Monday, 11 July 2011

Brendan O'Neill vs the tabloid-hatin’ Twitterers

In a strange way, it's almost reassuring that Brendan O'Neill has written a column deflecting blame for the News of the World scandal onto the liberal intelligentsia with their fancy lattes and their hemp shoes and their stupid moral compasses. Imagine if Brendan O'Neill wrote something a human being could agree with? I just wouldn't know what to believe any more.

For those of you unfamiliar with Brendan O'Neill; run! Your life is clearly going better than mine is, and ignorance is genuine bliss in this case. If you must know, though, he's a Telegraph journalist and the editor of Spiked Online, which is kind of like The Ironic Review (video), except it got bored of trying to just be contrarian and expectation-confounding, and just settled on trying to troll liberals. Richard Littlejohn with a more well-thumbed dictionary, in other words.

Much of what you need to know about the sort of person O'Neill is, he gifts us in the opening paragraph of today's piece, a frothing tour de force of misplaced outrage which might give Melanie Phillips cause to be concerned that there's a pretender to her throne:

“It is clearly people power that has forced this decision.” That was Ed Miliband’s impressively otherworldly take on the shutting down of the News of the World. It takes doublespeak to dizzy new heights to describe the closure of this popular Sunday paper as a victory for “people power”. On what kind of warped Orwellian planet can a crusade led by a few hundred Twitter activists and liberal journalists against a newspaper read by 7.5 million people be described as a democratic moment? It is the polar opposite of “people power” – it is chattering-class intolerance of mass tastes, resulting in the extinction of a tabloid which the cliquish great and good considered vulgar and offensive.

Let's get this out of the way right at the start; regular people didn't close down the News Of The World. The owners of the News Of The World made that decision. Few even among the Twittersphere demanded its closure, fewer still actually expected it. There was a groundswell of outrage at the paper's conduct which led to a campaign for advertisers to boycott, but the decision to not even attempt to ride out the storm and shut the paper down almost immediately the moment the story hit the front pages was not ours.

Now, a cynic might suggest that Rupert Murdoch sacrificed the NotW to rescue his bid for the vastly more profitable complete ownership of BSkyB. Other cynics have pounced on evidence that a 7-day edition of its sister paper The Sun was already planned, as somehow being proof that the NotW's closure would have happened anyway, and the outrage just sped up the process a little.

Those are the sort of things a terrible, terrible cynic might suggest. O'Neill instead suggests that the decision was effectively made by "a few hundred Twitter activists and liberal journalists". Frankly, this is fucking brilliant news! Politicians have long sucked up to Rupert Murdoch in a desperate attempt to get into power, so it'll be a nice change now that they merely have to appease Josie Long, that dude who wrote Father Ted and a couple of earnest Guardian columnists. Keeps things fresh, I think.

O'Neill tosses his clusterbombs of scorn still further, taking out Mumsnet like this:
Justine Roberts of Mumsnet used the term “consumer power” to describe her galvanisation of Yummy Mummies against scummy tabloids.
BOOM! Take that, Mumsnet! How dare you use the term "consumer power" to arrogantly describe consumers using what power they have! You're nothing! Nobody! O'Neill seems to be having his cake and eating it here, simultaneously complaining about the disproportionate power of activists and yet sneering at the same activists for deludedly thinking they're "leading a modern-day peasants’ revolt against evil powerful men".
In truth it is nonsense on stilts, nonsense on a “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” level, to describe the movement against the News of the World as an expression of “people power”. It’s mad even to call it a “movement”. More accurately, it was a tiny cabal of liberal journalists and time-rich, tabloid-hatin’ Twitterers who spearheaded the campaign to get big corporations to withdraw their adverts from the News of the World and to bring this 168-year-old institution to its knees.
O'Neill dcesn't name any of these "liberal journalists", perhaps because he realises how ludicrous it would be when he named a bunch of people half his readers had never heard of. It is of course fair to say that this story started in the Guardian. What's unfair is to imply that no-one else outside of the Guardian and a small gang of actors and comedians on Twitter gave a shit. My parents, Daily Mail readers to the core, were outraged by this. It's been a hot topic of debate on my Salford construction site. Apparently even red-top reading, Page 3-enjoying manual labourers think that spying on the private voicemails of missing 13-year-olds and causing their families even more worry is a bit, well, not on. It's almost like they're people, huh?

The story didn't gain traction because they were hacking into the phones of some small-scale liberal icon like Charlie Brooker or David Mitchell. We had a liberal storm already about this, and the wider public didn't care because it was Sienna "Oh, THAT'S Sienna Miller!" Miller that was being intruded upon. This, this was different. It gained traction because they were targetting regular, non-celebrity people, outside of "the chattering classes". Not just normal people, but vulnerable people, people who'd done nothing except suffer personal tragedies. So people from all across the political spectrum were incensed that the family of Milly Dowler could have learned that her voicemail was hacked and messages deleted by unscrupulous private investigators, paid for by tabloid hacks in pursuit of a gossipy, voyeuristic story. It goes beyond what most people will tolerate, even people who read OK! magazine and love finding out what Kerry Katona's about to be sacked from or what Cheryl Cole has said to Ashley lately.

So when O'Neill suggests that:
For many of these so-called warriors against wickedness, the hacking scandal was a simply a very useful stick with which they could beat something they’ve always hated: tabloid press, tabloid values.
...perhaps he should look at himself and consider whether he's really as in touch with the ordinary people as he claims. No-one elected Brendan O'Neill either, and yet here he is, telling us what people who would never read his Telegraph blog in a million years think.

The most telling part in all this is that nowhere in his piece does O'Neill attempt even a single caveat apportioning any blame at all to Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, Glenn Mulcaire, or any of the other figures involved in a widespread and systematic campaign of actual criminal activity. No, just like in his previous rant on the subject, his entire focus is aimed at the whistleblowers and campaigners, the "do-gooders" and snotty liberals, rather than those who did what you might call "the actual bad shit".

It's a straightforward abdication of responsibility. Just as the Mail's Melanie Phillips and Beth Hale are today saying "Yeah, but Steve Coogan was a drug-taking philanderer, so I think you'll find he's the real sick man in this so-called society", O'Neill is using the scandal as an excuse to bash the liberals that clearly annoy him. And yet he complains that his enemies are the ones using the scandal to further an agenda.

My favourite part, though, is that it isn't even a secret that many liberals enjoyed watching the News of the World implode. Coogan was quite open on his infamous Newsnight appearance about hating the News Of The World and what it stands for. Many of my cabal of liberal Twitterati were equally delighted. I was, and I'm such a liberal I used two Lee and Herring references in this piece! But while all sides in this debate have their own agendas and politics, the ultimate question is; was what the News Of The World (and other papers) did wrong, and do people have the right to criticise it? If the answer to that question is yes (and it obviously fucking is), then all O'Neill is doing here is flailing around trying to point the finger at anyone and everyone but the actual people responsible. As befits a man who deems "do-gooder" an insult.