Two days ago, we published a piece entitled Lentils and lager: why we forgive tax evaders but not benefit claimants by Jilly Luke about the media portrayal of benefit claimants. It has generated quite a storm, and received over 8,000 hits in 48 hours, more than any other article on this site. It argued that the few occasions when claimants are treated as “deserving poor” are where the image presented is one with which the middle classes could identify. A similar equation of taste with morality also explains middle class sympathy with or forgiveness of tax evaders.
The case on which this argument was constructed was Jack Monroe who, as a 24-year old unemployed single mother, turned to blogging after reading an article in her local paper by a Tory councillor entitled Druggies, drunks and single mums driving upmarket shops out of Southend. As well as being an effective advocate for those struggling to live in poverty, she produced an ever-expanding set of recipes to help others eat well and healthily on inadequate resources, and has since won a well-deserved book contract. The quality of her blogging was applauded by the Guardian which described her as the face of modern poverty.
Although the Left Futures article initially received positive recommendations on Twitter, Jack Monroe took strong exception to it, as she is of course entirely entitled to do. In a piece originally entitled Dear Jilly Luke, I tried to top myself six months ago in my Beatrix Potter cosy poverty, she described the piece as “outright lies and misrepresentation”. Readers should read the piece in full rather than rely on my interpretation but, above all, she objected to one phrase in Jilly Luke’s article: “the cosy frugality of a Beatrix Potter book” which was used to describe her version of poverty – that of the deserving poor” – as judged by the Daily Mail and other Tory media commentators.
My strong view is that this was based on a misinterpretation of Jilly Luke’s article. Jilly used the first person to represent the view of the mainstream media which some comments say was confusing but the context made Jilly’s intent very clear, such as the opening paragraph’s statement “We’re sick of scrounging… because the Daily Mail tells us to be.” Readers should make their own judgement on that.
However, I readily concede that wherever there is misinterpretation, both the author and the publisher should concede, at the very least, the possibility that they may have contributed to that misinterpretation by being insufficiently clear. In addition, if offence has been caused as a result of a misinterpretation for which we are, at least in part, responsible, we should be prepared to apologise for that offence. Readers deserve an explanation for the fact that we have not apologised.
I can see why Jack Monroe disliked the phrase “the cosy frugality of a Beatrix Potter book,” and the statement that she had been “judged lightly” (which was a reference to the Daily Mail’s judgement of her as “deserving” compared with their judgement of most claimants) when she understandably feels that she too has been judged very harshly by the media.
What Jack Monroe then did was to take the full force of the very powerful voice given its best expression in her piece Hunger Hurts , throw in a reference to her attempted suicide, and throw it at Jilly Luke, whom she declared guilty, not of inadequate clarity of argument but of “outright lies and misrepresentation” – “Dear Jilly Luke, I tried to top myself six months ago in my Beatrix Potter cosy poverty” – then tweeting it to her 12000+ followers. Her piece was extremely powerful and well written but, in my view, a direct attack on Jilly Luke and a completely disproportionate response written in obvious anger.
There followed a torrent of abuse directed against Jilly Luke from Jack Monroe’s numerous and loyal readers and Twitter followers. Because of the tone and vehemence of her attack on Jilly, Jack is at least partly responsible for this abuse, especially that which she permits to be published on her own website such as:
Spot on. We’re dignifying what is basically a pile of cow pats from a very silly moo” (Clare)
A splendid and heartbreaking demolition of what sounds like a dreadful and viciously stupid article (I can’t read the original even if I wanted to as their site appears to be down – hopefully as the result of lots of people letting them know what they think of this Jilly Luke individual). Don’t let people like her get to you, Jack. You’re doing a fantastic thing and you have WAY many more supporters than detractors. Which is why the bitter, callous, deeply un-empathetic and stupid Jilly Luke of the world are trying to drag you down. Don’t let ‘em!” (Jon)
The tweets were worse and those comments on the Jilly’s article which have not been published (mainly because they contain offensive language or personal attacks) are worse still. For example:
You are a disgusting, vile and jealous human being. What Jack has managed is amazing and she is an economical queen that has helped thousands of people eat well on a budget. You come off as bitter and uneducated.
We don’t publish abusive comments or personal attacks on Left Futures. The sort of comment and tweet published above have no part to play in political discussion. Being the object of that abuse is deeply unpleasant and Jilly Luke has done nothing to warrant the abuse that Jack Monroe has unintentionally stirred up.
I think Jack Monroe now realises that Jilly Luke has become a victim of internet abuse. In an email exchange on Sunday with Jilly, she admitted she responded angrily and (without a hint of remorse) added:
I wasn’t just responding to the Left Futures piece, I was responding to every Daily Mail commenter that said something similar, every piece of hate mail that said I was too pretty to be poor, and every similar comment since before this all began.
Following that and yesterday’s editorial addendum clarifying Jilly’s article, she has changed the title of her blog to something relatively anodyne and now makes no reference to Jilly at all. But the accusations in the text and all her tweets remain unchanged, as do the comments.
Jilly referred to Jack Monroe because she stood apart from most claimants as someone who was acknowledged by the right-wing media as a strong articulate ‘presentable’ voice with whom their readers could identify, as someone ‘successfully coping’ on benefits. The mention was justified and, in my view,- nothing that could reasonably be regarded or understood as a personal attack was said. Though the clarity of argument could perhaps have been improved, the context is clear enough. The vitriol Jilly has experienced is in support of Jack’s response, not to the content of her original article. And Jack’s response, as she has now admitted, was in fact an angry response to many things other than Jilly’s article though it directed entirely at Jilly.
I hope that is enough said about this regrettable row. As Jack has said, we are on the same side in opposing the government’s wilful disregard of the plight of so many living in poverty in Britain. That’s what Jack, Jilly and Left Futures all want to change.
Comments are welcome provided that they conform with our comments policy. Any comments making personal attacks or containing abuse will simply be deleted.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-partner=”tweetdeck”><p><a href=”https://twitter.com/jonlansman”>@jonlansman</a> But I think we're on the same side: I use the platform I have to talk TO the middle about gritty nasty realities of poverty.</p>— A Girl Called Jack (@MsJackMonroe) <a href=”https://twitter.com/MsJackMonroe/statuses/371983574687563776″>August 26, 2013</a></blockquote>
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