Melanie Phillips: 'The Guardian is a sanctimonious club of zealots'

When The Guardian recently invited comments about Melanie Phillips — and her new book, Londonistan — on its Comment is Free website, it prompted more than 4,000 postings. Many of them were less than flattering.

Suffice to say, there is something about Phillips which appears to get Guardian readers' backs up.

Through her regular column in the Daily Mail — and regular radio and TV appearances — she espouses views on most issues which are likely to be far to their right.

So perhaps it is surprising that she was once a firm member of the Guardian "club".

After studying English at Oxford, she spent two years learning her trade as a journalist on the Evening Echo in Hemel Hempstead before joining left-wing magazine New Society and then The Guardian. As social services correspondent and then social policy leader writer, Phillips was in tune with The Guardian's left-of-centre liberal world view. But later on, something changed.

After a brief "unhappy" stint as news editor, she became a Guardian columnist — and began expressing views which were "beyond the pale" to some of her colleagues. Eventually, she says she felt forced to leave, and joined sister title The Observer for three years, before leaving Guardian Newspapers altogether in 1997.

After a spell at The Sunday Times she joined the Daily Mail in 2001, and has been one of the paper's highest profile columnists ever since.

She also produces an extensive personal website and is a regular contributor to Radio 4 series The Moral Maze.

Her latest book, Londonistan, has been something of a hit for a serious political work — selling around 5,000 hardback copies so far — and top of its genre section in the Amazon UK sales chart.

The hypothesis put forward by Londonistan is diametrically opposed to the world view Phillips believes is put forward by the comment section of The Guardian, the BBC and much of the rest of the media.

It argues that Londonistan — a reference to the number of Muslim extremists in Britain — has developed "as a result of the collapse of British self-confidence and national identity and its resulting paralysis by multiculturalism and appeasement".

It says: "The result is an ugly climate in Britain of irrationality and defeatism, which now threatens to undermine the alliance with America and imperil the defence of the free world."

I spoke to Phillips on the anniversary of the 7 July London bombings — an event, she believes, that was largely caused by the issues in British society identified in her book.

The tape [released on the anniversary of 7/7] is Al Qaeda trying to hijack the news agenda and largely succeeding.

With the exception of my own paper, which took a principled decision not to put the pictures on its front page — precisely so the agenda would not be hijacked — everyone more or less fell for it.

It's a way of thumbing their nose at us to say: "Not just we are still there and we are threatening you, but we can command the agenda. You want to talk about what we've done to you, we want to talk about what you've done to us."

In our society, we find that extraordinarily difficult to deal with, because we are so committed — and rightly so — to freedom of speech that we think that kind of self-censorship is not right or desirable. But if we say freedom of speech is more important, then what we are saying is freedom of speech is more important than preserving human life and maintaining the values of democracy and a free society.

I think the Muhammad cartoons were a good example of how we have become terrorised by that agenda.

The cartoons were represented here in large measure as an offence against Islam, as disrespect to the religion.

The cartoons were not an attack on the religion as such at all, they were a political protest against the fact that in the name of that religion, the writer of a children's book about Islam could not find an illustrator because the illustrators were so terrified they would be murdered.

In this country, the settled consensus after the cartoons row died down was that the main issue was the disrespect shown to the religion by the republication of the cartoons. But in my view, the main issue was the murder and kidnap and riot and violence that went on across the world in the name of the religion.

Britain's priorities seem to me to be completely skewed. We've allowed ourselves, as a country, to be pulled along by the inverted logic of the terrorists themselves.

Three years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book about what I thought was the very wrong-headed analysis which had been collectively reached in this country about the threat of global terror.

At that point, my mind was not focused at all upon the problem of home-grown Muslim alienation — it was much more to with what I perceived to be the major wrong turn that the country as a whole was taking over attitudes to America, Iraq, the defence of the free world against terror and Israel.

I was also extremely concerned about what I felt to be an outpouring of anti-Jewish prejudice. And even worse than that, the vilification of people like myself who try to draw attention to it.

One Jewish publisher said they would rather take ricin than publish the book.

I have a very good agent and he was very enthusiastic and he thought it would sell very well.

He sent it round to all the major publishing houses and to his astonishment he got a very firm rejection from all of them.

I was taken aside by a publisher who had previously published me and he said: "Drop it, no British publisher will touch this," because I was defending Israel, already then the pariah state, and saying there was an upsurge of anti-Jewish feeling.

These things were completely unsayable in the British publishing world.

My publisher said: "Because the Jewish thing is a bit of a problem, I'll send it to Jewish publishers because they're bound to be more sympathetic." The reaction was infinitely worse, they were savage. That requires a book in itself, to deconstruct the attitude of secular Jews who are prominent in public life in Britain.

In America the reaction was comically very different.

Publishers said: "We think this is great, but we've already had a load of books about many aspects of this and we are not very interested in Britain," so I fell very heavily between two stools. At that point 7/7 happened.

Then I was contacted by Encounter. The publisher said to me: "What I want your book to tell me is to explain to me why home-grown Muslim boys were turned into human bombs, and I want you to call the book Londonistan." I wrote it quite quickly, finished by around Christmas time.

We went ahead on the basis that it would only be published in America by Encounter, and that a book about Britain would be completely shunned by British publishers on the grounds that they did not want this point of view published at all. It wasn't fear, they just didn't want it published.

At the very last minute, Martin Rynja of Gibson Square Books popped up. He got the point and was completely on side.

It's been in and out of the Amazon UK bestseller lists and I have been absolutely overwhelmed by support from the public.

There is an iron grip of a totally illiberal nature exercised by the intelligentsia.

There is only one story that can be told — there is no public debate because the media, the publishing world and the intelligentsia have one story about America, about Israel, about Jews, about minorities, about multiculturalism. It's a view of the world which is, in my view, a left-wing, illiberal view of the world.

It has destroyed the whole notion of truth — everything is relative so there's no truth any more.

Everything is a matter of opinion. And consequently it's allowed itself to be colonised by propaganda. It can no longer distinguish lies from truth, it can no longer distinguish aggressor from victim and so it inverts aggressor and victim. If the aggressor fits its definition of the oppressive West in Israel, then it must be the aggressor, even when it's been under attack for the last 50 years.

This point of view — which is the point of view of the BBC's journalism, of the media — this broader mindset goes across parties. You find it within the Conservative party too.

I find you have this situation — a dialogue of the demented, I call it — in which it's a kind of closed thought system that I find I'm up against, in which, by definition, because I'm challenging the world view, I'm regarded as beyond the pale. It's the kind of mindset one associates with totalitarian regimes and when one speaks in this language, one is accused of going over the top, but I don't think it is.

I think what we are living through is extremely sinister and dangerous, and that's why there was such resistance across the board to my book being published.

I just came to believe that the view of the world perpetrated by The Guardian was completely divorced from reality.

What did change for me radically was my view of why people were at the bottom of the heap, and my view that the world view espoused by The Guardian was keeping them there and was actually doing a great deal of harm to the most vulnerable.

The Guardian's view was that we can't impose our world view on the Third World. Our world view is to believe that human life is very important, their world view is that human life is cheap. We can't impose it on them, therefore it's not for us to judge that Mau's cultural revolution, in which millions and millions of people died, was wrong. When Syria killed 20,000 people, who were dissident in 1982, it's not for us to say that's wrong. But we will instead hold the West to account for the killing of one or two people in self-defence.

It was the view at the time, in the early 1980s, and it's the view now — I think it's profoundly racist — it says that we can't judge the Third World by our standards, because they are stupid savages and therefore we don't care about human life in the Third World. That's what that Guardian view says to me. I think that is morally disgusting.

feeling that I felt was bubbling up — in this confusing business of: "We are not anti-Jewish, we are just anti-Israel" — that's a complicated argument.

But, nevertheless, I felt that the emphasis on Israel was wholly disproportionate, wholly obsessional and wholly distorted. It inverted history, it misrepresented history, it misrepresented the present, it omitted crucial information, it lied about other parts of what was going on.

What happened at The Guardian was a kind of terrible divorce, so I find it hard now to look back dispassionately.

I regarded The Guardian as my family at the time. It did engender a tremendous amount of corporate loyalty and affection because we all felt we were in the same boat.

It is a sanctimonious club of zealots, who exclude with great spitefulness and cruelty people who are outside the club. They told me they are obsessed by me — and they are. Their website repeatedly carries stuff which is so offensive it has to be taken off.

I don't read it myself — but people do read it, it goes around the world this stuff.

I think The Guardian today is a very well run, professional, smart paper.

I think it caters brilliantly for its constituency.

I think it still often has a depth of coverage that you don't find anywhere else. Its comment is where it departs into the realm of total fantasy.

Working as Guardian news editor was not the happiest time of my life.

I didn't make a very good fist of it. I was made a columnist after that, because I think they thought at the time that I would be farmed out, live a quiet life being put out to pasture. It was their equivalent of euthanasia — they've never forgiven me that it didn't quite work.

They bought The Observer and by that time I was finding things very, very difficult at The Guardian.

I was in a kind of internal exile. I thought The Observer would put some distance between me and The Guardian. I thought The Observer would be a good halfway house. But in fact, The Observer became very Guardianified and became even more spiteful towards me than The Guardian had been, so I felt I had to leave. I left more or less at the same time that Roger Alton came on board and I believe he is a very, very fine editor, and I think that he would not have made my life so difficult had he been the editor.

At The Sunday Times, it was just amazing that people weren't being so horrible to me all the time and actually quite often agreed with what I was writing.

Then my current literary agent suddenly blew into my life unannounced and said to me I should not be on The Sunday Times, I should be on the Daily Mail, and I originally thought that was a step too far. That was a terrible risk for me to take, because it is such a big leap. But he persuaded me and I did make the leap.

The Daily Mail has given me this fantastic platform and I get a huge response from Daily Mail readers who are not, in quotes, "typical Daily Mail readers" at all. They are a vastly eclectic band of people, who straddle all the social class categories and all political categories — that's why it's such a fantastic platform. I just get an enormous amount of support, so I'm grateful. They don't agree with all my views at all, but they are a very receptive audience in the best sense."

I'm not a very technological person, but the internet has changed my life.

It's just astonishing — I can have a thought and 20 minutes later I've written a couple of paragraphs or posted it on my website, and a few minutes after that, I have reaction pouring in from around the world and people on other websites are engaging with it. It makes newspapers look fantastically slow, and also it is a tremendous weapon against the homogenous grip of the mainstream media, this world view that I was talking about that excludes views that don't fit. That world view is challenged by the internet, which exposes the misapprehensions, distortions and lies being put out by that view.

It's a potentially huge corrective and if it becomes much more a matter of habit in this country that people are turning to the net to get their news and comment, then I think we are going to find this grip that the mainstream media has is going to be prised open completely.

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