Friday, 23 April 2010

'Hysterical bawlings from the sidelines'

Much has already been written about yesterday's four-pronged attack on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg by the four newspapers most supportive of the Conservative Party, so this post will be a brief overview of these front pages and the reaction to them.

As Kevin Marsh said:

You do not have to support the Liberal Democrats or Nick Clegg or be carried along on the current poll wave to wonder, as a journalist, what was going on Wednesday in the newsrooms and editorial offices of the Telegraph, Mail, Express and Sun.

Of course, it's not exactly shocking that party spin doctor's speak to political hacks - as the BBC's Nick Robinson and the Guardian reported had happened before these newspapers appeared. Nor is it news that the media outlets have agendas and political bias.

It's hard to know if this actually was a concerted effort, but it certainly looked like it was, with all the stories appearing on the day of the second leaders' debate. The fact that each paper was focusing on a different subject suggested everything was being thrown to see what might stick.

One that didn't stick was the Telegraph's half-hearted attempt to create a scandal:

If the Telegraph thought this was a big deal, they would have published it last year with all their other expenses coverage.

Given that all the payments were declared properly, it always looked thin and the way the story slipped down the Telegraph's website homepage during the day rather gave the game away. Despite a rule-breaking attempt by Sky's Adam Boulton to bring up the story during the second debate, an attempt that has prompted complaints to Ofcom, the story sank without trace.

Forced to defend the story on his blog, even the Telegraph's Deputy Editor didn't sound convinced:

So far [Clegg] has been unable to produce an adequate explanation for them, or the paperwork to back up his justification. The likelihood must be that it is evidence of disorganisation, nothing more, but don’t know that yet.

So why not wait until the evidence is produced before rushing to print? But the paperwork did turn up during the day and that was that - although the prominence the Telegraph gave to the 'evidence' was nothing like that of the original.

Meanwhile, the Express was complaining, of course, about immigration:

But there was a bit of a disconnect between the sub-head, which focused on jobs for asylum seekers, and the article, which didn't.

Alison Little wrote:

Controversial Lib Dem plans to allow illegal immigrants to stay and work in Britain were exposed as madness yesterday as unemployment hit a 16-year high.

Nick Clegg struggled to defend allowing asylum-seekers to join the workforce when he came under attack from a panel of first-time voters.

With official figures showing 2.5 million out of work, they warned it would be unfair to law-abiding residents.

'Exposed as madness'
is a complete exaggeration, and the use of 'crazy' on the front page is Express editorialising and nothing more.

But look how it goes from 'illegal immigrants' and then to 'asylum seekers' as if they are the same. This is emphasised by the 'law-abiding' comment in the next sentence, which implies that asylum seekers are not.

It's further evidence that for all they talk about these issues, there's little sense they really understand them.

The Sun was also on the attack, although their front page pun was very weak by their standards:

The Sun very publicly switched allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives last year when the Tories were substantially ahead in the polls. Following the surge in support for the Lib Dems after the first leaders' debate, there seemed to be some panic that the Sun - and the other right-wing papers - may not, after all, be backing the winner. And that's why the knives came out.

A curious incident from Wednesday illustrated not just this panic, but the contempt the Sun and its owner Rupert Murdoch has for the British public.

The Independent newspaper re-launched on Tuesday with the strapline:

Free from political ties, free from proprietorial influence.

It said:

You may not always agree with what we say, but it is spoken from the heart, and from a standpoint that's untainted by commercial or political imperatives.

In case the target wasn't obvious, a marketing campaign added:

Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election. You will.

The reaction? Former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive at News International, and obnoxious Rupert's obnoxious son James arrived unannounced at the Independent's office and demanded to know:

'What are you fucking playing at?'

The Guardian reports:

A bewildered [Independent Editor-in-Chief Simon] Kelner quickly ushered his visitors into his office, where they remained for what have been described as 'frank and full discussions' for another 20 minutes.

All were grim-faced as Murdoch, carrying a promotional copy of the Independent, accused the rival editor of breaking the unwritten code that proprietors do not attack each other and of besmirching his father's reputation. With his piece said and with the matter unresolved, the aggrieved media mogul left.

Bewildering is right. The arrogance of this is jaw-dropping. Murdoch and his son - like the other right-wing papers' editors and proprietors - do apparently believe they decide this election rather than over 40 million voters.

How dare they decide that the Sun's chosen candidate is not the one for them, according to latest polls. Indeed, when a poll by Sun pollster YouGov showed:

voters fear a Liberal Democrat government less than a Conservative or Labour one

the Sun decided to do the far-from-honourable thing: it refused to publish the results.

(Further insights into the Murdoch mindset come from biographer Michael Wolff and former Sun Editor David Yelland)

But perhaps the most notable of yesterday's front pages was the Mail:

So the Mail digs back through the archives and finds what it thinks, quite wrongly, is a 'Nazi slur'. Of all newspapers, you would think the Mail would be slow to accuse others of a 'Nazi slur'. In July 1934 it infamously carried the headline 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' and then Mail owner Lord Rothermere - grandfather of the current owner - was effusive in his praise for Hitler.

And in 1933 the paper wrote:

The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. The number of aliens entering the country through the back door is a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.

Replace 'stateless Jews from Germany' with 'asylum seekers' or 'immigrants' and you could easily imagine that being said in Daily Mail now.

The 'Nazi slur' it attributed to Clegg was nothing like this. In fact, there was no 'Nazi slur' at all. The article, which was written eight years ago for the Guardian, related tales of how Germans are still subject to childish reminders about Hitler, and how many Brits still showed a:

misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war.

There was little wrong with it, although you might think you are reading a different article to the one the Mail saw and so wilfully - and woefully - misinterpreted.

The Express, not wishing to let the story go, then put a version of the Mail's 'Nazi slur' claims on its website. The headline became even more grotesque, and even further from the truth:

The original never implied that Britain was 'more guilty than the Nazis', let alone that being a direct quote, which the quote marks suggest. It's dishonest and totally misleading.

But back to the Mail, where Editor Paul Dacre seems to have become somewhat obssessed with the Lib Dems. The election section of their website contained nine anti-Lib Dem articles on Wednesday - almost to the exclusion of anything else.

Then they ran a poll at the end of the second debate asking who had won. But with the results saying the victor was Nick Clegg, they decided to start another poll asking the same question - which Cameron was then leading.

The 'Nazi slur' headline received a lot of negative reaction - including from Mail hack Ann Leslie, who said she disapproved of it on the BBC's Question Time.

But this meant that a disgusting comment in the Mail's editorial was rather overlooked. Following on from their suggestion that there was nothing British about Nick Clegg, it said, under the headline 'Damning insight into the Liberal leader':

It's perhaps unfair to point out that Mr Clegg's father is half-Russian, his mother is Dutch, and he's married to a Spaniard.

Yes, the Mail is so reluctant to bring it up (for the third time in a week). 'Unfair' isn't the word. Pathetic, stupid, irrelevant and xenophobic would be much more appropriate.

The final word should go to Kevin Marsh, who sums all this up perfectly, although his conclusion is depressing:

Scrutiny? Is this scrutiny? Really? Perhaps we've become so de-sensitised to the awfulness of some parts of the British press that journalism like this passes as scrutiny.

We - mere readers, mere voters - are left with two unattractive possible conclusions.

Either the press really does think that these stories amount to genuine scrutiny of the men who want to run the country - that this is exactly what we need to help us choose our next government. Hysterical bawlings from the sidelines on dog-whistle issues like immigration and sleaze.

Or that parts of our press are proving once again that they are totally incapable of fulfilling their most basic function - supporting our self-government with reliable, honest news and information. And that they don't care since they place their commercial and ideological interest in a particular result above the democratic process they claim to support.


  1. Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade).

    Otherwise I agree with Nick, er, sorry, you.

  2. You've brought a little tear to my eye.

  3. I agree with you too - but the Mail mentioned Clegg being a dirty foreigner four times in a week if you include the one where it says it would be unfair to mention it.

  4. I'm so enjoying the tabloid implosion.

  5. Stating the obvious but has the Mail not looked at the ancestry of our dear Kron Prinz Karl. His Ma is half german and his Pa is wholly foreign - german and danish brought up in Greece.

  6. A great analysis - though sad that you had to write it.

  7. The original never implied that Britain was 'more guilty than the Nazis', let alone that being a direct quote, which the quote marks suggest.

    Do they really suggest that? One would think so, but British newspapers have long abandoned that notion that quotation marks need actually enclose a direct quotation. See the Language Log discussion at Mendactiy Quotes


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