The 22 worst columns of 2022, part 1: The Queen is dead, the columnists survive
Counting down from 22 to 12 in this year's chart of contemptible columns.
Last year, I published the 21 worst columns of 2021. This year, we’re going one worser1: 22 terrible columns from 2022, another year that confirmed the absence of a loving god and that when we stare into the abyss, the abyss shouts, “What the fuck are you looking at?” back.
As with last year’s buffet of bad takes, the list will be split into parts one and two.
Cue the music…
… and let’s start the run down from 22 to 12:
22. DAN HODGES (⬇️ 10)
”As the Honiton by-election approaches, true blue Devon's farming folk aren't quite ready to kiss Boris Johnson goodbye”
It seems almost unbelievable that Dan Hodges, the most reliably wrong columnist in Britain, has dropped 10 places this year, but the problem is his schtick gets very samey. This column is a moment of Hodges’ trademark wrongness sealed in amber, an artefact from the late Boris Johnson era. On 11 June 2022, Hodges wrote:
I’m not detecting the sort of visceral anger over Partygate, or other issues, I was told to expect. It’s true the Lib Dems have the most visible presence. There are fields and barns displaying their distinctive orange signs proclaiming ‘Winning Here’.
But are they?
On 23rd June 2022, the Lib Dems took the seat with a 38 percentage point swing, obliterating the Tories’ 24,239-vote majority from the 2019 election, the largest ever overturned in a by-election. While Hodges hedged his bets in his closing paragraphs, raising the prospect of a Lib Dem win, the headline and the bulk of his copy were angled towards a surprise win for Boris Johnson.
And yet broadcasters still take Hodges almost as seriously as he takes himself.
21. DAVID AARONOVITCH (🆕entry)
”Danger of Boris Johnson’s ‘deep state’ conspiracy”
Having dodged an appearance in the 2021 rundown by publishing his worst piece of that year too late for inclusion (December 29th 2021’s It’s time to drop the obsession with ‘privilege’), Aaronovitch makes it in with plenty of time to spare.
In this “nothing to see here” column, a response to Boris Johnson’s use of the term “deep state”, Aaronovitch write blithely:
In the 1980s… films and drama series regularly featured such shadow state activities as the solution to a mystery that a questing journalist or campaigner, often doomed, was seeking to uncover. In many cases, there could seem to be superficial evidence for such a belief. Police powers during the miners’ strike were pretty draconian, special police units infiltrated “subversive” organisations (which either sounds appalling or sensible according to your worries) and in most of that time there was no transparency whatsoever with regard to the secret services, with the first director of MI5 not even named until 1993.
Imagine how victims of the spy cops feel about that aside (“…or sensible according to your worries…”) and the dismissal of those abuses as “superficial evidence”. The literal stacks of evidence about state collusion in Northern Ireland also don’t fit with his thesis so go unmentioned.
Aaronovitch was making his case against Johnson using the “deep state” rhetoric to imply an “establishment” conspiracy to make Brexit fail, but as with many columns, the line has other consequences. Just because Johnson (and Trump before him) invoked the idea of a “deep state” for transparently self-serving reasons does not mean that it’s silly to think that the police, security services, and other organs of the state act beyond democratic oversight. We know they do.
20. JO BARTOSCH (🆕entry)
”Three cheers for ‘TERF Island’”
This list could quite easily have been made up of 22 columns about what people with an interest in dehumanising others insist on calling “the Trans issue” or even, as The New Statesman put it, “the Trans question”. Instead this late-in-the-year entry from that elephant’s graveyard of bad takes, Spiked, serves as the representative for every anti-trans screed published in the British media this year, a concerted effort to frame a tiny minority of trans people as a tidal wave to be feared and vilified. One of the big lies of the “gender critical” movement is that its voices are silenced when, in fact, it is a wildly over-represented viewpoint in newspapers and the wider media.
Bartosch ends her column by saying:
As 2022 draws to a close, it’s time to raise a glass of eggnog to these no-nonsense middle-aged women speaking truth to power. Over the past 12 months, these Amazonians in sensible shoes have shone a light on the activities of trans lobby groups in courtrooms, workplaces and the public square. And thanks to their efforts, the era of ‘no debate’ on the trans issue has melted into a grubby puddle.
The debate over trans people’s right to exist is never out of the newspapers. The “era of ‘no debate’” was and continues to be a myth that suits a set of columnists and commentators who make a good living pretending it’s true.
19. JAN MOIR (⬇️17)
”Matt Hancock is a campfire Alan Partridge, but he doesn't deserve the contempt of these jungle nobodies”
Like Bartosch’s inclusion, Jan Moir’s entry serves as a representative for a whole corpus of other columns from two categories — 1) the “Matt Hancock is alright, really”2 contrarian take and 2) the much more long-lasting “still making everything about Jeremy Corbyn” variety.
This sentence alone is enough to justify the column’s inclusion:
Many of us have reason to be indebted to Hancock, but gratitude is in short supply in the jungle of smug.
18. SARAH VINE (⬆️3)
”If Elon Musk kills Twitter, it will be his greatest gift to us all yet!”
Elon Musk has provided so much easy copy to columnists this year. If they’re stuck for a topic, it’s almost certain he will have done something cruel or stupid that they can either condemn or claim as 6-dimensional chess genius.
Sarah Vine has moved up from 21 last year to 18 this year thanks to her commitment to having even more terrible takes with every passing week. In this column she wrote:
…Twitter has done more to diminish the human spirit than almost any other invention of the past 20 years. It is the intellectual equivalent of an alco-pop, a platform that encourages and rewards the worst kind of human behaviour.
It helps spread ignorance and misinformation and has, through its virtual mob-and-pitchfork culture, contributed to the narrowing of debate, the grotesque simplification of complex issues, the persecution of original writers and thinkers, the debasement of politics and the rise of a culture of intolerance that, frankly, makes the Spanish Inquisition look lenient.
Delete the word “Twitter” and tell me that’s not a description of The Daily Mail.
17. CHRISTOPHER HOPE (⬇️4)
A Queen Elizabeth royal yacht would be the perfect tribute
Christopher ‘Chopper’ Hope’s The arguments against my campaign for a new royal yacht never held water earned him a place in last year’s list at no.13. The death of the Queen gave him the perfect opportunity to push his weird obsession again.
A previous edition of this newsletter — Yacht is wrong with them? (31 May 2021) — looked at the hilarious history of demands for a replacement Royal Yacht.
16. SUSIE BONIFACE aka FLEET STREET FOX (🆕entry)
'Stop all the clocks, scroll through the phone…”
The Queen’s death led to a lot of painful (royal) purple prose in the British press. Fleet Street Fox’s rewrite of Auden’s Funeral Blues was one of the worst examples:
Stop all the clocks, scroll through the phone,
Stop the corgi from crying with a juicy bone,
Silence Nick Witchell, and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Tell her Red Arrows to roar overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message She Is Dead…
It goes on but the real “citation fucking needed” moment comes with the final line:
Grief is an ocean but we'll do as she would;
For a woman who ruled, and did nothing but good.
15. MATTHEW PARRIS (⬇️11)
”It’s time to decide which services are ‘essential’”
After a top 5 placing on the back of two horrific columns last year (one targeting GRT people, the other defending Prince Andrew), Matthew Parris lands outside the top 10 with this glib “I’m just wondering…”-style article in which he writes:
Local libraries? Leisure centres? Subsidised public swimming pools? Winter fuel payments for higher-rate taxpayers? Free school meals during holidays? Advice centres? Parenthood classes? Good things, some of them, but essential? We must be jolted into asking how citizens might band together to help voluntarily or even — good heavens! — actually pay for things.
That’s libraries and leisure centres that have already been stripped to the bone, and, yes, feeding hungry children. Matthew Parris continues to think the unthinkable for the benefit of the unbearable.
14. MATTHEW SYED (🆕entry)
”Limiting refugee numbers is not illiberal, it’s vital to our survival”
Another column that stands in for many published this year on the same topic, Syed’s entry is also an example of the “self-appointed philosopher king” genre. He presents himself as terribly rational and flatters his audience that it is too. The obvious cruelty of a Douglas Murry or Nick Timothy column is hidden by this Captain Logic pose but, as with them, much is left out to justify the argument. In this case, the moral reasons for taking in refugees are played down and the economic arguments — grim as they are — are ignored. That Syed opens the column by writing…
As the son of an immigrant, I tiptoe into the debate on asylum with care. I’m conscious of the benefits bestowed upon my father — an immigrant rather than a refugee — and the reasons this nation acts as a magnet for those fleeing persecution.
… only makes it worse.
13. JAMES MARRIOTT (🆕entry)
”The cult of the solitary genius is a tired old myth”/”They’re resurrecting the noughties..”
Marriott’s style of column is best summed up as “I read a book recently and this is what it made me think…” and has the initial catchiness of a Malcolm Gladwell book coupled with the fragile logic and dubious sourcing of a Malcolm Gladwell book. The two examples nominated here could have been joined by his recent piece on Gladstone but that seemed a little mean.
In my dissection of the noughties column, I wrote…
The aim of that kind of column is to have the reader clap and exclaim at your brilliance in pulling the rabbit out of the hat. It gets uncomfortable if they start asking how it got in there in the first place and if, in fact, it’s still breathing.
… and I still think that’s fair.
12. TOBY YOUNG (⬆️2)
”There’s no one better than Boris”
Toby Young made it into last year’s chart with a pathetic public begging letter to Boris Johnson asking when he’d get a gong. He followed up this year with a slobbering defence of Johnson for The Spectator, which concluded:
Look, I’m not going to pretend he isn’t a deeply flawed character. But who do you think would be better? Ultimately, the best argument for Boris is the same as Churchill’s argument for democracy: he’s the worst politician to be running the country, except for all the others.
Young still didn’t appear on Johnson’s leaked resignation honours list.
Here’s Part 2.
There are currently 6,804 subscribers to this newsletter (up 60 since last time), 509 of whom are paid subscribers (up 5 since last time). Thank you for helping me hit my end-of-year target of 500 subscribers but do still consider upgrading if you haven’t yet.
There will be paid subscriber bonuses tomorrow and Friday.
I know this isn’t actually a word but I like the way it sounds.
Katy Hind’s Why charming, self-deprecating and buff Matt Hancock is the crush I never thought I'd admit to nearly took this slot but was just too sad to read again.