Friday, 23 July 2010

Churnalism: that's the way to do it

In Richard Littlejohn's latest book, which was serialised in the Mail in March, he says in his rant about political correctness:

Already some seaside councils have scrapped donkey rides on the grounds of animal cruelty and Punch and Judy because it glorifies domestic violence.

Neither claim was accurate and as the Punch and Judy website says:

the myth that Mr. Punch had been 'banned' by the authorities for not being politically correct duly entered contemporary folklore.

Yet a new version of this tale has emerged in both the Mail:

and Telegraph:

'PC officials'. 'Warnings'. 'Ordered'. Really?

The Mail says:

officials at a coastal resort have deemed a traditional Punch and Judy show too shocking for modern tastes, and ordered any violence to be removed from the script.

But who are the 'officials'? What 'warnings' did they give? Who 'ordered' the changes?

It's not very surprising to find that neither the Mail or Telegraph answer any of those questions - because those officials don't actually exist. It's just the usual lashing out at a generic 'PC brigade'.

Will people watching the show spot that 'any violence' has been 'removed from the script'? Probably not, as the Mail's article makes clear when it quotes the puppeteer:

"Mr Punch is still a rascal and still has a variety of weapons in his arsenal but they are more socially appropriate."

He also reveals Punch's usual stick has been replaced by a mop. Do these newspapers have nothing more important to write about than that?

Puppeteer Daniel Liversidge, who entertains kids under the name Mr Marvel, advertises his services like this:

Punch and Judy
Traditional and modern at the same time, the Punch and Judy show takes the original story of the timeless old rascal, Mr Punch, and brings him bang up to date in a politically correct 21st Century! The show includes the ever-present Judy, the long suffering baby and a surprise appearance from a very snappy crocodile, all kept under control by PC Plod, the policeman.

Therefore, it appears this 'up to date' version is, in fact, Liversidge's usual act. Thus the claim he's been 'ordered' to change it by 'officials' in Portsmouth looks even more hollow.

Indeed, in the Belfast Telegraph:

Nick Fletcher, spokesman for the venue, said the tower's management had not called for the changes to the show but said such alterations were inevitable...

"We have put no restraints on him but he has taken on board constructive comments from elsewhere and decided to make his Punch and Judy show more modern."

So how did the Mail and Telegraph write almost exactly the same story, with exactly the same slant and exactly the same quotes?

Step forward Blue Zebra PR. On Wednesday, they sent out a press release with the title 'Punch and Judy politics affect portsmouth performance: Puppet show toned down to meet PC standards' knowing that would get them - and their clients - some column inches from the usual suspects. The accuracy of it is, to them, secondary.

And the churnalism duly followed. For example, look at this paragraph from the Telegraph, repeating Littlejohn's lie about Colchester Borough Council:

However the three-hundred -year old show is increasingly falling victim to political correctness. Wiltshire council once discussed taking Punch and Judy books off their library shelves while Colchester council even planned to ban the puppet shows altogether.

And then this, from the original press release:

After Wiltshire County Council considered taking Punch and Judy books off its library shelves, and Colchester Borough Council threatened to ban the puppet shows, professors of the puppetry performance have felt under pressure to improve its reputation and bring a good name back to the nostalgic show.

All the quotes from Liversidge, and the event's commercial manager Paul Mahy, and all the bits in between, have been copied-and-pasted by the Mail and Telegraph straight from the press release.

Just to check the story, I emailed the Blue Zebra PR contact and asked for clarification on who the officials were. I got a reply, but didn't get an answer. But I was told:

Sadly we are unable to approve journalist’s stories before they go out, however we still think that the coverage for our great!

Which says it all.

For comparison, screenshots of the press release and the two articles follow (click to enlarge):


  1. The article quotes someone from the venue saying they have toned it down. Now, either the PR company made that quote up, or the venue authorised it hoping to paint themselves as the bad guy in this puppet shgow and see the punters roll in.

    Or, it is very possible in this case that the show was toned down. Theere's nothing anywhere to say they haven't forced it to be toned down.

    Its quite damning to the critque of the tabloids when the criticisers are also not checking the facts through and making assumptions. And I say that from a passionate hatred for these papers.

  2. Anonymous - Hard to prove a negative. So where is there any actual evidence he has been forced to tone it down by 'PC officials' for this show?

    The person you refer to doesn't actually say the venue ordered the toning down. The spokesman quoted in the Belfast Telegraph denies putting any constraints on the show.

    And if you look at Mr Marvel's site, it's clear that this is his existing act. And is hitting with a mop rather than a stick really political correctness gone mad?

    Moreover, I checked the performer's website and I spoke to the PR folk. This is more research than either the Mail or Telegraph managed. And I'm not paid for it.

  3. Anonymous - I've got to agree with MacGuffin here. If newspapers are going to make a claim that something's happened (in this case that Punch and Judy's been toned down), they need to provide evidence.

    MacGuffin points out that they don't provide any such evidence, and the PR firm's apparently unable to either. That doesn't *prove* it didn't happen, but it casts an awful lot of doubt on it when those who claim it did can't show any evidence at all.

  4. When was the last time anyone here actually watched a Punch and Judy show?

    I saw one last summer and it was most certainly watered down, free of any domestic violence save a few harsh words towards Judy. No beating up baby. No dead coppers shoved in the bin. He ended up in a two-way with some kind of monkey.

    Though its obviously nonsense that any kind of 'official' has issued an edict from the ministry of seaside entertainment, i find it entirely reasonable to assume that the 'Professor' might have felt the original story a bit extreme for the modern sensibilities of his audience, sensibilities which are indeed shaped by a culture of 'offense aversion'.

    Smoke = Fire = Raging inferno to the tabloids.

  5. Anoynmous (10.15) - Oddly enough, I saw part of a Punch and Judy show at a family fun day just a week or so ago and it had Punch throwing the baby and beating Judy with a stick.

  6. This is a real insight into how these type of stories enter the press. The PR company bags the publicity, the papers get stories that press the right buttons and facts are seemingly irrelevant.


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