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Wednesday, March 19, 2008 

A system unchanged by scandals.

If the tabloid press in this country has had a worse collective day than Wednesday the 19th of March 2008, then it was a hell of a long time ago. Not only did the McCanns receive the most craven, sycophantic, crawling, boot-kissing, pathetic front-page apology from both the Daily Express and Daily Star, with the weekend papers to run the same on Sunday, something which is unprecedented and a new low for journalistic standards in this country, but the Daily Mail has also had to make a libel payout to the US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, which with costs from a three-year court battle could add up to the Mail having to sell out £4 million, while the Mail's sister paper, the London Evening Standard, has similarly had to make a front-page "apology/clarification" to the organisers of last summer's climate camp near Heathrow, for over-egging a story about the direct action which some of the protesters planned.

Actually, the latter part there is the Press Complaints Commission's judgement on the matter (website seems to be currently offline, otherwise I'd link to the adjudication. Update: adjudication is here). If the PCC wasn't such a toothless organisation packed to the rafters with the self-same editors of the national newspapers which are complained about on its board, with Peter Hill, editor of the Express currently on the panel, then it would have made clear that the Evening Standard article and indeed most of the tabloid coverage (and apart from the Guardian and Independent, also the broadsheet coverage) of last summer's climate camp were the most baseless smears, lies and scaremongering about the protesters' intentions and tactics. Unlike the Express that rolled over and played dead, the Evening Standard was still last week denying that its article was by any means inaccurate, with the paper's managing editor Doug Willis using the Guardian's response column to dispute George Monbiot's careful evisceration of the Evening Standard story, a taking-apart which even the PCC today endorsed. The damage though has long ago been done; the other newspapers took the story on, in a perfect example of Nick Davies' ninja turtle syndrome rule of production, while everyone has long forgotten about the protest itself. Justice cannot be said to have been done.

The McCanns picked on the Express/Star out of the sea of tabloids that ran very similar stories about them for two reasons: firstly because the Express and Star were the worst, most consistent offenders, day after day running MADELEINE front pages, with the Star in two truly shocking stories alleging firstly that they had sold Madeleine, and secondly that the two of them were involved in wife-swapping/orgy parties, without even the slightest smidgen of evidence to back up either; and secondly because they were also the easiest target. Can you seriously imagine Associated Newspapers or News International under Murdoch capitulating without even the slightest fight? Make no mistake, regardless of their chances of winning, they would have taken the battle all the way and strung it out for as long as possible. No, the Express and Star were the easiest to pick-off, newspapers cut to the bone by a predatory, repulsive proprietor not interested in the slightest in their history, only out to make huge amounts of money while destroying any reputation they had remaining in the process. £550,000 after all is peanuts to Richard Desmond, who has previously paid himself largesse in excess of £45m for a year's helming of his businesses. This was a warning shot across the bows to all the other tabloids, saying "you're next" if you keep it up.

Purely and simply, the Express' and Star's decision to keep publishing was based on two factors: churnalism and greed. The Guardian (which has gone to town on the payout, producing a leader on it, something that none of the tabloid press which would usually crow about their rival's downfall will do) is reporting that the decision on the Express to keep splashing on the Madeleine story was, in the words of Express hacks themselves, down to marketing. Rather than any intrinsic news values, which had long since departed Praia da Luz, the Express kept on and on because surveys showed that some fucked-up self-hating worms keep devouring the stuff. They didn't to such an extent that the newspaper actually made an increase in sales month-on-month, as the ABCs lay witness to, but it did halt the decline year-on-year; in October the Express was up by 0.15%, and the same was true in November, where it remarkably sold the exact same number of copies as it did the previous year. Only in December did the decline again accelerate, with the stories starting to dry up altogether. These stories were cheap, either copied out of the Spanish or Portuguese press or made up entirely; nasty; and they sold well, all the fundamentals that so underpin churnalism. Some in the industry have remarked that it's amazing that the Express and Star still manage to put out a newspaper, let alone have time to do such things as check facts or properly investigate and verify stories, so although this was a wilful assault on a couple who had lost their child, it was only a matter of time before something similar happened regardless of Desmond's greed.

The Express's fatal mistake was that it went too far and did so too often. Rather than simply blaming the McCanns for their daughter's apparent abduction, something that Allison Pearson did last week when she attacked Fiona MacKeown and placed the blame for her daughter's death on her and not on her actual killer, it instead went for invention and slander. As Davies relates in the chapter on the Daily Mail in Flat Earth News, the Daily Mail knows in general just how far to take its hatchet jobs, making it clear where the blame really lies, or on who is the real offender rather than a victim, but without libelling anyone, or at least anyone who has the money to sue or to dedicate time to putting a prolonged complaint through the Press Complaints Commission. When it does do so, it has the collateral behind it to pay out any damages without so much as a wince, although today's £4 million might make it suffer slightly more than usual. Hence Colin Stagg slandered for years in the Mail will only receive compensation from the government and not from the gutter press, nor has he ever received an apology from them for their 10 years' worth of lies and implications that he killed Rachel Nickell. Robert Murat, slandered, smeared and libelled in a similar fashion to the McCanns, is also unlikely to receive any similar payout, and he, rather than being thought of as a suspect initially by the police, was first targeted by the Sunday Mirror's Lori Campbell, who remembered Ian Huntley and made her suspicions known. Campbell will never have to make a grovelling apology to Murat; instead she's been nominated for Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards!

Fundamentally however, nothing that has happened today will change the Street of Shame in the slightest. The Express and Star, cut to the bone, pushed their luck too far and chose the wrong grieving couple to attack; had they done similar to Fiona MacKeown or the parents of Shannon Matthews, which the Star today splashes on, then they would most likely have got away with it. MacKeown or the Matthews won't be able to either afford Carter-Fuck or persuade them to represent them pro bono for similar actions, and so if they wanted to complain would have to go through the PCC, where their chances would be slight to non-existent. The Mail, although stung by the damages and costs, will be printing exactly the same things as they did about Sheldon Adelson tomorrow, and will do until the end of time or people finally stop buying the vile rag. The Evening Standard, although forced to apologise, has had no financial sanction put on it, and the incident will be forgotten within days. It'll be free to smear and attack the next grassroots protest movement that comes along, just as its stable-mates have done before and will do so again. This is the system, which according to John Whittingdale, the chair of culture, media and sport select committee has "worked". He is of course right. The system, which was set-up to protect both the press themselves and those with the money to defend themselves, has indeed worked. For everyone else, they're just as screwed as ever.

Related post:
Enemies of Reason - Is it a victory? No, it's a defeat

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