The writers who are never wrong

Editorial Intelligence, a new magazine dedicated to the comment media, launches this week. In it, former Dowing Street spinmeister Derek Draper puts the commentators - and their readers - on the couch
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The Independent Online

The celebrated analyst Melanie Klein produced a theory of mental health which provides an interesting way of interpreting the columns we read in newspapers every day.

Klein believed that we try to rid ourselves of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings by splitting them off from ourselves, and projecting them on to others. For example, a bully transfers his own doubts and fears on to his victim to make these "weaknesses" look as if they belong to somebody else, where they are safe to be ridiculed and punished. Psychic health, Klein posited, involves "owning" these split-off parts, and recognising that truth comes from holding on to paradox, ambivalence and uncertainty. Nothing is ever entirely good, nor entirely bad.

What, then, would Klein make of the modern comment page? At the most extreme end of the spectrum is Peter Hitchens, a man for whom there exists only black and white. I used to present a talk radio show with him, and can confirm that he is just as rigid, dogmatic and earnest when chatting over a coffee as he is in broadcast and print.

Hitchens' reactionary persona is no professional invention, and his greatest pride is that he follows no party line - a point from which he invites us to infer open-mindedness. Of course, he is actually following the party line of his own psyche, which is completely closed off to anything other than evidence which reinforces his intransigent world view.

A little further along the spectrum, we find Richard Littlejohn. He likes to lace his right-wing material with humour, and I remember laughing uncontrollably at his observation, after Tony Blair was interviewed by Little Ant and Dec, that "Mrs Thatcher never resorted to appearing on Tiswas". But, although Littlejohn allows himself an edge of sometimes surreal wit, underneath the jokes he is just as rigid as Hitchens. No chink of ambiguity is allowed to enter the world he has created for his readers. For what it's worth, though - and I do not know him personally - something about his tone does suggest he might be more thoughtful in private.

At the other end of the spectrum, columnists such as David Aaronovitch, Suzanne Moore and Simon Jenkins appear to be much more able to tolerate uncertainty. Even here, however, beneath the sometimes self-deprecating rhetoric, they too are usually peddling a certainty. Even if it is quirky and contrary, it is no less rigid at its core than that of a columnist such as Hitchens.

By its very nature, a column demands the bluster of certainty. It is encoded in the journalistic form, and every columnist knows that if they can't make up their mind, their editor will soon give their slot to someone else who can. Readers enjoy the delusion that absolute certainty offers, even though they know the world is not, in truth, that neatly polarised. But just for those five minutes, reading Hitchens, Littlejohn or Melanie Phillips, they feel the confusion and chaos of real life recede. And I suspect that the columnists concerned are also warding off a little bit of chaos and confusion of their own.

The spiritual godfather of modern polemic journalism is Kelvin MacKenzie, who in effect turned the whole of The Sun into his own column during the 1980s. When Labour first started cosying up to Rupert Murdoch, I organised a visit to Wapping for political advisers. We ended up arguing with MacKenzie. He grew increasingly exasperated at our quizzing of all he held dear. When we managed to expose an inconsistency (and it wasn't easy, for MacKenzie is a consummate debater), he burst out: "Look, if I started thinking about all the sides to stuff, I'd end up as confused as the fucking Labour Party."

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