Archive for May, 2010

The Mail’s ‘Saddam Hussein strategy’ and a growing public backlash

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The Daily Mail is suffering yet another public backlash – this time over the Triesman affair. Following an unprecedented response to Jan Moir’s piece about Stephen Gately the Mail now finds many people were not impressed by its publication of the ‘Triesman tapes’ that led to the FA Chairman’s resignation and has – by many accounts – significantly damaged the chances of England’s 2018 World Cup Bid.

‘Dear Editor of The Mail, Congratulations, your paper is about to be as popular as The Sun is in Merseyside’ RKiran, London, 19/5/2010

‘Can’t believe your stupidity! Thanks for loosing us the world cup. Why would anybody from the birthplace of the game want to take it away from us in one quick blow! Just because you choose to print the actions of one man, didn’t you think about the hundreds of people working flat out to get us the world cup. Or the millions of people you have just broken the hearts of?’ Baxter, Swadlincote, Derbyshire, 19/5/2010

‘So who exactly is helped by this “expose”? What higher purpose is served by publishing it? Millions of pounds and thousands of hours of effort, plus the chance of a £3bn boost to the British economy, ruined by your insatiable desire for xenophobic tittle-tattle. What a vile, pointless hack-rag yours is’ Gary, Exeter, 16/5/2010

  • By Tuesday 55 people had complained to the Press Complaints Commission
  • 84% of Talksport listeners who responded to an online poll believed the Mail on Sunday had been wrong to publish (according to Cahal Milmo)
  • Gary Lineker quit his weekly column in the Mail on Sunday saying:

‘I think it’s a real shame the newspaper made the judgment that they did for short term gain in the sales of newspapers because it’s hard to see that there was any other positive from it… I think this story goes against the national interest… [and] There’s absolutely no question our chances have been damaged’ (Lineker writing in the Independent)

The Mail apparently has a second batch of Triesman tapes (according to the Independent) but given that he is now gone and the paper presumably does not want to rub salt into the public’s outrage, perhaps the paper will choose not to publish these.

The publication of secretly recorded conversations is far from new. The News of the World’s Mazher Mahmood (the ‘fake Sheikh’) has engineered dozens if not hundreds of secret recordings of public figures – particularly footballers and football managers. People may still remember how he taped then England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, prior to the 2006 World Cup, saying that he would step down after the World Cup to manage Aston Villa.

The difference now is the ease with which anyone can record and store audio, video, photographs and text. Almost the only constraint on what you can record of our own – or someone else’s – life is your own inclination.

The choice therefore becomes whether to publish. Such a choice is particularly acute for a newspaper that publishes to a mass audience, since publication is likely to have implications. It therefore has to base its decision to publish on:

  • What interests the public – unsurprisingly, the primary driver for many news/media outlets
  • What is within the law – a practical, if shortsighted, policy since the law can then be extended with potentially negative consequences for free speech (see UK privacy law)
  • How it conforms to the paper’s own principles – as outlined by the newspaper or a body like the Press Complaints Commission (the Mail says it adheres to the Editors Code of Practice)
  • The public interest – open to many interpretations, but defined on Wikipedia as “common well-being” or “general welfare”

The Mail wants to infuriate people and stir up trouble. That’s fine – more power to its sharp elbows. But it also wants to topple public figures – what one might call its ‘Saddam Hussein strategy’. Virtually every week one or more of its columnists calls for someone’s resignation (see previous post). The problem is, as we know from the UK’s experience in Iraq, toppling a public figure just because you can is not much of a strategy. Plus, without thinking about the consequences you can find it doesn’t do much good for the “common well-being” or “general welfare”.

In the case of Triesman, for example, the Mail’s defenestration has done more than derail one man’s career. The 2018 World Cup bid is, by many people’s reckoning, now looking decidedly shakey. Is this the sort of trouble the Mail wants to stir up?

Perhaps the public response to the Triesman affair, coupled with other recent responses, may make it rethink its Saddam Hussein approach. Or perhaps people will just stop buying the paper.

Also worth reading -

David Bond (BBC Sports Editor): ‘Triesman affair leaves sour taste

Roy Greenslade (Media Guardian): ‘Mail suffers, rightly, for its Triesman story

Written by Martin Moore

May 19th, 2010 at 8:15 am

Election press coverage stats special

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What political slogans were picked up most during the election campaign? Which leaders did the press focus on and who did the papers ignore? What issues were talked about and which weren’t?

This is an election press coverage stats special – an analysis of press coverage from Tuesday 6th April when the campaign started, to Thursday 6th of May when it finished. The stats are based on articles published in the national press (online) and on the BBC news website – using data from journalisted.com.

The slogans

Gordon Brown’s manifesto pledge of a ‘future fair for all’ made it into only 82 articles. By contrast, David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘big society’, though it may not have convinced the columnists or a majority of the electorate, was referred to in 480 news articles (almost 400 more than his other pledge to help the ‘great ignored’, referred to in 91 articles). ‘Old politics’, a favourite phrase of Nick Clegg, was mentioned in 168 articles.

The leaders (and spouses)

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were each referenced in over 3,000 articles (‘Cleggmania’ made it into 166 articles). Translated into percentages their coverage equated to – Labour 39%: Conservative 35%: Lib Dem 27% (a distribution Gordon Brown would have been much happier with).

Coverage of the leaders of the other parties was, unsurprisingly, significantly lower:

  • Only 60 articles mentioned Ieuan Wyn Jones, the leader of Plaid Cymru;
  • Compared to 420 articles that referred to Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish National Party;
  • 161 articles talked about Nick Griffin, head of the BNP;
  • 135 articles mentioned Nigel Farage – ex-leader of UKIP and its representative for Buckingham who survived a plane crash on polling day, and;
  • There were 105 articles referring to Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party and its first British Member of Parliament.

Still, only Alex Salmond managed to gain more coverage than Sarah Brown (182 articles), with Samantha Cameron not much less covered (154 articles). Miriam Clegg only found herself in the limelight in the final stages (26 articles).

The politicians

The Conservatives’ ‘decapitation strategy’ to depose Ed Balls helped raise his profile – he was mentioned in 583 articles, more than anyone else in the Brown cabinet except deus-ex-machina Lord Mandelson (747 articles).

Balls was also higher profile than Labour’s other election campaign co-ordinators, Douglas Alexander (123 articles) and Harriet Harman (263 articles).

He was not, however, covered as widely as the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, who – despite a very low profile during the campaign – appeared in 701 articles. This was more than his Lib Dem counterpart Vince Cable (624 articles) and the actual chancellor, Alistair Darling (535 articles).

The spin doctors…

… managed, for the most part, to remain hidden. Andy Coulson made an appearance early in the campaign, and articles about what he knew about phone tapping while editor of News of the World rumbled in the background. But this translated into a total of 59 articles over the month – vs Alastair Campbell in 167. Less even than Charlie Whelan, Brown’s ex-spin doctor who now heads the union Unite, who appeared in 69 articles during the campaign.

Lena Pietsch, Nick Clegg’s press spokesperson, was not covered until the Clegg bounce, after which she appeared in 8 articles (including the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Independent) – 6 fewer than John Sharkey, Clegg’s strategic communications adviser who, according to Th
e Sun, wrote the Lib Dem leader’s TV debate strategy.

The issues

The economy was the chief battleground on which all three main parties fought. 595 articles talked about ‘austerity’, a favourite Cameron term. 390 articles referred to ‘tax credits’, thanks in part to frequent reference to them by Gordon Brown in the latter stages of the campaign.

Electoral reform’, that became such a significant issue after the election, was also one during it – discussed in 459 articles. 302 of these referred to the ‘first past the post’ system currently used in the UK, as opposed to 283 articles that talked about ‘proportional representation’.

Political issues that excited editors and commentators included: inflation (815 articles), spending cuts (770 articles), immigrants (713 articles), budget deficit (468 articles), ‘black hole‘ (177 articles).

Issues that failed to ignite during the campaign: Sure Start (a respectable, but hardly campaign leading 131 articles), ‘broken Britain’ (63 articles), ‘NHS spending’ (36 articles), ‘pensions timebomb’ (6 articles).

Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale grandmother Gordon Brown described as bigoted, distracted media coverage for about 4 days. Duffy was referred to in a total of 438 articles.

The likely outcome

Hung parliament’ became something of an obsession of the political press during the campaign (rightly as it turned out), being referred to in 1,884 articles. 234 articles speculated about the nature of a ‘minority government’. 202 articles talked about ‘tactical voting’.

New polls emerged daily and sometimes even more frequently. In the battle of the pollsters YouGov came out top with 476 articles, followed by ComRes on 283 articles, ICM on 246 articles, Mori on 168 articles, and Populus on 165 articles.

Unable to predict a clear outcome, animated by the first UK television debates, and spooked by the poll bounce of Nick Clegg, the press appeared more excited by this election campaign than the two previous. There were certainly few reports of ‘apathy’ or ‘boredom’.

The numbers can, of course, only ever tell part of the story. They miss the ebb and flow of comment, analysis and endorsements, the occasional contortions of the press, and the rising hysteria of some papers in the final fortnight. But that’s for another blogpost.

Written by Martin Moore

May 10th, 2010 at 6:41 am

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Reports of a – not so very contradictory – PCC survey

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How would you react if you saw two opinion polls that appeared to contradict one another? My initial reaction would be ‘Huh, that’s interesting, I wonder why that is?’ I’d then – if I was interested enough – try to work out what was contradictory and why.

Peter Preston takes rather a different approach in The Observer (‘What does Joe Public think about the PCC? Not too many complaints’). Reporting on an – as yet unpublished – PCC sponsored opinion poll whose findings appear to conflict with previous polls (that of the Media Standards Trust included) Preston suggests the PCC figures mean it is ‘case closed – until someone opens it again’.

But if you take a slightly more open minded approach and examine the PCC survey’s findings, you discover not only similarities between its results and others (including the MSTs), but that most of the results are not really so very conflicting at all.

[Let’s ignore, for the moment, that the actual poll is not currently available to Joe Public, only to the press, and that it was conducted by ‘Toluna’, an online DIY polling company that is not recognized by the British Polling Council].

To take the findings as reported:

Finding #1: 81% of Britons know the PCC exists. This finding tallies closely with that of the MST poll conducted in December 2008. The MST survey –a YouGov online poll with 2,024 respondents – found that 20% of people knew ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ about the PCC, 44% knew ‘a little’, and 29% had ‘heard of them but nothing more’. Only 8% knew nothing or weren’t sure. (Full results online in appendix of ‘A More Accountable Press’).

Finding #2: 58% think it would (in Preston’s words) be ‘improper to just go wading into inquiries or judgments without being requested to do so’. Of course it would be improper to ‘just go wading in’ – is anyone suggesting they do?

The question is not ‘do you think the PCC should just go wading in’ but ‘what should prompt the PCC to assess whether an article(s) has broken the editorial code?’

All regulators have a code of conduct (or equivalent). When this code has been broken – or appears to have been broken – is it is the responsibility of the regulator, any regulator, to investigate whether it has been and, if it has, to do something about it.

Right now the PCC will look into a case only if a ‘first party’ makes a formal complaint (there are a few notable exceptions to this rule). Many of those who criticize the PCC think this is too restrictive. What if it is entirely clear that a news article has broken the code but there is no obvious first party to complain? What if a ‘third party’ makes a valid complaint? What if there is significant public concern about an issue such that it would be in the public interest to have an independent investigation? If the PCC took action in these cases would it be ‘wading in… without being requested’? No, it would be making an inquiry based on the request of a third party or in the public interest.

Figure #3: according to the report, twice as many think the PCC should respond to complaints rather than ‘monitor everything’. How on earth would the PCC monitor everything? Given the tsunami of information on the web that would be impossible. But to keep an eye on the press, and to be alert to serious criticism of its actions – isn’t that the role of any independent regulator?

Figure #4: 51% think ‘the current commission make up of majority outsiders and senior journalists is right’. ‘Senior journalists’? ‘senior journalists’! Surely what the survey meant to say is ‘editors’ since that is who sits on the commission. This is not a semantic distinction. The NUJ has been campaigning for years to get ‘senior journalists’ onto the Commission without any success.

Figure #5: ‘77% prefer a quick apology to calling in the legal eagles’. Of course they do! Wouldn’t anybody? The problem is, they rarely get a quick apology. Many rarely get an apology or correction at all.

Figure #6: ‘only 14% say the Commission’s work is ineffective’. On its own, this figure is not very helpful. Most members of the public have not had experience of complaining to the PCC, therefore it is very difficult for them to judge whether it is effective or ineffective. It was for this reason that the Media Standards Trust did not ask this question in either of its surveys.

More helpful are surveys of those who have direct experience of using the PCC. And indeed there is an annual PCC survey, the latest of which covers 2009.

Here too we get some inkling of the need for a little skepticism about survey results – especially those commissioned by an organization about itself. If you look at the PCC satisfaction surveys over the last few years, they are remarkably – curiously – consistent.

In 2009:

‘80% of complainants said that their complaint had been dealt with thoroughly or very thoroughly’. This compared with a figure of 81% in 2008, and 82% in 2007 (in 2007 Annual Report, p.24)

‘72% of those surveyed considered that the overall handling of their complaint was very satisfactory or satisfactory’ compared with a figure of 75% in 2008 and 76% in 2007

‘79% of people felt that the time it took to deal with their complaint was ‘about right’’, compared with a figure of 79% in 2008 and 81% in 2007

The figures are, in other words, almost exactly the same each year. This is a consistency even Pravda found it difficult to maintain.

It may be that this is simply a coincidence, and perhaps the figures will show a distinct change this year, we’ll see. Still, it makes one realize that such surveys should always be read with a skeptical eye – and an open mind.

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Update: the full results (pdf) of the PCC survey have now been published and have been assessed by TabloidWatch here: ‘PCC is great as it is, says PCC poll

Written by Martin Moore

May 3rd, 2010 at 5:18 am

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