Monday, 19 March 2012

Melanie Phillips's 15 Tips for Journalism

1) Your aim is not to provoke debate, but to state the truth. There can be no room for ambiguity in your articles - never weigh things up, don’t write a single sentence that challenges one of your beliefs, don‘t waste time considering what the opposite side of your argument might be, or any other points of view. Truth beats diplomacy, to cite the heading from a recent article of mine. If you must, insert a phrase like “Individual Palestinians may deserve compassion” (on no account leave out the word “may”), but make sure the rest of the sentence reads “but their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project”. Notice how I was able to consider the alternative viewpoint in five words, and return to my core beliefs within the same sentence, without causing any cracks in my certainty.

2) Remember your audience should be people who feel the exact same way, not people who are undecided, have mixed views, or enough lingering sympathy for your politics to find your arguments stimulating even if they don’t entirely agree with them. You must discard such people. Your pieces should be instantly recognisable, and not designed to be readable to those with a different perspective. For that reason, it’s useful to begin with a reminder of what you hate, such as “I really can’t bring myself to wade into those sewers known as the Guardian and Independent, but”…

3) Never use a word like wrong, flawed or bad when perfidious will do.

4) Remember the word is made of absolutes. Your writing should be about the good and the bad, the light and the dark, The West and the East, Judaeo-Christian values and Muslim values, family values and anarchy. Only the morally bankrupt take the middle ground.

5) Never criticise someone on your side, unless their comments make it clear they’ve defected. Make sure your sources are right-wing, and avoid any sources with a different take on the issue.

6) Get in there first - don’t waste time waiting for more details to emerge. When a story broke about a 13-year old who had fathered a child, I published an article proclaiming it “a fable for our tragically degraded times”. Although I was careful to acknowledge that he may not actually be the father - it hardly weakened my point, because as I pointed out there were plenty of other pregnant teenagers - my article would have been robbed of its forcefulness had I written it after it was confirmed that he wasn’t. The MMR case also demanded swift action: it was imperative that I warned everyone that it represented the hubris of scientists and had all the signs of an ever-present yet hard-to-pin-down conspiracy squatting like a giant spider at the heart of Britain, unseen yet all-knowing, everywhere and nowhere - “there’s something they’re not telling us about the MMR”, as Allison Pearson put it - something, not something that can be proved by facts and logic alone, much as science can’t prove a complete explanation for the universe itself. However, had I not got in there before Andrew Wakefield’s paper for the Lancet had been discredited let alone before the time Andrew Wakefield had been stuck off, and video footage of him joking about bribing children for blood samples at a birthday party emerged, my argument would have lost some of its potency, as everyone foolishly believed that science’s findings of no link of between MMR and autism was proof enough.

7) Every strong word needs another strong word emphasising it: "cultural immolation", "morally decent", "genocidal aggression", "morally obnoxious", "pernicious fallacy", "liberal fascism", "moral inversion", "morally inverted hegemony of ideas", "malevolent moral inversion", "pagan prejudices", "cultural suicide", "monolithic intelligentsia", "viscerally prejudiced", "liberal derangement", "stomach-churning hypocrisy". After all, “cowardice and paralysis of the British Legal system” is far superior to “paralysis of the British legal system”, and “morally and intellectually dubious” conveys depths that “morally dubious” can barely hint at. “The countless distortions, errors and absurdities in this travesty of a report” gains power by my technique of adding phrases with the same meaning - “travesty of a report” may seem to add little, as a report with countless distortions, errors and absurdities could hardly be anything else, but it is imperative that you convey your rage to the reader regardless of bordering on tautology (which is why I found “delusional fantasy” so effective as a turn of phrase). “The true intolerant, illiberal, unjust face of the ‘human rights’ industry” is another favourite of mine, where I feel I really got the hang of that technique - every word adds to the combined effect. Note the alliteration of intolerant and illiberal. If you’ve condemned something, try adding more pejoratives. “Preposterous” worked much better for me once it became “Preposterous and absurd”, and “Demonising” truly shone once I extended it into “Demonising and delegitimising.” I’m also very fond of the quadruple effect I achieved here: “Yet it is to his belligerency and bigotry that America is in the process of delivering up Israel, to be sacrificed on the altar of presidential vanity and hubris”. Sheer poetry.

8) Don’t forget your core beliefs. Don’t write a sentence that suggests that cultural norms and hierarchy should sometimes be challenged, that Judaeo-Christian values aren’t always stronger than Muslim ones, that family values should ever be subverted or undermined, that the West’s influence is sometimes dubious. Ambivalence and depth are your enemy.

9) You can’t overuse the phrase “Orwellian”. Such a phrase is a godsend because you can use it for far more than just the ideas and topics that Orwell concerned himself with. The phase “morally bankrupt” is versatile too.

10) Lighten your tone by expressing irritation before or after quoting someone you oppose with phrases such as “quelle surprise”, “yup”, “whoops”, “Well waddya know”, “eh?” “mmmm”, “of course”, “oh puh-leease!!!”, “fancy!”, “go figure”, “Well that seems clear enough to me”, “Wow”, “way to go” or “You don’t say”. After quoting someone attacking me, I wrong-footed him by quipping “such fame! It could turn a girl’s head”. He might have expected me to bite back, but I doubt he expected me to be so funny with it. People will enjoy an article that makes them laugh along the way. When I make a point of referring to Obama as “the One” (a reference to The Matrix) I can amuse the reader while making a serious point about the overhype surrounding the Obama camp. Satire is the most dangerous weapon a columnist has at their disposal.

11) Create your own phrases like “Jews for genocide”, “dhimmocracy”, “Pallywood” “the Axis of Appeasement” "Iraq War Inquiry Derangement Syndrome (ctd)", "Anti-Israel Bigotry Week", "the Ha’aretz blood libel", the Savonarola of scientism", "The human wrongs industry", "The Hamas Broadcasting Corporation (ctd)", "Iraq War Inquiry Derangement Syndrome (ctd)", "The Intergovernmental Perjury over Climate Catastrophe (ctd)". Many of these are actually based on real phrases. The “ctd” phrase is particularly useful for adding an extra tinge of irony, that enforces your satirical point. It’s a technique, often called “world-building”, borrowed from the great imaginative writers, from Tolkien to Dickens, Ursula Le Guin to PG Wodehouse, which allows you to create a secondary world out of language, in which these weird and wonderful creations exist, as a frightening mirror image of our own world.

12) The times we live in are so terrible, it is entirely appropriate to use Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia as comparisons.

13) Whatever you do, don’t understate your case. Calling the Guardian “an evil newspaper” is so much better than any more moderate phrase. Avoid sugar-coating your enemies.

14) Remember everything - Al Qaeda, Global Warming, Hamas, Obama, Drug Legalisation, sexual permissiveness, education, feral children, immigration, political correctness, the Guardian and the Independent, Health and safety, the Gay Rights Lobby - is connected. Try and see them all as part of an epic war rather than a series of separate complex issues with differentiating factors: that said, if you come across as merely trying, you have failed. And that brings us to our final point…

15) Certainty above all.

(Everything in quotation marks is a genuine quote from Phillips's columns and blog. She actually wrote those things.)

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