The Julie Burchill affair reveals there is a sort of gutter journalism that delights in causing outrage – and I am sick of it

Like many public figures these days, Burchill’s schtick is to say what she claims is unsayable, and get paid handsomely for doing so.

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The world of journalism is a small one – or at least my corner of it is – and so it seemed as if everyone has been airing their thoughts on Julie Burchill. (The week before, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, there was an avalanche of testimony from every woman I know of male harassment, from the trivial but disgusting to the truly terrifying. That was pretty sobering, to put it mildly, and quite an education.)

For those who don’t know, Burchill, a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, started a bizarre, unseemly and extremely ill-advised campaign against Ash Sarkar, a left-wing journalist, the details of which I won’t go into, but which ended with Sarkar winning a lawsuit for defamation and harassment, forcing Burchill to pay damages and legal costs.

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I’ve known Burchill for quite some time. I used to read her in the NME when I was a teenager. She was hugely encouraging about my writing in a university magazine; she hired me as the literary editor for the Modern Review in the Nineties. Editor: Toby Young. Yes, I know. In my defence, none of us suspected he’d turn out the way he has.

That Burchill has turned out the way she has is not so much of a surprise, but it is more depressing, in that, unlike Young, she is not an idiot. But she has behaved idiotically, albeit under a certain amount of pressure – most of it self-generated. Like many public figures these days, her schtick is to say what she claims is unsayable, and get paid handsomely for doing so.

It is telling that the whole business started when she defended a 2012 column by Rod Liddle in which he said he couldn’t be a teacher as he’d be trying to sleep with his (female) students from day one. (His words suggest that the legal age of consent does not, for him, constitute an insuperable barrier: “I don’t think I’d have dabbled much below Year 10.” Children admitted to Year 10 are aged 14 before 1 September in any given academic year.)

As we can see – or could see, if I were to quote some of Burchill’s defamatory statements – we are dealing with a particularly squalid cast of mind here, one that revels in causing outrage. Sometimes the perpetrators are defended as being ironists we shouldn’t be taking literally; this would be as if Jonathan Swift really believed that famine in Ireland could be relieved if the poor ate their babies.

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I am so sick of these people, and the people who publish them, and give them airtime. Either they have cynically adopted a persona for cash and exposure or they were always like that. Neither possibility does them much credit.

I went for a drink with Burchill last year, and indeed wrote about it in my column of 29 January. It was not a fun evening, really, because everyone had to do what she wanted. I bailed out early because I was uncomfortably drunk and I didn’t like being part of an entourage. For someone who proclaims her fearlessness, Burchill seems to be very keen on being surrounded by yes-people. And for someone who rails against “cancel culture”, she deletes an awful lot of comments on her Facebook page that happen to disagree with her.

I take no pleasure in her latest disgrace. (I have no doubt this will not be the last one.) I just wonder what it is that has made her like this. There was a time when she claimed to be, literally, a Stalinist. Now she writes exclusively for right-wing publications and taunts Remainers. Is this a normal trajectory? There is tragedy in her life, terrible enough to traumatise anyone.

Meanwhile, my friends and colleagues go round and round discussing her case. Remarkably, she has quite a few defenders. There is something almost admirable about this. I am reminded of EM Forster’s comment about preferring to betray his country before betraying his friend. It is interesting that the statement of apology that Burchill was obliged to release and share on social media is written entirely in boilerplate legalese, except, in the opening sentence, for the words “my friend Rod Liddle”. My arm would have to be twisted very hard indeed before I said that so I suppose she actually means it.

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I look again at her apology, with its I deeply regrets and its I accept that I should haves. These are not and never have been words to expect from her hand or her lips.

My sympathy is really for the wronged Ms Sarkar, who had to endure not only Burchill’s abuse, but that of many of her followers.

I wonder also if this is a turning point, if this means the end of a certain kind of gutter journalism, the kind where the emptying of the mind’s cesspit is actively encouraged. I have a nasty feeling it isn’t.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

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