod Liddle’s column”. 

The piece has also been condemned by establishment figures who would politically situate themselves near to the Spectator, including the former deputy prime minister under Theresa May, David Lidington.

Yet Lidington’s suggestion that this is a “lapse” in judgement would hold more weight if this were an outlier, rather than merely a high watermark for Liddle’s bile.

The Spectator does a good job of maintaining its access to the hallways of respectability. It has a skilled politics team covering Westminster, an influential chairman in Andrew Neil and an affable editor in Nelson. It regularly publishes pieces by more moderate voices, such as ITV’s Robert Peston and the Observer columnist Nick Cohen.

But it also has a long history of publishing writers who revel in inflaming hatred. Liddle rarely goes a month without attacking ethnic minorities or those advocating for women’s rights. The only difference on this occasion is that he’s managed to combine the two in under 100 words.

Taki, a columnist with a decades-long history of plastering bigotry across the Spectator’s pages, has suggested that black people have lower IQs, written a column originally headlined “In praise of the Wehrmacht” and faced a police investigation for a piece in which he claimed that Enoch Powell was “tough on the causes of crime”.

There are other odious writers in the Spectator, but what is interesting about both Liddle and Taki is that they are – by Nelson’s own admission – subscriber favourites. Speaking to the Media Masters podcast in September, Nelson revealed that “the biggest single thing the readers say to me is, ‘Don’t tone down Rod.’ That is their biggest plea.” The most vocal Spectator readers are those most attracted to its most extreme, most objectionable contributors.

It would be reassuring to think that this was a problem confined for the most part to the Spectator, but in reality the base incentives towards the extreme and hateful are present far more widely in the attention economy that dominates the media and beyond.

This problem is not restricted to the right. Hyper-partisan left-wing sites, such as the Canary, the Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics churn out sensationalised and often highly questionable content in pursuit of Facebook shares from a mobilised base of left-wingers.

Even broadcasters – required to be unbiased in their positions – regularly chase the attention an extreme voice can bring, as long as those attention-grabbing words come from a guest rather than a presenter. This is why former alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos was a regular on Sky News, and why the likes of Martin Daubney and Michael Heaver have appeared regularly since both before and after they went from being media personalities to Brexit Party MEPs.

This is also why the BBC’s Question Time regularly brings on far-right voices, starting in 2009 with then BNP leader Nick Griffin, and followed by the numerous appearances of Nigel Farage, which have far outstripped his popularity as a politician.

Much has been written about the way in which social media has exacerbated polarisation and helped to disseminate and amplify extreme views. Undoubtedly, algorithms that reward interaction – be it good or bad – have turbocharged the conflict between different poles of society.

But the battle for attention plays out through all our media. It is a battle to attract attention, keep it, and convert it into advertising revenue or direct payments. Perhaps the easiest and most reliable way to do this is to give a voice to the extreme.

None of this is to downplay the sheer nastiness of what the Spectator has produced. Liddle and Taki may actually believe in the hatred they peddle, or they may simply be doing it for clicks. It is hard to say which is more damning. But as a publication, the Spectator’s decision to keep publishing this garbage shows how low it is willing to go in pursuit of exactly the same commodity that everyone else is after.