I never thought I'd end up on the Jeremy Kyle Show: well, that's what Monday night's benefit “debate” on Channel 5 felt like at times, but with slightly less subtlety and sophistication.
It was always going to be a level-headed, nuanced discussion, what with it being called 'The Big Benefits Row', and initially I refused to take part after Channel 5 put together a panel that was pretty much my personalised Room 101. “Er - Owen, there's something we probably need to tell you,” the understandably tortured producer told me before the show. I could work out the rest. “You've invited Katie Hopkins, haven't you?” I said.
Yes they had, and Edwina Currie, too. I learnt first hand about Currie’s attitude when I once watched her haranguing a room full of residents of one of Britain's poorest constituencies, pointing at people with trainers or mobile phones and claiming they couldn't really be poor at all.
But it was discovering that Kelvin Mackenzie was also on the invite list that did it. Apparently being found to have edited a paper that peddled police lies about dead football fans is not enough to be driven from public life. What a waste that would be, when Mackenzie has so much bile left he could share with us.
I decided this wasn’t a show for me - but I reluctantly changed my mind after Mackenzie turned out not to be taking part, and I was promised I wouldn't have to “debate” with Hopkins, which is about as entertaining and productive as rubbing a cheese grater against your face. I dread even talking about her, because it means “feeding the troll”, or giving the attention craved by someone who lives by winding people up. Katie Hopkins is a failed reality TV star now paying off her mortgage with other people's outrage. I'm sure some would applaud her entrepreneurial flair: after all, she's found a niche in the market for collecting all the ugliest thoughts in Britain and stitching them together in human form.
Basically Hopkins's schtick is to oh-so-subversively repeat the mantra of mainstream politicians and journalists about people at the bottom of society, but with even fewer facts and more venom. It's just panto (which I reckon is where Hopkins will end up when the media requests dry up). She was even practising arching her eyebrow - a facial expression she's inexplicably very proud of. “They're just lazy.” Booooo! “I don't care about anyone else.” Boooo!
The producers justified booking her on the basis that she got a response; I suggested that the same could be said about a live execution, but that probably wasn't an argument in its favour. And so producers will keep ringing her agent so long as people keep agreeing to “debate” with her, and the Hopkinsisation of political discourse will continue.
And then there was Edwina Currie, best known for a scandal involving eggs and boasting about her escapades with a former Prime Minister. Hopkins has moved in on Currie territory, and so an arms race has begun. On the Channel 5 programme on Monday, Currie was put on the same panel as Jack Monroe, a brilliant writer and inspirational campaigner with first-hand experience of poverty and food banks. She began confronting Currie with facts, the one thing Currie seemed to be bereft of. And so Currie's comeback was - wait for it - to bring up Monroe's dead grandfather. For a moment I considered trying to picture the inner workings of Currie's mind, then stepped back from the brink. During the ad break I suggested that Currie should maybe consider growing up and having a mature debate, to which she responded by pointing out how young I looked. Commenting on someone's physical appearance is definitely a foolproof response to accusations of immaturity. You got me there, Edwina.
The likes of Hopkins and Currie are a fascinating aspect of modern culture, with their outrageous politically incorrect opinions they have for money, to paraphrase Stewart Lee on Jeremy Clarkson. Going on TV is not something I hugely enjoy, to be brutally honest - it's just a means to get a point across - but for the professional troll, nothing beats the limelight, even if everybody is booing.
But I feel genuine pity for intelligent right-wingers out there (and yes, they do exist!). They're being replaced by pantomime villains. Personally, I relish taking someone on who knows their facts. But ratings are ratings, and so the circus goes on.
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