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29 April 2022

Is it classist to make fun of Nadine Dorries?

When you’re culture secretary, you need to know about culture.

By Pravina Rudra

Another Nadine Dorries interview did the rounds on social media yesterday (28 April), when she claimed twice to LBC radio that Channel 5 was privatised. Numerous commentators pointed out her error — the network has never been owned by the government — and her comments created yet more fodder for comedians who impersonate the Culture Secretary. Indeed, it is frequently asked in jest whether Dorries is imitating the Catherine Tate Show’s Lauren Cooper, the 2000s doyenne of “chav” culture.

This all raises the question of whether there is a snobbish edge to the mockery. Dorries, who grew up on a Liverpool council estate, gets called out for her simple, sometimes two-word ripostes, and is derided for having bookshelves with (the horror!) piles of paper and a calculator rather than books. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is prone to simplistic rhetoric too, but she’s not the subject of as many memes as the bleach-blonde, peach-skinned Dorries, who ate ostrich anus on I’m a Celebrity.

In a way it’s extraordinary that the fact Dorries has sold 2.5 million books is used against her, purely because her writing is more Mills & Boon than Arthur Miller. It’s depressingly rare for ministers to have experience relevant to their portfolio, but apparently for this culture secretary only highbrow culture counts — not being commercially savvy or popular with the mainstream. The Twitter account Daily Dorries posts the most suggestive snippets from her books (admittedly, there are repeated meditations on bodily fluids). Last week, an interview in which Dorries suggested people “downstream” films and “play on tennis pitches” went viral — she attributed her misspeaking to her dyslexia, complaining that she was mocked for something beyond her control. It is fair to say there are many Twitter users who enjoy tearing people down for their spelling or grammar faux pas. Tellingly, such commentators are almost always left-wing and often advocate tolerance, kindness and privilege-checking.

So it is true that much criticism of Dorries is classist. And yet, it is also wrong that this defence should be used as a bulwark against all critique of her. It is not cheap or pedantic to call Dorries out on the “detail” that Channel 5 was never privatised, because she herself invoked it as evidence to support her planned privatisation of Channel 4. People reprimand Dorries about false statements such as her one in November that Channel 4 was “in receipt of public money” (it isn’t) because these facts are fundamental to her brief and any decent culture secretary would know them. And if Dorries gets these basic facts wrong, we must wonder about the hypotheses she constructs with them — like her suggestion that Channel 4 would be better privatised — and the policies she supports, such as the government’s intention to axe the BBC license fee announced in a white paper this week. 

Anyone who works in culture will know Dorries has a point about the media’s domination by people who grew up around high culture; the types who smirk when you don’t know the difference between BBC Radio Three and Four. But when it comes to making unprecedented changes that could potentially permanently disfigure the UK’s arts and media landscape, it is not classist to expect someone to know their facts. To be honest, it feels more offensive to working-class people to suggest that Dorries’s ignorance can somehow be attributed to her background.

[See also: Why CBBC and BBC Four moving online might not be such a bad idea]

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