Notes From the Margins…

Brendan O’Neill: scourge of the strawmen

  • April 06, 2013
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When it comes to cynicism and sheer vacuity, there are few British journalists who can compete with the Daily Telegraph‘s resident ‘contrarian’ Brendan O’ Neill.

A veteran of the RCP Living Marxism rag,  Spiked and the Institute of Ideas, O’Neill is a ‘libertarian’ who has used this past to give himself a certain cachet with the rightwing press, which likes nothing better than attacks on the ‘chattering classes’ from former leftists.

Some years ago, O’Neill commissioned a piece from me, and various other writers who had been sued and had their books destroyed by the late Saudi plutocrat Khalid bin Mahfouz, which was published on the Spiked webzine – one of the few occasions when the British media ever bothered to take an interest in such matters.

So I appreciated that, but it does not make for the fact that he is a complete and utter prat of the highest order.    I mean, this is a man who has accused disability campaigners of ‘exploiting’ – and essentially manufacturing – suicides by disabled people in order to attack the Coalition’s work-test regime; who has described Jimmy Saville’s victims as cowards because they didn’t come forward earlier.

O’Neill’s trick is essentially to set up strawman caricatures of leftist or liberal positions, and then to knock his creations down down for the entertainment of a rightwing readership, while all the while presenting himself as an iconoclastic independent thinker.

Today he is at it again  in an article on the Philpott case, which naturally blames the whole thing on the ‘chattering classes’ and accuses ‘ left-wing politicians and commentators’ of trapping the poor in a ‘soul-deadening embrace of welfarism.’

O’Neill’s support for the Coalition’s benefit reform program is laced with the kind of bitter cartoonish caricatures that he and Mail readers take for scathing wit, such as ‘Left-leaning do-gooders in Britain”s leafier suburbs are weeping into their macchiato coffees’, ‘posh warriors for welfarism’ and ‘bleeding heart campaigners.’

Then there are attacks on John Harris, Polly Toynbee and the Rowntree Foundation, and the TUC, all of whom, in O’Neill’s opinion,  have contributed to the ‘subjugation’ of the poor and unemployed, from which IDS and Lord Snooty are proposing to liberate them.

As usual O’Neill gives his giddy jeremiad a patina of leftism, so there are references to Karl Marx (remember him?) and his brothers who work in the building trade to establish his working class – or at least non middle-class credentials.   And the former leftist also quotes Thatcher’s former guru Ferdinand Mount, with his ridiculous description of the welfare state as a form of ‘domestic imperialism”, in which the poor are “natives” who ‘must be fed and kept on the moral straight-and-narrow by their superiors.’

Golly.   So that’s what imperialism means.   Thanks for clearing that up Brendan.    The Mail describes these wildly overheated distortions as the work of a ‘leading leftwing thinker’, but all I see is a sneering provocateur with very little humanity or insight, recycling rightwing prejudices and propagating stupid, dishonest arguments in order to make money and boost his own media profile.

The  Mail is a perfect home for someone with these qualities, and I hear they pay well too.   So it would be churlish of me not to wish O’Neill lots of luck with the new direction his career has taken, and who knows – if Richard Littlejohn gets sacked for helping to drive a transgender teacher to suicide – the great contrarian might even get to take his place.

I know he’d do it well.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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