The welfare debate and the age of the trollemic

by Stephen Tall on April 4, 2013

I decided to invent a new word yesterday:

It’s the welfare debate that’s prompted it, but it could be any other topic on a given week.

daily mail philpott front pageYesterday saw the Daily Mail publish a typically sensationalist front page blaming the welfare state for the tragedy of six children being killed by their parents. On Monday the Mirror shouted ‘Shameful’, with a cartoon showing Thatcher, Cameron, Osorne and Clegg banging in the final nail of a coffin marked ‘RIP Welfare’.

Each is exaggerating to make their own point. Both are gross over-statements: trollemics. The Mail’s is the more lurid, for sure: exploiting the deaths of six children to make a barely-related political statement is cheap. The welfare state was no more to blame for their deaths than capitalism would be to blame if they’d done it to claim on insurance. The motive was greed; the result a tragedy.

The Mirror’s front page is less tawdry — politicians are fair game and the ‘bedroom tax’ among other reforms is, I’ve argued before, a mistake — but its claim that the Coalition has “destroyed” the welfare state is plainly wrong.

It’s not just newspaper front pages, though. As the media expands, so columnists are shouting louder to try and get heard: outrage is their currency, whether it’s James Delingpole, Julie Burchill, Richard Littlejohn or Polly Toynbee. Here’s Charlie Brooker on the subject:

Twitter and Facebook are seemingly full of people actively seeking out statements to be offended by, parsing every word as it scrolls upscreen, panning for turds. And the moment they find one, they launch into a performance of such deranged, self-assured haughtiness, the Daily Mail seems hopelessly amateur by comparison. … This is every day on Twitter, for ever. 9am: James Delingpole says trees are lesbians so we should saw their flat ugly tits off and fire them at Muslims using a petrol-powered catapult. 9.03am: An enraged section of Twitter spends nine hours ceaselessly promoting James Delingpole, to the delight of James Delingpole. 6pm: James Delingpole triumphantly closes his laptop and strolls away whistling, clicking his heels as a cartoon vignette closes around him.

complicated sloganTrollemic suits those who like their politics in black and white, who want to argue that state action is always right/wrong, that those who claim benefits are scroungers/angels. Their screech seeks to drown out all reason to create a simplistic pure/evil binary out of every news story.

If you like your politics as a T-shirt slogan can I at least suggest you try out Ben Goldacre’s for size: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.


I do remember a certain Focus with the headline, which filled quite a large part of the front page, ‘SHAMEFUL!’ in respect of some public seating in Oxford city centre which succeeded in defeating the sitting( no pun intended) Labour councillor. Now who wrote that???

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