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Friday, November 16, 2007 

Scum-watch: The day in a life of the tabloid.

Occasionally, you can get a complete picture of the world view of a newspaper simply by reading just one issue of it. While with most, especially the broadsheets, you might broadly know what it's in favour of, to really understand its exact philosophy you'd have to study it over a number of days, if not longer. Today's Sun, in one sense, is a masterpiece of gutter journalism: it gets its message across, leaves no nuance, uses the most alarmist, provocative and brutal language, and when it needs to, or doesn't need to, it lies and systematically distorts.

The report on Lord Chief Justice Phillips' speech to the Howard League for Penal Reform is partially the result of the tabloid conundrum: how do you convert a speech running to 26 pages in a PDF into a minor article of just over 200 words? The answer is that you only focus on a tiny piece of the actual speech, that of Phillips quite reasonably saying that the prisons are full to bursting and that Labour is chiefly responsible for that fact. On that, the Sun would broadly agree; what it doesn't agree with is that Phillips dares to believe that there is a better option rather than that of building ever more prisons, something he goes into at length in the actual speech. All this adds up to in the Sun's reportage is that he compares the price of 30 years' imprisonment to how it could be spent on education or health, one of his weakest arguments, considering that only murderers or terrorists are ever sentenced to 30 years, while ignoring his more coherent and forceful points about prisons in general. Then examine the language: rather than those in prison being offenders or criminals, they are variously either "villains", a Victorian way of describing them if ever there was one, or "crooks".

To further make clear the Sun's own viewpoint, the same journalist who wrote the report also submits a short "comment" piece, on the same page. In his words, "a record 80,000 villains are off our streets and behind bars," and when making the distinction between prison and other punishments, he describes the alternative to prison as "fines and soft community sentences." The latter part of Phillips' speech is dedicated to community punishments, which the Sun deems soft, and how they can be strengthened, yet none of this is deemed important enough to be distilled to the reader, presumably because it just might undermine the journalist's quavering indignation about it all: "Once again, the Lord Chief Justice has shown how out of touch he is. Ordinary people WANT crooks to be banged up." Phillips is so out of touch that he himself went on a day's community punishment "undercover" to see what it was like, and he describes his experience during the speech, something that a Sun hack is never likely to do, except to expose how "useless" they are. The statement that ordinary people WANT crooks to be banged up is the Sun pretending to be speaking up for the commoner, when there is no evidence to show that the general public do want "crooks" to banged up. Indeed, a recent Grauniad poll found the country split down the middle on whether the solution was more prisons. The Sun does have previous on distorting Phillips' public utterances; this time, rather than coming out with it in the actual report, it does it by its side instead.

Next up, the Sun reports on our friend Robert Stewart who was caught having sex with his bicycle. Another lesson in tabloid language: like with the various adjectives for criminals, he's a perv, a weirdo and an oddball. He might quite possibly be all three, but whether he ought to be humiliated any more for what he did is another matter.

Following on from prison and sex, the Sun settles on another best-seller and a moral panic to boot: the kids are most certainly not all right. Taking the government's survey of 115,000 10-15 year olds (PDF), it selects only the most troubling data from it and leaves all the rest on the editing floor:

"BINGE drinking, drug use and smoking is RIFE among Britain’s schoolchildren, an alarming new survey reveals.

At least one in seven kids aged 12 to 15 has dabbled with illegal substances, it found."

It starts by removing the 10 to 11 year olds from the equation so that the figures are even more potentially scare-worthy. The survey asks how many have taken an illegal substance in the past four weeks for example, with 80% saying they've never taken drugs, 7% saying they haven't in the last month, 9% that they've smoked cannabis, 3% solvents, 3% other drugs and 6% prefer not to say. Doesn't look so frightening then, does it? That's the thing with statistics, they can be incredibly easily manipulated, something that the Scum has accused the government of doing, but which it seems also more than prepared to do itself. It does this partially by converting the percentages into one in however many, which the average layman is less likely to easily understand, so that those who have taken a Class A drug becomes 1 in 30, which is almost meaningless unless you put it the context of it being the equivalent of around one child in the average class taking such a substance. It also doesn't make clear that the figures refer to in the last month, so it becomes "takes", giving the impression that they're regular users when that might not be the case at all.

Half of kids aged between ten and 15 admit to underage boozing and a fifth regularly get drunk. And more than one in five has smoked a cigarette.

Again, the question here was have you ever had an alcoholic drink, not just a sip. Unsurprisingly, 48% said yes. Most 10 to 15 year olds would have at some point in their life had a drink, and some parents might even encourage the continental approach of a glass of wine or similar with a meal, but the Sun converts innocent or supervised drinking into "underage boozing". More potentially worrying is that 40% of those over 13 admit to being drunk once in the last month, but the Sun strangely doesn't use that stat. 73% say they have never smoked a cigarette, which again, doesn't get an airing.

Tories last night claimed the figures were more proof of Britain’s “broken society” under Labour. Shadow children’s minister Tim Loughton said: “Gordon Brown is in denial about this problem, and his Government is unable to offer any solutions to it.

Finally then, we get the standard quote from the opposition political party capitalising on the more troubling parts of the survey. If anything, it actually provides plenty of evidence against the Tories' bullshit about the "broken society"; the biggest worry is exams, with 51% concerned by them, rather than bullying, which worries 25%. It certainly doesn't suggest that there has been a moral breakdown, or that today's children are any worst behaved than earlier generations. The best summings up are provided by the chief inspector of schools, and amazingly, Ed Balls:

"The survey presents much that is positive about life for children and young people today. However, it is also clear that more needs to be done to address children and young people’s worries and concerns about how safe they feel; about exams and tests; and about what would help them learn better and where they need to go for help when they have a problem."

"This survey shows that the majority of children and young people in England today feel happy, safe, enjoy life and are doing well at school. But the survey also shows challenges and pressures that we need to address with decisive action."

Right, so we've had crime and prisons; sexual perversion; kids on drugs and booze; what's left? Of course, immigration!

THE NUMBER of migrants coming to Britain has hit a record high – as officials admit underestimating figures AGAIN.

Some 591,000 arrived last year – up from 327,000 a decade ago.

Of the 400,000 leaving to go abroad, just over half were UK citizens – the first time that figure has gone above 200,000.

The figures were published as officials said the number of arrivals in 2004 and 2005 was 41,000 HIGHER than predicted.

Earlier this month ministers admitted 1.5million migrants had come to Britain since 1997 – TWICE their original estimate.

Here the Sun is hedging its bets ever so slightly. The number of migrants arriving here last year was a record - but only by 5,000 on 2004's figure. When you take into account that the net migration figure that year was 244,000, as compared to last year's 191,000, due to the rise in emigration, 2004, the year the A8 new European states joined, was in actual fact when the highest net number of migrants arrived. The Sun doesn't comment on the emigration figure, which includes just less than half of those who had already come here to work going back home, probably because that undermines the idea that all those who have migrated here have stayed. Figures for those who come here for less than a year then return home aren't kept; they're counted in, but not counted out, which also distorts the figures somewhat. Instead of pointing out how the figures of those migrating here have now dropped for two years, and that the emigrant figures suggest that we're now becoming a revolving door rather than a permanent stop for migrants, the Sun brings back up the mess up from earlier in the month, but gets it wrong. 1.5 million migrants have taken up new jobs since 1997, not have simply come here.

After all of that, we have the very voice of the Sun itself, just in case you can't detect it in any of the above. As the Sun often does, it returns to one of its very favourite themes - and lies about it. (Again, the article seems to have disappeared into the ether with it changing to tomorrow's leader rather than leaving a permanent entry, so you'll have to trust me on what it said.)

RABBLE-rousing Abu Hamza has used our liberal system of justice to get away with murder — almost literally.

Which is completely untrue to begin with. He hasn't got away with anything - as his current stay in a prison cell demonstrates. If the Sun's really so outraged by how long Hamza escaped justice for, it perhaps ought to take it up with the security services, who were more than aware of what Hamza was up to and might well have even had an agreement with him regarding how as long as he didn't advocate violence against the UK itself they left him alone.

Three of the four 7/7 Tube bombers were radicalised while attending the Finsbury Park mosque where he spouted his evil creed.

This is the real lie. There is no evidence whatsoever that the bombers were radicalised while visiting the Finsbury Park mosque; indeed, if they ever did attend it. The only source that has ever alleged that three of the bombers listened to Hamza was the Times, in just one story the day after Hamza was sentenced. No other newspapers have seen fit to investigate and follow up this potentially explosive revelation, which is usually the sure sign of it being untrue.

Convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe-bomber Richard Reid were fans.

Established facts? In the Sun? Amazing!

It was only after a campaign led by The Sun that he was locked away for inciting murder.

Ah yes, it was the Sun wot did it!

Some might balk at this post and wonder what the point of it is meant to be. After all, tabloids are meant to be provocative, entertaining, and strong, unrelenting voices: not all of us are going to want the staid tones of the Times or the Grauniad, or the pompous handed down opinions of the "commentariat"; that's why so many enjoy swearblogging and fisking, preferably with gratuitous insults. That's all more than fair, and I'm certainly not suggesting that they should be stopped from doing any of the above. It's also probably true that the tabloid press are not any worse than they've ever been; certainly, they have to now crouch pieces that would previously have been openly racist and bigoted in less certain terms, or cushion the blow through mealy-mouthed language which actually adds up to the same thing. It has to be remembered however that the Sun is still the highest selling newspaper in the country, shifting over 3 million copies. For some people, this newspaper is the main source of news, or the only source of news for those who aren't that interested. Through such openly biased, unfair and in some cases plain wrong reporting, a completely false image of this country comes across. As the quote at the top of this blog suggests, the very nature of the press affects the nature of politics, and who can argue that the Sun, or its owner, doesn't wield power that most politicians themselves would kill for? The examples in this post are just a small snapshot of how it sets about setting its own agenda on just one day. Isn't it time, rather than just blaming the politicians for the cynicism with which the public views politics, that we examine the fourth estate's role in furthering the disconnect that seems to be becoming ever more pronounced?

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