2007 - 2021

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.

As the Independent reported last year The Sun and Daily Mail were singled out in a European report on hate speech and discrimination in the UK:

“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.

It’s a full-time job just countering the stream of lies.

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.

She goes on in some detail.

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.


Comments (18)

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  1. Ted says:

    I think it’s a shame when, at the moment MSM bias and fakery are most clearly revealed, it’s unfortunate to react chiding those who have put most energy into revealing it. Or by telling them that they need to regain ‘balance’.

    The MSM actually is – as expert media surveys over decades have demonstrated – an “amorphous and unified entity”. Just like the Labour Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru or the Conservative Party are amorphous and unified entities, despite the very wide range of views that their members and politicians hold. The fact that there are ‘good journalists’, and sometimes even good journalism, within it actually contributes to its status as the mainstream. If nobody in the MSM could write or do an interview, it wouldn’t be a problem.

    Some newspapers need to be destroyed, not reformed. If they deliberately and habitually foment aggressive racism and sexism, calling for moderation in response is a bit off.

    Whilst it is ‘normal for political parties to send out press releases’, a newspaper that uses one party’s press releases verbatim and without acknowledgement, is not doing journalism. And a party that supports and benefits from deliberately damaging the integrity of journalism should be called out for doing so.

    It is pretty difficult for anyone to read ‘just’ news sources that agree with them. But avoiding ‘news sources’ that demonstrably rely on partial evidence and suppress well-supported expert evidence seems like a reasonable response to a mainstream media that has repeatedly proven incapable of reforming itself.

    It’s also difficult to imagine anyone putting ‘all’ their energy into criticising the mainstream media. But those organisations and people that come closest to it are doing vital work in the struggle for a better media. These include two of the groups you suggest that people support – “Stop Funding Hate” and “Don’t Buy The Sun”.

    It isn’t nationalists in Scotland (or socialists in England, or nationalists in Wales or Catalonia) who need to change themselves, or to be more ‘balanced’. It is the MSM that desperately needs to change in order to survive. When there’s strong evidence they are doing so, then your call for fairness and moderation will be appropriate. Until then, it would make sense to finish articles on MSM media bias with … attacks on media bias, instead of embarassing homilies to your supporters about how nicely they should behave.

    1. Hi Ted – I’ve actually put quite a lot of “energy into revealing it” – but your response could have been predicted.

      I agree that some newspapers need to be destroyed – and have spent a decade or so writing about it. I have also written about churnalism, and, at length on media reform. You seem oblivious to any of this?
      Maybe this is the first time you’ve read Bella?

      Obviously the two media campaigns groups I’ve highlighted are doing good work (!?). I was referring to others in the indy movement who do NOTHING at all but go on about the media and contribute nothing to the wider movement or their communities. It’s not about ‘nice behaviour’ its about whether you have a political strategy beyond satisfying your own closed sub-culture.

      1. Ted says:

        Thanks for the reply. I’m glad you had it ready, given that my response was so predictable.

        No, it’s not the first time I’ve read Bella. By any means. And I’m perfectly well aware that Bella has done very good work in revealing the serious problems in the mainstream media. Including the first part of the article above.

        That’s precisely why I left the comment, and why I chose the wording I did. You have built up an audience that’s important for the independence movement in Scotland, many of whom – probably the overwhelming majority – are both concerned and well-informed about media bias.
        To devote the conclusion of an article about proven unionist media bias to telling pro-independence activists how to behave is regrettable. I’d suggest this is true whether you call it ‘strategy’ or ‘acting nicely’.

        The reason that I cited your approval for two organisations you suggest supporting as problematic, is because both of them exist solely to criticise elements of the MSM. I take it from your use of (!?) to respond to this, that you don’t understand my logic…

        Allow me to explain. As organisations they do precisely what you claim is problematic. They do ‘NOTHING but go on about the media’. That’s their mission. I think they’re right to do so, and that the success they have had is because of their focus. They don’t backtrack to tell those who agree with them to put their own house in order, or that they should work harder, or that their debating terms are lazy.

        1. Hi Ted – I follow your logic I just disagree with where it takes you.

          I’m making a distinction between Media campaigns like Stop Funding Hate and the movement for independence.

          If you want the movement for independence to be reduced to a camoaign about the media, then fine. I disagree, I think that’s a strategic mistake and a sign of political weakness.

          Not that the work of medi critique/reform/revolution isnt essential, it’s just that its come to dominate everything we do, in my opinion. It takes away agency and allows us to place blame constantly elsewhere (always). I apreciate you think differently.

          And I’m not “telling pro-independence activists how to behave” – I’m raising some issues and questions which I know I’m not alone in holding. Being able to have some self-reflection is important.

          The political task remains to convince people who either didnt vote or voted No to vote Yes. That won’t happen from within a sub-culture that can’t cope with discussion or self-examination.

      2. florian albert says:

        ‘I agree that some newspapers need to be destroyed.’

        Most people would say that the number of newspapers in Scotland is quite small; not many more than a dozen.
        (I am deliberately excluding magazines and local newspapers since I think that your comment does not apply to them.)
        Which particular newspapers, from this quite small number, ‘need to be destroyed’ ?

        1. Well I certainly didn’t shed a tear when News of the World was shut down as it became even too shameful for its owners.

          I woudnt want to see newspapers I disagree with shut down, just ones that are specifically peddling hate. So, if The Sun died I would be happy for instance.

          1. Campbell says:

            ‘need to be destroyed’ sounds a lot like spreading hate to me…

  2. SleepingDog says:

    It’s symptomatic of the “free speech defenders” mentioned to falsely project intimidation on others when they use this method themselves. However, I also think that there is an element of hate or at least reasoned antipathy (towards the behaviour or attitude perhaps, rather than the person) amongst the anti- movements mentioned.

    I read an article today about how the “liberal West” struggles rhetorically now the “failing Eastern bloc” is no more. This is a warning (as I think is Naomi Klein’s point in her book No is Not Enough) not to make your social improvement projects too parasitic upon the hierarchy of faults of your political opponents.

    So I agree with the point made at the end of the above article about the need for more positive approaches, which should involve robust arguments with those who are allies (natural or of convenience) as well as rivals, opponents or enemies.

  3. Brian says:

    I agree with Ted, and think he might find your response somewhat patronising.
    Who is your article aimed at? Be specific. Is it aimed at ‘movements’? Name them. Is it aimed at individuals? Name them.
    Almost every newspaper I have read in the last few years shows distinct bias against Scottish independence and/or the SNP. Some more than others, some less than others. They are already experiencing a consistent drop off in customers, so even commercial considerations fail to change their approach and attitudes. They all deserve to fail, and I hope they do. Only then perhaps will we see print media with a different ownership and a different attitude being born and growing fast.

    1. The article is aimed at whoever wants to read it.
      It’s aimed at the aspects of the independence movement that are obsessed solely with the media to the exclusion of any other political work.

      My fear is that we swing from being against media bias to wanting a media that just tells us what we already think.

      1. Brian says:

        Thankyou for your reply, and I think what you say is fair enough. However, there is a huge gap between strong criticism of biased media and just wanting to read stuff you agree with.
        I read plenty of stuff I agree with. I read plenty of stuff i disagree with. I read plenty of stuff that pretends to be impartial but clearly tells lies or distorts the truth. i want rid of the last category. I see Virgin Trains has started the process 🙂

        1. There is a “a huge gap between strong criticism of biased media and just wanting to read stuff you agree with” – and maybe I’m paranoid, its just the trend that I see (maybe wrongly)

  4. Adolf Marx says:

    More thought police news here, news the thought police have already tried to misinform on.
    Read this fully, very interesting on the relationships and culture inside our favorite internet company.

  5. Doug Daniel says:

    “Newspapers are important, even vital to democracy. They need to be improved not destroyed.”

    But what if they can’t be improved? I rather like this Stewart Lee quote from the first series of Comedy Vehicle:

    “The eighteenth-century polymath Thomas Young was the last person to have read all the books published in his lifetime. That means that he would’ve read all the Shakespeare and all the Greek and Roman classics and all the theology and all the philosophy and all the science. But the same man today, a man who had read all the books published today, would’ve had to’ve read all Dan Brown’s novels, two volumes of Chris Moyles’ autobiography, The World According to Clarkson by Jeremy Clarkson, The World according to Clarkson II by Jeremy Clarkson, The World according to Clarkson III by Jeremy Clarkson… his mind would be awash with bad metaphors and unsustainable, reactionary opinion; one long anecdote about the time that Comedy Dave put pound coins in the urinal. In short, the man who had read everything published today would be more stupid than a man who had read nothing. That’s not a good state of affairs.

    With the amount of misinformation and general nonsense in a lot of newspapers today, I’d struggle to argue that someone who doesn’t read any newspapers at all is really any less well-informed than the majority of those who do read newspapers. You look at the pish regurgitated on social media or listen to the stuff that some folk come out with when chapping doors at election time – stuff that’s straight out of some reactionary right-wing rag – and it’s difficult not to conclude that, on the whole, newspapers (in their current form) actually actively harm democracy.

    Good journalism is important to democracy, but bad journalism is worse than no journalism. And I’m not sure why we require newspapers for good journalism to exist – Cable is excellent, and I wouldn’t describe that as a newspaper!

    1. Hey Doug – yeah good points and I had just finished those Jeremy Clarkson books you mention.*

      Newspapers as the carriers for journalism may fade out and new forms and formats appear (as in the Ferret which has pioneered a specific new funding model itself), or see also the likes of De Correspondent in Netherlands (the biggest crowd-sourced magazine in the world to my knowledge), which are also pioneering new forms such as long-form and slow journalism and deliberately avoiding the news cycle for what’s important not whats topical. So all that may happen and is happening.

      The point I was making was that newspapers and the media in general is reformable – its just takes a combination of balls, motivation, innovation and some investment.

      If the ownership model isn’t changed then nothing will. They represent their economic interest.

      & yes many newspapers are filled with garbage – but so is much online content, it depends what you read : )

      I suppose also there is a defence of journalistic skills and standards which (when applied) are invaluable in whatever format they manifest.

      * not strictly true

  6. Pogliaghi says:

    All dead tree papers should not be circulated in the “traditional manner” because they are all an archaism and generally, rubbish. The Guardian is almost as rubbish as the Daily Mail. Even the National is just a praise sheet for the SNP. Leaving these things lying about in shops is a de facto statement about what “mainstream” opinion is, which ultimately, is conditioned by corporate power.

    In the final analysis, people read the Daily Mail because they agree with it, which is their absolute right. The Daily Mail can be singled out for political correctness, but ultimately it’s missing the broader point, not to mention creating backlash. Likewise if I read, say, Lobster Magazine or Private Eye in dead tree format because I think there’s a lot sense in them, I don’t expect them to be slapped down in a pile near the entrance to every bus or sitting near the checkouts at the supermarket, because I know most people wouldn’t understand or care for them.

    Papers belong in bookshops, on the web, and maybe specialist ones belong in certain sectors, like the FT (which, by the way, is much better than the Gruaniad) being sold in the City.

    PS The Daily Mail is orders of magnitude more successful online than any other paper because of its schlocky content and website’s soft porno thumbnails. All this controversy is wonderful for driving clicks, reinforcing the brand, and also helping the privatising bastards at Virgin left-wash their brand.

    1. You can’t get Lobster in print anymore. Online only.

      Fear of backlash would lead to constant inertia. The point is they’re becoming socially unacceptable, not just politely unacceptable, something shameful …

      You’re right about Clickbait, not sure if Virgin have succeeded in brand washing though, all I saw was a pretty terrible narrative about them too?

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