Bully for The Observer

The Observer did a good launch. The redesign is subtle, efficient and readable – and, as Jeremy Leslie says, it benefits from cutting away a lot of the excess sections. A Sunday paper that doesn’t leave me with a depressing jumble of unread newsprint to scrunch into the recycling come Monday? That’s something I might actually buy semi-regularly.

But it’s not just what The Observer team were selling: it’s how they sold it. Securing the Rawnsley extract for the relaunch meant that The Observer was dominating news coverage for the whole weekend. Anyone who was likely to buy a newspaper on Sunday would have known that The Observer was offering an agenda-setting story, and had to consider buying it.

A few people think it was wrong to print Rawnsley’s analysis of Brown. I don’t: The Observer isn’t the house journal of the Labour party, and “Prime Minister is a bully” is absolutely newsworthy. So, good for the paper, and probably not that bad for Brown. After all, it’s hardly a surprise if powerful men have volatile tempers. People who already thought that Brown was a cracked paranoiac will take this as confirmation; people who feel better disposed to him will see it as an unfairly exaggerated portrait, sweetened by Rawnsley account of Brown’s creditable reaction to the banking crisis in 2008.

Anyway, regardless of Rawnsley’s terribly civic minded editorial about how the voters have a right to know the character of their leaders, all the stabbing-a-chair-with-a-Biro, was-a-bit-rude-to-a-typist stuff is gossip and scandal. Interesting, but not exactly the stuff of poll booth conversions – general elections aren’t referendums on the sort of workplace environment the No 10 staff should enjoy, and if it was, we’d be a nation of vicious sadists to offer Andy Coulson to the Garden Girls instead of Brown.

Thanks to Christine Pratt and the mysterious intervention of the now-imploding National Bullying Helpline (ace exposé work done by Adam Bienkov), the bully-Brown story was too smudgy to leave an impression by dawn today anyway. It did its weekend work, and now it’s been sucked into the rolling narrative of unstable PM/aggrieved statesman (depending on where you stand) that’s pretty much guaranteed to continue until Brown steps aside to become a cheerful economics professor or whatever he has planned for afterwards. And if NBH is discredited off the back of this, the BBC has taken a hit too for its credulous reporting of a dubious source.

When the next round of polling comes out, I’d guess that Rawnsley’s revelations will have done relatively little to affect the relative standing of the Tories and Labour – and had a much, much bigger impression on his paper’s launch circulation. The Observer did a good launch. And that’s probably all the bullying story comes to.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Shameful, disrepectful… No, wait, actually it’s just a mistake

sun typo apologyAnd so to bed for The Sun’s Brown-baiting, as it turns out that it’s quite easy to make a spelling mistake – even when you’re using a keyboard and have a newsroom full of eyes. Any suggestion that, by mis-spelling Ms Janes’ name, The Sun has displayed shocking insensitivity to a grieving mother and a brutal disregard for her dead son would, of course, be mistaken.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Grab via @tom_watson.

Intrusion, part two

Gordon BrownThe Janes family weren’t the only ones to be exposed by The Sun’s attacks on the PM. Gordon Brown was the unwilling subject of an especially unpleasant kind of scrutiny – including having his phone call recorded and republished by The Sun. At the Currybet blog, Martin Belam thinks this is a likely contravention of clause 10 of the PCC code, which forbids the interception of private communications:

I’ve no doubt that the contents of the call were of interest to the public, but it seems to me that one side of the phone call is someone attempting to make an apology for their visual disability causing them to have poor handwriting, in a phone call they had every expectation at the time of being private. It would have been possible for The Sun to report on the conversation without publishing a transcript, and it would certainly have been possible to report on the story without publishing a recording of the call in full on the paper’s website.

Currybet, “PM’s private call published by The Sun, but PCC has no interest in a ‘public interest’ debate”

Belam has taken his concerns to the PCC, and predictably been told that, as he isn’t the prime minister, there’s nothing the PCC can do. I suspect that in any case, as the phone call to Mrs Janes was made in the course of Brown’s public duties as head of government, The Sun could argue that the expectation of privacy doesn’t apply – in the same way it was argued that Alan Duncan’s “on rations” comments were fair game for Heydon Prowse to record and distribute.

But intercepting a phone call to entrap one (sincerely apologetic) party in the conversation is in pretty bad taste – and besides, isn’t it a practice that News International has put behind it? After Nick Davies’ reports for The Guardian earlier this year on the pervasive use of the black arts on the NOTW and Sun, the PCC produced a report this week which assured the public that:

Despite the manner in which the Guardian’s allegations were treated in some quarters – as if they related to current or recent activity – there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing. The Commission is satisfied that – so far as it is possible to tell – its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area.

PCC, “PCC report on phone message tapping allegations”

Improving its integrity. Raising its standards. By running a personal apology from one bereaved parent to another on the front page. Well done, The Sun.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Getting the ok to intrude

Brown condolence letterThe PCC code warns that “In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.” But in some cases, the distressed and bereaved will have reasons for actively welcoming publicity – and Jacqui Janes appears to be one such case. The mother of a guardsman killed on duty in Afghanistan, she is grieving and angry over her son’s death, and those feelings have been compounded by what she feels to be the offensively illiterate way in which Gordon Brown wrote to express his condolences.

Up until this, I didn’t know that Brown was handwriting letters to the families of fallen soldiers. And personally –despite many misgivings I have about the way the government has managed the war in Afghanistan – this makes me think better of Brown. He appears to experience his responsibility to bereaved families deeply. But I understand why Ms Janes would feel differently on receiving what she considers a deeply inadequate letter.

What I don’t understand is how Dominic Mohan can justify making a spectacle of one family’s grief. Loss of a child is a dreadful, crushing thing – and however cathartic it might be to attack the government responsible for that death, grieving in public can be a cruel process. In the worst cases, people can become fixed as professional mourners, and the process of recovery is made horribly protracted. That’s why the PCC’s guidelines on intrusion into shock and grief are there, and every publicity approach from a bereaved family ought to be handled with huge tact and discretion. It doesn’t work like that, but it should.

It seems unpleasantly likely that The Sun has consciously recruited the Janes to the paper’s anti-Brown cause at a time when the family is deeply distressed. Publicising the reaction to the letter is one thing; encouraging Ms Janes to act the reporter and challenge Brown when he rang to apologise is something else. I hope that the Janes family do not feel exploited. But watching The Sun rack up the politicised covers, making a shattered family the front for its partisan campaign, it looks like something awfully close to exploitation.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009