With the exceptions of arms dealing and music criticism, is there a profession that is less reputable than that of opinion columnists? They have been growing awfully defensive of late. The retraction of Julie Burchill’s attack on transexuals provoked a lot of chatter about the freedom of speech, while the abuse that thuggish geeks dish out on Twitter has inspired great consternation about “trolls”. I don’t disagree with any of this. While Burchill should never have been published, the erasure of her column is silly, and the calls for heads to roll over it are hysterical enough that one can imagine their being repeated to shout down more worthwhile arguments. As for people who compose pro wrestling promos over Twitter, well – they are indeed a pain.
Yet I am not going to defend the freedom of opinion columnists without observing how miserably some of them are wasting it; nor defend them from abuse without observing how some of them have encouraged the boorish narcissism they now decry. Burchill is a good example. I am sure that we are all growing tired of hearing about her so I will strive to dissect her body of work in a grisly enough fashion that no one can chirp bright-eyed platitudes about the “fearless opinions” that made her rich and “contrarian thinking” that placed her on the side of Margaret Thatcher, abortion and the Iraq War. Such courage.
It is not her opinions that make her so obnoxious but the means by which she arrives at and expresses them. She takes whichever views will satisfy her prejudices and then frames them in tones of unhinged hostility. This often leads her to be both flatly wrong and hateful. The Irish, for example, she defined as “Hitler-licking, altarboy-molesting [and] abortion-banning”. I suppose it made a change for someone to libel the people of Ireland without mentioning cider or potatoes but, still, that is shameful. “If one is a Catholic,” she wrote a couple of years ago, “Surely double-speak and duplicity are second nature”. Surely? No. My Granddad, for one, is a member of the Catholic Church and I am not sure he has ever been dishonest. I would not let someone get away with saying that in my living room; how she got paid to write it for the mainstream media is beyond me.
Burchill is not a thinker. She can think, I am sure, but she has been so fêted for mindlessness that she has never had to. The target that she defines herself as opposing, then, is hypocrisy: the dullest of vices to criticise because one is, in essence, issuing ad hominems. Admired though she is for her character assassinations, even these have struck me as inept; reliant upon the force with which they are expressed rather than the incisiveness of their content. George Monbiot, for example, she described as being “spoon-fed…and…having no idea what real life is about”. One might argue that a person who got into journalism in their teens and has subsisted off cocaine and bubbly since has as much right to brandish their working class roots as Snoop Dogg does to speak of life in the ghetto but one should also note that Monbiot has been attacked by gunmen in Maranhão; mutilated with a fencing spike at Solsbury Hill and afflicted with cerebral malaria in Lodwar. I am no great admirer of his journalism but “silver spoon”? That sounds far closer to “fearless”.
It would be unfair to treat her as an aberration. One could bring up the thuggishness of Rod Liddle, for example, who spent one blogpost describing Owen Jones as a “halfwit”, “pig-ignorant idiot” and, through the medium of a friend, “fucking…tosser” and followed it with another in which he expressed his wish that someone would collar George Monbiot “smash his spectacles and spit on his shoes”. One could speak of the indifference to the truth that Nick Cohen has displayed on multitudinous occasions. One could force oneself to think of Harry Cole, who unapologetically smears a fellow citizen as a terrorist.
I suppose columnists have to ask themselves what they exist to do. If it is merely to entertain none of the above should concern them. If it is to inform, edify and produce literature to rank alongside of that Orwell, Mencken and others, however, they should be ashamed of the tawdry and often unreadable obscurantism that characterises much of their professional class. This encourages censors and empowers thugs, and if we are going to aid them in facing either we should insist that they take a long, hard look at themselves.