PCC to follow up on third-party complaints over Jan Moir

The PCC’s standard position on third-party complaints is to dismiss them. Their initial response to contact about Jan Moir’s poisonous Stephen Gately column implied that they intended to hold to the same line in this case, although there was a small suggestion that they could be pressed into expanding their remit:

On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and wemay [sic] not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.

Email from the PCC, 16 October 2009

It appears that the massive response to Moir’s column (21,000 complaints) has caused them to follow up on that hint of action, because today they sent out a further response:

The  PCC generally requires the involvement of directly-affected parties  in its investigations, and it has pro-actively  been in touch with representatives of Boyzone  – who are in contact with Stephen Gately’s family – since shortly after his death.  Any complaint from the affected parties will naturally be given precedence by the Commission, in line with its normal procedures.

If, for whatever reason, those individuals do not wish to make a complaint, the PCC will in any case write to the Daily Mail for its response to the more general complaints from the public before considering whether there are any issues under the Code to pursue.

Email from the PCC, 19 October 2009

One of the problems with the PCC is its institutionalised refusal to look on accuracy as a responsibility held by newspapers to all their readers, rather than a duty they only have towards the people they choose to write about. That means that the PCC has previously been able to ignore any complaints from a third party, and avoid adjudicating on matters (like Moir’s Gately column) when the harm and offence caused spreads much wider than the direct subjects of the piece.

It’s welcome, then, that the PCC will give consideration to the prejudice and inaccuracy in Moir’s piece that animated so many people to complain. At the same time, the PCC is still composed of print industry figures (including Mail On Sunday editor Peter Wright) – and even if they did wish to punish the Mail for this, they have very few sanctions to use.

When the Scottish Sunday Express offered an “insufficient apology” for its intrusion into the privacy of Dunblane survivors, the PCC couldn’t compel the paper to do any more. In the Gately case, the attention on the PCC may be so extreme that they will have to be seen to take convincing action, or face imminent and widespread unhappiness with the self-governing structure.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Link the thing you hate

LinksBloggers don’t kill the thing they love: instead, they cascade potentially valuable attention onto the things they hate. Linking is part of online culture’s rhetoric of transparency. You’re inviting your reader to go back to the original, confirm your commentary, add to it if they wish to – giving credit to content you find praiseworthy, demonstrating your trustworthiness in handling something you oppose.

The problem is that both sorts of link feed traffic, and all traffic looks the same when traffic is what’s being measured, as with ABCe figures. The latest of these show the Mail’s website attracting the most unique visitors, beating the Guardian by about 200,000 users. And with the Jan Moir atrocity, the numbers for the Mail are likely to look even more impressive when October gets tallied up.

But that assumes that ABCe results are comparable to ABC numbers as a measure of audience engagement. I don’t think they are. Using a website isn’t the same as buying a paper: it’s more like flicking through a discarded copy you’ve found at a bus-stop. It requires no investment of money or identity. I use the Mail website, but I’m a Guardian reader. My politics, my interests, my tastes are not the same as the politics, interests and tastes of the person advertisers on the Mail website are presumably trying to reach – when, that is, the advertisers aren’t being jumped into pulling their ads by the negative publicity.

I suppose that, in theory, the Mail could sell the advertising around their most virulently illiberal content so that it would appeal to the outraged. Trailers for E4 shows. American Apparel. That sort of thing. But that would mean alienating a core audience who enjoy and agree with content like Moir’s, and that sounds like a pretty dicey strategy. I’m willing to credit most advertisers with the intelligence to know that a deluge of unhappy, agitated users won’t be taking away the warmest of feelings about a brand they see in the sidebar.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Ravages, used under Creative Commons license.

The Liz Jones theory of just war

I’m not saying that Liz Jones is shallow, and spending a week in a burqa is more than I’m willing to do in the name of journalism. For one thing, I’m not going to risk the rickets. But is she absolutely sure that the right to wear a strappy top is so important it should be defended with the full force of the UK’s military? Has she really and completely thought through the politics of invasion?

In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the ‘chadri’; it became common only when the Taliban came to power.

When I think of the young men who have died fighting the Taliban and the calls to end a war that has ‘nothing to do with us’, I think of how I felt in my mobile prison and remember that, for all those women forced to hide their faces and their bodies, their fight is our fight, too.

The night I finally took off my burka, I wanted to put on make-up, spaghetti straps and the highest shoes I own. All week I’d been wearing scent, so compelling was the need to be feminine.

The Mail, “Liz Jones: My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Abort the antichrist!

Steven Glover, floundering under reality’s famed left-wing bias, posits this scenario:

Imagine that you were a brilliant young playwright who had conceived a play about the destructive psychological effects which abortion can have on women. Mr Stephenson or his sidekicks would not clap you on the back. You would be shown the door, if you had ever been let through it.

Steven Glover, “Our cultural elite rejects middle-class values and censors debate”

I’m not sure what would happen in the case of a “brilliant young playwright” but I do know that there are opportunities for the mass-market drama hack  to get their woman-hating thing on at the BBC.  I never thought I’d get to boast that I watch more primetime telly than Steven Glover, because I watch almost no primetime telly at all. But on 4 December, I know from my notebook that I was babysitting and watching “some shit with Judge John Deed in a dogcollar stomping all over an abortion clinic.”


The show was Martin Shaw vehicle Apparitions, with Shaw as authority-figure-gone-edgy Father Jacob, hunting demons – which this episode, happened to be resident in an abortion clinic. The show breezily accepted that Father Jacob was entitled to stalk the waiting rooms and the operating theatres in search of demons to cast out, offered up the chirpy irony of a nurse from the clinic having her brain sucked out her skull in imitation of late-term abortion, and then had Shaw conduct the climactic exorcism in the consulting room to the chorussing cries of the million, million unborn.

Vindictive towards abortion providers, emotively pushing the child-killing line, breezily installing an old celibate as the arbiter of fertility in the fictional clinic – although I suppose it was marginally left of Catholic doctrine, in that it did accept the necessity of abortion in the case of demonic possession. Someone at the BBC really should have seen about getting a review copy over to the Daily Mail.

© 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.

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.