Brendan O’Neill

The anti-tabloid snobs are the real bigots

The anti-tabloid snobs are the real bigots
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So now we know who’s really responsible for the horrible attack at Finsbury Park Mosque: it was the Sun wot done it. And maybe the Daily Mail too.

No sooner had Darren Osborne allegedly crashed a hired van into Muslim worshippers than certain so-called liberals were stringing up the tabloids. The low-rent press poisoned his mind, just as it’s always poisoning plebs’ minds, they claimed, without a morsel of evidence. He could take the Guardian for all we know. They present their tabloid-baiting as a challenge to bigotry, when anyone who knows anything about history knows that fearing the tabloids and their dim, malleable readers is classic British bigotry.

Just a couple of weeks after leftish observers were hailing the election results as proof that the tabloid press no longer has a stranglehold on the national brain — by which they meant: ‘More of the idiots voted Labour than we expected!’ — now they say tabloids are the architects of suspected far-right terror.

Osborne was ‘radicalised by the British media’, suggested pop star turned 140-character Corbynista Lily Allen. People on Twitter shared tabloid front pages critical of certain aspects of Muslim community life and claimed they were the ‘reason’ Osborne was allegedly radicalised. Again no evidence. Tabloids that ‘peddle anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment’ can’t be surprised when anti-Muslim violence happens, hinted the Huffington Post.

Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain accused newspapers of ‘spreading hate against Muslims’. The Finsbury attack ‘may be the result’ of that, he warned. Shorter version: if the raucous press doesn’t get its moral act together, people will die. The classic censorship argument: we must squish ideas I don’t like if we want to save lives.

Nesrine Malik at the Guardian blames ‘tabloid culture’ for fomenting the Finsbury outrage. A writer for Newsweek slammed the tabloids’ ‘Islamophobia addiction’ and said it would ‘lead to more violence against Muslims’. British tabloids have ‘major political muscle’, he said: they don’t only report on the news but also tell their readers ‘how to vote… and how to think and feel’.

Boom. There we have it, the underpinning of anti-tabloid sentiment: a belief that the kind of people who read these papers — we all know who they are — are putty in hacks’ hands. That their outlook and emotions are moulded by newspaper bosses, shaped by the 800-word opinion they read on the bus to work. How is this possible? Because they’re stupid, almost animal-like. They lack the intellectual filtering mechanism that us better-educated people possess. When they read things, there’s a very good chance they will act on them. Monkey see, monkey do.

This snobbery that lurks behind every moral panic about tabloids was perfectly expressed by a Corbynista columnist for Huck magazine. He said the Finsbury attack is a result of papers like the Sun and the Mail ‘whipping up the vulnerable… into hysteria’. The vulnerable: what an ugly, double-edged Labour word that is. It can mean either the pitiable poor who require the state to look after them or the intellectual inferiors in the throng who must be protected from their own propensity for hysteria. Whenever you hear the phrase ‘the vulnerable’, you know a nasty prejudice is about to be unleashed.

The Guardian’s Martin Rowson, cartoonist-in-chief of the bitterest sections of the chattering class, summed up the post-Finsbury fearmongering about tabloid culture with his pic of Osborne’s van with the words ‘Read the Sun and Daily Mail’ emblazoned on the side. The Mail has this morning published an angry editorial in response. It says tabloid-bashing by left elitists is motored by a ‘bilious malice’ and a view of tabloid readers as ‘stupid, uneducated racists’. It isn’t wrong.

Martin Rowson on the Finsbury Park attack – cartoon

— The Guardian (@guardian) June 19, 2017

Rowson’s cartoon captured everything that is wrong with the post-Finsbury panic about the tabloids. Which is that it both dilutes the responsibility of individuals who perform acts of violence and defames everyday newspaper readers. If Osborne did intentionally drive that van into Muslim worshippers, which a court must establish, then he and he alone is surely responsible. It is outrageous to suggest that anyone else, be they Mail journalist or alt-right YouTuber, bears responsibility for the intentional wrongdoing of others. Worse, the implication that tabloid readers are on the cusp of ‘hysteria’, that they’re instructed from on high ‘how to think and feel’, is a rotten libel against the working people who read these papers.

Far from standing up to bigotry, the anti-tabloid snobs foist their own bigotry on the nation. Ever since the rise of the mass media a hundred-odd years ago, elitists have dreaded the hold that redtops apparently exercise over the lower orders. As John Carey pointed out in his classic work The Intellectuals and the Masses, early 20th-century elitists viewed tabloids as a source of moral evil. They were ‘poison rags’, said HG Wells. They were the ‘voice of all that is worst in our civilisation’, said George Gissing. What these people really feared, said Carey, was the ‘danger of inflammatory journalism’: that tabloid journalism would ‘inflame’ the mass to think and do stupid things.

As we’ve seen this week, that fear hasn’t gone away. It has simply moved from the hard right to the left. It used to be the right who feared the ‘semi-human swarm’ and hated the mass press and its hysterical readers; now it’s the supposedly caring left. Turns out the kinder, gentler politics is riddled with archaic, hateful prejudices.