Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Sorry: I decided I really needed to write down why Melanie Phillips is so uniquely hateful. There is probably no need for you to read it, though. Go away for a few days, and I really promise to write something about children's books when I'm done. Or comics, maybe. Going to hear the miserable one from Show of Hands on Saturday, and everything, so I'm bound to write about that. Even got some follow up notes on Baby Jesus, but I'm thinking maybe hold them over til next Christmas?

When little Nicky Griffin sees two grown men holding hands, he finds it "creepy". This is on the same level as not wanting girls in your tree-house because they're smelly.

When America's favourite comedy bigot Fred Phelps says that God hates homosexuals he is pretty much just projecting his own gut-feelings onto the universe. He also thinks that God hates Hollywood, television, America in general, the media in general, soldiers, children who have been killed by gunmen, and Methodists. (Especially Methodists. Methodists are even worse than homosexuals.) Doubtless very distressing if it's your funeral he decides to yell at, but not really something you could describe as a point of view.

Someone like Anne Atkins thinks that homosexuality is taboo and would rather the priests of her religion didn't openly engage in taboo practices. (Priests who say "I know, tobacco is my besetting sin, I'm trying really hard to quit, and I would urge everyone else not to start" would be another matter.) One can quarrel with her exegesis, of course,  but I'm guessing that most gay theists wouldn't want to go to that kind of church in the first place, although Anne says they'd be made perfectly welcome if they did. 

Melanie Phillips is in a completely different class. The common or garden bigot makes a lot of noise, but is completely ignored by everyone who doesn't already share their prejudices. You can't argue someone into having a gut feeling. Or out of it. They don't matter. The Daily Mail is systematically using sleight of hand to trick people into believing in things which don't make sense. And people pay attention to it. Including powerful people. It matters.
Your average white, middle class Brit is not particularly homophobic. He doesn't mind what people get up to behind closed doors, although he'd probably just as soon the doors stayed closed. Phillips is not trying to infect these readers with a Fred Phelps style revulsion against homosexuals. She's too clever for that. She's not even presenting an argument that homosexuality is immoral or contrary to holy scripture or fattening. (Your average white middle class Brit thinks that religion is another thing that you should really only do behind closed doors.) She's trying to smuggle into their mind a theory that "gay" is out to get them.

And she's doing this, I submit, not because she is herself homophobic, but as a tactic in a wider political game. 

The article was published on January 24th. On January 23rd, the Daily Mail had run two substantially fictitious anti-gay stories: Governments £30 million to find out if hovercrafts discriminate against gays and Gay messages built into maths lessons for children as young as FOUR  Both of these stories have been substantially debunked elsewhere on the web. There was no big investigation into homosexual hovercrafts: there was a footnote about gay equality in the section on sea transport in a general report on the implementation of the governments equality laws. (It said there were no particular issues to worry about.) There is no secret plot to insert homosexuals into maths books: a gay/lesbian group has put some free lesson plans on the web which teachers could download and use during gay/lesbian awareness week, if they want to.

It's quite common for junior schools to use thematic integrated study programmes. The class might spend two weeks learning about Ships, which would include learning about the Spanish Armada in history, reading sea adventures in English, and making model boats in art.  Obviously if you look at  it objectively, this is a bad way to teach children. The only objectively good way to educate children is "Like what it was when I was at school". (Apart from gym teachers. First thing we do is hang all the gym teachers.) But what we're talking about here is clearly "ways in which you might incorporate maths lessons into  your Gay People In History week". That's not the same as smuggling sex education into general maths books.

This is how the Daily Mail works. It makes shit up and puts it on the cover as if it was news. The next day, its columnists write opinion pieces, which repeat the same points made in the original, fictitious, articles. Members of the public then write outraged "Won't someone think of the children" letters based on the columns. With any luck, one of the qualities takes the story up. And before long, you have a huge pseudo-fact and anyone who says "But no-one has banned Christmas" sounds like a whinging pedant or a denialist.

All newspapers print opinion as well as news. All newspapers print chit chat about actresses and footballers alongside the important bit about how this years manglewurzle crop is up 1% on last years manglewurzle crop due to a new type of fertilizer devised by local man Mr Smith, 45, pictured left. Polly Toynbee and Germain Greer are not always notably less unhinged than Melanie Phillips. But "comment is free but the facts are sacred" remains a pretty good rule. In the Guardian, despite its many sins, you can usually still tell one from the other.



NickPheas said...

Did you read the Daily Mash take on the story?

Sadly, I don't think it's that innocent.

Andrew Rilstone said...

No: that's my problem. We are too willing to say that the Daily Mel is the equivilent of Helen Lovejoy saying "Will no-one think of the children" - dotty, old fashoined, but essentially harmless. I think it's much more sinister than that.

I enjoyed the note on the Pink Paper's website that described Melanie Phillips as a "self-hating lesbian wallowing in her own decrepitude."

Sam Dodsworth said...

As I've said before, I don't think you have to apologise for writing stuff like this - or for writing anything you feel like writing, really.

Adam said...

I had a couple tutors when I was studying my A-Levels in the early 90s who made it their mission in life to enlighten their students about the Daily Mail.

Sadly they also used to rail against the evils of political correctness police too, but perhaps they were just being swept along on crest of that particular nonsense-wave.

Kevin Cowtan said...

I think this is probably spot on. Definitely the relation between stories and columns, and probably the rest too.

My only spot of doubt though is over the possibility that Philips is actually not interested in homosexuals at all, and is just flailing about to find new current events to weave into the Mail's 'Liberal conspiracy to control our thoughts' world story. But I haven't read as much of her as you.

A not-quite non-sequiter: I'm interested in the type of arguments used in newspapers. It seems to me that they are a kind of 'in-group' argument - whose purpose is retell current events in a way which makes the reader feel good about holding the views they hold. That seems to be a good way to sell papers.

Truth is largely irrelevent because it is messy and comes in shades of grey.

There also seem to be related 'out-group' arguments - arguments to convert if you will. Also arguments to establish dominance and/or score points.

All of these are arguments whose purpose is largely social. As opposed to formal, evidence based argument, whose aim is to establish truth.

Now I'm making all of this up. But it seems to me someone must have done this kind of analysis before, and done it properly. Maybe social anthropology. Any idea of terms I could google for?

(Keep writing, I'm reading)

Kevin Cowtan said...

Oh, I shouldn't post when ill. I see you already made my point about Philips being more interested in the liberal conspiracy then homosexuality. As a result, it looked like I was saying exaclty the opposite. Sigh.