The Daily Terrorgraph: British newspapers really want their readers to be afraid…

In the aftermath of terrible events, papers parrot lines from the police and security services and ratchet up the fear.

Previously | Toxic avengers: The paper of “Enemies of the People” and “kill vampire Jezza” cannot offer lectures on civility...

Between 1979 and 1984, three MPs were murdered (Airey Neave killed by the INLA in a car bomb attack outside Parliament in 1979, Robert Bradford shot dead by the IRA in 1981 during a constituency surgery at a Belfast community centre, and Anthony Berry, who died in the 1984 bombing of the Grand Brighton Hotel again by the IRA). Their deaths led to major changes to security measures both in Westminster and at party conferences.

Between 2016 and 2021, two MPs have been murdered — Jo Cox and Sir David Amess — while plots to kill at least two others were foiled or failed (a neo-Nazi’s plan to kill the Labour MP Rosie Cooper was stopped days before he planned to put it into action, while the Finsbury Park Mosque attacker had intended to kill Jeremy Corbyn and hoped to kill Sadiq Khan).

Just as they did in the aftermath of Cox’s murder, the newspapers and their craven columnists have moved quickly to exploit Amess’ killing to push pre-existing lines and land blows against other politicians they despise — Angela Rayner, particularly — while pretending to preach the gospel of kindness and high-minded civility. Even before there was even a hint about the killer’s motivations, columnists had somehow made the story about people being rude to them on Twitter and the immediate need to end anonymity.

I wrote yesterday about the sheer gall — worse than Asterix in a negligee — of the positively radioactive Dan Hodges howling about toxicity in political debate from the pages of The Mail on Sunday. In The Daily Telegraph today, former advisor to Theresa May during the ‘Go Home’ van and ‘crush the saboteurs’ eras, Nick Timothy, gets on the bandwagon with a piece headlined We have been in denial about the violent sickness in British society.

Timothy writes:

We are in denial about the sickness of our society. We choose not to accept the reality before us – that hate, extremism and violence are commonplace – because that reality is scary, and confronting it is complex and hard. For many politicians, it means grasping issues that they find embarrassing, and saying what they lack the bravery to admit.

As ever, the first question is: Who’s ‘we’, Nick? “We” is one of the weasliest words in newspapers — to steal from Blackadder, it’s more weasly than a weasel who has been appointed Professor of Avanced Weasel Studies at the University of DeWeaselburg — and whenever it occurs you need to ask who the writer is bundling up in that “we”.

In this case, Timothy tries to make us all responsible for the horrifying vision he conjures up. He writes outside of history, shouting from within the snow globe of The Daily Telegraph’s fear-stoking ideology, offering blanket statements like “over the last decade or so we have started to recognise the role played by extremist ideology” as if “we” do not exist in a wider history of extremism or that “we” are never the perpetrators of extremism and always the victims of it.

Timothy writes with no sense of self-awareness or irony:

Hardline attitudes and behaviour among some “community leaders” are often tolerated by those who would be first to condemn them in almost any other context. Barely disguised homophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism, discrimination against others based on their race, religion or lifestyle, and the threat of violence towards apostates and atheists, is all too common, yet all too rarely confronted.

There is a “community leader” of the Conservative Party whose homophobia, misogyny, racism, and antisemitism is so “barely disguised” that much of it was published in the paper that Timothy writes in now; a leader who has used all kinds of dehumanising and violent rhetoric in speech after speech across many years. He is the Prime Minister and his words are “often tolerated by those who would be first to condemn them in almost any other context”.

Timothy, a former employee of the cruellest of ministries — the Home Office — which has been a source of ingenious brutality under governments of all colours and compositions, and whose professional skill was in exacerbating “us vs. them” divides for political gain continues:

… we need to accept that an “us-and-them” divide does exist, but we must decide where to draw the line. Choose the right side, choose pluralism and tolerance, we should say, and we will support you with everything we have. But choose hatred and intolerance and we will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

Nothing about this problem is easy. Turning these principles into action, and making our society resilient in response to extremism, will be tough. But the first step is surely honesty about the sickness of our society.

This time we must not retreat, in an absence of courage and thought, into complacency. We must admit and confront the very serious dangers we face.

Timothy and the Telegraph — hypocrites by profession and temperament — pretend that extremism can only go one way and that the dangers of today are far more pressing than the dangers of yesterday because they want and need their readers to be terrified. The fear is a motivating factor to keep buying the paper, to keep believing that the columnists and reporters are keeping you safe.

As I writing this newsletter, Matt Chorley’s interview with Labour frontbencher Jess Phillips — recorded shortly after the news of David Amess’ death was announced — was being broadcast. She told him, “There is a way of [offering scrunity] without hate” and Chorley murmured in agreement. There was no mention of her quip about Jeremy Corbyn (“I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front…”) nor her claim to have told Diane Abbott to “fuck off”.

In the wake of David Amess’ death, a festival of false memory and hypocrisy has been declared in Westminster. We’re meant to accept columnists who denigrate and despise on a daily basis are now a legion of Dali Lamas and politicians with records of cruelty and spite must be patted gently on the head.

Unsurprisingly this culture of opportunism has been leapt upon by the security services who have briefed the papers about a new “wave of bedroom radicals”; the same phrase occurs in headlines from The Daily Telegraph and The Sun, despite the latter claiming, as it is so often wont to do, that it has the “exclusive”.

Those briefings by the police and security services are opportunistic for two reasons: One they’re designed to shift blame from them and two they’re part of the endless push to get more powers, more money, and more control. And the press — drunk on access and high on the air of secrecy — offer up their claims without question or caveat.

‘Dramatic’ warnings from security service sources also suit papers that are desperate to terrify their readers. That’s why The Sun screeches…

BRITAIN could face a deadly wave of lone wolf terror attacks by "bedroom radicals", security experts have warned.

… and The Daily Telegraph talks ominously of

… a potential new wave of terrorist attacks carried out by “bedroom radicals” bred during lockdown.

“Could” in the first and “potential” in the second are load-bearing words.

Inside The Sun, Tony Parsons — who wrote in 2013 that he “wouldn’t wipe his dog with the EU flag” — and Trevor Kavanagh — who has worked for the paper for 43 years and wrote a notorious 2017 column on “the Muslim problem” — share the same line to indirectly but insinuatingly blame Angela Rayner for Friday’s horrific events.

Kavanagh’s column, headline MPs must avoid toxic words that incite losers to kill, opens with the snide line…

The words “Tory scum” will not be passing Angela Rayner’s lips again any time soon, I think.

I have not met Labour’s fiery deputy leader but I assume she is a decent person who will be appalled by suggestions her outburst contributed even remotely to Sir David Amess’s death.

… making the very suggestion that he pretends merely to be repeating from others. Like Hodges in The Mail on Sunday and Janice Turner in Saturday’s Times, Kavanagh artlessly links Amess’ killing to “social media trolls”:

… every thinking grown-up, especially among our parliamentary representatives, needs to avoid the toxic social media stew which tips the feeble-minded into violence.

Curious that Kavanagh’s words in The Sun — that “Muslim problem” column among them — aren’t part of a toxic stew, isn’t it? It’s the same exemption that Sarah Vine offered herself in her column yesterday and which is commonly deployed across Fleet Street.

Parsons writes in his column (Stop toxic abuse or more lives like Tory MP David Amess’ will be lost) that:

We can’t go on calling each other “scum” and “vermin” and “fascists” and names that cannot be printed in a family newspaper just because we have political disagreements. Because this is where it leads.

In a just universe that level of hypocrisy — demanding kindness in a piece published in the pages of The Sun — would result in the writer immediately spontaneously combusting.

Melanie Phillips1 and Jeremy Clarkson were quoted in the manifesto of the mass killer Anders Breivik but we must never discuss the influence of the traditional media on the minds of those inclined to violence.

Meanwhile, in The Times, Phillips’ colleague Libby Purves uses Amess’ death as the hook for a piece decrying hate crime legislation. Beneath the headline, Where is the law when real threats appear?2 and a lede that unironically uses the phrase “thought police” (“Forget bruised feelings and the thought police: it is time to tackle threats of actual harm and breaches of the peace”) Purves writes:

In our anxious, caring Britain an edgy joke about any minority ruled to be sensitive can cost you. Even if you don’t lose your job or struggle through a tribunal you can be warned by the police, be publicly shamed and see work dry up even if the original gag was more silly than malicious. You can easily jeopardise your promotion or apprenticeship for having “wrong” views that “might” offend someone, even if they weren’t there or didn’t care and were happy to dismiss you as a bigoted fool not worth wasting time on.

It’s the usual lumbering “cancel culture” is everywhere rhetoric and I was ready to respond with my usual complaint about the lack of examples, but Purves actually includes some… sort of:

Several evangelists have been convicted for lumbering around with placards against homosexuality, a chap got six months suspended for leaving a stupid cartoon in an airport prayer room and a peerlessly silly YouTube comedian got arrested for teaching a pug to do a Nazi salute. Quivering with sensibility, we proudly cherish our disapproval of “distressing” anyone, even if that distress is theoretical and caused by some harmless stranger’s moral opinion. There is little backing now for the tough old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.”

Pick at this tapestry of ‘injustices’ however and it soon unravels. She doesn’t give details of the “several evangelists… convicted for lumbering around with placards against homosexuality”, perhaps because, in cases like one from my dad’s home town Taunton in 2015, they are often actually about repeated public harassment of minorities. Similarly the “peerlessly silly YouTube comedian” she refers to is, in fact, Count Dankula and his case was much more complicated than she lets on.3

The 2021 version of Libby Purves, grumbling that “There is little backing now for the tough old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.” would be a shock to the Libby Purves of 2006, who wrote in The Times Educational Supplement4, that:

It has never been easy to convince children that sticks and stones may break their bones but names will never hurt them. They know better. Words strike deeper than skin and muscle: they go round in your head, hurting as much the hundredth time. Sometimes you would rather be slapped than confidently informed that you are worthless…

It’s almost as if columnists form their opinions on a weekly if not daily or hourly basis and there is no consistency across their work.

This will be a week of extraordinary cant, hypocrisy, cruelty and fearmongering among the august members of the columnist class. They won’t look back to the history of violence against MPs nor offer explanations of the rarity of these occurrences. Instead, fired up with moral indignation and by the self-serving stories of the security services, they will tell tales of a broken society, shattered not by the politicians they back but by the ones they don’t like, “the left” and, worst of all, people who mock them on Twitter.

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1

Breivik included a piece by Melanie Phillips on the Labour Party's immigration policy from 2009 in its entirety.

2

As Jim Swatts noted on Twitter: “Heaven forbid any of these columnists should learn what the Allport Scale is.” The Allport Scale is a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society, which was devised by psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954

3

He taught the dog to raise its paw when he said the phrases ‘Sieg Heil’ and 'gas the Jews’. Curiously Purves chose not to include those details.

4

Thanks to Ned Trifle for uncovering this gem.