Exactly what do you think you are doing, Brett? If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that.
The most recent was yesterday, when a colleague asked me why I am writing this blog. The answer I gave was that it was to exercise my writing muscles, to write about things that wouldn’t have a place in the newspaper I work for, and to stretch my brain in different directions.
In the course of a working week, I commission and edit opinion pieces about world events and politics, and I write editorials about all manner of, mostly serious, matters.
This blog is my space for relaxation, a sandbox where I can attempt to discover a different voice that may eventually propel me in a new direction. Subject and style-wise, it may be all over the place, but there is some method to this madness.
As part of this process, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes certain commentators, be they newspaper columnists, radio “shock jocks” or television pundits, more popular than others.
If only, many a writer has thought recently, I could be as successful as Katie Hopkins, the former British reality TV star whose column has just been poached by the Daily Mail from The Sun.
Make no mistake, Hopkins and her like are not being paid for sober, well-considered analysis of world events. They are being paid to provoke people — to promote a certain type of extreme public opinion. The people who agree with her lap it up, and a surprisingly large number of people who hate what she is saying are nonetheless addicted to hearing her say it.
So: how to become the next Katie Hopkins — or, Bill O’Reilly or Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt or Jeremy Clarkson?
The first trick, I’ve been told, is to be able to say things you don’t actually believe. Or, at least, to amplify the things you do believe (or ideas you sometimes toy with) to the point that they get attention. And this idea goes back a long way.
In his 1729 pamphlet A Modest Proposal For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick – 1729, generally referred to just as A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift argued that the poor should eat their babies. Now, Dr Swift was not really advocating cannibalism among the lower classes, but he sure got a lot of attention — for himself and for the issue he was writing about — by saying so. Nearly 300 years later, A Modest Proposal remains on the reading lists for many university writing courses.
Katie Hopkins is no Jonathan Swift. When she calls the thousands of Syrian refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean on leaky boats and find a safe haven in Europe “cockroaches”, and claims the famous photos of the dead toddler, Aylan Kurdi, were staged, it’s not clear whether she believes it or not. If she does believe it, then I pity her for lacking a human soul. Like Swift, she’s saying it just to get attention, but unlike Swift’s readers, her core audience is likely to buy into her one-dimensional, send- ’em back-to-where-they-came-from argument than actively contemplate the issue and possible solutions to it.
The great thing about being Katie Hopkins is that you don’t have to do anything about the world’s problems, except moan about them in an attention-grabbing manner. But you do have to learn how to sleep soundly at night.
As for me, I’m happy to noodle about here as a means of self discovery and, I hope, provide some entertainment or food for thought for others.