Archive for the ‘jan moir’ tag

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

Free speech, press accountability, and the ‘wisdom of crowds’

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This is a piece I wrote this week for the Guardian’s Comment is Free (published under the title, ‘Between the lawyers and the mob‘):

Last week was a good week for those of us who support press freedom and at the same time believe the press should be made more accountable. But it also raised difficult and rather disturbing questions about free speech and the future of press self-regulation.

The Guardian’s courageous decision to challenge the remit of the Trafigura super-injunction sparked justified outrage in the blogosphere and “Twitterverse” and led to a climbdown by Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck. Meanwhile, Jan Moir’s deeply offensive piece about the death of Stephen Gately, which alleged – with no evidence – that there was “nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” – provoked an even greater response on Twitter. Many of those offended (more than 22,000 of them by Tuesday morning) then complained to the Press Complaints Commission, in part prompted by Stephen Fry, Derren Brown and Charlie Brooker.

The Daily Mail did not apologise, though it changed the title, and removed advertising from around the piece. Moir did not apologise either, but after the unprecedented public reaction released a disgruntled statement suggesting her piece had been misinterpreted and that the public response to it was orchestrated (which raises the question, was the public response to the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode not orchestrated?). The Mail also then published a follow-up piece by Janet Street-Porter that was critical of Moir. The case is now being looked at by the PCC.

Hooray, you say. Two victories in a week – one for press freedom and another for press accountability – what a result. Yet both episodes also raise worrying questions about press freedom, the current state of newspaper accountability, and the threat of mob justice.

In the Trafigura affair, it was striking that almost no newspapers (with the exception of the Guardian) spoke out strongly, despite the danger super-injunctions represent to press freedom. Indeed many newspapers remained strangely silent even after Carter-Ruck relaxed Trafigura’s super-injunction. Nor was there a substantial reaction from formal bodies. The PCC did not say anything, despite in the past promoting itself as a defender of press freedom (even though, unlike its predecessor, it is not constituted to do this). Nor, outside Index on Censorship, were other industry bodies vocal.

The outrage at the Guardian gagging came from individuals, and was remarkably spontaneous and disorganised. Twitter provided the platform for people with common views to come together. This was exciting and tremendously heartening, but showed how few formal institutions there are to protect press freedom despite the significant and growing threats it faces.

The Moir case, on the other hand, illustrates how little accountability there is at some newspapers. If you were offended and wanted to complain, what options did you have? The Daily Mail has no readers’ editor, and no formal complaints process that is publicly accessible in the newspaper or on its website. The only reference to the PCC on Mail Online is not linked to from any other page on the site and is therefore, to all intents and purposes, invisible. This is a newspaper whose editor is the chair of the PCC’s editorial code committee and who sits on the PCC’s appointments and funding body, Pressbof. Yet his newspaper lacks the most basic public accountability mechanisms.

And, if you escalated your complaint to the PCC, as thousands did, you would probably find yourself equally dissatisfied at the outcome. This is not the fault of the PCC’s secretariat, who are diligently working their way through the largest number of complaints over one article in their history. Rather it is due to the rules that artificially limit the complaints they can accept, and the limited sanctions available to them. All 22,000 of these complaints can, according to the rules laid down by the industry, be rejected – since they are considered “third party complaints” (complaints not made by someone directly referenced in the article). In this case, the PCC has said it will consider the complaints and write to the Daily Mail for a response. However, when that response is a small apology tucked inside the paper, many will feel the Daily Mail has got off considerably more lightly than, say, the BBC after the Ross/Brand affair.

This means you are left with the wisdom of the crowd – also known as mob justice. It seem appropriate and proportionate when you happen to agree with it, as in this case, but will seem decidedly unjust if you disagree.

Unless newspapers take more responsibility for their own content, give people the opportunity to complain and respond adequately to those complaints, then they – and their journalists – will come under increasing criticism and attack from the blogosphere, the Twitterverse and other social media. Similarly, unless news organisations protest about the misuse of injunctions, actions such as Trafigura’s will become even more difficult to prevent. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where free speech is constrained by expensive lawyers, nor one where it is dictated by the mob.

Written by Martin Moore

October 23rd, 2009 at 1:26 pm

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