Misery Mummy: Allison Pearson shows how columnists assume we are all as dysfunctional and desperate as them

And we're expected to see these strange folk as our betters?

If you’re lucky enough to still have your mother around or to have a mother who you get on well with, how often do you call her? I’m very lucky to have a mum and dad who, most of the time, I get on very well with. It’s part of being from a small family — I am one point in a triangle — and we generally talk to each other at least a couple of times a week on the phone. My parents are good people and I’m lucky to have them.

Contrast that with the slice of abject oddness presented at the start of Allison Pearson’s latest despatch from her fevered ego which lives high above the earth in a geostationary orbit, confused and angry with the rest of humanity for acting in ways which it cannot comprehend or approve of, wishing not-so-secretly that it could ascend to the dictator’s seat and ‘fix’ the whole mess in its image. She suggests essentially that her son will only calls her if he’s moping or needs money. Right…

Pearson is a fundamentalist. She writes crazed columns which strike out in all directions, raging at the government one week, at young people the next, and sometimes just at herself. There must always be someone to blame, there must always be something or someone to shout about. In this week’s case, it’s her current hobby horse — asserting that the pandemic is not as bad as the government says and that there’s really no need to have all this fuss about it.

I’m not going to write extensively about Pearsons’s Covid fuckery here or even her ridiculous and ironically named Planet Normal podcast. Instead, I want to talk about the weird hallucinogenic drug that is column writing. Placed on a perch for years and sometimes decades columnists grow increasingly odder, required to have opinions on everything when the average person would rightly shrug at half the topics.

It is the columnist drug that causes these writers to grow ever more fond of culture war controversies. These confected outrages make it easy to bash out 800 words of reheated invective and often provide several columns worth of outrage — the initial column, the follow-up about being trolled on social media about the first column, and the ‘needless to say I had the laugh last’ finale in which they claim that some ‘climbdown’ is as a result of their powerful words.

The columnist drug is what led Giles Coren to write the most Uncle Disgusting column of all time — a sexualised hymnal to his young daughter as a holiday companion — a text which, had it been published on a WordPress blog and not in the pages of the Times, would have got his hard drive checked faster than you can say, “But Gary Glitter wrote some good songs, actually.”

Similarly, the columnist drug has led Toby Young to write such gems as why no one came to his stag do, why his wife is the reason he doesn’t try to have sex with underage girls, a weird thing that was basically Boris Johnson fan fiction, and a whole host of other columns that reveal him to be one of the strangest and most worrying men at work in the British or any other media.

Among this gang of galumphing creatures, Allison Pearson lives near the top of the pile. She is a person willing, like her Daily Mail version Sarah Vine, to embarrass her own children for commissions. She lies with impunity — creating sources from nowhere — and sprays snobbishness and contempt almost constantly. She is a well-paid reactionary and, like Coren needed his hard drive checked, she would be on a Prevent programme watch list if she were not a well-paid, well-connected white lady penning her screeds not on forums but in the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph.

Next time you’re angry with the words of a columnist, just comfort yourself with this: Their brains are boiling soup.

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“Well I’m just a simple honest multi-millionaire...” What one deceptive BBC interview tells you about privilege and the press

Simple Country Lawyer - TV Tropes

“Hugh Osmond, the founder of Various Eateries PLC, founded Punch Taverns, helped turned Pizza Express into a national chain, is on the line…”

That’s how Emma Barnett — CotU passim — introduced a guest on her show yesterday. It was not an inaccurate description of Mr Osmond, but it was an incomplete one. Here’s how I might have written the script had I been producing the show:

“I’m now joined by Hugh Osmond, founder of Various Eateries PLC, private equity boss, and founder of Punch Taverns. Mr Osmond has been both a major critic of the government — both over its Covid response and in earlier times over issues such as the bank bonuses when David Cameron was Prime Minister — and a major donor. Thank you for joining us today, Hugh…”

Why was Barnett’s original introduction insufficient? Because it failed to frame for the listener that Osmond is more than just the owner of some large chains. He has a particular ideological position and has used his huge financial cloud — he’s a multi-millionaire — to achieve certain advantages for his business.

Beyond the partial intro, Barnett’s approach to the interview was so far from the platonic ideal of ‘BBC balance’ it was like watching a tightrope walker diving into the Grand Canyon, dragging a passerby with her, screaming: “But the government…!” the whole way down. Despite his clear political positioning — as evidenced by where he has chosen to put his money — Osmond was thoroughly disparaging of the government’s actions. This is a position he has taken consistently on Twitter:

Yet despite that and Osmond reading directly from Public Health England’s reporting, which indicates that Covid spikes are in large part centred around care homes, factories and other workplaces where social distancing is hard and support has been inadequate, Barnett battered away at Osmond, casting aspersions on his view and even the facts he was deploying — facts published by a government agency. She replied to his initial statements with this phrase:

“But it’s not about Top Trumps, is it? It’s not about where [the government] is doing worse, is it? Do you buy anything you heard yesterday from the scientists about reducing unnecessary social contact?”

Osmond replied:

“But you have to have evidence, Emma, that the contacts are taking place in restaurants. What the PHE’s own numbers are clearly saying is that the infections are in care homes — that’s where they’ve been all along — care homes and hospitals. They’ve only found 25 positive Covid test incidents in restaurants in the whole of the UK. So this idea that Hancock is saying that we know where this is happening. His own report is saying this isn’t happening… you’re accepting something that isn’t true.”

Barnett continued:

“We’ve just also heard how evidence can be cognitively different, cognitively received differently by different scientists… without getting into that for just a moment, it’s clear what your view is, what do you think about the restrictions on business now, even if you don’t agree with it, because that’s how it is from Thursday.”

Osmond, referring again to the report, said he doesn’t see how “it can be a matter of opinion.” Barnett shot back:

“I wasn’t saying that at all, actually! You’ve just misquoted me, but let’s move on to your view…”

Osmond apologised and continued to press his case based on the current situation in the hospitality industry and the figures published by Public Health England.

It was a maddening listen. Someone passing by as the radio burbled on might have been forgiven for thinking that Barnett’s role was to run interference for the government, so vociferous was her critique of Osmond’s position and so bad faith in its framing too.

While Osmond has consented to come onto Barnett’s show — there is an obvious promotional benefit both for individual name recongition and broader brand recognition to appearing on the BBC — he does know his industry and he was referring to evidence, something that Barnett dismissed in her barracking. It was as though he was the minister in charge of the chaos rather than someone speaking about the victims of that chaos.

Barnett’s curious perception of what balanced means was on show in her notorious interaction with Angela Raynor during the General Election when she — semingly seriously — asked: “Would you nationalise sausages?”

And it is this bizarre world view that made me write previously about my concerns with her taking on the Woman’s Hour job. Her partial presentation of her awareness of her father’s exploitation of women, and in one proven case of a trafficked woman (he did not traffic her himself), adds to the picture of a person born into privilege bought with ill-gotten gains who is capable of ferocious interviewing but often turns that ability in unsavory directions.

This was an interview that ill-served the listener. I had to look up and research Osmond to discover his full background and to understand that he was not an apolitical resteraunteur but, in fact, a private equity guy with deep, deep financial ties to the Conservative Party despite his stinging criticisms.

From there, Barnett’s interventions in the discussion felt designed to shoot down Osmond’s critique and to subject him to the kind of inquisition that is better directed a ministers, like Matt Hancock, whose handling of the crisis has been so woeful. As one of the country’s biggest pub landlords, Osmond can and should be subjected to strong criticism, but in the case of the Barnett interview, he was referring throughout to facts published by one of the government’s own bodies.

In the clash between Osmond and Barnett, two privilege lives were chafing against each other; Barnett’s private school education, Daily Telegraph incubated, BBC-enabled view meeting Osmond’s multi-millionaire, private equity raider perspective, swirled through with statistics from Public Health England that Barnett seemed unwilling to really engage with. Two heads of the establishment hydra were flailing at each other and the listener was left as a bystander, hearing the sounds of the monsters smashing into each other but having only a partial idea of what they signified.

The British media is addicted to these half-formed presentations of the way the world actually is and often resorts to a kind of gaslighting to tell readers, listeners, and viewers that things are one way when the audience is capable of using its eyes, ears, and mouths to ascertain that things are quite, quite different.

Why is trust in journalism so low? Because it often seems like British journalists, in particular, live in an entirely parallel universe and report from it with no awareness that the majority of people do not experience what they do and don’t think as they do. It’s a very specific kind of contempt.

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"I'm sending for Germaine Greer..." The death of the public media feud reveals how broken things are

Once upon a time, the big beasts of British bullsh!t talking used to fight in print

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There was a time when British columnists were not as much of a united blob of consensus as they are now. In the 70s, 80s and through into the mid- and late- 90s, the commentariat — sounds like a Soviet term but with even fewer examples of free speech and nearly as much terror — took lumps out of each other in print and, on a few occasions, in person.

I was 11 and more concerned with the latest issue of 2000AD in 1995 when Suzanne Moore and Germaine Greer had a notorious printed conflab. Suzanne, who I know and has been very kind to me over the years commented on Greer — this section previously said she made reference to Greer’s womb but Suzanne says:

Germaine Greer’s counter-attack was vicious and she accused the columnist of having:

“… hair bird’s-nested all over the place, fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage.”

It was distinctly unfeminist in its tone and hardly retained the moral high ground for Prof. Greer. Suzanne Moore struck back with calm precision:

“If Germaine attacked me for my writing, it would be far more worthy than to attack me for my shoes.”

Greer had her final word to The Telegraph, which in 1995 was still a newsreader and had not yet become a comic for the chronically racist, saying:

"It's pretty painful when you have spent a goodly part of your life struggling to have children, to have this young woman - who is lucky enough to have two children of her own - suddenly announce that I had myself hysterectomised at 25 because I didn't want kids. How could she be so stupid? I think that level of incomprehension is inexcusable in someone who calls herself a feminist."

The ripples and echoes of that Godzilla vs Mothra style clash reverberated for years, in print, on TV arts debate shows, and sometimes at parties. However, 20 years later when Greer found herself at the heart of new controversies, Suzanne Moore was one of the first to come to her defence, referencing the old feud:

The trouble — okay, one of many troubles in 2020 — is that the contraction of the newspapers to a dismal rump is that controversies between columnists have become very rare. Instead, they tend to work as a chasing pack, almost all rushing after the same culture war talking points and often coalescing around the same opinions because they tend to read the same Twitter accounts as each other, attend the same parties and dinner parties, send their kids to the same schools, and vote for and like the same politicians, who they also invite to those dinner parties.

It doesn’t do to rock the boat much when your current perch at The Guardian could soon disintergrate and mean you need to make your money at The Daily Mail. It’s important to be a suck-up because feuds will find you with fewer places to hide as the media apocalypse continues.

That’s why Philip Collins, late of The Times, and deployed as a useful idiot there to rip down Labour, has found a berth at The New Statesman with a weekly column — The New Statesman long ago stopped being actually left-wing and whatever Collins said at The Times doesn’t matter because he’s pleasingly clubbable in the view of the almost uniformly bland editorial team at the NS [special exception of George ‘Champagne for my friends, sham pain for my enemies’ Eaton].

In Grime and British rap more widely, there is a tradition of the ‘send’, where MCs write battle rhymes specifically ‘sending for’ (calling out) another rapper. That’s what I want to see more of among the columnists. Hard-hitting and no-punches-pulled assessments of where their erstwhile colleagues are talking bollocks.

“I’m sending for David Aaronovitch/he’s a terrible twat/wrong on WMD/he said he’d eat his hat/hey Davey boy, what ever happened with that?”

I like a media feud. You can see me stoking them on Twitter most days. A newspaper environment where columnists will go for each other, rather than simply joining in with the bi-monthly beastings of Owen Jones, would be a far healthier one. But the supine set of column claggers who currently crowd our media are made of weaker stuff than the bolshy bunch that came before them. Shame — in every sense of the word.

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"So, apparently, Boris Johnson has a super-injunction." Media conspiracies aren't usually about big lies. It's about small omissions

Some person on WhatsApp probably doesn't have the big secret.

Boy, I love talking about the Kennedy assassination, man. That’s my favourite topic. You know why? Because to me it’s a great example of, er, a totalitarian government’s ability to, you know, manage information and thus keep us in the dark any way they … Oh, sorry. Wrong meeting … Ah [beep]. That’s the meeting we’re having tomorrow at the docks.

Bill Hicks, Revelations (recorded at The Dominion Theatre, London, 14 September 1993)

Here’s a conspiracy theory I actually believe in. It’s about… conspiracy theories:

I think that the ellision of obviously stupid conspiracy theories — the moon landings were faked on a sound stage and have been kept secret for decades without anyone blabbing — and antisemitic ones — David Icke’s whole ‘lizards’ schtick is simply antisemitic doggerel of the basest kind with a sci-fi spin — and actually quite compelling ones that suggest some level of government involvement in dirty deeds — what exactly the full truth of the JFK assassination was, what the hell actually happened to Dr David Kelly — is a kind of conspiracy itself.

But it’s not organised in general, but more of an ambient attempt by the establishments to deny any sense of organised control over events. While we’re allowed to know that the security services exist and while it’s well known that the British State sanctioned, paid for, and undertook dirty tricks in places like Northern Ireland, we’re expected to believe that’s an isolated thing and that no conspiracies ever occur now. Tell that to the women who were victims of the Spy Cops scandal where undercover officers married and even had children with people they were spying on.

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I said all that to make it clear that I do have an open mind and do not simply credulously accept the official explanations offer by the permanent security state and whoever the current government happens to be. However, today’s edition is about a pervasive kind of collective delusion. It’s the one that provokes hundreds and sometimes thousands of people to jump on rumours and amplify them, either from simple human annoyance or for more malicious reasons.

A current one is that the ‘mainstream’ press has definitive proof of Boris Johnson having an affair with a young violinist who tweeters are rapidly keen on naming. The story goes that there is an injuction/super-injunction/DSMA-Notice (colloquially still known as a D-Notice) in place that is preventing the newspapers and news programmes from reporting on this fact. But further, the argument goes that even if they could they would not because they are so wedded to the idea of protecting the Prime Minister.

None of this stands up. Yes, there’s a good chance that the injudicious Mr Johnson will have or is having another affair. He is a serial philanderer who became fully involved with his current partner Carrie Symonds while his then wife was undergoing cancer treatment and it’s a matter of settled fact in the courts that he has had at least one affair that resulted in a child for whom he tried to deny paternity.

However, if the newspapers — of whatever shade — had proof that the Prime Minister was engaged in an affair right now regardless of the imposition of some form of injunction — on what ground, no one seems willing to say beyond vague hand-waving at the notion of ‘national security’ — one or several of them would run with it. If they did not, Private Eye would not be able to resist doing so.

I am not definitively saying that Johnson is not having an affair or that his relationship with Ms Symonds is not ‘on the rocks’. I simply have no proof either way, other than circumstantial stuff and observation of the Prime Minister’s previous behaviour. What I do know is that having spoken to sources at Sky News, within the BBC, and who work at a number of papers, there is not even a whisper of an injunction and while investigative heads have suspicions about Johnson’s relationship to the violinist, just as many did about his ties to Jennifer Arcuri, no one has the smoking cock.

Rumours are not enough and ‘allegedly’ is not a magic spell that you can use to assert whatever you like. In the case of the Prime Minister, in particular, there are plenty of newspapers now that would like to shoot him down in favour of their preferred candidate, but they can’t do that unless they can mount and pin him on the page like a buggered butterfly. If the evidence isn’t watertight, they won’t run with it in this case. As The Wire has it, “If you take a shot at the king, you better not miss.” Boris Johnson may be a buffoonish king, but a king he is nonetheless. And he doesn’t need a DSMA-Notice to exert power.

The real conspiracies in the media are ones of small silences. They are the unspoken agreement that certain people’s nepotistic advantages aren’t referenced anywhere. They are the whispers rather than shouts about criminal connections or columnists who have excused partners or even themselves of truly awful behaviour. Remember, The Times has yet to face up to the fact that its major columnist India Knight was used as a mitigating factor in the criminal conviction of her partner Eric Joyce for possessing an image of child sexual abuse of such severity that it was classed as Category A. It’s seen as terribly impolite to mention this but what is it other than a conspiracy of silence?

Without a former step-father on the board of News UK and a privileged perch in the pages of The Times is it likely that Ms Knight would have been saved from scrutiny by the newspapers and wider media? If you believe that then I have a bridge to sell you across the Thames and you are too credulous to read this newsletter. But you don’t believe that and neither do the newspapers. It’s a mucky little everyday conspiracy of the kind that doesn’t need a complicated chart to explain. Look for those, they’re the ones that should really worry you.

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Journalists on safari: The North is a foreign country, they do things differently there

Does a Northern town exist if John Harris hasn't visited it with a camera crew?

Pictured above, Sky News conducts a vox pop in Doncaster.

I lived in the north for a year-or-so, staying with my parents in the ‘happy valley’ — Bollington — just on the outskirts of Macclesfield, the impressively grey home of Joy Division, which is happy to let Manchester claim them. I don’t presume to have special knowledge of a swathe of the country that houses up to 25% of the UK population — over 15 million people — but I do at least know that media caricatures of coal-dusted misanthrope racists are just that caricatures.

Manchester, for example, with its vibrant gay village, incredible music, art, and startup scenes, defies easy categorisation and the same can be said for Newcastle, Sunderland and Sheffield among many others. But if you read London-based journalists opining on ‘The North’, you’ll discover their insights are often the product of day trips, half-remembered viewings of Boys From The Black Stuff, and sheer flights of fantasy.

Let’s take a little look at a recent example from the former Muttley to Guido Fawkes’ Dick Dastardly, the most famous cuckold not to have his own PornHub channel — that we know of — and Political Editor of The Sun, Harry Cole, responding to the following tweet by the FT’s Jim Pickard:

The invention of the Red Wall — an electoral term for traditionally Labour-held seats that the party needed to hold but which were mostly lost to the Tories in the rout of 2019 — has been a tedious development in ‘The North Thinks…” discourse. I preferred Red Wall went it referred to surprisingly adept animals in armour eating vast banquets, rather than simplistic understandings of how people beyond the Watford Gap, beyond the Wall and the reach of the sleepy Watch running the Lobby, think of politics, politicians and, well, just about anything really.

Yesterday’s papers delivered another classic example of how the London media talk about working class people in particular as Caitlin Moran continued her lifelong mission of cosplaying working class culture long beyond the time when she had any purchase in that world:

I didn’t grow up on a council estate. I grew up on a private estate very close to a council estate and that description has no connection to where several of my friends lived. My dad did grow up on a council estate — one of five children — and his descriptions of his youth have a plain bleakness that is far from the rabelaisian aesthetic beloved of Ms Moran, who has made over-writing into an artform.

Of course, Caitlin Moran is just being light-hearted but her piece has the same poverty tourist tendency that was found in shows like Benefits Street and which underpins exercises like The Guardian’s continued video output where it dispatches John Harris to somewhere in the North to discover just what the primitive inhabitants of those godforsaken places, places that the overwhelmingly privately-educated hacks at the Graun could not imagine living in, even if they themselves were once from the North.

Working class people and working class people in the North, in particular, are as heterodox as any other class demographic, but the media is obsessed with interviewing Wetherspoons patrons and former miners. A young, gay, graphic designer who grew up on a council estate and still doesn’t make regular money or have a stable job, relying instead on freelance work and even the gig economy, would not fit the media vision of the Northern working class and certainly wouldn’t be included in a TV report designed to emphasise the ‘bleakness’ of a former industrial town.

‘The North’ and ‘The North’s concerns’ are useful cudgels to bludgeon politicians with. They are weapons for political journalists to highlight how whichever leader or specific MP they don’t currently like is catering to “North London not the Red Wall towns of the North”. The fact that the North London trope is a dog whistle to antisemites gets very little play. Instead, we’re expected to think the journalists who are so inside the Westminster bubble you could be forgiven for thinking that exposure to the air in Rotherham would kill them are in fact experts on Kremlinology about crumbling former mining communities.

I chose Rotherham as an example specifically because, having said that the paper should look at what people in the town think, I was commissioned by The New European to write a piece about it. I never filed. After going up on the train from Norfolk — another place that is baffling to the London media besides as a place where they have holiday homes — I spent a whole day mooching around the pubs of Rotherham talking to people and making notes.

My conclusion was that the piece I’d write — about people let down by the government in London, the EU project, and politicians in general, would not work for that paper. I arrived in Rotherham as a remainer and I left as one, but the reporting gave me a sense — however limited — of how left-behind many people in Rotherham felt and probably still feel.

I couldn’t in good conscience file a piece that would have felt exploitative, like a safari in some other people’s misery. So I took the hit for the cost of the train ticket and other expenses like copious pints bought to give me the right to chat with men sitting in the pub at 11am. I could ill afford not to claim those expenses back, but having spent my twenties writing things that did not always reflect my views or best instincts, I’m done with filing copy for the sake of it. And, as my mother says, nothing is ever wasted. I’m finally telling a part of the Rotherham story I never published here in my newsletter where I have full control over how it’s framed.

Do you know what The New European should have done when I pitched the Rotherham piece? Let me write my sketch and hire someone from Rotherham to write theirs. In those two perspectives — the outside and the insider — we might have got something that came close to representing at least a kind of truth about a town that has been so often misrepresented by fly-by-night journalist visitors like me. But that wasn’t the idea that got floated and so the feature I wrote and scrapped will never see the light of day. I feel like I made the right choice.

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