Oh, Laurie, you just don't do irony, do you?

Laurie Penny has a right not to suffer an extreme level of abuse that breaks the law. But when she makes a career of provocation, she has to accept that abuse comes with the territory

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Stalin? Mao? No, that's just Laurie Penny
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Jonathan Bracey Gibbon
On 2 February 2012 15:44

Last week she was on top form again on Channel 4 News, splenetic with rage over the fact that David Lammy MP has raised the thorny issue of smacking children in the context of the riots.

In full agit-munchkin mode, Laurie squealed with outrage that a Labour MP could 'boast about hitting a three year old'. Her cheeks vibrating as she warmed to her theme, as ever combining her keen brain with a feisty turn of phrase, she quickly turned a discussion into a war zone. As parents up and down the land fantasised about landing six of the best on Laurie's backside, you wondered what on Earth she was doing there, and why the C4 News bookers had eschewed a parent from the Left for a Cartman in knickers.

She is nothing if not hard to miss and very much in your face, as two-brains discovered to his cost, and it's a schtick designed to enrage at which she is brilliant. But she is no different from any number of high profile commentators, all of whom regularly endure varying degrees of vitriolic online abuse.

As has been posited elsewhere, the issue is the anonymity inherent in most new media interaction, which is why Whelan outed Laurie's cyber assailant. But, I dare say, were he to extend the same favour to any right-winger, on Question Time alone, Whelan would require a staff the size of a Government department. Double it, if Melanie Phillips is on.

But this form of anonymous abuse isn't always from inebriated students, crazed anarchists or Johann Hari.

Recently, Shamik Das, editor of Left Foot Forward tweeted 'Is there anyone as vile as @James Delingpole?' This, in response to a blog which had the temerity to question the financial cost of a quarter of the adult population being qualified disabled. Now James gets a fair bit of this sort of stuff because he makes driving liberals mad part of his raison d'être. And he's really rather good at it. Clearly the abuse comes with the territory.

But is Das issuing clear incitement to hatred here? Or is he hiding behind 'fair comment'? Either way, Delingpole simply retweeted it.

Now according to his LFF biog, Das has 'just passed his NCTJ journalism training course'. Bless. When I was trained (by Marxists, under the shadow of the jackboot of the Thatcher Junta, I'll have you know) our legal training amounted to using 'fair comment' to abuse Tories, Republicans, South Africans, and Israelis, mostly. Plus ca Change.

But it's the hypocrisy that hardens the heart somewhat against Laurie and her ilk.

Only days before she was tearing strips off her co-hate figures, Harry Cole and Paul Staines, implying they actually approved an item of abuse aimed at her on Guido Fawkes. Penny made a perfectly reasonable appearance on Newsnight - notably with Paxo in charge - debating feminism with Louise Mensch MP. It seemed a cordial affair, Mensch smugly patronising Penny, who did herself proud in not taking the bait and providing a measured, thoughtful performance.

But barely minutes after the show's end, Penny herself retweeted a video of a maliciously creepy, Spartist halfwit spewing bile about 'Louisa Munsch' (eh?) being: 'disgusting', 'evil', 'deceitful', 'abhorrent', 'disgusting' - again - and so on. Shot in close-up, his face screwed up in a sneer of genuine hatred, he came across every bit as sinister in his delivery as anything Laurie has had to deal with. Was it incitement to hatred? See for yourselves, it still occupies pride of place on @pennyred. But under the 1997 Act, how could it not be?

That didn't stop Laurie retweeting it to her 36,000 followers. Like many of her ilk, she just doesn't do irony.

I follow Laurie on twitter and find her a source of unending amusement, but also mellowing somewhat. I have tried to engage in a serious vein, with no reply. I marvel at her brass neck in flagrantly not answering questions directly, disingenuousness and inaccuracy in favour of sticking to the rhetoric, in just the very same manner as any seasoned politician is want to do when the going gets tough.

And despite, or maybe because of, her apparent pixie-like qualities, she can be intimidating. A sort of Marxist Chucky who one really wouldn't want to meet on a dark night. Metaphorically speaking of course. Other times she comes across as engaging enough, very much depending on context.

By means of confession, I'm not innocent in tweeting abuse myself, and once found myself, not surprisingly, disagreeing violently with something Yvonne Ridley had tweeted in, shall we say, military-industrial language. I simply can't summon the bile of a liberal, but she upbraided me nonetheless and then proceeded to insult me by return. Fair enough. The exchanges continued, becoming more and more civilised until we wound up chatting about our various experiences at the Express and how she used to enjoy Chardonnay - before conversion of course. Weeks later, after a shocking interview she gave on the Today programme over US funding to the Mujaheddin, I questioned her on her version of the facts but haven't had a reply since…

For good measure I also enjoyed winding up American Christians that took offence at #GodisnotGreat trending on the day Christopher Hitchens died. Oddly, numerous were the truly medieval threats of death from devotees of the Lord.

Laurie Penny has a right not to suffer an extreme level of abuse that breaks the law. But when she makes a career of provocation the likes of which we are seeing weekly, she has to accept that pushing buttons of those who would resort to abuse in the context of media that gifts her an audience, comes with the territory. And nasty and illegal as some of it undoubtedly is, Laurie Penny is far from its only recipient.

Maybe a cup of tea with Mel Phillips? Maybe not…

Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon is a freelance journalist who over the past 15 years has written for The Times, the Financial Times, The Sunday Times and Sunday Express

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