The language of hate

Express columnist Jimmy Young praised the BBC’s decision to invite Nick Griffin onto Question Time:

The BNP is not going to quietly fold its tents and disappear, so surely it is better to allow it to subject its policies to open debate and questioning after which, as the BBC rightly says: “Our audiences, and the electorate, will make up their own minds about the different policies offered by elected politicians.”

The Express, “Jimmy Young: Why BBC’s decision to include BNP will be judged as wise”

Funnily enough, Young managed to write the whole of that column without slipping in a reference to how despicable he considers the BNP to be – leaving readers to draw the conclusion that the BBC will appear “courageous and wise” not because it has contributed to the undermining of far-right politics, but because it has given a platform to a rising moment.

The latter explanation requires the reader to accept that a national newspaper is willing to espouse racist extremism, which seems implausible unless you’re actually looking at a copy of the Express, where today’s headline (“KEEP OUT, BRITAIN IS FULL UP”) is a BNP slogan. Tabloid news feeds public appetite for racist politics, and the language of racist politics feeds back into the news.

Earlier today, I was reading Sarah Hartley on applying the “socially useless” test to journalism, but a front page like the Express’ is not anodyne uselessness. It’s pure harm, driving hatred and dehumanisation. And its existence undermines any arguments that newspapers may make for their own indispensability.

**Edit** This post wasn’t really supposed to be about the QT issue, but as the comments have swarmed on that point, I might as well quote Chris Dillow on why Question Time isn’t going to provide the crushing scrutiny some of the commenters below seem to be hoping for:

But this runs into Paul Sagar’s objection – that QT is not a platform for debate but merely a zoo in which soundbites are vomited into an audience who clap like hyperactive seals. There’s a danger that Nick Griffin could actually emerge well from such a show. His imbecile beliefs lend themselves better to cheap slogans than do arguments in favour of immigration – especially as viewers have been primed by the trash media to give credence to such beliefs, and as his opponents are likely to be discredited ministers who lack the courage to make the case for immigration. Indeed, as Bart Cammaerts notes, Belgian experience suggests the far right does gain votes as it gets media coverage.

Stumbling and Mumbling, “The BNP and our sick democracy”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Sell sell sell

Up until the recent recession, it was advertisers who paid for most of your news. Not all of it – the cover price of the newspaper covered some of the costs, and of course there’s the BBC – but publishing was able to be a truly profitable business because of advertisers paying for access to readers. And the more trusted and reputable the journal, the more valuable it could be as a vehicle to advertisers.

Why does your English let you down?

Some of the most successful ads piggyback on a newspaper’s style like mutating parasites, to borrow even more of the hosts authoritative gloss. Earlier this week, the Guardian celebrated the “Does your English let you down?” ad, which has been running pretty much continuously for almost 50 years. “Initially the reader thinks it’s part of editorial,” says Bob Heap of the Practical English Programme: “We used to match the typefaces of the newspaper it was printed in.”

Advertisers can also pay for a newspaper or magazine to produce ad copy in the house style of the journal – advertorial. Whenever this appears, it should always be clearly marked out from the editorial, both to avoid misleading the reader and to protect the paper or magazine’s reputation from corruption. In Free, Chris Anderson compares this approach to the relevance practiced in online ads – which deliberately places ads next to content on the same subject – and wonders whether print editors are over-punctilious about distinguishing ads from editorial:

It’s also entirely possible that we in the traditional media business have it all wrong.Perhaps we are just flattering ourselves with our church-and-state pursuit of purity, and readers don’t care or even notice if a Sony ad is next to a Sony review. Perhaps they would even prefer that and it’s our writers who are the real obstacles, afraid that anyone might think that their opinion has been bought.

Chris Anderson, Free (Random House Business, 2009), pp. 138-9

What’s interesting is that Anderson doesn’t place any value on ad/ed separation as a way of preventing influence, only as a way of preventing the appearance of influence: as far as he’s concerned here, if the reader doesn’t perceive a problem, then there is no problem.

Advertisers, on the other hand, are very conscious of a relationship between the ad and the copy. The presence of illegitimate, ramshackle and unwholesome material has been cited as one of the reasons for the reluctance to sponsor YouTube; the same caution might be about to be extended to newspaper comments sections, as advertisers weigh up the high engagement seen in unmoderated comments sections with the fact that most of the engagement is with racist, vituperative loons.

But just because advertisers seem to agree with some of the principle behind the “Great Wall of China” which Anderson describes, they don’t all necessarily agree with his idea of best practice – and nor do all newspapers, it turns out, since the Express has been nailed by the ASA for running specious “news” copy on a bunch of dubious-sounding CAM treatments alongside adverts for the same products:

The ASA said the articles were “always and uniquely favourable to the product featured in the accompanying ads and contained claims that have been or would be likely to be prohibited in advertisements”.

“We considered that the average reader would have understood the entire page to be a feature on the product, no matter the distinct styles of the top and bottom of the pages,” said the ASA in its ruling.

“We considered that by using that approach the publisher and advertiser were intentionally attempting to circumvent the [advertising] code by asserting the top of the pages were not advertising.”

The Guardian, “ASA raps Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers over advertorials”

(Interesting, as ever, that it falls to the ASA rather than the PCC to correct a practice in which the paper appears to be as culpable as the advertisers.)

Advertising still needs editorial, and editorial needs advertising as much as ever, but they can only have any value to each other if both maintain a basic propriety: whatever financial gain the Express and their advertisers took from this arrangement has probably been wiped out by the loss of reputation both parties brought upon themselves.

Edit 19 August: The ASA’s full judgement is here.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Desmond “ground into dust”: what is a proprietor’s sweep?

dust by serdalRichard Desmond’s libel case looks pretty baffling. There’s no perplexity over him losing – the passage of Tom Bower’s book over which Desmond sued is brief, factual, and (as Private Eye points out) showed that Desmond’s Express was correct in its reporting of Condrad Black’s precarious finances. What’s confusing is that he brought it at all.

Part of the motivation, according to Bower’s defence, is pride: “Mr Desmond is here because he wants to tell the world that he’s not a wimp.” (All quotes from the trial are taken from Private Eye’s brilliant report, no. 2141, p. 9.) But another motivation would be to suppress the (tacit, and you might think obviously true) assertion in the Bower book that proprietors influence content or use their papers to attack opponents.

“It’s difficult to think of a more defamatory allegation to make against the proprietor a newspaper”, said Desmond’s QC – although the evidence went on to demonstrate that both the Telegraph and the Express were heavily influenced in their editorial by their respective proprietors’ issues with each other.

Testimony from Express media columnist Anil Bhoyrul made it clear that Desmond’s likes and dislikes were imposed more-or-less directly on the newsroom. “Every Sunday the column would come out and I would speak to Martin [Townsend, Sunday Express editor]  usually on a Tuesday, and he would tell me ‘Richard liked the column this week’ or didn’t like it. […] I got a pretty good feel for who, you know, to be positive about and who to be negative about.”

The business of the newspaper business is (mostly) newspapers – so it seems intuitive that proprietors and managers would be at least passingly concerned with what they’re printing. Why, then, is it so easy for an organisation like News International to shrug off the phone hacking issue as a low-level newsroom hiccup? Or, more pertinently for Desmond, for the PCC to convict the Scottish Express of a breach “so serious that no apology could remedy it”, and yet for management to be untouched?

It’s axiomatic that Richard Desmond is a “rogue propietor” and a disgrace to Fleet Street. But in using his newspapers to further his own personal and business interests, he’s doing nothing that’s out of step with his peers. It’s obvious from the libel case that Conrad Black was doing the same; the Murdoch papers’ willingness to hound the Beeb and pimp out Sky is another, less cackhandedly executed, example of people acting in their own best interests (or of employees acting in their own immediate interests by acting according to their employer’s preferences).

Desmond is unpopular. He doesn’t hide his unpleasantness, and he’s made a lot of money out of ladyflesh. But it’s a self-serving fiction for other papers to pretend that he’s worse in kind rather than degree.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Serdal, used under Creative Commons.

And the PCC’s decision is in on the Dunblane splash…

Press Complaints Commission, Adjudication: Ms Mullan, Mr Weir & Ms Campbell v Scottish Sunday Express:

Ms Elizabeth Mullan, Mr Robert Weir & Ms Morag Campbell complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “Anniversary shame of Dunblane survivors”, published in the Scottish Sunday Express on 8 March 2009, intruded into their sons’ private lives in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld. […]

[The boys] had done nothing to warrant media scrutiny, and the images appeared to have been taken out of context and presented in a way that was designed to humiliate or embarrass them. Even if the images were available freely online, the way they were used – when there was no particular reason for the boys to be in the news – represented a fundamental failure to respect their private lives. Publication represented a serious error of judgement on the part of the newspaper.

Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.

And that’s where the judgement ends, because that’s where the PCC’s powers end. But then, we already knew that press self-regulation doesn’t work: if judgements like these had any value, newspapers would avoid them by not publishing cheap, intrusive, salacious pieces in the first place. The PCC is right at least that an apology can’t remedy the damage already done. It’s also highly unlikely to dissuade future journalists from commiting more damage of the same kind.

(I originally blogged here on the Express’ Dunblane story and the reaction to it.)

© Sarah Ditum 2009.

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.

Taking offence

I got pulled up in the comments earlier (actually, I got pulled up twice, but one thing at a time):

Great post, but I have a slight issue with this though…

“Won’t regulate itself or answer to its public”

I see what you mean in relation to Express/Dunblane, but that line sounds a lot like the same charges that are levied at stuff like Chris Morris. Agree the regulators are fail, but working out who gets to decide what’s okay and what’s not is quite the shit sandwich to chomp on.

As I might have mentioned on this blog, I’m quite keen on explicit and potentially offensive material, and consequently pretty anti most censorship. But then, if the Press Complaints Commission was able to regulate anything, I don’t think censorship would be an issue: it should be possible to deal with journalistic process without touching on questions of taste. And as well as liking the big swears and dirty bits, I’m pretty hot for people being able to complain when they don’t what they see.

Unlike the PCC, Ofcom is an institution that does a decent job of making complaints heard. Tim mentioned Chris Morris: I’d have been almost disappointed if nobody complained about Paedoggedon. I don’t think any of the complaints Ofcom investigated were justified, but the programme covered a delicate subject and people found that distressing. The actual judgement itself is an elegant thing, combining an understanding of satire with consideration for the complainers. Even Mediawatch armchair reactionaries deserve that much sometimes. Even when they’re utterly, miserably wrong.

The PCC don’t offer anything close to that level of engagement. Even though newspaper editors frantically stress the importance of the press in scrutinising public life, their self-regulatory body is massively reluctant to consider reporting in the context of any sort of lofty civic purpose. Even when addressing a case where the press had obviously and callously infringed justice and privacy, like the reporting of the McCanns, the PCC only reflects on its ability to wring apologies out of malefactors and doesn’t touch on the problem with a press that produced that sort of journalism in the first place. And that narrowness of scope is compounded by the minutely constrained range of complaints they’re willing to examine in the first case. So, even though the press claims many of its freedoms on the basis that it’s serving a public interest, the PCC won’t follow up on complaints from the actual public.

The willingness of the PCC to cut the Northern And Shell titles (the Express, Star and OK) loose becaue “rogue proprietor” Desmond won’t pay his subs shows how intensely useless self-regulation can be. It works for the rest of the press to be able to declare these papers outcasts – but for the people who are harassed, slandered or misrepresented by Desmond’s titles, the only alternative to the PCC is court. And while the Press Gazette notes that this will mean “additional costs” for the papers, it doesn’t mention that this will also mean prohibitive expense for complainants, fewer complaints and less restitution. Brilliant!

Anyway, while I’m doing Chris Morris, Northern And Shell, criticism of the press and failed journalistic responses, here’s a treasure from history: the Star condemns Brass Eye and splashes on a teenager’s tits.


The Express is a rotten lover

Scottish Express Dunblane apologyThe Express has said sorry to the people of Dunblane. Well, barely. The apology acknowledges that story was “undeniably inappropriate”, although it doesn’t say why: maybe the feeling in the Express newsroom is that they just had a lapse of taste in picking the wrong subjects for an exposé. There’s no mention here of invasion of privacy or public interest – both key principles which ought to be respected by any paper which expects to be protected as a democratic institution – although there’s room to stress that “nobody was misquoted”, if that makes you feel better. There’s no mention of all the ways in which the front page could have been used better, no apology for the genuine reporting and truly revealing journalism which has been trampled on by crass splashes like this one.

Readers of the Express: your paper is sorry that you’re offended. The Express thinks it’s having a love affair with its readers (really: someone thought that the best way to deal with this was to sexualise the relationship between paper and reader), and now the paper has caused upset and offence and distress, it’s sorry you feel that way. Well, Express, if you really want to run with that metaphor, newspapers are probably more like prostitutes than lovers. And I’d suggest to any Express readers that you really shouldn’t be paying for this sort of treatment.