You’ve probably read about my colleague Toby Young. Last week, Toby decided to resign from the board of a new quango, the Office for Students (OfS), after a huge and splenetic media campaign against him. Toby had made a number of rude remarks on Twitter and, in his two decades as a journalist provocateur, written some controversial pieces. His politics, moreover, are right-of-centre.
For these sins, he was front-page news for more than a week. A petition demanding his removal from the OfS garnered more than 200,000 signatures. He was vilified; his reputation trashed. Toby hoped that by standing down from this minor role on a fairly insignificant public body, the vitriol against him would calm down. He was wrong.
Because Toby is a columnist for the Spectator, the magazine I work for, I woke up on the morning of his resignation to some television requests for me to speak about him. “Assuming you’re going to be defending him!” texted Hannah, a producer for the BBC’s Daily Politics show. “No, I thought I’d kick him while he’s down,” I replied, trying to be funny. After a pause, I texted again: “Joke”. “Haha,” replied Hannah, generously, “Dawn is clearly going to, so we need someone onside.”
Dawn turned out to be Dawn Butler, the Labour MP and shadow minister for equalities (whatever they are). She is a woman in her late 40s who makes up in self-righteousness for what she lacks in subtlety. Our debate did not go well – for me at least. I rather botched an answer about Toby’s views on “progressive eugenics” because, while I don’t think he is a Nazi, I do find his writings on that subject barmy.
More than that, though, I was and still am stunned by the level of hostility that Toby, a likeable guy, has generated. Given the anger, you could be forgiven for thinking that an out-and-proud white supremacist and wife-beater had been appointed minister for health.
Dawn was not content that Toby should merely have resigned. He should have been sacked, she thought. She clearly considered me to be, like Toby, another racist, homophobic, misogynist Tory.
I tried to suggest that Toby was a complex person and that Butler’s antipathy towards him might be connected to the fact that he is an outspoken Conservative. She looked at me as if I had just suggested that black lives didn’t matter. “Pathetic,” she snarled, as the cameras moved off us, though loudly enough that the microphones picked it up. And as we left the studio, I heard her and her adviser sniggering about what a right-wing moron I was. Welcome to Corbyn’s Britain.
Later I went on Sky News to be grilled by Kay Burley. She also seemed apoplectic that I could dare say that Toby ought to be looked at in the round, that his achievements in setting up several free schools might outweigh some lewd or, if you must, sexist comments on social media. She made me feel as if I were standing up for a serial rapist. Indeed, on Twitter afterwards, I was told that saying Toby had done “good things” was comparable to saying that Jimmy Savile was not all bad.
Where does this rage come from? How is it that, far from satisfying his enemies, Toby’s resignation only made them more indignant? It’s probably a bit facile to blame the internet – but it is a lot to do with the internet. Toby was the victim of an online witch-hunt. Through Twitter, his words were taken further and further out of their original context, his jokes translated into “threats”, his character reduced to an odious caricature. Lazy journalists and broadcasters then rehashed these calumnies in print and over the airwaves, and Toby was turned into toxic persona. The word “Orwellian” doesn’t really do it justice. CS Lewis described hell as “a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives with the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment.” That sums up Twitter nicely.
Toby’s story is also a Westminster media-gossip phenomenon. Surely nobody outside a very small number of other SW1 journalists and politicos cared all that much about him or the Office for Students? Yet his mistakes dominated the news – leading bulletins even on the same day as a Cabinet reshuffle. That’s in part because quoting sweary jokes was more likely to attract interest than speculation about Jeremy Hunt at the Department of Health. But it’s more because journalists like writing about themselves. I know I do – have you noticed? Toby did eventually become a national talking point, but that’s only because the national press didn’t stop talking about him.
Furthermore, Toby’s story reveals something deeper and darker. It suggests that we now live in a post-Christian society that doesn’t really believe in forgiveness. It isn’t enough that Toby has apologised for having said bad things. It isn’t even enough that he resigned. He has to be destroyed. For the Dawn Butlers of this world, he is beyond redemption.
Freddy Gray is deputy editor of the Spectator
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