Rod Liddle

Dancing on graves is what journalists do

There’s no need for Jan Moir to apologise for speculating about the death of the boy-band singer Stephen Gately says Rod Liddle. Why have we become so censorious and hysterical?

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There’s no need for Jan Moir to apologise for speculating about the death of the boy-band singer Stephen Gately says Rod Liddle. Why have we become so censorious and hysterical?

I have to say that I don’t particularly like newspaper and magazine columnists, as people. Smug, not terribly bright, usually cowardly, lazy, always self-obsessed, self-important and narcissistic — forever brimming with themselves, a collection of mass-produced ornamental thimbles overflowing with foaming vomit. I don’t excuse myself from most of these character traits, by the way, so I suppose you can add self-loathing to the list as well. I don’t really have any friends who are columnists (except for James Delingpole, who I speak to on the phone sometimes, when he’s feeling enraged or suicidal) and the Fleet Street writers I particularly admire — Laura Barton, Alexis Petridis, Craig Brown and our own Jeremy Clarke — seem, from their writing, to be not quite part of that gibbering throng, although maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.

My argument isn’t that columnists aren’t good at what they do — some are very artful indeed, although it can be a thin and vapid art, not even a ‘half-art’, as Orwell rightly described photography. It’s just that personally I don’t like them very much; on the increasingly rare occasions when I am required to mix with people who do the same job as me, I experience the peculiar and frightening sensation that I am being eaten alive by mice. And I put down my drink and run and promise myself that I will be a better person henceforth and maybe try to get a job with the Forestry Commission, like I always wanted.

We have lots of columnists now because this is how things are; the good stuff about journalism — reportage — has been left behind, bullied out of existence by the internet (which, ironically, is actually useless for accurate, intelligent reportage, but that’s another story). Instead we have this moronic inferno, a high-pitched fugue of endlessly self-referential squeaking, the sonar of a thousand bewildered but nonetheless blithely confident pipistrelle bats, all mothless. And so we have the Jan Moir affair.

Moir writes a column for the Daily Mail — by all accounts a very good column, for the Mail pays better than any of its rivals, and Moir is its most avidly read writer by some margin. I’d never read much of her stuff until this week, the week she came under the cosh from her columnist colleagues on every other newspaper, especially the liberally inclined newspapers. She may also have a Press Complaints Commission case to answer, given that 22,000 people complained about the piece in question. Hell, all those complaints, whipped up by Twitter and Facebook and the infinity of bloggers — amounting to a massive 0.4 per cent of the Daily Mail’s readership. The PCC will need to re-evaluate the way in which it takes action, because these days a roll call of 22,000 complaints is very easy to amass, as Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross (via the offices of the Daily Mail!) will tell you.

Moir had suggested that there might be something more to the death of the boy-band singer Stephen Gately than the ‘sugar-coated’ encomiums which had appeared in every morning newspaper. She was right about the sugar coating; as always, when a minor and not terribly talented celebrity dies, we had all that fatuous stuff about his incredible, life-affirming genius, how out of the blue it all was. Gately died, apparently of fluid within the lungs, on the sofa of his apartment after a night out in Majorca with his ‘civil partner’ and a mysterious and handsome young Bulgarian chap whom the homosexual couple picked up at a nightclub. Moir implied that Gately’s death might not have been quite so unexpected and simple as it appeared, but was perhaps a consequence of his lifestyle and that we needed to know more, rather than simply lay the wreaths while streaming with crocodile tears. There was the intimation of sleaze.

I suspect there was not one person in Britain who, upon hearing the sad news about Gately, did not — even if the thought were quickly banished to the back of their mind — think likewise. I suspect that most of the columnists who complained about Moir’s piece — and these include some of the most fabulously stupid people in Britain — will have had that idea at the front of their minds immediately. But it remained unsaid, apart from by ordinary people.

Moir’s article provoked swift and misplaced allegations of homophobia against the author; but her comments were homophobic only if you subscribe to the homophobic view that all homosexuals have the sort of lifestyle enjoyed by a minority of homosexual celebrities. The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker — so funny and acute when writing about television, so sententious, dull and out of his depth when writing about anything else — suggested that Moir was ‘dancing on the grave’ of Gately ‘for money’. As of course, by extension, was Brooker himself. Dance away, Charlie, mate: it’s what we do. Those twin pillars of British journalistic idiocy, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Janet Street-Porter — the latter of whom has never yet said or done anything for the benefit, enlightenment, amusement or entertainment of the human race — weighed in with their polystyrene cudgels. Yasmin even linked the Moir article to a perceived failure of the British press to report how absolutely bloody awful the fascist state of Israel is. No, really, just take my word for it; you will not be any better off if you read her characteristically incoherent article. Anyway, there are demands that Moir should apologise, that the Daily Mail should apologise, probably that we all should apologise. As you might imagine, Stephen F***ing Fry has become involved.

I do not much like the mindset of the Daily Mail; it seems to me a sour and vengeful and narrow place to inhabit — an arid, airless planet. Also, it uses the sort of language and sentence construction in its headlines last seen just before the Festival of Britain. But if columnists are to have any use at all, other than simply to entertain, then it is surely to have the bravery to say what cannot, in polite company, be said; either to give a voice to a mass opinion which is in some way samizdat and unnaturally repressed, or perhaps to defy the consensus entirely and risk censure for so doing. It seems to me that Moir did the first of those admirably and that there was a kernel of truth to her article. We will find out how much truth in time, I suppose.