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.

Eye blinks

Back before Christmas, Ian Hislop gave an interview to the Simon Mayo show while he doing the rounds promoting the Private Eye annual, and he said a lot of the same things about his publication as Terence Eden did in this comment. The Eye is fortnightly so they have time to decide what’s important rather than being forced to follow the saturation cycle of 24-hour news. The cartoons and gossip draw readers in, but the investigative reporting (In The Back and Rotten Boroughs especially) are the meat of the mag. And it’s a strange and successful combination: Anthony Sampson’s description of the Eye is a really good account of what makes it such a scrappy and admirable institution:

One oddball paper has appeared almost impervious to the hazards and pressures. The fortnightly Private Eye, which was established 40 years ago, looked the most ephemeral of all, with its shoddy newsprint, makeshift headlines and gossipy items. But it survived enemies and libel suits and maintained its eccentric style under only two editors, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, with its bohemian offices in Soho and fortnightly lunches at the Coach And Horses. It was not dependent on big advertisers or big business interests, and it retained its crucial ingredient: it was close to the curiosity and conversation of its readers.

Who Runs This Place?, p. 239

Who Runs This Place? is five years old, so Sampson doesn’t have as much to say about the online threat to papers as a similar writer would now, but I’ve often admired the determinedly aloof strategy of the Eye on the net. They don’t give away their content for free, and despite slight year-on-year drops, they’ve remained the top-selling current affairs title. That’s impressive.

Not everything about the magazine is so inspiring, though. In the Mayo interview, Hislop seemed slightly confounded when asked about MMR. Unlike another commenter (who’s working on a nice webcomic if you click through), the Eye‘s credulous coverage of  Wakefield didn’t put me off the magazine entirely, although it did knock my trust in their other campaigns and causes. Hislop’s line in the interview (audio via Black Triangle) is that the Eye‘s medical correspondent believes there’s no link, there were questions that needed to be asked, there’s nothing else the magazine can add to the debate, and he’s not sorry about the line they took.

I think that’s a pile of balls, and poisonous balls at that. And it’s something that I could tolerate, just about, as an error of over-enthusiastic criticism; but it’s consistent with an alarmingly suspicious attitude to statistics. “A lot of the medical experts who said it [MMR] is absolutely safe were statistitians reviewing other papers by experts which they hadn’t done themselves”, says Hislop, as if that discredits their work. (Here’s Ben Goldacre explaining what meta-analysis is, how it works and why it’s important.) Recently, the author of the Eye‘s Medicine Balls column, MD, has adopted a sympathetic line on complementary medicine in the NHS:

A year-long pilot scheme in Northern Ireland found impressive health benefits for patients offered complementary therapies, so why were it’s findings not released for more than a year? […] The trial wasn’t randomised or controlled […] The fact that the Northern Ireland health board hasn’t released the results in a big fanfare suggests it just doesn’t have the money to extend the service.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1231

The best way for CAM to get NHS funding is to produce conclusive trial evidence, and the NHS now has a vast GP research database that can be used for randomised observational studies of “real-life” patients, rather than the more artificial environment of controlled trials.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1232

There’s a typical leap of Eye logic in the first column: despite the obvious positive interpretation (the study hasn’t been pimped to the press because it’s not a proper study), MD suggests that it’s been suppressed to limit expenses. Then in the second column, written in defense of the first after critics like David Colquhoun took a big swing at MD in the letters page, MD proposes something that sounds a bit like a study because it would mean drawing information from a large body of research, but is probably more like mining for anecdotes.

So, if the Eye‘s attitude is that self-reported experience rates above peer-reviewed cumulative data for deciding NHS funding, and there’s no editorial appetite for self-criticism over the MMR debacle, how much confidence are we supposed to have in their investigative work? If I want critical reporting of a medical story, I’m better off looking to the Badscience bloggers

The Eye‘s strategy of holding the internet at a critical distance has worked out ok for them so far, but the increasingly spaced-out alignment of the small ads suggests that they’re taking some of the same hit that’s injured the local press. The Eye is insulated from internet competition – for advertising and for content – to a certain degree by the strong reader community Sampson recognised. But it can’t survive by treating the internet as a refuge of scandal and plagiarism like it does now. It’s true that every magazine has ups and downs over 50 years, but the Eye seems to be  hitting a down patch and not attending to some serious threats at the same time. And if the Eye goes on the blink, who’ll be left to scoop up the rotten boroughs and PFI disasters?



Newswipe, episode 1 on iPlayer (until 1 April 2009)

I got a Private Eye subscription for Christmas. The biggest perk of being an Eye subscriber is having cancellation as the ultimate threat if they do something I really dislike, so obviously ever since January I’ve been looking out for something to inspire a tart letter and a stopped direct debit. And handily,  it turns out that I do think the Eye is flagging a bit.

They didn’t feature anything about the Dunblane story in the last issue. It looked like they swiped the Glen Jenvey story from Bloggerheads without crediting it (unforgiveable really when the Ad Nauseum column makes so much play of calling out advertisers who thieve from Youtube). They did a parody of Steven Fry’s lift tweets that misunderstood the @ tags, and consequently totally overlooked the usefulness of Twitter as a tool for spreading information. As a media watchdog they look badly outpaced by the internet, the takedown of churnalism in Flat Earth News was more comprehensive than the Eye‘s fortnightly digs, and however doggedly they refuse to do a proper online version, the classified pages definitely look less packed than they used to.

I’m not cancelling my sub yet, but I’m only holding out until Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe becomes a rolling service. Last night’s show was purgingly funny and properly revelatory – especially the big finish about reporting mass murders. It’s sickening to see Dr Park Dietz’s comments juxtaposed with the news footage that explicitly ignores his advice. Don’t cut the story as a drama. Don’t cast the killer as an anti-hero. Don’t give blanket coverage to massacres… oh no, they already did.

The degree to which new reporting ignores its own role in making stories while asking “why?”  is obscene: newspapers did exactly the same over the Bridgend suicides, grimly demanding an explanation for all the deaths while they made front-page heroes of the deceased and publicised the methods used. (“Look, all your friends are doing it, and we’ll even show you how!”) There’s actually a set of guidelines in place for reporting suicides that should prevent that sort of covert incitement – and good luck to you getting some compensation out of the PCC for the loss of a loved one. These stories are the definition of self-sustaining flat earth news, and you’d hope that when people are actually dying the media would notice that it’s doing something wrong.