Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Shameless back-slap...and some thoughts

This very blog was mentioned in an article by Gaby Hinsliff, the political editor of the Observer, as an example of a 'new breed of blog' attacking the tabloids. She says: 'It's rough and ready, but it's an interesting new way of holding newspapers to account'.

Hopefully people do find it interesting. But there is something more to it than that. The question is - who holds the newspapers, and particularly the tabloid press, to account?

It should be the Press Complaints Commission, but this pitiful regulator has proved time and again that it is completely unable and unwilling to do it.

The PCC is a cosy club, where Editors sit on the various committees - so how can it be properly unbiased? It's also unbelievable that a regulator could have Daily Express editor Peter Hill sat on it for five years - despite pushing out endless untrue rubbish about Diana, Madeleine McCann, Muslims and asylum seekers.

But the real problem with the PCC is that the powers it has are so feeble. Editors will come up with all manner of excuses against fines, but if Ofcom can impose them on broadcasters that break the rules (as it did to the BBC over Sachsgate), why is it inappropriate for the newspapers?

The previous PCC Chair, Sir Christopher Meyer, said in 2005: "The best argument against fines or statutory regulation is the effectiveness and prominence of the negative adjudication". But in what way is a negative adjudication a punishment? Has a national editor lost his or her job over a negative adjudication? It means absolutely nothing in the scheme of things.

This was proved in the PCC's adjudication on the Sunday Express' appalling Dunblane story. It read: 'Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.'
The natural question that follows from their phrase 'so serious that no apology could remedy it' is: so what is the penalty for the Sunday Express? They print an apology - although only after an outcry and a 10,000-signature strong petition - and four months later have been told off by the PCC. Does the PCC really think that that remedies it?

Then there was the Alfie Patten case, where the Sun printed an entirely untrue front page splash, boosting sales and hits to its website and so gaining in all manner of financial ways, at the same time as exploiting a 13 year old child. It admitted much later that the story was untrue, but the PCC has never even censured the paper for it.

Besides, the rules for a complaint are so restrictive, with the PCC only bothering to consider complaints from third-parties in 'exceptional circumstances'. In other words, if you are not the person who is the subject of the article, there is next to nothing you can do. And in that way, they can exclude most complaints about asylum-seekers, for example, as they are groups and not named persons.

So if the PCC refuses to do what it should, who will? There is a reluctance for the newspapers to criticise each other. There might be the occasional item - such as when the Guardian looked at some of the misleading 'political correctness destroys Christmas' articles.

But other than in extreme cases - such as the News of the World phone tapping - newspapers very rarely criticise each other (and the Guardian's new revelations have mainly been ignored by the other printed press). This is likely because it would set off the type of tit-for-tat nonsense the Mail and Express have pointlessly engaged in at occasional intervals. And if one paper takes apart a rival's story, it knows it is likely to get it back when it makes its next transgression.

The broadcasters are different. Channel Four was targeted when the Big Brother racism row broke out, and of course the right-wing papers are all to happy to pile into the BBC at any opportunity - even when it's something as thin as the number of people sent to cover Glastonbury. But the papers seem like a no-go zone.

There are a few places where such things are highlighted. Private Eye's Street of Shame is likely to be the most well known, but coming out every two weeks it doesn't have the immediacy to react to a misleading or mischievous story. And it means that the story has had time to embed in the public consciousness.

This is the other problem with the PCC - it takes so long for it do anything. Take the recent Inayat Bunglwala apology from the Mail on Sunday which appeared four months after the original story, by which time the original story had spread like wildfire on the various anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sites and forums.

This happens for almost any immigration or Islam story, and this blog has highlighted how two recent Mail articles and a Littlejohn column (on Gypsy access to NHS services, the number of non-white children in London, and on foreign workers) were used and reproduced - with slight changes to the words, but in almost the exact same structure - as BNP press releases.

Blogs such as this one generally do it on the day the story appears. It's not just about doing what a misrepresented member of the public might want to highlight. It's about how certain papers have an agenda and will twist stories to fit it. They will print, without question, press releases from Migrationwatch, and yet almost never bother getting quotes from the Refugee Council.

In explaining why the BNP now has two MEPs, Max Hastings produced an article full of anti-immigrant scares and BNP talking points, and not once mentioned the positive contribution made by immigrants. He falsely claimed that Migrationwatch figures had never been challenged, but blogs have repeatedly proved their figures to be highly questionable. But because the organisation feeds them an endless supply of refugee-bashing stories, and the Mail and Express engage in 'churnalism' more than editors Paul Dacre and Peter Hill will admit, neither paper bothers to do the journalism that is required.

Does any of this matter? Well, yes. When certain tabloids fill their pages with exaggerated, inflammatory and often just plain wrong stories attacking minorities, they seep into the public consciousness. They get repeated on far-right websites and become accepted as true.

A Red Cross survey for Refugee Week proved that '95% of the British public do not know how many people apply for asylum in the UK each year, with the vast majority hugely overestimating numbers'. The first question - why did none of the tabloids bother reporting on this survey? The second - where would 95% of the public get such a wrong idea from?

My impression - and it's certainly true of this one - is that all the blogs highlighting tabloid nonsense are written by people in their spare time, which may explain why they may appear 'rough and ready'. But in doing a job that neither the PCC or other media seem keen to do, their contributions are definitely needed.

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