Category Archives: Leveson Inquiry

Has the Daily Mail Jumped the Shark?

The TV show Happy Days in many people’s view went in to a terminal decline when The Fonze jumped over a shark whilst water-skiing. Watching the show always involved suspending disbelief to quite a large extent as the Fonze is clearly a ridiculous character but the point when he jumped over a shark was the point at which the writers went too far. Was it hubris or over-confidence or simply desperation that led the writers to take their audience for granted? Either way it was a watershed moment. I wonder whether the Mail has similarly over-reached itself – not with its attack on Ed Miliband via his father so much, but by their attempted defence.

fonzie_jumps_the_shark

In many ways the attack on Ralph Miliband was typical of the Daily Mail – it is typical of their Modus Operandi: prejudicial, ill-conceived and misrepresentive of the subject. This response by Miliband Senior’s biographer is very telling.

The sole basis for this assertion was a diary entry at the age of 16 in autumn 1940, where Ralph Miliband wrote that “the Englishman is a rabid nationalist” and, “when you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show how things are.” Such sentiments might sound shocking, but they need to be put into their real context.

A few months earlier Miliband had arrived in Britain with his father, having walked from Brussels to Ostend, where they took the last boat leaving for Britain. While working hard to improve his English, he was also spending much of his time wandering through the streets of London trying to make sense of his new environment. He was in a constant state of anxiety about the fate of his sister and mother, who had remained in Nazi occupied Belgium as stateless Jews.

Because he believed that the earlier appeasement of Hitler was largely responsible for the situation, he was occasionally exasperated by the atmosphere of complacency and superiority amongst the British upper classes, and this no doubt provoked his intemperate diary outburst.

There is nothing new in any of this: The Mail has done this to many others. What is unusual is that Daily Mail could not deny Ed Miliband a response.

 

The petulance that accompanied the printing of Ed Miliband very measured article was impressive to behold.

Ed Miliband:

Britain has always benefited from a free Press. Those freedoms should be treasured. They are vital for our democracy. Journalists need to hold politicians like me to account — none of us should be given an easy ride — and I look forward to a robust 19 months between now and the General Election.

<snip>

The Daily Mail sometimes claims it stands for the best of British values of decency. But something has really gone wrong when it attacks the family of a politician — any politician — in this way. It would be true of an attack on the father of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, or mine.

There was a time when politicians stayed silent if this kind of thing happened, in the hope that it wouldn’t happen again. And fear that if they spoke out, it would make things worse.

I will not do that. The stakes are too high for our country for politics to be conducted in this way. We owe it to Britain to have a debate which reflects the values of how we want the country run.

The Daily Mail Comment

Red Ed’s in a strop with the Mail. Doubtless, he’s miffed that his conference was overshadowed by the revelations of his former friend, the spin doctor Damian McBride, serialised in this paper, which exposed the poisonous heart of the Labour Party.

Nor did he see the funny side when we ridiculed the yucky, lovey-dovey photographs of him and his wife, behaving like a pair of hormonal teenagers in need of a private room.

But what has made him vent his spleen — indeed, he has stamped his feet and demanded a right of reply — is a Mail article by Geoffrey Levy on Saturday about the Labour leader’s late father, Ralph, under the arresting headline ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’.

They seem to want us to believe it was an act of great magnanimity for them to publish the response rather the act of cowardice and calculation it really was. They know how much worse it would be if it was published elsewhere under the headline What the Mail refused to print. The choice of the grave photo shows the standard dehumanising attitude of the DM to those they oppose – although to be fair to them they have at-least acknowledged that this was in poor taste. Note the choice of language – responding to a deeply personal attack on his father, Ed is characterised as behaving childishly, whilst the Mail repeat the words ‘evil’ in reference to Ralph Miliband’s views.

If the professional ethos of journalism is to speak the truth to power then the Mail is undoubtably the very antithesis of a journalistic organisation. The reaction to this particular example though is interesting. The hardcore Mailites remain loyal but their wider credibility as a newspaper has been compromised. I – and many others – have long seen through them but the Mail has always maintained this pretence of seriousness. It is interesting, and not a little ironic, to see this pretence stripped away by their own bloody-mindedness. While Stephen Glover whines about the leftist conspiracy and alleged hypocrisy, the country at-large seems to take a different view. I find myself wondering if they have perhaps over-reached themselves this time?

I for one, truly hope so.

 

AFZ

Some thoughts on press ‘freedom’

The Leveson enquiry opened today with Lord Justice Leveson feeling the need to reiterate the tired line that a free press is of fundamental importance in ensuring that public figures and governments are held to account. Therefore what he wants to consider is not whether the press needs to have its freedom curtailed in any way, but rather the inquiry should address the question: ‘who guards the guardians’?

Perhaps equally pertinent questions to be asked along the way – and they all seem linked to me -might be ‘who runs the guardians’ and ‘for what purpose’?
This enquiry isn’t limited to phone hacking – after all, that is an illegal practice that the police will be dealing with in a separate criminal investigation – but it is about the wider behaviour of the press. It is, I feel, crucial that the inquiry properly addresses how the newspaper industry seems to apply vastly different standards to the behaviour of those outside the press industry than it does to those working within it.

Another problem that the inquiry might like to discuss is that freedom of the press is not as simplistic as the newspapers would like you to believe – or even as Lord Justice Leveson implied during his opening address.

For starters, how can a press truly be free when it has owners able to legally and freely insert their own editorial influence over what a given newspaper prints? How can we call it a ‘free press’ in the truest sense when each newspaper has a clear political alignment and often a very clear corporate agenda that often benefits in the whole the wealthy – and very few – owners of the newspapers?

Freedom in this sense is merely the freedom for anyone to set up their own press as an outlet for their own biased and perhaps blinkered view of the world. Or, it is the freedom for corporations to set up their own press to print propaganda that suits their own business interests. This is not actually a bad thing in terms of absolute freedom goes – as this is exactly what an authoritarian government would want to ban. However, it is a bad thing if such newspapers can get away with printing lies in order to support their own version of the world. Or, equally as bad, printing outright distortion or invasive articles merely to make a profit. How can a newspaper truly be considered free when it has to constantly serve up what the consumer wants?

Although a news purist might find it an odd concept to acknowledge, we expect our newspapers to have a clear bias and this is part and parcel of press freedom: they are free to pick a political side just as they are free to pick one side of a particular debate. However, it does not follow that newspapers should therefore have carte blanche to engage is constant lying or distortion to portray this bias as an absolute truth.

A population should never be in the situation where the line between editorial comment (opinion) and news (generally regarded as a factual retelling of a given event) becomes so blurred as to become meaningless. We should not be in a situation where a democratic population is served a constant diet of dishonest propaganda masquerading as news. The Press Complaints Commission and the Editor’s code of conduct exist so that we should not – in theory – ever be exposed journalists twisting the facts of a story beyond credibility just so that it fits in with the newspaper’s editorial line.

But this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. Public debate and political discourse no longer concerns itself with what stories are in the news, but rather what propaganda the influential newspapers are currently pushing. We therefore have constant inaccuracies or distortions serving as the basis for public, political debate which serves no-one but the press that created them. Or, at least, given how close some relationships between the politicians and newspaper owners / editors are it does make you wonder if the agreement is rather more mutually beneficial than the press would have you believe.

I think the depressing reality is that at the moment the whole power, weight and influence of the press is only challenged by a handful of bloggers and a small media section in the Guardian. The PCC has shown – repeatedly – that they cannot effectively even blunt the torrent of lies, abuse and invasion that is carried out every day in the pursuit of newspaper sales or a political-corporate agenda.

Newspapers have shown that they are quite prepared to destroy people’s reputations and lies and will pick up the legal bill at the end of it rather than behave decently in the first place. They have also shown that it is no longer about the press admitting to making genuine mistakes – which they are often happy to do – but rather that they are happy to make the editorial decision that lies are now perfectly acceptable to be printed as news – whether it be a front page lead story or a throwaway few paragraphs elsewhere in the newspaper.

The real key – it seems to me – to selling newspapers is to lie and to lie brazenly, repeatedly and in order to stir up as much outrage and hatred as possible. It is this that the Leveson inquiry must deal with, because – quite simply – there is no-one else that can.