How to kill a columnist

21 January 2014

The typical plot of a Sophie Hannah thriller sounds ridiculous when you condense it. A man yearns for a family. His wife has a child to please him, but she does not love her daughter. Desperate for affection, the little girl gets angrier and angrier and throws an electric heater in her mother’s bath. Realising her mother is hurt, she throws herself on top of her, and electrocutes herself as well. To cover up the scandal, the father hides the bodies. When a spiteful classmate of his daughter hints to her mother that she knows about the tensions in her family, he kills her and her mother, and hides their bodies as well. Then he has an affair with the novel’s heroine, kidnaps her, locks her up and tries to impregnate her so that they can raise in captivity the happy family he could never enjoy in freedom.

Absurd, as I said. And Hannah would produce forgettable potboilers if she did not have the literary skill and cool awareness of our weaknesses to take commonplace desires for a happy family, or a dream home or sexual adventure’ and push them to their extremes. She has revived the apparently exhausted detective genre by inventing a new style. You could call it every-day Gothic or ordinary extremism. But whatever label you stick on her books, they stay with you because you are likely to share or at least understand the motives of the killer.

Journalists should worry therefore that in her latest thriller – The Telling Error, out in the spring – Hannah builds her plot around the apparently commonplace desire to murder newspapers columnists.

We find the victim, Damon Blundy, trussed-up by his laptop, and suffocated with masking tape. Blundy is a Rod Liddle-style pundit: right wing, prejudiced and a perennial picker of fights, but also compelling and honest in his way. Hannah makes clear that the names of possible killers could fill the rest of her book.

The police ask his wife for a list of his enemies.

“It’d make more sense to give you a list of people who didn’t hate him. Me. There that was quick.”

A weary detective surveying the embarrassment of suspects mutters,

“I wish Blundy had considered the inconvenience to us in the event of his murder. It’s going to take us until next year to interview everyone who might have wanted him dead.”


The Web makes her story credible. Furious tweets, comments for and against Blundy on newspaper web pages, and illicit hook-ups on dating sites power it forward. The Web has allowed hatreds to flourish, and not only in novels. Online anonymity makes it easy to threaten and smear. Meanwhile open access creates an equality of arms. Before its invention, newspapers and publishers received all kinds of letters from cranks. We would throw them in the bin, often without acknowledging receipt. If you are a Johann Hari-style cyber-stalker today, or an obsessive commentator on a newspaper’s web pages, your views are acknowledged and gain a kind of credibility. Certainly, you can fool yourself into believing that you are no longer the isolated embittered man whose screams are lost in a void. Your voice carries and registers. You can see the proof of your success on screen.

I don’t believe that the human race changes, and we are a more unpleasant species than we were 30-years ago. It is just that the Web gives the bully and the hysteric a new prominence.


Without wishing to diminish the online harassment, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism that follow, far fewer writers than you would imagine worry about online hate campaigns, let alone think that they could one day end up in danger like Hannah’s luckless victim. When newspapers first began publishing anonymous abuse under articles seven years or eight ago, I thought journalists would see it as an attempt by managers to undermine their increasingly casualised work forces, and fight back. At the very least, I assumed that women journalists would resign and sue employers who had published sexist insults under their copy for constructive dismissal; or that the National Union of Journalists would demand that publishers remove the coward’s cloak of anonymity, and say that commentators must find the courage to write under their own names.

Nothing of the sort has happened: and not only because at national level the NUJ is one of the worst led unions in Britain. Most journalists are like Hannah’s, Damon Blundy. They don’t care what people say about them online, for reasons which are largely good, and worth following yourself.

1. There’s a strong feeling that if you give it you must take it. This can manifest itself in the taboo against journalists suing for libel. The taboo is far from universal – Private Eye frequently complains about journalists resorting to laws that limit the very freedoms journalism depends on – but it is powerful and reasonable restraint. If a national newspaper, the BBC or any other kind of serious critic goes for you, you respond, of course. But to complain about every criticism is petty, and undermines your own right to criticise others.

2. It’s also demeaning. I’ve noticed on Twitter that when someone responds to mad or sexist abuse, rather than ignoring the abuser or blocking him, there is a perceptible moment of delight when the ranter realises that – at last – he has hit his target and made her notice his existence. You should never give them the satisfaction, however tempting it is to respond in kind. Online arguments are like watching pornography. The excitement catches you for a few minutes, but afterwards you feel dirty and wonder what the point of it was. It is for this reason that journalists take aside young colleagues and tell them never to read the comments on their pieces. You have or ought to have better things to do with your time.

There’s an ex-athlete in The Telling Error, banned for life for taking drugs. He spends his time scouring the Web, tracking down every mention of his name and arguing on Twitter with anyone who wants to abuse him. Without giving too much of the story away, he ends up quite mad. I have seen writers go a part of the way down that road too, and have no wish to join them.

3. Not just professional writers but any writer producing decent work should deliver considered finished articles for the general reader. Allow trolls to drag you into Twitter spats or online comment wars and Nietzsche’s warning about staring into the abyss will soon apply to you. Instead of researching, testing and making arguments for the wider public, you direct your writing at a tiny group of deranged people you can never convince. Inevitably, you start to become like them.

Mutatis mutandis, the same degeneration afflicts writers followed by adoring online claques. Delirious mobs of commentators sweep along the Chomskyan leftists, who say that the Middle East’s troubles are all the fault of western imperialism, or the know-nothing conservatives, who say man-made global warming is a fraud. They reinforce the writer’s prejudices, keep him in a hermetically sealed world, and prevent the overdue rendezvous with reality.

“He’s spending all this time with people calling him names, and telling him they hope he dies,” says the mother of the disgraced athlete in The Telling Error. “He doesn’t just read them, which’d be bad enough – he insists on answering every damn single one of them! He thinks if he engages with them, they’ll see he’s got a good heart, but the worst ones aren’t capable of seeing, because they haven’t got hearts at all! They want to carry on hating – it’s their hobby. Avoiding them, ignoring them, disconnecting – that’s what he needs to do”.

This is good advice and not only for journalists. If writers don’t take it, the Web will kill their critical judgement as surely as any murderer.

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  • Lambert Butler

    psychological war as well? you really do seal your fate, you bigots. poor nick cohen. if only you were more like sid james – a DECENT man named cohen. you fucking idiot nick. give it up. you have less than 2 years of your career left.

  • Lambert Butler
  • Lambert Butler
  • Lambert Butler

    If you call someone anti-semitic and they are not, and I see you do it, you are fucked.

    A random unknown ‘writer’ (who currently works in a supermarket in Shepherd’s Bush, stacking shelves) I asked for his opinion about Galloway the other day claimed Galloway had known lots of dictators, and insisted it was legitimate to treat Saddam and his son as different dictators, although still could not count up more than “three”, and said that Galloway is antisemitic, and said that there were loads of other reasons to attack Galloway but that he could not think of any at all off hand.

    People like Spectator writer, blogger, Guardian electioneer and preachy dictator Nick Cohen are, whilst libellous, careful to not call Galloway antisemitic, I believe: simply because Galloway clearly is not, provably so, there is no basis whatsoever for saying he is, and it is not the sort of libel you can be sure you will get away with due to his generosity. Mislabelling people anti-semitic is everybody’s duty to prevent: we MUST sue anyone who does that for slander or libel, without a doubt, or take similar action.

    Thus the person I met proved to be very stupid and risk taking. Are you the same? Do you just go about freely insulting Galloway if asked, without even bothering to check the facts for yourself?

    If you call someone anti-semitic and they are not, and I see you do it, you are fucked.

  • Guest

    boris johnston is too easy a target for you twats to pre-censor me as you are doing. DON’T make war with me. co-operate. i am a journalist writing the truth, well. fight that and how can you win? even hislop respects my attacks on him. so get ready. treat me well if you want me to treat you well! anything else, and you know – i’ll only give you back what you give me. censor me, and i WILL censor you. i’m not hacked off. i’m actually evenly matched against you!!!

  • Gurney Halleck

    In an otherwise sensible piece about the small and petty arguments that columnists and writers can get dragged into with cranks on the web, Nick Cohen unfortunately overlooks one of the main benefits that such open communications provides for society: It does not allow opinion makers to get away with bad arguments and rank propaganda. Mr. Cohen seems to long for the days when the opinion makers had the stage entirely to themselves, without those who disagree with them being able to disagree under their columns. Yes, there is a lot of noise generated by cranks and kooks in comments sections, but there is a lot of incisive and intelligent commenting as well which further examines and develops the subject under discussion. What Mr. Cohen resents is not dealing with cranks…it’s dealing with disagreement. Note the subtle Zionist propagonda in this piece. Mr. Cohen longs for the days when that type of propagonda could not be called out in commens sections.

  • global city

    Ooh, Nick. You will come to be embarrassed by the choice of subject used today to show your lefty mates that you still hate Tories!

    Man Made Global Warming is a terrible fraud… you soft fellow!

  • Swanky

    ‘never to read the comments… better things’
    I’m glad Rod Liddle doesn’t feel that way. Or Lord Tebbit. Or Tom Chivers. I much prefer writers that read their readers. I think, apart from anything else, it makes them better writers. I don’t mean style, I mean awareness.

  • Davidh

    “When newspapers first began publishing anonymous abuse under articles…”

    Ha, Ha! Nice description of online comments. Those in the Spectator are often more thoughtful than most, which is why I like to read them. But many online news outlets are just deluged with thoughtless, often hateful comments by people who appear not even to have read, let alone engaged with, the article. Any sensible comments are just drowned out.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I do not consider the detective genre to be exhausted. What is your evidence for this extraordinary statement, or is it just metropolitan chic? Killing unpleasant juournalists is fairly commonplace I would have thought. I’m not talking about rod liddle,who is a sweetie, but Polly Toynbee now…

  • Two Bob

    For a moment I thought it said ‘how to kill a communist’!

  • NotYouNotSure

    I was not aware that journalists were obligated to read either twitter comments or comments for their articles ?

    This author, like many other journalists, is complaining that the world is nastier than he was hoping it would be, well it is, and if you cannot cope with that, then perhaps journalism is not what you should be doing.

  • Ryan McCourt

    “I don’t believe that the human race changes, and we are a more
    unpleasant species than we were 30-years ago. It is just that the Web
    gives the bully and the hysteric a new prominence.”

    Actually, what you’re seeing is the destruction of so called “professional writers” monopoly on public commentary. The difference between most employed “columnists” and any ass-hat with an opinion is virtually non-existent.

    Newspapers no longer are the only place to read the opinions of stupid people, now that everyone is equally a “writer”…

  • djkm

    2/ this is all true. People should consider the ‘block’ button their friend. However there’s another point that isn’t covered in this article, that of the celeb, or some other person with many followers, who, deciding to take offence at something, legitimately or otherwise, doing the whole, .@name thing, and letting their equally rabid followers have at them. Bullying works both ways.

    • Mike Anderson

      I would vote up point 1/ twice if I could.

  • Fencesitter

    It is for this reason that journalists take aside young colleagues and
    tell them never to read the comments on their pieces. You have or ought
    to have better things to do with your time.

    Dear Nick…


  • zanzamander

    Just like the Telegraph Why not just disable comments? Sure you run the danger that no one will read the blog. But at least you writers can write whatever you want without the fear of being insulted or threatened and without the fear of ending up writing at a tiny group of deranged people you can never convince.

    Lets face it, on line media operates under severe competition, the more clicks you get, the more money you make. Cif survives on trolls so its blogroll is a troll magnet. They deliberately write to rile.

  • nnnnnnnnnnnnn

    I think we should organise a yearly upper class twit of the year award. I would recommend most of those that contribute at the Guardian newspaper

  • sarahsmith232

    Cohen dear, I presume you will be reading this ’cause I get the impression you’d really love to ignore we ugly little trolls but can’t 100% bring yourself to. Surely the opposite of what you write is true? Your ability to judge would be more likely to be impaired if you blocked opposing views. I’ve read a million and one comments on sites, some are quite impressive, they’re snapshots of society that a writer living in a privileged world can’t connect with.
    Why would you prefer to block them out? I presume this is because you’ve always believed that money and power is the cause of injustice and unfairness in society but since ’97 that view has been slowly shattering (is now shattered?). Comments highlight the way we low status troll types have not been impoverished economically but have had our value in society diminished in other ways, to the point where we no longer have a voice, are considered worthless. This was supposed to have been the Tories fantasy long-term political plan but it was Labour that achieved it.
    I don’t think you can manage to block all of this out, much as you’d really wish to. If you feel that your ability to understand society is being undermined by comments that don’t agree with you then it’s prob’ cause they’re showing the way that it isn’t the Right that undermines the working-class, it’s the Left.

    • sarahsmith232

      I should add – Come out the Right-wing closet Cohen, you’d be put to far better use if you did.

    • Mike Anderson

      Cohen, I presume, has voted you down.

  • Staedtler

    I think you’ll find there are a lot more people in danger because of the hatred stirred up against them by the media, than media bunnies in danger from the public.

  • nnnnnnnnnnnnn

    What about the posh, white , privileged, upper middle class, hero of the working class twit Owen Jones who froths at the mouth because the English are getting organised through UKIP? The boy and others like him, including Dan Hodges sum up everything that’s wrong with the state of one sided establishment drivel.

    • djkm

      Start your own blog, then! The internet has democratised opinion! EVEN YOURS.

  • 1DrFortuneMBezzla7

    I love Rod Liddle’s writing. When his column didn’t appear in The Sun one day, I was so incensed I kicked in my computer and sent News International the bill.

    • Fencesitter

      I’m the same. I read him in the Sun (Thursday column and occasional feature articles); The Spectator (magazine and blog); The Sunday Times (general column, sports column and video reports). I even try to catch his Ask Dr Rod column in GQ when I can.

      • 1DrFortuneMBezzla7

        The best columnists are what stand up comics should be. Funny, dysfunctional, unpredictable.
        Most stand up comedy, by contrast, as dreadfully predictable and conventional.
        It’s worth paying 40p to read Rod Liddle in The Sun. None of the rest of the paper offers anything original. All the news is available free online from other sources.

        • Fencesitter

          The Sun knows it has to compete with online; that’s why it now has columnists in the paper every day of the week. In addition to Rod, I enjoy Trevor Kavanagh on Mondays and Katie Hopkins on Fridays. Nothing against Jane Moore or Ally Ross.

          The Sun is still a good read. Their treatment of some stories is nothing short of genius.

          And what price headlines of the calibre of “Sign on you crazy Diamond”?

  • Bluesman_1

    “Nietzsche’s warning about staring into the abyss will soon apply to you.
    Instead researching, testing and making arguments for the wider public,
    you direct your writing at a tiny group of deranged people you can
    never convince. Inevitably, you start to become like them.”

    When did this become about the Chordatically Challenged One?

  • davidshort10

    Just write for the Guardian. It erases any comment that doesn’t fit in with its views. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been banned. I have to keep on registering new email accounts.

    • Fedup Voter

      I’ve stopped trying to comment on the Guardian website. The Stalinist approach of their moderators makes reasonable debate impossible on that site. Ditto the BBC. Links to external sources there are generally banned. I find that extremely irksome as I normally try to support the case I am arguing with some evidence.

      • Lambert Butler

        trust me, if you could see my posts before spectator/indy/etc disallows them from being published: you would laugh at the idea that ANY old media is worth your time. they can’t stop me getting rid of them. i am working on it and whitehall clearly will back me. so i’d suggest these liars start learning to co-operate with me! they won’t let you see me say this, in all probability, but that makes no difference. they’re stupid because their censorship doesn’t slow down my destruction of their legitimacy and presence, it speeds it up. if they let this one through, it could give them a whole extra day in work, in the longrun.

        ah it’s fresh posts they pre-block for me. replies may take a moment or two to be removed. ordinarily.

  • Ian Walker

    Your observation that “Delirious mobs of commentators sweep along the Chomskyan leftists…” rather belies that you have spent some time reading the Coffee House comments, despite advising your colleagues that “You have or ought to have better things to do with your time.”

    Nice piece though, I’m tempted to seek out the author’s work.

  • SimonNorwich

    Some journalists (not Nick) would do well to read the comments under their articles, because they keep producing articles spouting the same nonsense without ever seeming to be aware that their arguments have been thoroughly trounced a thousand times over. The more they ignore the easy counter arguments, the more stupid they look. Cristina Odone springs to mind.

    • Swanky

      C. Odone is constantly vilified, and the few times I’ve read her and the comments beneath, I’ve never understood why.

      • SimonNorwich

        Because, for example, she keeps claiming over and over again that Christians are being persecuted in Britain. It is pointed out to her in the comments under her articles, and in counter-articles by other journalists that (a) Christians are simply losing SOME of their long-held privileges over other groups, while still maintaining enormous privileges (such as unelected representation in parliament) and (b) some of the “privileges” she moans about losing are in fact what she sees as an exclusive right for Christians to persecute other people! I have never seen her respond to any of these points. She just keeps repeating the same nonsense.

        • Swanky

          If you mean that some of the more serious Christians have trouble being postmodern relativists and warmed-over socialists, I think she’s right. I say that as a lifelong atheist, by the way.

          • SimonNorwich

            Do you mean that Christians are now being denied the right to be mean and bigoted towards other people, which is what Cristina argues, although she doesn’t phrase it so honestly, of course?

            • Swanky

              I wonder whether you’ve ever considered that Leftists can be ‘bigots’, too — and often are.

              • SimonNorwich

                Please could you give some specific examples of what you’re talking about. I’ll then be able to comment.

                • Swanky

                  It would be easier if I left a few out! The Left is very intolerant of views it does not share or endorse, with respect to say recycling, climate change, abortion, taxpayer-funded mandated healthcare, the status of marriage, crime and punishment, how to handle immigration, rates of taxation, what is healthy patriotism…. You see my point. We could be here all day. Leftists tolerate diversity of opinion as long as the opinion is their own. They are misnamed ‘liberal’ because they are very often illiberal in wanting to shut down debate and censor opponents who have arguments they can’t counter. (Leftism is a highly emotional political attachment: feelings matter most, even when they are untutored and result in policies that cause more harm than the good they seek.)

                • SimonNorwich

                  Not really sure who you mean by “leftists”. (I’d describe myself as a liberal.) There’s a big difference between wanting to express an opinion – which liberals like myself would not object to – and wanting to discriminate against people, which is what Cristina Odone wants to do. She is entitled to her opinions, that doesn’t mean she gets her way. Ultimately, we can decide who gets their way through the ballot box.

                • Swanky

                  Sure, as long as there aren’t ‘llberals’ blocking access, tampering with votes, disappearing them, voting twice, and so forth. (In America, the biggest electoral frauds and cheats are demonstrably Leftists/liberals/a certain party beginning with D.)

                  And: if only ‘liberals’ had as much respect for the ballot as you apparently do. Mostly the ballots don’t go their way, and so they resort to rulings from the bench, a.k.a. judicial activism, which is not only a corruption of the judiciary’s role but a direct attack on democracy.

                • SimonNorwich

                  Sorry, I know nothing about the electoral frauds that you allege, so I can’t really comment on that.

                • Swanky

                  It’s not alleged, it’s a proven fact. Leftists cheat. Regularly. In all manner of ways. They impersonate dead people. They bribe homeless people and others to vote. They make sure military ballots don’t go out in time and/or don’t make it safely back (military voters are often conservative). They let Black Panthers intimidate voters outside polling stations and do nothing about it. They slash the tires on buses that Republicans have put aside to get elderly Republicans to polls. They count dimples on butterfly ballots as ‘genuine’ votes. And on it goes.

                • SimonNorwich

                  It should be easy to catch them. Basically, we’re looking for people dressed as zombies in Black Panther uniforms, brandishing large knives while handing out wads of cash to bums on the street in front of the TV cameras.

                • Swanky

                  Right, I think that shows your level of seriousness. Everything I said is common knowledge. Google it.

                  Basically, the Left has no arguments, and you’ve just shown that, yet again.

                • SimonNorwich

                  You may well be referring to some genuine cases of fraud by supporters of one particular party in one particular country, but that does absolutely nothing to demonstrate that “leftists” or liberals in general are likely to engage in electoral fraud, or any more likely than followers of other parties. In any case, all of this is deviating from the discussion.

        • Fedup Voter

          I agree with Swanky on this I don’t always agree with C. Odone but she can make some good points. Even as an atheist, I do take her point about Christianity being under attack in the UK relative to other faiths. Too many attack Christianity in a way that simply would be jumped on by the law if applied to some other religions. The failing in her articles, to my mind, is that she doesn’t make that point explicit.

          • SimonNorwich

            I’m not sure what these attacks against Christians in the UK are, unless you are simply referring to the very things I mentioned (i.e. that just some of the privileges that Christians have held for centuries are being diminished). Christians are still better off than other groups because they still hold enormous privileges, especially in parliament and the state education system, and I struggle to think of any area where they may be at a disadvantage to any other groups.

  • sfin

    Interesting reading…But at what point does someone wishing to take issue with the writer’s viewpoint become a troll?

    We used to have an innate sense of these things (I believe they were once called ‘manners’) when we lived in a society where all adults educated all children in the natural functions of a lot of humans living in an, increasingly smaller space, without killing each other. We used to point out the difference between right and wrong and, most importantly, we used to give our children boundaries, with consequences of stepping outside of those boundaries. Children then learnt concepts called ‘politeness’, ‘altruism’, ‘self discipline’ and ‘tolerance’…

    …but I digress…Seriously – now that our ‘developed world’ governments have decided that a regression in human evolution is a good thing – what’s to be done?

  • HenryWood

    The above could be summed up in two sentences:

    “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” – George Bernard Shaw

    • Twm Owen

      Shame Nick won’t look below the line and see how he could have saved all that time and effort.

  • mattghg

    Rod Liddle is right-wing?

    • HenryWood

      You just beat me to it. Shum mishtake …

      • rodliddle

        yes, piss off, Cohen.

        • HenryWood

          Oi! Get your hand off his knee!

        • Fencesitter

          Blundy is a Rod Liddle-style pundit: right wing, prejudiced and a
          perennial picker of fights, but also compelling and honest in his way.
          Hannah makes clear that the names of possible killers could fill the
          rest of her book.

          Rod, would you consider yourself to be a Rod Liddle-style pundit?

          • Fencesitter

            Prior to reading this piece, I had always bracketed Messrs Cohen and Liddle together in the following respect: principled left-wingers happy to write for right-of-centre audiences in The Spectator (and the Sun, in Rod’s case).

            Both are brilliant writers who, in their own distinct ways, show that the Left-Right axis is often less than helpful. They are also strong defenders of individual freedom and rightly wary of the power of the state.

            Let’s hope they soon kiss and make up, eh readers?

          • rodliddle

            No, I like to see myself as a Nick Cohen-style pundit.

            • Fencesitter

              Characterised as…

            • Sean Lamb

              “No, I like to see myself as a Nick Cohen-style pundit.”
              What, vicious and hateful?

              Nick Cohen never saw a bombing campaign he didn’t like. He is a kind of a useful guide as to which a position on any given issue not to take.

        • Nigel Tipple

          Seems a reasonable response, well argued, coherent and pithy. I wonder if Mr Rioja was involved?

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