A Message from the Thought Police
The furore over the attacks on the poor old Daily Mail by the “thought police” has been building for some time. Elements of the political class, the commentariat and the right-wing press feel (rightly) threatened by the combined efforts of the campaign to Stop Funding Hate, Everyday Sexism, Boycott the Sun and the wider movement they represent.
The idea that ordinary people can join together to resist the tsunami of hate, racism and institutional misogyny that’s been cascading into the public realm for decades is deeply objectionable to those people who feel they have the right to set the tone of the national debate, and are gatekeepers to the information we see of the world.
As I wrote in April 2017 when the Sun ditched Kelvin Mackenzie and similar bleating kicked off:
“Media freedom isn’t under threat in this country. what’s under threat is the rights and safety of immigrants, refugees, people of colour, women and the LGBT community because of the world view promulgated by tabloids like The Sun and the Daily Mail and their billionaire owners for decades.”
Nigel Farage and Murdo Fraser are worried.
Fraser puffs: “…for trying to censor what your customers read, rather than treat them like adults, you’ve lost my custom. And are you really fit to hold a rail franchise?” No they’re not Murdo, but not for the reasons you are crying over.
To clarify amid the hysteria, Stop Funding Hate couldn’t be any clearer:
“Stop Funding Hate is all about freedom of choice. We aren’t calling for any publication to be removed from sale. Our sole focus is on advertising.
The Daily Mail is free to print what it likes within the law. Equally, if you are affected by media hate, or concerned about media hate, then you have the right to ask the companies you shop with not to use the money you spend with them to advertise in publications that fuel hatred and discrimination.”
This isn’t just a party political issue. Tabloid culture is becoming something alien to contemporary social values. It is a gender and a generational issue for people with a wider set of news and comment sources available and who live in a post-deferential culture. People aren’t going to put-up with being spoon-fed views which just seem not only deeply offensive but just plain weird.
This triggers two types of responses: one amongst the political class who are terrified of losing their grip funnelling ideology through the print media, and the other amongst the largely middle-aged, white, male commentariat, that feel their own personal power-base threatened. This was in essence the lesson from the Toby Young fiasco. The gap between the value-base of the ruling class and ordinary people was just so vast it became unsustainable.
When Paperchase pulled their funding from the Mail just before Christmas, these people went ballistic.
Piers Morgan tweeted: “I hope @FromPaperchase understand that British people don’t like snivelling little cowards who let themselves get bullied into virtue-signalling bulls**t. I’ll buy my cards from @ClintonsTweet in future.”
Brendan O’Neill fumed incoherently in the Spectator: “It’s the attempted use of financial power to whack tabloid freedom in a similar way to how the FBI and African dictators once sought to harm the radical press.”
The journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer pledged to lead a boycott of Paperchase, blurting the decision was “bloody absurd”.
Somebody called David Wooding (who it turns out is the Sun on Sunday’s Political Editor) was also apoplectic:
“Here’s my opinion. I don’t buy goods from firms who are easily intimidated. I am cutting up my loyalty card, will never enter your stores again and will encourage friends and colleagues to do the same.”
Poor Iain Martin called them “enemies of freedom”.
Hate Speech in Print
This isn’t all just a mash-up of political subjectivity.
“The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”. Its report said hate speech was a serious problem, including against Roma, gypsies and travellers, as well as “unscrupulous press reporting” targeting the LGBT community.”
The ECRI’s report also concluded that some reporting on immigration, terrorism and the refugee crisis was “contributing to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection”.
It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a blistering response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”.
It’s difficult to tell amongst the torrent of hate which have been worse hit of the holy trinity of tabloid targets: women, immigrants and black people or benefit claimants.
In this example Anoosh Chakelian does a good job rebuffing the “Yule Pay” attack by The Sun this Christmas.
“Benefits mum splurges £2,000 on 66 presents for her six kids and YULE PAY!” screams its splash, accompanying a picture of “gift-mad” Claire holding wrapped presents, and a report full of judgement about her family and financial situation.
As Chakelian points out nearly everything in The Sun’s account is just plain false, writing “Here are some rather inconvenient facts they’ve left out of their story”:
Demonising big families is bad – but also inaccurate
Newspapers like the Sun would have you believe that the majority of families on benefits have hundreds of children that they have both to avoid work and claim millions in benefits. This is nowhere near the real picture.
Firstly, there is a two-child limit for child tax credits and the Universal Credit child element. Secondly, the number of children living in households with a parent claiming out-of-work benefits is falling. Out-of-work benefits were claimed in only one million households with children when measured last May – a drop of 4.2 per cent since the previous year.
Demonising unemployed claimants is bad – but also inaccurate
Many benefit claimants are in work. There are 6.8 million working-age benefit claimants, according to the November 2017 statistics, of which 460,000 claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Of the people on Universal Credit as of 12 October, 40 per cent were in employment.
But the impact of tabloid culture isn’t just in framing the news agenda and public discourse. It’s more insidious than that. Newspapers, even with declining sales, are invited onto and endlessly dissected by other media outlets on tv and radio in an ever decreasing circle of a smaller and smaller pool of ‘views’.
This weeks Daily Mail and Virgin trains story is just the latest example of resistance and disinvestment as ordinary people fight back against media distortion. It’s not marginal anymore. Fans of Manchester United, Chelsea and SEVENTY other clubs back Liverpool and Everton’s S*n boycott.
There’s a deeper issue than just old-fashioned grubby tabloids.
As George Monbiot writes today “these free-speech obsessives approve of no-platforming”:
“Another resounding silence concerns the US government’s deletion from its websites of thousands of documents that mention climate breakdown. The US agriculture department instructs that the terms “climate change” or “greenhouse gases” should not be used in its publications; and the federal government bans the words “vulnerable”, “entitlement”, “diversity”, “transgender”, “foetus”, “evidence-based” and “science-based” from an agency’s budget reports. This is real censorship, not a feeble attempt by a few teenagers to prevent their peers using trigger words. Could it be that our free speech crusaders quietly approve?
Lord Lawson gave a lecture last year, claiming that “the suppression of freedom of speech in the universities now is one of the great problems of our time”. Somehow he forgot to mention that he served in the government that banned Sinn Féin and 10 other organisations in Northern Ireland from being heard on television and radio broadcasts, regardless of what they were saying. This was not an occasional no-platforming but full-on prohibition.”
Beyond Peak Ink
In the era of Peak Ink, the race to the bottom is a fast one – as we see click bait proliferate (see The Spectator and others morph into Red Top Racism.)
The media has become the locus for political discontent. From False Flags to Bell Pottinger, from Revolving Doors to Ruth Davidson, from Fake News to Question Time, from the Green Ink Gang to the Christmas Box debacle, the media has become THE issue of our time.
This has real limitations for a political movement to be viable. As Jonathan Shafi writes:
“Media and the management of political debate and ideology must be understood. But confident movements excel by using creative ways to maximise their impact, not by obsessing about media bias – even if it exists. That’s true of all successful movements historically.”
If journalists react to “exposes” about Churnalism or “Russell Jackson” with a knee-jerk defensiveness that is perhaps understandable, but it is also a real problem when trust in news and current affairs practitioners is at an all-time low.
Newspapers and media organisations in Scotland could do much more to rebuild trust, increase transparency and openness. This would be good for democracy.
The perception that the media is ‘a game’ for politicians and journalists from which the general public is excluded is a problematic one and probably unsustainable in a era of digital and social media. It would be better to break open that model and find ways for media participation and literacy.
But equally elements of the nationalist movement need to be able to distinguish between valid credible criticisms of the Scottish Government and “SNPBad” stories. Just squealing that at absolutely everything undermines the very real examples when Manufacturing Consent is at play or when political bias is obvious.
Here’s some issues worth reflecting to rebalance paranoia and regain some perspective:
- The MSM isn’t an amorphous unified entity. There’s good and bad media out there. It’s a lazy term.
- Not all journalists are evil. Some are very good, honest, hard working and their work is invaluable.
- Newspapers are important, even vital to democracy. They need to be improved not destroyed.
- The role of an opposition is to hold the government to account. This is true in Scotland and at Westminster, at Holyrood as well as Westminster.
- Political parties send out press releases, that’s normal.
- If you just read news sources which confirm your existing views you are limiting yourself, even if it feels really good.
The media needs reform, regulation and a revolution in ownership. That is already under way through
When we broke the story of the BBC’s Fake Audiences on Question Time in 2016 it felt like a veil had been lifted on how TV propaganda is created, and the fact that the murky world of tabloid journalism has escaped any meaningful regulation rightly fuels peoples anger. The double-whammy of Project Fear and then the experience of the lies, Big Data and dark money of the Brexit campaign has turbo-boosted a heightened awareness to bias and structural issues in the media.
But dwelling purely in this world has a distorting effect, and there is a more positive approach to take.
Some questions include: Is all of your energy, is your entire movement focused solely on this issue without also engaging in a positive politics? Are you supporting the many new, credible, critical media voices and platforms that are emerging in Scotland and beyond? Are you able to join the dots between the deeper structural issues of news and media distortion beyond the bias in Scottish party politics?
There’s many ways to be part of a movement for media change that’s about disinvestment or active support for critical independent media.
You can support us (please do!), you can support Stop Funding Hate – or Don’t Buy the Sun – or support The Ferret or Cable – two of the great new media projects to come out of Scotland in recent years. Be the change you want to see, another media is possible.