Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Or take Liz Jones' piece from Jan 22nd.

It has all the hallmarks of a serious Daily Mail rant by a Phillips or a Littlejohn or a Hitchens. Absurd generalisations from single pieces of data. Conspiracy theory. Obsession with brands and and trade names. Paranoia. Bizarrely overblown language. Slow build up to hysterical crescendo. But the subject of the piece is, er,
Liz Jones feeding the birds in her garden. (It seems that someone has written a letter asking her to keep her cats indoors during the birds' nesting season. Written a letter! To Liz Jones! Don't they know who she is?)

A Daily Mail journalist cannot write "My local shop ran out of peanuts". She has to write "There is a world wide peanut shortage". She cannot be caught feeding breadcrumbs to the birdies: she must let it be known that she gives them "Carrot cake from Costa Coffee." It may, for all I know be true that hedgehogs are being culled. It may even be true that some farmers and some wildlife management experts are culling them over zealously or that there are two sides to the argument about whether the cull is necessary. But that's how Nature sometimes works. If there are more animals in a particular forest then that forest can sustain, or if one species is in danger of eating all the other species in the area, then you kill some animals to bring numbers down to a sustainable level. Even if they are cute. But Liz Jones cannot bring herself to say "kill". She can't bring herself to say "cull". She cannot bring herself to say "being culled in unnecessarily high numbers."

The word she uses is "persecution".
The gist of the piece is that the English are inconsistent in their attitude to animals. The Royal Family wear fur and go hunting, but are patrons of animal welfare charities; organizations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds campaign for the preservation of rare species but not for less common, less exotic ones -- presumably because they are in no actual danger of becoming extinct. 

It is perfectly possible to be very concerned about conservation and nevertheless go hunting. Liz Jones is confused about the difference between prolonging the lives of particular, individual birdies, and wanting to preserve entire species and entire ecosystems. Hunting's only a problem -- from a conservation point of view -- if you in danger of wiping out a whole species. You may still think it's cruel, or bad for the hunter's karma, but that's a seperate question. Poor Prince Phillip was once asked how he could be a patron of the RSPB when he hunted pheasant and he found himself saying "Pheasants are in absolutely no danger from people who shoot pheasants." But it was actually a perfectly reasonable comment.

Liz engages liberally in the rhetorical device known as Advanced Whatabouting: where any claim that "X is reprehensible" can be deflected by saying "What about Y? Isn't Y also reprehensible? Why aren't you talking about Y? " Why are the people who are concerned about her cats killing rare birds not exercising themselves about the welfare of battery chickens? You'd expect a charity set up to preserve rare bird to be worried about the welfare of farm animals, wouldn't you?  Whatabout chickens. Chickens have feathers.

So far so banal: but it eventually builds up to a pitch which is so over the top, so absurd, that it cannot possibly be meant seriously. It must be a joke at the expense of other columnists in her newspaper.

The language starts shrill:

"It (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) fetishizes the rare while it is happy for the many to be persecuted"

But then it becomes hysterical:

"The RSPB is peopled by pure-breed fascists who think nothing of annihilating a species for their own elitist reasons" 

"For their own elitist reasons" could very well replace deus et mon droit as the motto on the Daily Mail masthead. Whether it's birdwatchers, G.Ps or local councillors you can be absolutely sure that they have "their own, elitist reasons" for keeping cats indoors, vaccinating children or putting litter bins on the high-street. 

It gets even
more hysterical:

"Like New Labour [animal charities] have become dizzy with power"

And then actually deranged:

"They have their own view of ecological harmony which the common, the photogenic, are just not part of"

This is all classic Daily Mail stuff. Of course the opinion of a sentimental fashion columnist who likes to put out crumbs of chocolate cake for the ickle birdies counts for more than that of informed environmentalists who want to prevent unique species and delicate ecosystems from become extinct.  (The RSPB have, for some secret reason "accused and convicted" a species of rat of killing lots of puffins. Liz Jones knows better. If the bird experts had asked the newspaper columnist, she could have put them straight.)   

Of course the fact that the hedgehog is "beloved by the public" overrides the view of the experts that, in some places, there are too many of them. "Expert" is one of the most damning terms of abuse in the Daily Mel lexicon. It is not too long since people were defending the anti-vaccination campaign on the grounds that it was elitist for medical professionals to say that the MMR vaccine was harmless when ordinary people felt that it was dangerous. We should be given the medicine we want, not the medicine that doctors tell us will make us well.   

Of course whatever is done is done deliberately, by a sinister brigade or elite or -ism with an ulterior motive.  

Of course an animal protection society which thinks that cats hunt birds must have an agenda. Elitism. The exercise of power for power's sake. A wish to destroy the foundations of British society. (Richard Littlejohn apparently believes that local council officials positively look for ways to stop people from having fun because they get a sexual kick out of it.)

But the Liz Jones character is applying this paranoid Daily Mel language -- persecution, orchestrated, indigenous, fascist, elitist, dizzy with power -- to someone who told her to keep her cats indoors when birds were nesting and who jolly well ought to have known that her cats are a special case. Her cats are nice cats. Her cats have never killed bird in their life. And Whatabout all the wild cats. Wouldn't it be better to neuter them than to write letters to me? Don't you know who I am? Don't you know who I AM.

My cats aren't a danger, says the headline. The Power Crazed RSPB is.

The power-crazed RSPB.

The power-crazed RSPB.





This can't be meant seriously.

It can't be meant seriously.

It can't be meant seriously.

Liz Jones is, in fact, a parody of Melanie Philips. 


Sam Dodsworth said...

Maybe she just had a tight deadline and dotes on her cat a little too much?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have embarked on this task, but when I am finished, I promise, I shall never comment on anything in a British tabloid ever again.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, not until Christmas, at any rate.

Gavin Burrows said...

I thought they banned that.

Louise H said...

Ah. I have to admit that I once or twice railed against the power-crazed RSPCA, but then the RSPCA actually has power to prosecute people and sometimes it gets it wrong.

Is it a confusion between the protection of the individual and the species, or is it a philosophical position? I can understand someone saying that the RSPB doesn't value individual life and is therefore not a bird protection organisation whose aims they can support. Quite how this translates into the RSPB being a power crazed menace however, only the Daily Mail can know.

Sam Dodsworth said...

You have to admit the RSPB have gone quite a long way beyond their original remit of stopping people from wearing crested grebes on their heads.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, it ought to be against the law to strike anyone, however small and low-status they may be. On the other hand, throughout human history, mothers and fathers have used slaps and cuffs to express disaproval to their children, and I'm not sure that's the sort of thing that you can make laws against. But which ever view you take, I'm not sure that its relevant that the N.S.P.C.C was originally set up to stop Victorians using orphans to clean chimnies.

Sam Dodsworth said...

If I was going to go all boring and construct an actual argument, it would go something like this:

One of the central insights of conservativism is the recognition that any reformer is a potential tyrant. The RSPB are trying to persuade people in general and Liz Jones in particular to do something that Liz Jones thinks is stupid. They're "power crazed" because (as she sees it) they've run out of reasonable things to ask for and are starting to ask for unreasonable things. And if they keep getting what they want then they'll get more and more unreasonable and make more and more demands. So this is a fundamental conservative point about reform that happens to be attached to a spectacularly bad example. As I've said already, that looks like deadline plus personal irritation to me.

You can apply the same argument to the NSPCC. Child labour is bad(*) but clips round the ear never did us any harm. If we don't say "enough!" now what will they ask for next?

(*) Although in 1850 it was obvious to conservatives that the end of child labour would destroy British industry, hurt the poor most of all, and cause anarchy on the streets by ending all discipline among the lower orders. It was Christian Charity gone mad!

ASIDE #1: What conservatives miss, of course, is any idea that there might be oppression built into the status quo. Conservatives are unaware of their own privilege, and often of the very idea of privilege.

ASIDE #2: The argument for making it illegal to hit children under any circumstances is that it's perfectly possible to raise children without hitting them and that a zero-tolerance policy makes it much easier to spot actual abuse. In Frederick Wiseman's documentary Domestic Violence we hear of a social worker who didn't report kids being beaten with an extension cord because they weren't being hit more than six times.