Smearing people is wrong (mostly)

I don’t know about you, but in all the coverage of the unappealing McBride/Draper Smeargate nonsense, at least one thing was reassuringly clear: the press is totally, completely opposed to harmful insinuations that damage the reputations of public figures. Well, obviously, there’ll be times when newspapers report unsubstantiated and embarrassing allegations about the shadow chancellor’s wife – or, as you might say if you were feeling uncharitable, repeats and publicises them, making them even more destructive. But what are newsrooms supposed to do apart from churn out this sort of thing?

And then there are some times when it’s just really, really important to come up with something bad to say about someone. In the interests of balance. Like, say, if that someone is Nick Davies, author of a study of the endemic distortions and corruptions in the British press, and you happen to be a journalist on one of the distorting and corrupt papers. Then it’s basically essential that you ring him up and tell him you’re going to publish some “grotesque sexual smear” about a wife he doesn’t even have. Otherwise, how are you going to defend the honour of your paper as a reliable organ of responsible newsgathering?

Then, there are the people who might not have actively attacked your newspaper, but have somehow slighted you. Such as Nicola Fisher, who employed Max Clifford to represent her after being twatted in the face by riot police, and went on to give interviews to the Northern And Shell newspapers. With Nicola sitting on the front covers of the Star and the Express, it would be frankly remiss for Sun and the Mail to fail to say something nasty about her.

It can be something really simple: just drawing attention to the Clifford connection and throwing some scare quotes on phrases like “victim”, “hit” and “anti-capitalist” goes a long way to suggest that Fisher might really just be a violent opportunist who’s drawn on the baton-bruise with eyeliner. Or you could go big like the Mail and put together a balls-out character assassination:

Mail attack piece on Nicola FisherThat extract appears in search results for “Nicola Fisher” on the Mail website, although if you click on the link it redirects to the index, suggesting that the story has now been withdrawn. Not that it matters: the story did its bit to spike the opposition’s exclusive, and it set the tone for the reporting on Fisher, which includes beautiful examples like this column in the Yorkshire Post from Bill Carmichael, setting up Fisher as a punchable harpy. “If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did”, says Carmichael, pleased that law and order is free to do the important work of, um, silencing people he disagrees with by hitting them.

Smearing, then: totally harmful to the body politic and a dangerous exploitation of journalism. Just imagine what the papers would be saying about Osborne, Davies and Fisher if one of them had been involved in anything as disgraceful as smearing.

9 thoughts on “Smearing people is wrong (mostly)

  1. Oh, Christ, that Post column is a disgrace. It’s properly extraordinary, not just for all the hate and partiality, but for the manic inconsistency:

    “It is important to grasp that the whole point of these demonstrations is the violence. They are the middle-class equivalent of the football ruck. That’s why from Seattle, to Copenhagen, to Melbourne, to Davos, to Genoa, to London, not one of these protests has been peaceful.”

    And three idiot single-line paras later:

    “There were remarkably few serious injuries and besides the routine trashing of the Royal Bank of Scotland, very little damage.”

    I’m trying to be articulate but also am furious and want to swear.

  2. Good one Sarah – please, never stop picking at the scab that fails to protect the wounds of our society, whilst positing itself as our champion.

  3. Don’t forget that it’s also useful to co-operate with the police when they feel they need to smear someone they just killed, or otherwise distort the picture.

    We all know about the heavy-coat-wearing, turnstile-vaulting visa-breaking Brazilian and the child-porn collecting Forest Gate resident, not to mention the unfortunately located heart attack victim the other week

  4. That post article is indeed a piece of work, and not a good one…

    Crowds do funny things to people, I don’t like the dynamic of protests as it is so easy for the mood to turn into an us v them situation where both sides dehumanise the other, respect goes out the window and a few end up letting themselves and everyone there down.

    Still, it sells plenty of papers and gives the 24 hour news stations something to do; we have to think of keeping the employment figures up in these trying time.

  5. “Crowds do funny things to people, I don’t like the dynamic of protests as it is so easy for the mood to turn into an us v them situation where both sides dehumanise the other, respect goes out the window and a few end up letting themselves and everyone there down.”

    I think you have to be careful saying this. I mean, it’s true, but it has connotations in a discussion about police brutality. Like if you were discussing systematic, institutional child abuse, you’d have to be careful about saying that “the behaviour of some children lets the rest down”. It’s true. It’s just that choosing to mention it at that moment implies certain things… unless you are very, very careful.

    It’s easy to get sucked into the swoony arsepiss that “balance” always involves raising “both sides” of things like this. It’s this kind of “professionalism” which turns the “news” into ludicrous, farcical entertainment. As if being “objective” involves taking “officials” seriously, no matter how stupid they’re being. Like when Jon Snow has to turn to Shami Chakrabarti and ask, with a straight face, “But are human rights more important than preventing crime?”.

    We don’t get to select the public. It includes everyone, good and bad, weak and strong, smart and stupid. That’s WHY we need police, who we SELECT and expect to ALL behave with the utmost integrity. When they cross the line into criminal behaviour, the mere suggestion of mitigating circumstances is offensive. We expect higher standards of them. By and large we get those higher standards but, when they fail to protect the public, including from other police, they really ARE letting everyone down.

  6. That will teach to write out vague ideas in a public place where people read properly and of course you are entirely correct.

    There is no room for manoeuvre on the issue of Police brutality, there is an expected standard of behaviour and there is no excuse for this disproportional response.

    My point was really a reaction to the post piece’s weirdly shifting tones and the dream that there might be a middle ground where you can consider a balanced point of view.

    Having been on the fringes of these things as a politics student I can sort of understand the inclination/fear involved in these confrontational situations leading to an impulse to use a violent response on either side but actually acting on that impulse is abhorrent to me, and even more so (if that’s possible) from the so called upholders of the law.

    Of course I’m a woolly minded liberal who obviously needs to work on the presentation of his ideas but it’s nice to be challenged constructively.

  7. It is just a quick hop and a skip from the Sun’s use of quote marks in
    G20 cop ‘victim’ and G20 cop ‘hits’ woman
    as if we can’t see her being clobbered on the video, to the Post’s “violence” stuff, isn’t it?

    Well made point about smears, Sarah.

  8. “you are entirely correct”

    This is the first time anyone’s ever said that on the internet :)

    Sorry.. I jumped on what was obviously a casual comment… but I’m a sucker for arguing on the interwebs.

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