Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity

One big upside of being part of a demonised minority: it saves you a fortune.

I cancelled my decades-long subscription to Private Eye yesterday: the current issue has three news stories about trans things in which it unquestioningly parroted anti-trans bullshit, picked on a trans charity and an LGBT charity and vilified a young trans woman who’s endured unspeakable abuse from anti-trans bigots both online and in real life.

I’ve also cancelled my subscription to the Guardian, a paper I’ve bought since my teens, after days of intense coverage about the GRA reform consultation in which it didn’t feature a single voice in favour of trans people, let alone the voices of any actual trans people. Its editorial about the GRA reforms this week reads like a crib sheet of Christian Right anti-LGBT “talking points”. It and the Observer have repeatedly run open letters from anti-trans activists but ignore open letters that support trans people and that call out the open hostility of too much media coverage.

I no longer buy the Sunday Times any more (another paper I bought for a couple of decades) because it’s even worse than the Daily Mail in its coverage of trans issues: when your reports are being hailed with joy by right-wing US evangelicals on social media (and in many cases, apparently dictated by them) you’ve taken a terrible wrong turn somewhere. Neither the Spectator nor the New Statesman feature in my “buy to read on the bus” list any more for similar reasons. I no longer pay to access Glasgow’s Herald since its editorial swing to tired, right-wing “let’s trigger the snowflakes” clickbait.

Supportive advert in Metro UK

Trans allies generally don’t make it into the newspapers unless they pay for advertising, as they did with this Metro UK advert. Unlike the anti-trans activists, their open letters don’t get published.

This isn’t silencing debate, or refusing to hear different opinions.

It’s refusing to pay for bullshit.

Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity. There’s tons of it online, completely free. I don’t need to pay to have someone put it through my letterbox too.

Refusing to pay is not the same as refusing to listen to differing opinions. It’s just refusing to support low quality content.

For many years I’ve paid to read The Guardian and The Observer, even though various news apps I use enable me to read their articles (legally) for free and often without ads. I paid because I believe that good journalism is something worth paying for. But recently, there has been an influx of journalism that is not good, and which is not worth paying for.

I’m not refusing to read Guardian articles. I’m just not willing to pay to read them any more.

I’m under no illusion that me cancelling anything makes the slightest difference to the organisations running biased and sometimes blatantly malicious content. Although you’ve got to wonder at the wisdom of alienating any customers when like The Guardian, you’re begging every website visitor to throw you some coins to try and stay in business. But generally speaking these businesses don’t need my money.

Others do, though. And what I can do – what I do do, and what I’d hope other LGBT people and their allies also do – is use the money I’d normally spend to do something positive: to help crowdfund or otherwise donate to content that isn’t hateful, to buy books by people who know what they’re talking about but who don’t get columns in newspapers, to donate to valuable charities that Private Eye calls activists while it approvingly quotes groups affiliated with the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT Christian Right.

You don’t even need to spend money. You can refuse to click on obvious hate-clickbait. You can point your browser (with ad-block disabled) to sites that don’t publish hateful content. You can signal boost positive voices on your social media.

None of these things will harm your bank balance, and none of them will harm your mental health either.

“My editors shouldn’t have to receive emails calling for my death”

Dawn Foster has written a brave, gut-wrenching, important piece about online misogyny and abuse.

The majority of men are not like this, but unbidden, I find myself more on guard than I ever was before. Too many men have proudly sent lengthy pen portraits of my imagined rape, murder or maiming, glutted with detail, and have expended plenty of energy on these dreams. These men aren’t easy to spot on public transport, and now I’m warier than I have been at any other point in my life.

I have only experienced a tiny fraction of what women like Foster have experienced. But even then I find myself thinking about online abusers when I’m on public transport, or in a crowd. Can I tell which of these people are hateful bastards just by looking at them? Is it him? Or him? Or her?

As Foster writes:

The internet is still seen as the Wild West – a consequence-free zone where normal social mores can be cast off as cumbersome shackles.

We’ve been played. The tech firms told us that we needed free speech, but what they really meant was they needed freedom from taking responsibility for the shit being pumped through their servers. YouTube has become a radicalisation machine. Facebook is implicated in genocide – genocide! – in Myanmar. Twitter has become a megaphone for bigots of all stripes.

Online spaces are no different from real world spaces. We decide what’s acceptable, and what isn’t. For too long we’ve been accepting the unacceptable. And the longer we shrug it off, the worse it will become.

Simplicity is good

The image is from an excellent blog post by Shane O’Leary, which you can read here.

[Update: My friend Chris Phin, who is an editor and therefore always right, has pointed out that I am of course describing practical writing here, not writing as an art form in its own right. I’d better clarify that before I get picketed by poets.]

Most writing exists for a reason, and that reason is usually to share information. The information might be a warning, or it might be advice, or it might be how to do something. The writer’s job is to share that information in the right way. The right way is usually to simplify it, simplify it, and then simplify some more.

Sometimes we get it wrong by accident. If you’re immersed in a particular world you may have a knowledge and a vocabulary that people outside that world don’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon or relying on concepts that you understand but that your readers might not. It’s an honest mistake and we all do it.

Sometimes, though, it’s deliberate. It’s the writer deciding that the message they really need to communicate is “I am clever!” or “I have read a book!”

And that’s where terrible writing comes from.

I recently read a live review that said:

They have appeal and they appeal to us. Through the sociologically objective to the psychological subjectivism of introspection: Moving from the political protest to mind games of the self.

That’s not writing. That’s not even typing.

Writing is usually there to do a job, to answer a question: how do I make this work? What did the government decide today? What do you think about this topic? Should you see this band if they’re playing near you?

Answering those questions doesn’t mean you must write in a boring way. But it does mean that you must answer the question you were asked, not the question you wish you had been asked. For example, a live review is supposed to answer the question “what was the gig like?” and perhaps tell you if you should get tickets for the next date.

Good writing needn’t be dull writing. Here’s the late Douglas Adams describing spaceships.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way bricks don’t.

That’s very simple writing, but it’s doing a ton of work. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a very effective description. These aren’t the sleek, silvery spaceships of most speculative fiction. These are bricks. Awful ships. Tedious ships. Ugly, utilitarian, unloveable ships. These are the sort of ships you get when you’re English, in England, in the 1980s. The kind of spaceships your local council would commission. Spaceships that probably close for no reason every third Wednesday. Spaceships full of traffic cones and No Ball Games signs.

All that in just 13 words.

And of course, there’s the famous probably-not-by-Hemingway six word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

These are from fiction, of course. There isn’t as much room for humour or imagination in more everyday kinds of writing. But you can still say an awful lot without very many words. For example:

Signs are a great example, because their job is to impart information in the simplest possible way. This sign doesn’t have time for big words and lyrical flourishes. What is dangerous, and why should you keep out? We don’t have time for that! There is danger! You must keep out!

Alliterate by all means. Sprinkle metaphors like malt vinegar on the crinkle-cut chips that comprise your copy. Demonstrate your vocabulary with sesquipedalian style. But never forget that your words are there to do a job, and if they don’t do that job then you’re wasting everybody’s time.

As the Swedish popsters Roxette once put it: don’t bore us, get to the chorus!

What you didn’t read in the papers this morning

The UK Government Equalities Office has issued a statement regarding the unhinged coverage of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in this weekend’s newspapers. [Emphasis mine]

Neither GEO nor Ministers were approached for comment on today’s coverage on the Gender Recognition Act. Any speculation that decisions have already been made on the Gender Recognition Act is wrong. These are complex and sensitive issues. We know that many trans people find the current requirements overly intrusive and bureaucratic. We are consulting now because we want to hear people’s views.

We have always made clear that any reform of the Gender Recognition Act will not change the exceptions under the Equality Act that allow provision for single and separate sex spaces. The consultation ends next week and we will look carefully at all the responses.

Battle Royale Mile

BBC Scotland has announced some of the shows for its new channel, launching next year. And it’s clear that with a roster including River City (But Broadcast Slightly Earlier), it may need some fresh ideas.

Allow me to introduce “Battle Royale Mile”.

The premise is simple. Each week, two Scots music legends fight in a pit in Edinburgh. No weapons, no environmental hazards. Just two pop, rock, indie or dance music titans fighting. The winner is the last one standing; the prize, critical acclaim and booze. Mainly booze.

Imagine it. Imagine Del Amitri vs Deacon Blue, Justin Currie making the fatal strategic error of not hitting a woman and Lorraine McIntosh bludgeoning him senseless. Imagine Simple Minds vs The Rezillos,  the latter’s sheer force of numbers easily overwhelming the stadium rockers. Imagine Honeyblood vs Primal Scream, Bobby Gillespie squeaking with fright before Cat Myers even lays a finger on him.

Imagine Mogwai, Jesus and Mary Chain, Biffy Clyro, King Creosote, Texas and KT Tunstall pummelling Gerry Cinnamon. I may be letting my personal taste show here.

Not every bout would be so entertaining. While I’m sure Garbage vs Chvrches would be a win for Manson’s group, her fearlessness more than compensating for the other band’s youth and agility, it’s one of those bouts where you don’t want anybody to get hurt at all, let alone lose. Similarly Teenage Fanclub vs The Proclaimers. And Travis vs Wet Wet Wet might be a ratings disaster, although I suspect the Wets might prove to be pretty handy.

There would need to be some kind of weighting system, though, because otherwise some fights would be hopelessly one-sided, which is why the only fair opponent for the might of Belle And Sebastian would be a paper bag or perhaps a small mouse.

I’d watch it. You’d watch it. I think we’ve got a hit on our hands.

Screen-age kicks

As you may have noticed, the new series of Doctor Who starts tonight. I was never a Whovian – I watched it as a child and the rebooted series never appealed to me – but thanks to my daughter I’ve rediscovered it and realised what a great show it can be.

Tonight isn’t just about the return of the show, though. It’s the first time a woman, the excellent Jodie Whittaker, has played The Doctor. For my daughter, that’s incredible: someone exactly like her (smart, funny, kick-ass and female) having the lead role in her favourite show.

Some boys moaned about “a TARDIS full of bras”, of course, because having one female lead out of thirteen is political correctness gone too far. Apparently a show about a near-immortal shape-shifting time-travelling space alien is totally realistic, but having that alien assume female form is too far-fetched.

It’s their loss: as my friend Karl Hodge writes, the Doctor is a great character. Irrespective of his, her or their pronouns.

When smart people are really, really stupid

The Sky News / Tommy Robinson fiasco is a good example of something that’s all too common in media: smart people being really, really stupid.

There’s an idea, oft expressed, that sunlight is the best disinfectant; that exposing terrible ideas to the harsh glare of publicity will make those terrible ideas wither and die.

Unfortunately that isn’t true.

Giving extremists a platform fuels them.

And smart people are often too stupid to realise that that’s what they’re doing: they tell us they want to have a debate, when really what we’re seeing is a performance.

They’re not providing a platform. They’re providing a stage.

Laurie Penny, writing for Longreads:

If we deny racists a platform, they feed off the appearance of censorship, but if we give them a platform, they’ve also won by being respectfully invited into the penumbra of mainstream legitimacy. Either way, what matters to them is not debate, but airtime and attention. They have no interest in winning on the issues. Their image of a better world is one with their face on every television screen.

Look at Tommy Robinson in my previous post, happy as a pig in shit: he got on the telly and still managed to claim he was being silenced.

You see exactly the same with anti-trans bigots, homophobes and other terrible people. They don’t debate the facts because they don’t care about the facts. They don’t listen to the debate because to them it isn’t a debate. It’s an opportunity to get their message across, to reach their supporters and give the impression that extreme, bigoted beliefs aren’t so extreme and bigoted after all.

You only listen to the other guy so you can work out how to beat him, and ideally, humiliate him.

It’s a growing problem because all too often, broadcasters in particular thrive on conflict. If they have one person who believes X, because X is indisputably true, they will comb the darker corners of the internet to find someone who says X is false – often someone who is very good at sounding convincing even when they’re spouting absolute garbage. The viewer or listener is then left with the false belief that there are two sides to the story when really, there aren’t.

I’ve refused to take part in such discussions, and I know very many people who do the same. They simply won’t lend their name to the legitimisation of extremist views.

As Penny puts it, in her case with reference to Trump’s former right-hand man Steve Bannon:

Inviting someone like Steve Bannon to your conference about how to build a free and open society is a little like inviting Ronald McDonald to your convention on solving world hunger.

She argues that sunlight, far from being a disinfectant, enables some of the world’s worst people to build a brand. The rise and fall of right-wing troll Milo is a good example of that; his star rose as the column inches about him increased, but when he finally got booted off Twitter and stopped making news his career went into what I sincerely hope is terminal decline.


What stopped him was progressives collectively refusing to put up with his horseshit.

…there is a choice, and this, to my mind, is the sensible one: To refuse to dignify these people with prestigious public platforms, or to share them. To refuse to offer them airtime or engage them in public debate.

If you give people with dangerous agendas a platform, you’re not impartial. You’re complicit.

Sky news: a spectacular own goal

Sky News was very proud of its exclusive last night: an interview with former EDL leader and Nazi poster boy Tommy Robinson. Don’t do it, they were urged. All you’re doing is giving fascists the oxygen of publicity they so crave, and helping create the impression that they’re a legitimate group with legitimate concerns. He’ll use the slot to get his talking points aired and then tell his followers how he outsmarted you.

Robinson on Twitter today:

Hate-clicks as a business model

One of the more depressing things about the internet is the way that some publications have embraced hate clicks. Hate clicks are when you publish something terrible and then lots of people share it, not because they agree with it but because they’re shocked by how awful it is. The statistics show that lots of people read it, so the publication commissions more of it and the world gets a little bit worse.

The latest example of that comes once again from Glasgow’s Herald newspaper, which seems increasingly determined to sacrifice its reputation for the sake of a bit of online outrage. Its columnist Brian Beacom is a kind of Tesco Value Richard Littlejohn, writing really tired columns with exactly the kinds of views you’d expect from a straight, white, middle-aged pub bore. Beacom doesn’t have a high opinion of black music, or trans people, or women. And this week’s column is particularly bad.

This is the opening sentence.

TIME to give Zoe Ball a little kicking.

See what he did there? A ball is something you kick. So it’s okay to make a joke about violence against women.

I’m genuinely amazed that made it into print. How many people saw that and thought “yeah, suggesting a woman needs a kicking is absolutely fine”?

Beacom is outraged – he says it’s “anger following on from frustration” – because while “Ball isn’t a bad presenter” she has breasts, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to present the Radio 2 breakfast show. The only way for men to present prestigious radio programmes is for them to grow breasts too.

If you’re a man hoping for radio’s most prestigious slot, the only chance is to transgender and hope the oestrogen pills kick in before Chris Evans sets off to become a reborn Virgin.

It’s a sad day when a professional writer can’t even make his lazy slurs grammatically correct. Transgender is an adjective, not a verb.

Beacom’s argument is that the BBC is “pushing women beyond the level of their talent” and should stick with – surprise! – middle-aged straight white men like him. The Radio 2 breakfast show has always been presented by men, and should continue to be presented by men because it has always been presented by men. QED.

Whether he means it or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it got published, woman-kicking sentiment included, and a bunch of straight white guys in the comments saw it as validation. It even made it to TV, although many of the women journalists approached to appear with him refused on the grounds that “old man has bigoted views” is hardly newsworthy and they had proper journalism to be getting on with.

It’s so, so lazy. Anybody can do it, and most people could do a better job of it than Beacom. The irony here is that he’s claiming the BBC is not a meritocracy from the perspective of a white, middle-aged man who has a newspaper column despite not being any good at writing newspaper columns.

The Herald has clearly pushed him beyond the level of his talent.

The Times: transphobia is bad (except when we do it)

The Times has carried out an investigation into Twitter.

References to child sex abuse, taunting of rape victims, disturbing messages from stalkers, homophobia and transphobia all stayed on the site after Twitter reviewed the content and decided that none of it breached its terms.

Examples of the hate speech include attempts to link LGBT people with paedophilia and the deliberate abuse of trans women.

This, from a newspaper whose UK edition repeatedly runs articles claiming that trans people are ‘sacrificing our children”, that trans women are predatory men, that the LGBT “lobby” is abusing children.

Maybe the Irish edition didn’t get the memo: abusing minorities sells newspapers.