Oh lord, save me from sniggering bigotry

Imagine this.

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for black men to marry white women, then it should be OK for me to marry my pet pig,” he chuckles. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

No? Let’s try this one.

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for lesbian women to marry, then it should be OK for me to marry my dog,” he sniggers. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

No?

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for disabled people to get special parking spaces, then it should be OK for me to identify as disabled,” he snorts. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

Still not with me?

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for trans people to change their legal genders, then it should be OK for me to change my legal date of birth,” he snorts. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

That one happened.

The guy’s intent doesn’t matter; it’s irrelevant whether he genuinely feels hard done by or if he’s using this to promote something. There is no substantive difference between the coverage of this story and repeating the “I identify as an attack helicopter” abuse trans people get on social media. It reinforces the trope that trans people are tricksters or mentally ill, that legal gender is something people change on a whim.

Meanwhile in news you probably didn’t see today, Reuters reports that UK doctors push one in five trans people to discredited “pray the gay away” conversion therapy and that LGBT patients experience “shockingly high levels of hostility and unfair treatment” in their dealings with healthcare professionals.

That’s trans folks’ light-hearted story of the week, and every week.

Not so hidden agendas

When is “random person has an opinion” news? When it’s a “concerned parent”. This is from yesterday’s Scottish Daily Mail.

 

The text describes how a “father-of-two” criticised the First Minister. “Edinburgh parent Richard Lucas…”

Now, Mr Lucas is indeed a parent. But he also has another role. He’s the head of the ultra-right wing Scottish Family Party. He left UKIP to create the party in order to “fill the void” left by the abandonment of “Judeo-Christian-inspired values of traditional Western civilisation”.

Their (or more likely, his: we’re not talking a mass movement here. The party has fewer than 2,000 Facebook followers) policies include getting gay people counselling to stop them being gay, to stop golf clubs being forced to admit women and to battle the evils of “feminist orthodoxy” and human rights. The party hates trans people and gay people and feminists and immigrants and women’s reproductive freedom and all the other right wing hate figures and argues that right-wing bigots should be legally allowed to beat their children and discriminate against anyone they disapprove of.

In other words, he’s a fruitcake who should be fired into the sun, the kind of arsehole who finds a home writing columns for the Glasgow Herald.

Or if you prefer pictures:

None of that, as you can see, made it into the Mail article. He’s just a reasonable parent with no particular axe to grind.

This is despicable journalism, and there’s a lot of it around. All too often people who run pressure groups are allowed to present themselves as ordinary people, and the journalists either don’t bother to find out who they are – which is shoddy journalism – or they know and keep it from their readers, in which case they’re no longer journalists but propagandists.

It happens on radio too, phone-ins populated by ordinary people who forget to mention that they’re councillors or candidates or head of fundraising for political parties or pressure groups. And you get it on shows such as Question Time, where representatives from “think tanks”, aka pressure groups with shadowy funding, advance the agendas of their paymasters.

This simply isn’t good enough. It’s poisoning the well of genuine debate and in many cases it’s giving bigots a platform they would be denied if their true affiliations were made clear.

Time for our next caller. Adolf is a painter from Braunau Am Inn, and he’s got some interesting views on the subject of immigration.

The threat of white nationalism, and what law enforcement isn’t doing about it

We haven’t quite reached this stage, thank God. In the US, Nazis like these yahoos in Georgia are still a fringe group. Neo-Nazis are much more subtle, and much more dangerous.

The New York Times has brought forward its planned cover story for next week to coincide with the US midterm elections. It’s a horrific story about the rise of neo-fascism and the real threat posed by white nationalism.

White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist.

And yet as the NYT details, it’s been almost entirely ignored by law enforcement.

Data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that the number of terror-related incidents has more than tripled in the United States since 2013, and the number of those killed has quadrupled. In 2017, there were 65 incidents totaling 95 deaths. In a recent analysis of the data by the news site Quartz, roughly 60 percent of those incidents were driven by racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, antigovernment or other right-wing ideologies. Left-wing ideologies, like radical environmentalism, were responsible for 11 attacks. Muslim extremists committed just seven attacks.

Meanwhile the US President vilifies muslims and describes white supremacists as “good people”. But this isn’t just a problem with the current administration. As the NYT notes, it goes back decades and its anti-semitism goes back further still. It’s just that a toxic mix of right-wing politics, shockingly negligent journalism and institutional incompetence has created the perfect storm for it to flourish. Some 22 million Americans currently believe that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are perfectly acceptable. And there are multiple credible reports of white supremacist groups deliberately targeting law enforcement jobs, moving what’s already a largely conservative workforce much further to the right.

As I’ve written many times before, social media has played a significant role in normalising and spreading neo-Nazi propaganda. The NYT again:

alt-right memes, while dripping in irony, were also, in essence, hate speech, part of a propaganda war arguably intended to spread terror just as much as any ISIS execution video.

The so-called debates we see, the platforming of the likes of Steve Bannon or various alt-right “shitlord” trolls, are playing into their hands. They’re amplifiers, enabling extremists to reach enormous audiences. What liberal media types (yes, people like me) seem unable to understand is that they’re being played. The alt-right aren’t interested in debate. For them, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

We’re living in very frightening times, I think, and things are going to get worse before they get better.

 

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.

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!

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.

Penny:

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.

Lies, damned lies

Even by the Daily Mail’s low standards this is shocking, disgraceful stuff.

Accuracy is important in any kind of journalism, of course, but it’s particularly important when you’re covering topics such as race relations and immigration.

According to this furious Twitter thread by Marwan Muhammad, hardly anything in Malone’s article is true. It starts with confusion between a city and a province, pulls in completely invented statistics from far-right websites and prints outright lies. If Muhammad is correct, and his detailed, source-quoting thread suggest that he is, the whole thing is more like a racist pamphlet than anything you could call journalism.

As I’ve said before, if a newspaper is lying to you about something so easily fact-checked – what else are they lying to you about?

Update, 6/8: Mail Online has taken down the article and the author has suspended his Twitter account.