Melanie Phillips, star columnist of the Daily Mail, has taken the first step to becoming a global brand. On Thursday evening, a select group of friends, past and present colleagues, and ideological soulmates including the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith gathered at Brown’s, a five-star hotel in Mayfair, to see it all begin.
Most arrived not knowing quite what to expect, drawn by the assumption that whatever the polemicist known to her detractors as Mad Mel had thought up next, it was sure to be interesting. At about 9pm, after drinks had been served, they retired to a separate room, to be treated to a 20-minute reading by their hostess from her new autobiography, Guardian Angel: My Story.
Do not rush to Waterstone’s to order your copy, because all you will get is a blank look. Melanie Phillips has left the 20th century behind. Her latest thing is e-publishing.
After three decades in print journalism, she has launched a venture called EM – for Electric Media – whose core business is to be ebooks. Besides the Melanie Phillips memoir, the initial catalogue is comprised of four other titles by like‑minded authors. “Speaking truth to power, standing up for the little guy and giving voice to those on the decent common-sense middle ground who find themselves marginalised by the gatekeepers of public discourse. That’s the mission of my new venture,” she has declared.
What really had her guests bowled over in astonishment was not the reading, nor the ebook, but the goodie bags given to them as they left. They contained samples of the merchandise that Melanie Phillips Electric Media is selling online. For prices ranging from £12.80 to £24.20, you can buy a case for an iPhone, kindle or iPad, a baseball cap, a small umbrella or an Earth Positive tote bag. Martin Bright, one of the evening’s guests, has yet to venture out in public wearing his new emBooks T-shirt, but says that his wife Vanessa Thorpe, arts correspondent of The Observer, has taken the emBooks mug to work “in the belief that it’s the one mug that will not be stolen by her colleagues”.
Though Melanie Phillips retains some friends among the liberal intelligentsia, who will admit to liking her personally and respecting her formidable intellect, they are relatively few in number. Generally, seen from the left, she is a demonic figure – “the Daily Mail’s in-house Tasmanian Devil”, to quote one blogger – who helps to fill the space left by the passing of Margaret Thatcher. On Facebook, there is an “I Hate Melanie Phillips” page, though at the time of writing, only 31 people have given it a “like”.
Other commentators stir up controversy and rouse strong passions, but a notable difference between Melanie Phillips and, for instance, Richard Littlejohn is her courtesy. Though she will attack someone’s beliefs with unbridled ferocity, she seldom resorts to personal insults. The football analogy is that she usually plays the ball, not the player.
Something else that marks her out is the sense people have that she actually believes the stuff she writes, unlike those transient controversialists who dream up instant opinions simply to grab attention. But then it is legitimate to question how anyone in her position can possibly believe some of the things she writes. The suggestion in her mission statement that she and those who think like her are “marginalised by the gatekeepers of public discourse”, or a claim she makes in her autobiography that since 1999 she has been “effectively blacklisted” and that “no mainstream publisher would touch me”, sit rather oddly beside her celebrity status. She has had three books published by established publishers since the start of the “blacklisting”.
She is a regular guest on Question Time on BBC1 and The Moral Maze on Radio 4. And above all, she has a regular platform courtesy of the nation’s second largest-selling tabloid, whose website has more visitors than any other news website anywhere in the world. She is a famous, highly paid, privileged commentator with a solid following on both sides of the Atlantic, who is convinced that she is being persecuted by an establishment out to silence her.
Phillips grew up in a left-wing milieu, with Labour-voting parents, and until she had reached middle age, her experience of the world of work was almost entirely in offices where a left-wing culture prevailed, at the now defunct New Society magazine, The Guardian and The Observer. Little by little, she kicked against this orthodoxy. She began to feel like a stranger among Guardianistas when she was appointed to a managerial position for which she was not well suited, as news editor, while trying also to bring up two small children. The feeling grew once she was moved off the news desk to be a columnist.
She analysed the problems that interested her, such as family breakdown, or attitudes towards Jewish people, with an intensity and a conviction that allowed her no rest. It was characteristic of her that she arrived at work at The Observer one day, bristling with outrage because someone had suggested she might enjoy the 1990s sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. “I can see what the joke is: the joke is that the daughter is mother to the mother,” she declared, adding that for some young women, that was grim reality. Irresponsible parenthood is not something she sees as a fit subject for humour.
Looking out at the Middle East, she saw a democracy, Israel, whose existence was under threat from Palestinian terrorists, where her colleagues saw an aggressive military power built on stolen Palestinian land.
She and her husband, the BBC journalist and law specialist Joshua Rozenberg, decided to send their two children to private schools. Other well-off leftists have done the same, with apologies, but from Melanie Phillips, there could be no apology. Their decision was to be blamed entirely on left-wing state-school teachers. It set her off on a crusade that culminated with her first book-length polemic, All Must Have Prizes, published in 1998, an onslaught on the state education system.
From a slow start, the process accelerated until there was hardly a right-wing conspiracy theory anywhere that did not have her intransigent support, as if the world were run by a vast interlocking conspiracy of left-wing bureaucrats, academics, journalists, teachers and anyone else from what are termed the liberal professions.
Scientists who have issued warnings against man-made climate change are part of this syndrome. She has raged against “the data manipulation/shady practices scandal at the high temple of anthropogenic global warming theory”.
The heads of the medical profession are in it, too. When the now discredited GP Andrew Wakefield claimed to have evidence that the MMR jab caused autism, Melanie Phillips saw him as a courageous lone crusader being victimised by a “medical and political establishment”. She wrote a series of articles in the Daily Mail warning parents not to subject their children to the triple jab.
Even the heir to the throne has been got at. There was a time when Prince Charles sought out Ms Phillips’s views on education, but then he stopped. “I believe the reason was that I thought some education advisers in his circle were less than wholly sound, and I told him so,” she wrote in Guardian Angel.
This is not a purely British phenomenon: the blight is spreading access the free world. She could scarcely believe that American voters could elect Barack Obama not once, but twice. After his re-election last year, her normal politeness deserted her as she denounced the US President as “a sulky narcissist with an unbroken history of involvement in thuggish, corrupt, far-left, black power, Jew-bashing, West-hating politics”.
“A leftie who saw the light” was the Daily Mail headline over the serialisation of her memoirs earlier this week. But “light” is not the most apt word for what Melanie Phillips sees. There is a lot of dark in her world, a lot of people with moral shortcomings, a lot of hate. It does not seem to be much fun being Melanie Phillips, but she marches on, undaunted.
A Life In Brief
Born: 4 June, 1951, London.
Family: Parents Alfred, a dress salesman, and Mabel, ran a children’s clothes shop. Married to journalist Joshua Rozenberg, two children.
Education: Putney High School. English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Career: Trained with the Evening Echo in Hemel Hempstead. Moved to New Society magazine before joining The Guardian in 1977. Left in 1993, claiming her relationship with readers had become “like a really horrific family argument”. Began writing for the Daily Mail in 2001. Has written several books and recently launched Melanie Phillips Electric Media.
She says: “Western society is in quite a lot of serious trouble and I want to forge a way of addressing these problems that brings people together rather than pushing people apart.”
They say: “Melanie Phillips’s zealotry and ignorance frighten me. How did we produce a public commentator filled with such anger, venom and hatred?” Ed Husain, author of The IslamistReuse content