James Bloodworth looks back at the five best/worst Melanie Phillips columns.
It would be untrue to say we shed a tear last week at the news that ex-communist turned right-wing crackpot Melanie Phillips will be leaving the Daily Mail for pastures new. It would, however, also be a lie to say we were jumping with joy.
As well as typifying the ultra-reactionary social agenda of the Daily Mail, Mel has given us a few laughs along the way. Especially in retrospect: some of her columns look so bonkers in hindsight they could easily be mistaken for parodies created by the Onion.
Anyway, here are five of the best/worst. Enjoy. Or weep. Or both.
1. The MMR vaccine
In a 2005 article, Phillips referred to claims by respectable medical professionals that the MMR vaccine was safe as ‘baloney’. She also vigorously defended Andrew Wakefield, the fraud and charlatan whose pseudo-scientific paper began the scare around the MMR vaccine, attacking his opponents for their “ripe denunciations of those like this newspaper (the Mail) who took his (Wakefield’s) concerns seriously”.
She also celebrated the Hannah Poling case as vindication for the crackpot anti-vaccine and anti-science movement which lionised Wakefield and various other fraudulent quacks.
The championing of causes like this earned Mel the ‘Mad’ moniker from some. Unfortunately, there was nothing funny about anti-vaccine scaremongering. The reemergence of measles in recent times is due in no small part to parents not getting their children vaccinated due to fears about the safety of the triple vaccine. As the Times recently reported: “one million children may not have received the full course of the MMR vaccine, in large part because of discredited fears it leads to autism”.
2. Gay rights activists – the ‘new McCarthyites’
In a 2011 piece, Mel referred to gay rights activists as “the new McCarthyites”. Britain was in the grip of a “government-backed drive to promote the gay agenda“, with homosexuality being forced upon schoolchildren, she opined.
“Alas, this gay curriculum is no laughing matter. Absurd as it sounds, this is but the latest attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the camouflage of education. It is an abuse of childhood,” she added.
Bear in mind, if you will, that victims of McCarthyism suffered loss of employment and destruction of their careers; some were even imprisoned.
The “new McCarthyism” Mel refers to was in actual fact little more than the end of active discrimination based on who a person chooses to sleep with.
A strange comparison, too, given that Mel is partial to a bit of red baiting herself.
3. Intelligent design as science
American science blogger Mark Hoofnagle coined the term crank magnetism to describe those who are drawn, like moths to a flame, to conspiracy theories. In other words, a person’s tendency to accept one lot of conspiratorial nonsense makes it far more likely they will buy into the next lot of claptrap that comes along. And so it is with Mel. In a piece for the Spectator published in 2009, Phillips gave a ringing defence to the theory of so-called ‘intelligent’ design:
“Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it. This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science.”
“Intelligent Design comes out of science”. Of course it doesn’t, and is anathema to the scientific method, for it rests upon the notion that some biological structures are so complex that a ‘designer’ must have played a role in ‘designing’ them. Predictably, in the eyes of its adherents, that designer also happens to be the specific God they have decided to follow.
As Michael Shermer puts it in Why Darwin Matter: The Case Against Intelligent Design:
“Finally, from what we now know about the cosmos, to think that all this was created for just one species among the tens of millions of species who live on one planet circling one of a couple of hundred billion stars that are located in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are in one universe among perhaps an infinite number of universes all nestled within a grand cosmic multiverse, is provincially insular and anthropocentrically blinkered. Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us?”
4. Climate change denial
As George Monbiot phrased it in his list of the ‘top ten climate change deniers’:
“Mel P (Genuinely Scary Spice) appears to believe that half the scientists on earth are engaged in a series of giant conspiracies. Like Christopher Booker (below), she dismisses not only climate change but also the entire canon of evolutionary science. She also stoutly defends the thesis that MMR injections cause autism.
“She claims that ‘the theory that global warming is all the fault of mankind is a massive scam based on flawed computer modelling, bad science and an anti-western ideology … The majority of well-meaning opinion in the Western world believes a pack of lies and propaganda’. She has also maintained that ‘carbon dioxide forms a relatively small proportion of the atmosphere, most of which consists of water vapour’.
“If this were the case, we would need gills.”
In October 2008, Melanie wrote in the Spectator (in an article which now seems to have disappeared) that presidential candidate Barack Obama was “firmly in the Islamists’ camp” and “adopts the agenda of the Islamists”.
Phillips also sided firmly with the disturbing ‘birther’ tendency in the United States, demanding to know when Obama “stopped being a Muslim”:
“We are entitled to ask precisely when he stopped being a Muslim, and why. Did Obama embrace Christianity as a tactical manoeuvre to get himself elected?”
In her book Londonistan, Phillips also wrote that piggy banks were banned from British banks in case Muslims were offended – something later denied by the banks. While right to emphasise the failure of certain sections of the British left to recognise Islamism for what it is (an ultra-reactionary movement of the far-right), Phillips went further, buying into the sinister idea that Islamism is the true representation of Islam – funnily enough, a view shared by the fanatics she professed to oppose.
As David Smith put it in the Observer, the piggy bank myth was a small point, but rather a telling one.
In 2011, Phillips was investigated by the PCC for an article in the Spectator in which she referred to the “moral depravity” of Arab “savages”.