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We are now used to the Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill wheeling out his increasingly tired rhetoric about the “hand-wringing” middle classes. Now his lazy method of attack has left him looking rather silly. On Tuesday he took the opportunity to smear Calum’s List, a website dedicated to compiling information about those deaths, particularly suicides, where welfare reform has been “alleged to have had some culpability”.
O’Neill used Calum’s List to exemplify what he called the “highly patronising… victorian-style pity-politics” of the campaign against welfare reform. Such campaigners, he said, lack “any constituency of grassroots support, any backing from ordinary people, and so must try to raise an army of dead people instead”. He contrasted such “pity politics” with what he saw as the much better “politics of solidarity”. Calum’s List he said were “exploiting” suicide victims.
The response from Calum’s List illustrated, with absolute clarity, the sheer baselessness of these assertions:
Calum’s List is written by the disabled, and by people who are bereft… a group of disabled people, widows, widowers, bereaved parents and orphans trying to find a voice
O’Neill’s line of attack, in other words, is simply irreconcilable with the reality of who Calum’s List are. They are not pity-mongers coming in from on high to pick over the carcases of dead benefits claimants. They are the disabled, who rely upon benefits, and the loved ones of those who have died. They are people binding together for collective self-defence – a phenomenon typically described, by everybody except perhaps Brendan O’Neill, as “solidarity”. In case O’Neil still didn’t get it, Calums List added the following:
This website isn’t exploiting people. It has been put together by FRIENDS, RELATIVES & THOSE DIRECTLY AFFECTED
I have previously noted O’Neill’s tendency to utterly misrepresent the sentiments expressed by those whom he writes about. It is, in other words, becoming increasingly difficult to believe anything that this particular commentator says about who people are or what they stand for.
And this failure is made all the more damning by the fact that O’Neill is, effectively, screwing up in his specialist area. He is, after all, a man who writes about politicos. The organisations of the left, and those campaigning against austerity, have long formed a major staple of O’Neill’s journalistic output. And if he cannot convey an honest and vaguely plausible picture of who such people are, or what they say, then he is about as much use as a Westminster hack who doesn’t know what a SpAd is.
This, however, is not simply a matter of sloppy practice, but also of gross irresponsibility. As a writer for one of the biggest media organisations in the country, O’Neill finds himself in an incredibly privileged position to speak to many, and to structure our opinions about groups like Calum’s List. The group itself cannot hit back with anything like the power that O’Neill enjoys by virtue of his relationship with the Telegraph. This is not to say that mainstream journalists should treat small organisations with kid gloves. But it is to say that people like O’Neill have a very serious obligation to put some effort into finding out a bit about the people whom they choose to write about and attack – something that was hardly evidenced by his writing.
In this respect, O’Neill has unfortunately betrayed his own ideals. To his credit, he has long been a powerful advocate for individual liberty, and for press freedom in particular. Yet as his his own writing suggests, the demand for liberty is intimately bound up with the ideal of “moral autonomy” – with the idea that people are capable of properly governing themselves, and of making their own ethical judgements, and that the state ought to give them leave to do so. From this perspective, the greatest advocate for press freedom should also be the journalist who displays the greatest moral integrity. Yet by writing such shoddy, and shoddily researched, attack pieces as that which deals with Calum’s List, O’Neill fails absolutely to demonstrate the capacity for moral self-government that justifies the liberty of the citizen.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org