We didn’t need a 2,000 page report by Leveson to demonstrate that something is rotten in the state of journalism, we just need to remind ourselves of the glittering career of Richard Littlejohn.
Here is a man who has worked in journalism since 1971 and in his most recent form – twice-weekly ‘satirical’ columns – has been handsomely paid by both the Sun and the Daily Mail (rumour from a few years back put his annual salary at £800,000). Along the way he has been named Fleet Street’s Columnist of the Year and he was also given a place in the inaugural Newspaper Hall of Fame as one of the most influential journalists of the past 40 years. Even this year Richard Littlejohn was runner-up (‘highly commended’) for the columnist of the year award in the 2012 UK Press Awards.
Only an industry which has no standards, no concern for facts and no qualms about regularly printing hateful spite aimed at the weakest in society would enable Richard Littlejohn to become one of its leading lights.
Littlejohn is infamous for writing unpleasant things and his column on Lucy Meadows was nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, it was exactly the kind of column that Paul Dacre pays him so handsomely to write (and we must ultimately blame the editor, not the writer for what is deemed fit to publish). Lucy Meadows was the perfect victim for a Richard Littlejohn attack job. She wasn’t rich, powerful or influential; she was vulnerable, had no voice and was most importantly different. Whilst Richard Littlejohn’s surreal personal website insists that he is some kind of crusader taking on the rich and powerful, the evidence of column after column attacking the disenfranchised suggests that this is the one thing he doesn’t actually do.
He famously decided to attack the five female victims of a serial killer, labelling them as ‘disgusting, drug-addled street whores’ who were ‘in the scheme of things… no great loss’ because it wasn’t as if they were ‘going to discover a cure for cancer or embark on missionary work in Darfur’. He commented on the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people died:
Does anyone really give a monkey’s about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.
When Japan suffered a Tsunami in which over 19,000 people died Richard Littlejohn wrote that:
the Japanese people have a distinct culture of their own, which is entirely alien to our own values. They are militantly racist and in the past have been capable of great cruelty.
And went on to explain that whilst you shouldn’t blame current generations for the sins of the past, he does exactly that by explaining why some WWII veterans wouldn’t be joining in the minute’s silence for Japan because of Japenese cruelty during the war (77.4% of Japan’s population were not even born until after the end of WWII). Indeed, Richard Littlejohn – never a model of consistency, even had the gall to write: ‘But why Japan and not, say, those massacred in Rwanda or starved to death by Mugabe in Zimbabwe?’. Obviously, we’ve all read his real thoughts on the 800,000 killed in Rwanda, it’s just that Littlejohn hates so many nameless foreigners that he can’t keep up with which genocides he has in the past written derogatory comments about.
Richard Littlejohn is well known for his need to dehumanise his victims – indeed, most newspapers use this technique to make the targets of their hate easier to insult; if you take away a person’s humanity, you can write what you like about them with impunity. He’s also well known for his staggering laziness, rehashing the same few columns over and over again and failing to engage in even the most cursory research to avoid making simple mistakes or repeating the same tired old media myths (a lack of research is the kind way of viewing this, it could be he knows the truth, but just does not care).
He is, in short, terrible at being a journalist.
And this is what Leveson failed to really address, the fundamental problem that what falls under the general label of journalism because it appears in a newspaper is often the antithesis of the common understanding of what journalism should be. What Littlejohn et al clearly demonstrate is that the issue is best dealt with by Trading Standards – they need to determine what it is acceptable to label as a ‘newspaper’. If a newspaper should primarily be concerned with a factual reporting of general interest news items, then the label should not apply to the Daily Mail and it’s tabloid brethren. Perhaps we need to start from scratch and have a formal system that regulates news and separates it from comment – we need to recognise that most of our newspapers are little more than propaganda sheets published solely in the interest of wealthy owners.
Above all, we need to recognise that papers like the Daily Mail exist because their brand of hatred is popular and people buy it. The same goes for Littlejohn, he has – and continues to have – a glittering career because editors see value in writing populist myths as fact and in attacking the disenfranchised. All I ever wanted from Leveson was for him to come up with a regulatory system that leveled the playing field by ensuring that newspapers have to stick to the facts. I don’t mind newspapers having an opinion, but I do object when the evidence put forward to support their opinion is a vast tissue of lies.
It seems to me that the best way to detoxify newspapers is to create a system in which they are punished, substantially, for lying to their readers. Would the tabloid press really be as popular as they are if they couldn’t rely on wheeling out the same old populist myths to feed the flames of anger in their readership? Would Littlejohn have carved out any kind of career as a columnist if he couldn’t rely on telling lies to whip up anger and hatred?
The case of Lucy Meadows is very sad and anger should be rightfully directed at the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre, along with Richard Littlejohn for writing the piece. It should also be directed at the other newspapers who sent photograpers and journalists to harass Lucy Meadows and the people around her. However, it should also be directed at the people buying these newspapers – buying the Daily Mail et al is an anti-social act and should be looked upon as such by any decent citizen.
The only way we can change the press we get, is to change the press we buy.