Props to the Mail for allowing, on this story:
I wonder how long it'll stay there. But ace.
Spotter's badge: @eluxoso
Professional trolls - or "prolls", as I'm inclined to call them now after hearing the term for the first time yesterday - are just bigger, more noticeable versions of those people you get on messageboards or in the comments section of news stories; and rather than doing it just to wind people up, they do it for a living.
Yesterday's article by Andrew Alexander in the Mail which I blogged about here is a classic example of a proll hard at work. Smugly revelling in his lack of research, preferring to light his pipe and 'ruminate' rather than actually check that what he's saying is true, there's not much more than a cigarette paper - or indeed an x-ray with an ominous shadow on it - between Alexander's "Smoking's not so bad, you know" and the kind of trolling absurdity you get underneath almost every story nowadays. Indeed, the pride in ignorance brings to mind those BBC Have Your Say types so splendidly taken down over at Speak You're Branes.
I've said this before in the wake of Jan Moir's miserable attack on Stephen Gately and no doubt I'll say it again, before I manage to fully form the argument: but I think the behaviour of certain columnists and professional writers is little better than that of trolls. But these prolls are seen as being intelligent, useful, articulate; their trolling nonsense is elevated from the level of 'some bloke on the internet trying to wind other people up' to Polemicist of the Year, in the case of Richard Littlejohn.
And there's nothing wrong with being a good polemicist, of course; it's just that Littlejohn, Phillips, Alexander, Hitchens (P) and Liddle - and many others - seem to get things wrong quite often. By which I mean those pesky facts and evidence they need to back up their arguments. We've seen this week Melanie Phillips claim that Alan Titchmarsh is a 'distinguished climate-related scientist' to back up her 'climate change is all a big con' line. We've seen Littlejohn barking about immigrants staying the country because they've got a cat to back up his "Gorblimey, don't those immigrants get a good deal innit?" argument - except that wasn't the case; or laughing at the names of someone's children in a rolling-eyes at the state of Bonkers Britain rant - except they weren't children at all, they were pets. Which a simple bit of research would have discovered - yet the vastly salaried journalist Littlejohn (catchphrase "You couldn't make it up!") apparently decided he couldn't be bothered to do much more research than reading the Daily Mail.
Then there's Liddle. One of the arguments I read this week was from Kwasi Kwarteng, who said of Wiltshire-based Liddle's woefully inaccurate diatribe about London street crime:
You may not admire Mr Liddle's style of writing, nor agree with his views, but that does not mean that he should be sacked from the magazine for which he writes, as some have suggested. It is his job to provoke. And that is exactly what he has done.
I'm all for freedom of speech, of course, and I know it's Liddle's job to provoke - it's certainly not his job to research things properly, as we've seen. But provocation with incorrect and misleading facts behind it - which will be picked up like a baton by the BNP and other extremists as if it's gospel - is a fairly smelly thing, which Kwarteng signally failed to acknowledge throughout his entire article. You can try and give Liddle some wriggle-room by saying: Sure, he didn't research anything properly, he didn't get it right, he made assumptions based on his own prejudices rather than evidence, he said something which, because it was published by the Spectator will now be used as evidence by the far-right that even the mainstream press are saying the stuff they've been banging on about for ages, but hey, the 'goat curry' bit was funny, wasn't it?
But no, it wasn't funny. Not even funny. That last line of defence for prolls - that they're entertaining - doesn't stand up as being good enough if they're fuelling, through ignorance or on purpose - the flames of hatred. Once published by a leading newspaper or magazine, poisonous views and misleading stories are used by those who have real hatred and real venom to make their case. We saw that earlier this year with an English Defence League video which used Daily Mail and Daily Express stories and headlines to make its point. That's why it matters whether you get things right or wrong. A lot of readers will shrug their shoulders and take what you say with a pinch of salt; others will use your prestige - that fading prestige of publications like the Mail and Express and possibly even Spectator after this week's nocturnal emission by Liddle, but prestige nonetheless - and use it as proof that their hatred is right.
The irony is, of course, that we mere bloggers on the internet are the ones who are accused of being the trolls. I don't think that's quite the case. In fact, I'll take the internet trolls over the prolls any day of the week. At least trolls don't pretend to be anything other than trolls; they don't make lofty claims to be polemicists or to defend their role as being anything other than their right to a rant. Which everyone does have, of course. It's just that doing it underneath a banner of an official news source gives your rant a weight it wouldn't otherwise have; it implies a responsibility to get things right, because people will use what you say in their arguments, and sometimes, if you're not careful, you will give ammunition to some fairly despicable people.
If you haven't already been following it, I recommend you head over to Don't Get Mad, Get Accurate and read the story from start to finish. But for those of you who are up to speed, the decision has finally been revealed - it's perfectly OK for Melanie Phillips to present a complete load of tosh as the truth.
Now I don't mind that. I don't mind that she can say that things which aren't the truth are the truth. But what I do mind is the veneer of accountability the PCC gives to the press, implying that somehow if they get something wrong then you can do something about it. You can't. They're allowed to talk tosh and they know it. At the very most, if you don't have the finances to get on the blower to Schillings or Carter-Ruck, the maximum redress you will get is a letter in the paper - or they might print a clarification the size of an atom. Well whoop de doo.
Melanie Phillips is allowed to say "the fact is" and the PCC considers that it's fairly obvious she's not talking about facts. It also considers that when she says something is 'totally untrue' that she says that something is true:
I've started to reconsider my position on the feasibility of the PCC as a forum for resistance to the inaccuracies of the Mail and print media in general. The moment came when the adjudication reached 'The column had made it clear that there was research which concluded that gay adoption did not affect children negatively'. What the column had said was, in fact, 'Such people routinely claim that research shows there are no adverse outcomes for children from same-sex adoption. These claims are totally untrue.' The PCC took a statement denying the existence of evidence to be 'making it clear' that evidence existed. Reading that rather tortuous re-imagining of the text, it strikes me that the PCC is not so much a body to hold the Press to account as one to justify their actions within the Code. It becomes a way of legitimising press coverage, rather than scrutinising it.
The PCC is a complete cargo cult construction. Sure, it looks like the kind of self-regulatory body that might be able to do something on behalf of punters who are pissed off by something. But it isn't. It really isn't. Now in the case of the Phillips article it's just something that is generally inaccurate and wrong, and which won't be clarified, but which doesn't upset or injure someone else's feelings personally. It upsets people in general because they know she's talking drivel, but it doesn't upset them personally.
But then there are other stories, where the PCC claims to be working on behalf of the general public who can't afford big-shot lawyers, allowing them a form of redress. What then? Can we expect the same form of consideration? And the same form of dismissal of any valid complaint on the grounds that saying something is a 'fact' means it's an opinion and saying something is 'untrue' means you acknowledge it to be true?
...says, er, the Daily Mail, defending itself against accusations as the complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (of which Paul Dacre is a significant figure) about the (Paul Dacre-edited) Daily Mail, and stories about gay adoption. Don't Get Mad Get Accurate is a fascinating look into how the PCC works (or doesn't) for complainants, and the weasel tactics used to try and excuse things that people do complain about.
The PCC said:
While the column had been phrased in stark terms - the journalist had made one claim which was prefaced by "the fact is", for example - the author's claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact.
So while Phillips said 'the fact is', Phillips's readers would know she wasn't trying to say something like 'the fact is'; she was quite obviously (and only a simpleton wouldn't know this) saying 'I think'.
So there you have it. When Melanie Phillips says 'the fact is', it's reasonable to assume she is not stating a fact. According to her employers.
Here's a fun game to keep you occupied. No Googling, now. You simply have to guess who said the following statements - Melanie Phillips or Geert Wilders.
1. "Socialists are the most inveterate cultural relativists in Europe. They regard the Islamic culture of backwardness and violence as equal to our Western culture of freedom, democracy and human rights. In fact, it is the socialists who are responsible for mass immigration, Islamization and general decay of our cities and societies."
2. "The nation-wrecking ideology of multiculturalism and the Marxist redefinition of racial prejudice into racism – ‘prejudice plus power ‘– which have turned our society inside out are the product of the left."
3. "Voters have been told in effect that there is nothing standing between national suicide on the one hand and racism on the other. If you don’t want the former, you are automatically branded with the latter."
4. "And so, the voters have had enough. Because they of course realise that Europe is going in the wrong direction. They know that there are enormous problems with Islam in Europe. They are well aware of the identity of those who are taking them for a ride, namely, the Shariah socialists."
5. "They are areas of very high immigration where the transformation of the ethnic, religious and cultural landscape has made indigenous inhabitants feel strangers in their own country — and yet they are told they are racist for saying so"
6. "Mass immigration, demographic developments and Islamization are certainly partly causes of Europe’s steadily increasing impoverishment and decay."
7. "Above all else, we should absolutely refuse to countenance the spread of Sharia law, which is not only inimical to our own deepest principles but aims to supplant our own laws. Yet we are turning a blind eye to the steady Sharia-isation"
8. "Just like communism, fascism and nazism, Islam is a threat to everything we stand for. It is a threat to democracy, to the constitutional state, to equality for men and women, to freedom and civilisation. Wherever you look in the world, the more Islam you see, the less freedom you see."
9. "The problem, however, is that it doesn't understand what Muslim extremism is. Believing that Islamic terrorism is motivated by an ideology which has 'hijacked' and distorted Islam, it will not acknowledge the extremism within mainstream Islam itself."
10. "Of course, there are many moderate Muslims. However, there is no such a thing as a moderate Islam. Islam’s heart lies in the Koran."
11. "In the war being waged by radical Islamism against the west, such symbolism [as mosque-building] is of the utmost importance and significance. It is itself a strategic weapon of cultural and religious demoralisation."
12. "We will have to close down all radical [mosques] and forbid the construction of any new mosques, there is enough Islam in Europe."
Tricky, no? So there you have it - Geert Wilders and Melanie Phillips. One a dangerous extremist with vile views; the other a Dutchman with silly hair.
If you enjoyed that quiz, you'll enjoy this blog post from Blood & Treasure, who has managed to get hold of some exciting Melanie Phillips copy...
*update* Oops, forgot the answers! 1 Geert 2 Mel 3 Mel 4 Geert 5 Mel 6 Geert 7 Mel 8 Geert 9 Mel 10 Geert 11 Mel 12 Geert
...and the BNP do achieve more electoral success over the weekend, with gains in the Europeans elections, then the discussion will inevitably begin over whose fault it is that they have triumphed and been provided with money to pursue their hate-filled, racist, sexist, anti-immigration, anti-freedom and lying agenda.
Many will point the finger at those who chose not to vote. I can't really defend not voting, except to say that if the other parties had put someone up worth voting for, then more people would have voted. And you can't even use the excuse of first-past-the-post when every vote counts in the Euro elections; although it may be that the location of the elections itself might be behind the apathy.
So that's certainly a factor. But I think there's another thing that's been going on for a while now, and that's a legitimisation of the BNP's agenda - whereby people who might claim to be staunch opponents of the BNP end up endorsing policies and lies which further their cause.
If someone said Britain had 'no border controls', for example, you'd think they were either incredibly ignorant or a liar - given that it's obvious that there are indeed border controls in Britain. But if the person saying it was Britain's number one political blogger, then ignorance must surely be ruled out.
If someone said that British protesters who happen to be Asian should be put 'on the first flight home', then you would assume the person saying it was a racist. But if the person saying it was one of Britain's most highly-paid journalists, whose byline picture regularly sits proudly above the masthead of their newspaper, you'd have to assume that the newspaper - at the very least tacitly - endorsed a racist worldview.
If someone said that second and third generation immigrants should not be counted as properly British, you might be forgiven for assuming that person was a racist and possibly someone who would endorse BNP views. But if that person was the home affairs editor of a national newspaper, you'd have to wonder about what that newspaper really felt about home affairs and race in Britain.
Let's not just single out the media in this, though. If someone said there was such a thing as an 'immigration industry'; linked immigration with unemployment; and spoke about 'influxes of immigration' and using genuine asylum seekers as a stick with which to beat his political opponents; then you'd have to wonder how sympathetic they were to the BNP.
That last person, of course, is Phil Woolas.
So who is it who has been legitimising the BNP's arguments? Yes, it's easy enough to blame the likes of Dale and Littlejohn, who dismiss the BNP on one hand and back it up on the other - and Melanie Phillips, too, who called the BNP 'odious' but who railed against those who would call racists racists in an article which has for one reason or another disappeared into the Mail's story graveyard - but let's look at Phil Woolas and New Labour too.
Is it really that in fearing the BNP, the mainstream feels the need to move further to the hard-right? Or should it be, as I maintain, that the BNP are wrong, and any attempt to placate them is a disgrace?
Either way, just one MEP for them on Sunday/Monday would be a national disgrace. Whose fault is it? The inquest will begin here. And it's a warning shot that those of us who do believe in freedom and diversity will need to work even harder to get our arguments across before the next round of elections. The hard work begins again.