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Giles Coren Exits Twitter, Blaming Owen Jones: Some Notes

From Times columnist Giles Coren:

Yesterday morning, after eleven mostly unhappy and pointless years, I left Twitter.

… a piece in The Times carried a quote from me about a Labour activist and Guardian writer called Owen Jones, whom I didn’t know was gay, that Jones declared on Twitter to be homophobic. He has a million followers. They agreed with him. They piled on.

… But over the weekend Jones’s followers tweeted “we’ve found your address” and yesterday morning a group of them went round to my house, while I was at work, and started haranguing my wife and children.

Thus in one bound, the criticism that Coren received from the target of his “joke” is conveniently re-framed as harassment. The victim narrative has been taken at face value by many on Twitter, with one of Paul Staines’s minions, writing as “Media Guido”, announcing that “Giles Coren has left Twitter after a posse of Owen Jones followers turned up at his house to abuse him and instead found only his wife and children to harangue”.

Taking this as their cue, others now accuse Jones of having orchestrated criticism that apparently escalated into harassment. Toby Young (previously blogged here) Tweeted in reply to Media Guido that “The reason I’m setting up the free speech union is, in part, to protect people like Giles from being bullied and harassed by outrage mobs for making ‘inappropriate’ jokes.” How this “protection” will work in practice is unclear, but presumably it will involve inhibiting the targets of celebrity commentators (whether a rival public figure or a member of the public) from answering back – an indicator of the bad faith behind Young’s pose.

The joke was published in The Times on 31 December; Coren had imagined Jones “becoming a fat old lord… chasing young researchers with tight bottoms up and down the corridors”. Men and women can both have “tight bottoms” that some may find attractive, but Jones is well-known as being gay and it was reasonable to interpret Coren’s focus on this particular anatomical feature as a stereotypical description of predatory and rampant gay lechery. Jones wrote:

Not exactly subtle homophobia being printed by @thetimes, is it? (1) Expect a lot more like this. The election result is being interpreted as a mandate to say anything and everything about minorities – or to end the “yoke of the woke”, as one “moderate” columnist put it. (2)

Others agreed, not because Jones had “declared” this, but because that would seem to be the context. However, as well as saying that he did not know that Jones is gay, Coren also stated on Twitter that his joke was “an old trope about lecherous peers pinching researchers’ arses”. He added that “I’ve never made a homophobic comment in my life”. If we take Coren at his word, then, it was a joke that misfired due to circumstances about the target that were unknown to the joke maker. Fair enough, but Jones has every right to feel aggrieved, even though the “Free Speech” crowd apparently believe he should have kept it to himself rather than use his free speech to respond.

Looking through Twitter, Coren received a number of condemnatory and critical remarks (some of which were crudely abusive) in response to people becoming aware of his public writing, but it was hardly a deluge. One person, a man in Liverpool with 325 followers, Tweeted that “Someone’s published your address”- as far as I can see, this Tweet, which did not get any RTs or “Likes”, appears to be sole basis for the alleged link between Twitter critics and whoever it was who went around to Coren’s home. We know nothing of how big this group was or what the alleged “haranguing” involved, although one right-wing online commentator (the ludicrous Jay Beecher) framed the story as “OWEN Jones Supporters Target Journalist’s WIFE AND KIDS – Vile Left-Wing Thugs Lay Siege To Family Home”.

Jones has since responded to Coren’s new column, stating:

If people went to Coren’s house that’s unacceptable and he should report to the police with my full support. I will never condone intimidation or harassment, and it’s not done in my name. But I won’t apologise for calling out media homophobia or the targeting of minorities. 1/2. Legitimate criticism is not the same as incitement or bullying, and we should all call out bigotry where we find it. 2/2

This is unlikely to appease those who find it useful to amplify Coren’s narrative, and some opponents will deploy a popular obtuse rhetorical pose in which it is asserted that the use of the conjunction “but” following a statement should be understood as indicating that the statement was not really meant, and is about to be qualified away into a more ethically ambiguous position.

Writing on Medium, Jones further notes

Abuse is conflated with ‘politicians being challenged over policies they’ve implemented which affect millions of people’ and ‘journalists having their work scrutinised’.

…I’ve experienced this myself: I’ve been accused of orchestrating ‘pile-ons’ for defending myself against a homophobic ‘joke’ of a Times columnist or sharing the work of an investigative journalist highlighting the links between a pro-water privatisation MP and the private water industry (one twitter user compiled an amusing list of examples, ranging from me challenging someone for celebrating me being abused by fascists to literally just replying to defend myself against bizarre quote tweets, a common occurrence). 


It is relevant to note that Coren has a history of constructing victim narratives that involve distorting what other people have written about him. Earlier last month, his Times column was a justification of crude abuse he had previously hurled at the Guardian‘s Michael White (who wasn’t named) on Twitter, including a grotesque paedo-smear; thus behaviour that is normally condemned in newspapers as the mark of the “vile troll” was here presented as a reasonable reaction when a celebrity is offended by what other people have written about them.

White, as a newspaper diarist, had made several teasing comments suggesting that Coren owes his position in public life to the fact that his father Alan Coren was famous, and this seems to have hit a nerve. Giles Coren framed this as “a man I’d never met, full of rage that I have work at all, blaming it all on my increasingly long dead father”. Coren also referred to

a newspaper article asserting that I had had sexual relations with Ruth Kelly, then the transport secretary, a woman of devout Catholic belief.

However, when I checked the source I found the following:

Someone else tells me that Ruth Kelly went out with Giles Coren, the youthful hereditary humourist, when they were both pupils at Westminster School…

There is no “assertion” here, and “sexual relations” in Coren’s version is obviously meant to imply an adult sexually consummated affair rather than teenage dating. Such a deliberate distortion indicates we should regard his claims of mistreatment with caution.