Liz Jones, the roving fashion editor of the Daily Mail, is a hate figure on Twitter and beyond. Recently, in one of her periodic confessional pieces, she wrote that she had stolen her boyfriend’s used condom and tried to impregnate herself with it. It was owed to her, she wrote, because she had bought him so many ready meals from Marks & Spencer but, as with many of Jones’s romantic misadventures, it failed — there will be no Baby Jones. Twitter, which has no sense of humour (mobs never do), read, retched, and excitably screamed for justice. The hypocrisy is enchanting. Twitter users may despise the Daily Mail but give them a really juicy article and they obediently become its most avid, if self-loathing, readers. ‘Read the Liz Jones article without sending the Daily Mail any traffic!’ was my favourite. I do not know what they actually wanted to do with Jones, if her real, surgically enhanced body could be tracked down, but I suspect it would be bad. It would be, in Jones’s mind, a cover story.
The disgust Jones engenders is interesting because it seems so complex, as if she is some kind of paradigm for our dissatisfaction and ennui. The reason Jones, whose greatest hits include My [ex-] Husband is a Fat Bastard and Welcome To My Facelift, writes so well about female misery is that she is, as a confessional journalist, both inside and outside the phenomenon of herself. The professional Liz Jones (The Shell) can structure a fascinating article about self-hatred with reference to most female preoccupations and file it on deadline, without mutilating her own body personally — that, she leaves to her surgeon. In fact, her professionalism is legendary —that she always gets the story inside her (rather too literally with the condom one) is one of the reasons she is so despised. Can you be objective about your own suffering and still be telling the truth? The other Liz Jones (The Subject), the one the professional Liz Jones is writing about, meanwhile, just feels terrible. And for performing this weekly operation upon herself, she is the highest-paid female journalist in Britain. She knows how to market the product.
Jones is probably Britain’s best fashion journalist — not difficult in a world where pussycat bows are the G20 and belts are the Arab Spring, it is true — because she actually reports on the business, and lays into its debauches, while the rest, on the whole, clap skirts and stay silent, because they are a well-dressed crocodile of collaborators, hungry for their front-row seats and access to the boring narcissism of Valentino, Lagerfeld and the rest. She puts anorexia and OCD in the Mail, alongside the obese cats and water-skiing squirrels and, for those who know the paper, visceral self-disgust is essential to achieve this.
I am grateful to Jones because, in the spinning rubbish tip of our modern media, she often seems the only person who is actually telling the truth — she is a sort of Jean Rhys rewritten for those with degenerative brain disease. This is not her fault — the Daily Mail does not seek fine writing, only clarity. She can be malicious and mawkish; sometimes you can hear the madness shrieking from the page. Of course she is unwell. But not for Jones the yukky Aga-saga dispatches of the affluent female columnist, or the boyish self-hatred of the male confessional columnist — yikes! She keeps nothing for herself, yet she does not crack up or die. She is like a balloon that gets popped and reflated every week, or a sobbing boomerang; despite her fragility, she is very tough. I have met her, and like most women with big opinions in print, she is a strangely small figure in life — shy, needy, with a tiny little voice. I was not surprised; Julie Burchill, the gobbiest of them all, sounds like Minnie Mouse and, if you tell her you love her work (as I do), she will most likely burst into tears.
The backlash to Jones is immensely spiteful. When she wrote she would be covering the famine in Somalia, Ros Coward (a professor of journalism) condemned her in print before she had even read the dispatch, although it was touching and subtle. Her piece on Joanna Yeates, where she followed in the footsteps of the murdered girl, was tasteless, but it wasn’t obstruction of justice — that was what the TV crews did, to no comment. I cannot help but think, in the end, that it is Jones’s exhibitionism that disgusts. This is boring, and reductive. Her other crime is her survival. She is, in the simple narratives of the media, too slick a disaster to survive.