Review: Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Picture of Trevor Phillips, a middle-aged Black man thick-rimmed, black wearing glasses, with his hand pressed up to his face.Has Political Correctness Gone Mad? at Channel 4

Last night Trevor Phillips, the Daily Mail’s regular Token Black Man who has had two similar documentaries on Channel 4 in the past few years, had another one, this time arguing that “liberalism and a fear of offending minorities are stifling legitimate debate and have laid the ground for Brexit and the rise of populist leaders like Farage and Trump”. As befits his new role, he has been given the space for a long article in the Daily Mail, or at least on their website, in which he proclaims that he knew political correctness had gone mad when he was accused of being racist for saying critical things about former US President Barack Obama. In the programme, he asks various members of the public to grade the offensiveness of certain phrases which use some well-known offensive words or make offensive statements about disabled people, Muslims or whoever; he also discusses the movements to ban speakers such as Germaine Greer from speaking at universities, claiming in the DM article that “while our rulers seem to have all the time in the world to debate who should use which lavatory (in deference to the transgender lobby), they dismiss anxieties about overcrowded schools or doctors’ surgeries as merely a bigoted dislike of migrants”. You can watch the programme for the next 29 days at the link above. (More: Malia Bouattia, Michael Hogan @ the Telegraph, Poppy Noor @ the Guardian.)

I’m not going to do an in-depth review of this programme; it covers much the same ground as his previous documentary about race, and has all the same flaws. Specifically, he claims over and over again that things are unsayable, that the political classes, the “liberal élite”, are avoiding discussing things, allowing the agenda to be set by politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. This is just not true, as anyone who has read the mass media and listened to British radio, both popular (local phone-ins, for example, on both BBC and commercial radio) and high-brow (Radio 4, BBC2 for example), could tell you. We see and hear anti-immigrant, pro-Brexit and otherwise right-wing politicians and columnists and commentators on all these channels regularly. Nigel Farage has his own phone-in on LBC and regularly appears on the BBC; Melanie Phillips has been a regular panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze for years. Farage’s media profile is greatly disproportionate to his party’s record of winning elections (they have never gained a seat in Parliament other than by defections from the Tory party and only one of those candidates retained their seat) and, for that matter, to their professionalism as a party — witness the utter shambles of Paul Nuttall’s campaign in Stoke, being caught lying at least twice, and his resulting vote tally (just 5,233 votes), to say nothing of their miserable performance in pro-Brexit Copeland, where their candidate received just 6.5% of the vote (2,252 votes).

Phillips gives Farage yet more room to pontificate about how he represents what real people really think and to accuse politicians and the media of not venturing beyond “the M25”. This is a tactic borrowed from the USA, where provincial right-wingers (actually with strong connections to DC lobbyists and who holiday in expensive East Coast resorts) accuse the “mainstream media” or “Establishment media” of having a “Beltway mentality”, the Beltway being the ring-road around Washington. The British equivalent is the “Westminster village”, and political obsessions and intrigues that are irrelevant to most people are sometimes called “Westminster village gossip”. London is actually a city of several million and includes areas of great affluence as well as of deprivation, and pretty much every shade in between. Farage actually lives well within the M25, in a villagey part of Bromley where average-sized houses go for half a million, and attended Dulwich College (a very much élite boys’ private school in London); yet despite having been previously pictured enjoying a pint in a pub in Downe, he now claims he is afraid to leave his home because of how the media has ‘demonised’ his party:

He told ITV’s Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: “It is because of these irrelevant people, who held no position, they happened to join an organisation, and because of these irrelevant people being demonised by liberal media, I’ve had to live years, frankly, of being frightened of walking out into the street all because the media picked out these people. And because of these people, attempted to demonise me and give me a bad name.

“And you’re surprised three years on, when I have to live like a virtual prisoner, that I’m not happy about it? Will I ever forgive the British media for what they’ve done to me? No.”

Phillips’s programme has footage of anti-Muslim demonstrations by a group called PEGIDA, whose German acronym stands for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”, whose founder is Steven Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League. Phillips questions whether they really need to be confined to an industrial estate to have their demonstration, and the answer is yes: because they contain a large number of former EDL members who were known for violence, and because if they held their demo in the town centre, it would cause disruption to people who wanted to enjoy their Sunday in peace or go shopping. It’s not about freedom from offence but freedom from violence. I have a little bit more sympathy when he questions the wisdom of banning Germaine Greer or sacking Sir Tim Hunt (for making a sexist remark during a lecture in Korea), but I’m not convinced they have anything to do with “the liberal élite” being out of touch with ordinary people’s views on matters like immigration. The objection came from ordinary students and Greer’s right to be heard was defended by people with academic backgrounds and ready access to the media.

The idea that the liberal media does not discuss immigration or cultural change is ridiculous, as is the suggestion that this opened the way for Trump or Brexit. Immigration is one reason among many that people voted for Brexit, others being industrial decline that happened while the pro-EEC Tory party was in power and which Labour did nothing to reverse while in office, misinformation about European nuisance legislation, and a misguided sense that Britain did not “control its borders”. These complaints were stoked by the mass media over a period of several years, and politicians and the media have decided that immigration was the reason, as nobody wants to bring back heavy industry. Immigration and culture — as in what ‘society’ (meaning whites) should tolerate from ‘others’ — has been debated incessantly in the mass media for decades; if you listen to local radio you cannot escape it, and hosts freely collude in it. It may well be that the political class has not tackled the things discussed in inflammatory, reactionary newspapers and talk shows, but tackling them adequately would have meant shutting them down or at least regulating them, not capitulating to the shrill voices found therein.

Similarly, Trump won in part because he appealed to the white working classes in the Rust Belt with most likely empty promises to bring jobs back, hence the gains in places like Pennsylvania, but there is also no doubt that he exploited racism, his campaign promising a wall to keep Mexicans out and calling them rapists, and his apologists keep reminding the rest of us that he is popular and that his supporters love his rhetoric (despite the fact that some of his claims, and those of his supporters, are demonstrable lies) and his attacks on Muslim travellers, for example. How far are we expected to go to accommodate determinedly ignorant and violently racist ‘public opinion’, also stoked over decades by biased media? Jim Crow-like discriminatory laws and even massacres targeted against minorities have been popular among majority populations in some countries (e.g. Rwanda, Gujarat) in the recent past. One of the purposes of the rule of law is to prevent the majority oppressing a despised minority; the open lawlessness surrounding Trump is unprecedented in recent American history, and “it’s popular” is no excuse.

It’s extremely common for the political Right to claim that the Left, the “liberal élite” (which does not exist, as I explained in a previous review of a Phillips polemic) have no clue why they lose elections or their causes lose referendums, as in the case of Brexit. Theresa May spoke of how “a lot of politicians and commentators … find [the public’s] patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient … the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering” at the Tory party conference last October. Yet some of us do not find this fact (as opposed to the likely consequences) bewildering; we understand it as the result of decades of disinformation and propaganda by the commercial press and the cowardly collusion by the BBC. It is this aspect which is rarely discussed in the media (even the debates surrounding the Leveson inquiry concentrated overwhelmingly on press behaviour rather than on its content), which finds it more profitable to foster prejudice than to report soberly and honestly and fears the threat to not only its freedom, but also its power — the ability to intimidate an elected government with a sudden, manufactured scandal, to induce it to stick the boot into someone on demand — which also explains their hostility to the Human Rights Act. Recent editions of some political magazines (e.g. Prospect) have openly debated whether democracy remains compatible with liberal values in the light of it delivering Brexit and the Trump presidency, yet the influence of the corporate media on public opinion and on delivering harmful electoral results was not discussed at all (see this example in Prospect).

Trevor Phillips doesn’t mention this either in his programme or his article. “Has political correctness gone mad?” was coined, and answered, many years ago by the papers that give him column space. The ideas he claims can’t be expressed in civilised society are expressed freely in the popular press all the time. He is just spouting the usual right-wing shtick that they are the outsiders, the ones never listened to, when in fact their opinions are unavoidable, and that they represent and know what the common man wants, when in fact they are the super-élite and have no more connection with ordinary people than any other politician, except that they agree on whom to dislike. Phillips’s assertions were plainly false two years ago, and they are just as plainly false now. This dishonest patter is par for the Daily Mail’s course, but we should really be able to expect no more of this drivel from Channel 4.

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  • This articulates my thoughts about not only the particular Trevor Phillips programme, but the wider topic of “PC” very well. I particularly agree with your debunking of the myth that people have simply not been allowed to air anti-immigration views.