Notes From the Margins…

The Daily Mail: every tragedy is an opportunity

  • April 03, 2013
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Proving once again that its natural habitat is the sewer, and determined to bring its readers down there with it, the Daily Mail has decided to use the Derby fire tragedy as an iconic ‘what’s wrong with Britain’ story.

There is no doubt that Michael Philpott is a uniquely revolting piece of work, of the type that shames our species, but the Mail’s  disgustingly manipulative attempt to use the horrendous deaths of six children as a vindication of the Coalition’s ruthless victimisation of the unemployed, is no less repellent.

From the Mail‘s point of view, Philpott is such a perfect realisation of the generic ‘welfare scrounger’ that he would clearly have to be invented if he did not actually exist – an amoral,  cunning and sleazy brute,  whose horrifying and essentially moronic scheme to set his house on fire provides a justification for kicking thousands of unemployed people out of theirs.

As is always the case with the Mail, the moral outrage is laced with morbidly salacious voyeurism.  So there are lots of icky details about the ‘sordid sex life’ of Philpott and his equally pathetic wife, the better to disgust – and thrill – the reader, before the Catholic writer A.N. Wilson delivers a stern moral lecture on ‘ one of the most horrible crimes committed against children in Britain in recent years’, which argues that

The trial spoke volumes about the sheer nastiness of the individuals involved. But it also lifted the lid on the bleak and often grotesque world of the welfare benefit scroungers — of whom there are not dozens, not hundreds, but tens of thousands in our country.

Wilson, a product of Rugby school and Oxford who no doubt has considerable experience of the British underclass,  goes on to argue that

His story throws into surreal relief the row between the Tories and Labour this week about Iain Duncan Smith”s much-needed benefit reforms. While the Left and the Church cry that they are unfair and immoral, the Government argues calmly that what is immoral is leaving families such as Michael Philpott”s to languish on benefits for generations.

It takes some kind of jerk to make connections like these.   The Government’s ‘reforms’ are not aimed at ‘families such as Michael Philpott’s’, but at anyone claiming benefits.    A report by the parliamentary  Public Accounts Committee has argued that the changes that came into effect on Monday will make thousands of people homeless.

What does Wilson think of that?   The answer is that he, like the newspaper that pays him, doesn’t think about it at all, in his determination to turn Philpott into the face of the iniquitous unemployed.

There is no doubt that Philpott was a con-man and a parasite, but Wilson’s assertion that there are ‘tens of thousands’ like him – presumably prepared to do the same things – is an essentially fact-free and politicized judgement.   A former atheist who recently returned to Catholicism, Wilson, like Tony Blair, cannot avoid the question of Philpott’s corrupted soul, but the corruption is sociological as well as theological:

Evil no doubt comes from the heart of human beings and we are all capable, in one way or another, of wrongdoing. And yet, and yet… throughout this painful trial, as the evidence was so slowly and painstakingly heard, it was impossible not to think of it as a hateful parable of our times…Those six children, burnt to a cinder for nothing, were, in a way, the children of those benevolent human beings who, all those years ago, created our state benefits system.

Goodness, can it really be so?  Yes, because according to Wilson, Beveridge and Clement Atlee, despite acting out of ‘the most honourable of intentions’,  inadvertently laid the seedbed for a generation of  ‘moral degenerates’ and created ‘  a country where ordinary morality — the simple concept that you do not take what is not yours — does not seem to register in whole rafts of society.’

And the solution to this dire state of affairs, is work, the more of it the better, since

Philpott himself would have been decently employed and his children would all have received an excellent education from the state in selective, well-disciplined, well-funded local schools.  They might have gone on to become teachers, civil servants, engineers, pharmacists, retailers and wealth creators, buoying up the national economy by paying their taxes.

So the schools are responsible for Britain’s moral degeneracy, for not being ‘selective’ and all.   No wonder that Wilson can only shake his Catholic head in sorrow for the victims of Britain’s lost generation:

I see, rather, Duwayne, John, Jack, Jade, Jesse and Jayden — killed not only by their father but also by the system which had been designed with the best intentions to help them but has now been corrupted seemingly beyond repair.

Notice the first names – this is truly a man prepared to suffer the little children,  at least when they’re dead, since Wilson would probably have loathed Philpott’s offspring along with the other ‘tens of thousands’ of others hooked on ‘ welfare dependency’  if they had lived.

Having expressed some faux-compassion to firm up his sermon,  Wilson closes with this final rhetorical flourish:

Do you think that Philpott would have done this crime if he had worked regularly for the past 20 years and provided for those six children out of   his own pocket? It is a difficult matter to prove, but I know what I think.

No, it is not a ‘difficult matter to prove’, it is in fact impossible to prove.  But since we are in the realm of speculation, I would like to suggest that a man who treated women and children the way that Philpott did would probably need more than a succession of low-paid temporary – and these days ‘zero contract’ –  jobs to set him on the path of virtue, and may well have committed other crimes.

And I would also like to suggest that a newspaper that uses the crimes that he did commit in an attempt to whip the ‘decent majority’ into yet another paroxysm of self-righteous loathing, is the ‘vile product’ of a different kind of moral degeneracy,  that deserves nothing but the purest contempt.

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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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