Categorising the columnists (2015 edit)

I’ve become a big fan of the ingenious wiki at tv.tropes.com, where fans of various forms of popular culture – TV, films and so on – unite to catalogue the archetypal stories, characters, plots and incidents that tend to crop up in lots of TV series, films, novels and so on, and provide examples (ED: As you will realise from a later post, this didn’t end well). You will find detailed discussion, for instance, of not merely The Badass, but of various subspecies of Badass, not to mention their Badass Moustaches (Tom Selleck), Cool Shades (David Caruso in CSI Miami) and Badass Longcoats (Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, dude). There’s more Japanese manga than I personally see the need for (i.e. any) and I will admit to feeling ancient and faintly disreputable when I read the section where contributors give examples of the tropes in their own lives and I realised an awful lot of them were still at school (ED: Not to mention when I realised how bad Troper Tales was – again, see later). However, all in all it’s a splendid enterprise (ED: Lol, no).

It is therefore in the spirit of this that I have decided to give the world my catalogue of the writing personas adopted by newspaper columnists. After all, I read or have read quite a lot of newspapers, and furthermore TV Tropes seems not to have bothered doing this yet, although they do have a good section on the tropes of news broadcasting. Perhaps the papers are just too Old Media for internet-savvy youth to even bother about, although I suspect a lot of the same categories must apply to bloggers and other web commentators too (possibly including this one). Also in the spirit of TV Tropes, I would add that, with the exception of the Courtier, any of these personae can be done well or badly and they are not in themselves an obstacle to good writing. Obviously my categories are not exhaustive; if I think of any more later, I’ll add them on.

1. Mr Angry

This guy is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more! He’s convinced that the world is going to rack and ruin through the machinations of do-gooding liberals, going soft on crime and illegal immigration, not enforcing proper school discipline and interfering in the lives of hard-working people with their health-and-safety fascism or obsession with human rights. His battle – cry is “It’s political correctness gone mad!” and unsurprisingly he is generally to be found in right-wing newspapers. Oddly enough, the massive political success of the Right in the past thirty years has done nothing to dissuade him of his view that liberals are somehow in control behind the scenes. Richard Littlejohn and Peter Hitchens are this type; so (although not strictly newspaper people) is practically every journalist who gets to voice an opinion on Fox News in the US. However, Mr Angry is actually a more literate form of a type of man (usually it is a man) who you’ll find in most pubs spouting off to anyone who’ll listen about how the local council wants to rename Christmas Winterval.

2. The Elder Statesman

Also often found in the right wing press, but this voice is distinctly posher and more old school (Eton or Harrow for preference). If he’s Tory, it’s because they represent the Establishment and he’s part of it or would really like to be (true toffs may not think he’s quite the real thing). A classic example was Bill Deedes, who as an ex-Cabinet Minister had some claims to actually being an elder statesman. May also bash liberals, but in a more subtle and measured way than Mr Angry. There much invocation of history and great historical figures, especially if he can name-drop by virtue of some tenuous personal connection with them. The readers are flattered by their assumed knowledge of weighty matters; this approach demands treating your audience as intelligent. Often cheerleads for the traditional wing of Christianity (the C. of E. or Catholicism) – see William Rees-Mogg. There are renegade left wing Elder Statesmen, but their more left wing opinions don’t prevent their social/intellectual snobbery showing through in some circumstances, especially when faced with their social/intellectual inferiors in postions of power. Hugo Young of The Guardian was one of these.

3. The Courtier

Can be from either side of politics, but the crucial distinguishing feature of the Courtier is that he is closely involved, not merely with a particular party or movement, but a particular politician. All columnists can sometimes act to promote a particular politician’s career, but this one has a longer term connection, often to the point where they become little more than a mouthpiece for them. May be referred to as “(Blank’s) Vicar on Earth”. Woodrow Wyatt of The News of the World, who was close to Mrs Thatcher and ended up being ennobled by her, was one of these. His column was called “The Voice of Reason”, which even as a child I used to think was pretty inaccurate. Of course, the extreme case is the journalist  turned  spin doctor, who becomes a courtier in every sense of the word, like Alastair Campbell.

4. I’m a Scientist, Me

Has a degree in some kind of science. It’s nothing too hot, otherwise he would be an actual scientist rather than a science writer, but it’s enough to impress the other hacks, most of whom will have no more knowledge of the subject than was necessary to make stink bombs with their chemistry set. This allows him a platform to do what he really wants – attack alternative medicine, bash religion and criticise Big Pharma. Always popular with those who proudly describe themselves as “science geeks” i.e. they also know enough about science to impress people who know nothing about science, but not much more. Would like their column called “The Voice of Reason” even more than Woodrow Wyatt did.

5. Isn’t My Domestic Life Hysterical?

More popular with women than men, this persona mainly involves writing columns based on your domestic inadequacies – comically badly behaved kids, eccentric elderly relatives, housework disasters, a spouse who clearly believes you’re a right twat, and so on. There are two obvious problems with this; (a) either everyone accepts it’s true, and wonders why the kids, spouse and relatives let you get away with publically embarrassing them like that, or concludes it’s fiction, and wonders why you don’t just admit this and (b) it does rather force you into posing as a dozy bint of the first water when you have an IQ of 120 and went to Oxford. Interestingly, Zoe Williams of The Guardian, who used to do a certain amount of this, has now moved more into straight politics, although you’ll still find it written by her colleagues Lucy Mangan and Tim Dowling.

6. The Glenda Slag

As named by Private Eye, this is the stereotypical strident female columnist – “Don’cha just love/hate ’em?” One of the most interesting things about her is that whilst sharing Mr Angry’s tendency to be a political attack dog, she often intersperses the heavy stuff with blistering attacks on someone from the X Factor or a fat woman with lots of kids on a council estate who’s been in  The Sun for benefit fraud. Human interest, y’see. The name was supposedly originally coined for Jean Rook and The Daily Mail remains a home for this kind of columnist; although if you ask me, Barbara Ellen is a classic Glenda Slag and she writes for The Observer.

7. She Has a Large Male Readership/He Has A Large Female Readership

With this kind of columnist, one’s suspicion is that a lot of the following comes from readers who rather fancy the journo in question, so it helps to have an easy on the eye photograph at the top of your column, like Hadley Fitbird Freeman of The Guardian, although if the persona is sufficiently charismatic, that isn’t necessary. Julie Burchill was forever attracting letters of complaint from male readers for her strident feminist opinions but you had to wonder whether secretly they rather enjoyed the idea of being dominated by the cruel lash of her… tongue. Or maybe that was just me. Burchill, of course, was also capable of being Glenda Slag, a Feminist Storm Trooper and even Mr Angry, sometimes all at once. She was that good. There must surely be male examples, even though I can’t think of any.

8. The Feminist Storm Trooper/Champion of Minorities

This one’s kind of obvious; the principal theme of these writers is the defence of feminism or of the rights of ethnic minorities. They may enter Glenda Slag territory if they cross into populist, celebrity issues or hammer politicians hard enough (although Glendas are typically on the right). The Guardian Women’s page has published many of these over the years, most recently the mighty Bidisha, who laughs mockingly in the eye of the fool Surname. On the minorities side, the woman I must call Yasmin A-Brown because I can’t actually spell the first half of her surname is also an example.

9.The Gay Lord Focker

Generally columnists in the mainstream touch on gay issues only when they arise in the areas they normally write about (e.g. it comes out that the Foreign Secretary once shared a bed, non-sexually, with a man). When you find an openly gay columnist who actually writes about gay matters, chances are it will be from the perspective of a rather air-headed party animal with a lurid sex life whose head would explode if he were forced to live anywhere not within a short distance of Central London. They seem to crop up with regularity in London local papers like The Evening Standard or The Metro. The only alternative is Elder Statesman Matthew Paris, when not discussing politics.

(ED: Well, I suppose this stands as proof of how much I was influenced by TV Tropes at one point, for which I apologise, although I stand by the opinions expressed overall. I have since given up reading all newspapers except the Metro because they all insisted on pushing their star writers’ ill-informed opinions on me constantly. On the evidence of this, I should have done that years earlier. I can make up my own ill-informed opinions, thanks.)

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