The Talented Mr Littlejohn

We didn’t need a 2,000 page report by Leveson to demonstrate that something is rotten in the state of journalism, we just need to remind ourselves of the glittering career of Richard Littlejohn.

Here is a man who has worked in journalism since 1971 and in his most recent form – twice-weekly ‘satirical’ columns – has been handsomely paid by both the Sun and the Daily Mail (rumour from a few years back put his annual salary at £800,000). Along the way he has been named Fleet Street’s Columnist of the Year and he was also given a place in the inaugural Newspaper Hall of Fame as one of the most influential journalists of the past 40 years. Even this year Richard Littlejohn was runner-up (‘highly commended’) for the columnist of the year award in the 2012 UK Press Awards.

Only an industry which has no standards, no concern for facts and no qualms about regularly printing hateful spite aimed at the weakest in society would enable Richard Littlejohn to become one of its leading lights.

Littlejohn is infamous for writing unpleasant things and his column on Lucy Meadows was nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, it was exactly the kind of column that Paul Dacre pays him so handsomely to write (and we must ultimately blame the editor, not the writer for what is deemed fit to publish). Lucy Meadows was the perfect victim for a Richard Littlejohn attack job. She wasn’t rich, powerful or influential; she was vulnerable, had no voice and was most importantly different. Whilst Richard Littlejohn’s surreal personal website insists that he is some kind of crusader taking on the rich and powerful, the evidence of column after column attacking the disenfranchised suggests that this is the one thing he doesn’t actually do.

He famously decided to attack the five female victims of a serial killer, labelling them as ‘disgusting, drug-addled street whores’ who were ‘in the scheme of things… no great loss’ because it wasn’t as if they were  ‘going to discover a cure for cancer or embark on missionary work in Darfur’.  He commented on the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people died:

Does anyone really give a monkey’s about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.

When Japan suffered a Tsunami in which over 19,000 people died Richard Littlejohn wrote that:

the Japanese people have a distinct culture of their own, which is entirely alien to our own values. They are militantly racist and in the past have been capable of great cruelty.

And went on to explain that whilst you shouldn’t blame current generations for the sins of the past, he does exactly that by explaining why some WWII veterans wouldn’t be joining in the minute’s silence for Japan because of Japenese cruelty during the war (77.4% of Japan’s population were not even born until after the end of WWII). Indeed, Richard Littlejohn – never a model of consistency, even had the gall to write: ‘But why Japan and not, say, those massacred in Rwanda or starved to death by Mugabe in Zimbabwe?’. Obviously, we’ve all read his real thoughts on the 800,000 killed in Rwanda, it’s just that Littlejohn hates so many nameless foreigners that he can’t keep up with which genocides he has in the past written derogatory comments about.

Richard Littlejohn is well known for his need to dehumanise his victims – indeed, most newspapers use this technique to make the targets of their hate easier to insult; if you take away a person’s humanity, you can write what you like about them with impunity. He’s also well known for his staggering laziness, rehashing the same few columns over and over again and failing to engage in even the most cursory research to avoid making simple mistakes or repeating the same tired old media myths (a lack of research is the kind way of viewing this, it could be he knows the truth, but just does not care).

He is, in short, terrible at being a journalist.

And this is what Leveson failed to really address, the fundamental problem that what falls under the general label of journalism because it appears in a newspaper is often the antithesis of the common understanding of what journalism should be. What Littlejohn et al clearly demonstrate is that the issue is best dealt with by Trading Standards – they need to determine what it is acceptable to label as a ‘newspaper’. If a newspaper should primarily be concerned with a factual reporting of general interest news items, then the label should not apply to the Daily Mail and it’s tabloid brethren. Perhaps we need to start from scratch and have a formal system that regulates news and separates it from comment – we need to recognise that most of our newspapers are little more than propaganda sheets published solely in the interest of wealthy owners.

Above all, we need to recognise that papers like the Daily Mail exist because their brand of hatred is popular and people buy it. The same goes for Littlejohn, he has – and continues to have – a glittering career because editors see value in writing populist myths as fact and in attacking the disenfranchised. All I ever wanted from Leveson was for him to come up with a regulatory system that leveled the playing field by ensuring that newspapers have to stick to the facts. I don’t mind newspapers having an opinion, but I do object when the evidence put forward to support their opinion is a vast tissue of lies.

It seems to me that the best way to detoxify newspapers is to create a system in which they are punished, substantially, for lying to their readers. Would the tabloid press really be as popular as they are if they couldn’t rely on wheeling out the same old populist myths to feed the flames of anger in their readership? Would Littlejohn have carved out any kind of career as a columnist if he couldn’t rely on telling lies to whip up anger and hatred?

The case of Lucy Meadows is very sad and anger should be rightfully directed at the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre, along with Richard Littlejohn for writing the piece. It should also be directed at the other newspapers who sent photograpers and journalists to harass Lucy Meadows and the people around her. However, it should also be directed at the people buying these newspapers – buying the Daily Mail et al is an anti-social act and should be looked upon as such by any decent citizen.

The only way we can change the press we get, is to change the press we buy.

The Mail Online’s idea of a ‘New Craze’

There are lots of things that I have never heard of. The Mail Online’s latest warning is about one of them: the ‘salt and ice challenge’. The Mail Online has lifted a report from the Huffington Post (which they credit) about how some teenagers in America (one doctor in Detroit – population over 700,000 – had seen 3-4 cases in the past 6 months) have been trying this challenge and causing themselves various levels of skin burns. I can’t help but think that if the Mail had really wanted to prevent this dangerous challenge they’d probably do the responsible thing and not report on it (complete with several photos of effects and a video showing how the challenge is performed). Let’s not forget that the Mail website is now one of the most visited websites on the planet and can therefore presumably spread a ‘craze’ like few others.

I can’t help but think that for the sake of a few more web hits the Mail website has just given more people a dangerous activity that they’d probably never have heard about otherwise. The Internet is full of crazy stuff and I have no objections to this, but what annoys me is organisations like Mail Online – which pretend to be above the trivialities of the Internet – producing such content and dressing it up as journalism and labeling the writer a ‘reporter’. One of the aspects that Leveson didn’t address what was does the label ‘newspaper’ or ‘journalism’ actually mean? Should it only refer to an organisation that seeks to deliver news in a reliable, factual and unbiased way; or is it fine for anyone to write anything with any bias or factual inaccuracies and label it journalism just as long as they work for one of the established newspapers or their various online spin-offs?

The problem with real journalism is that no-one wants it, or at least that no-one wants to pay for it. We therefore end up with newspapers that only ever chase readers, rather than actual news. What we end up with is the exact thing that socially conservative newspapers like the Daily Mail – on the surface at least – supposedly rail against: the systematic dumbing-down of ‘news’ until newspapers become little more than vehicles for celebrity PR men to create exposure and wealth for those who have some tenuous relationship with fame. We get Mail Online, one of the most soul-destroyingly popular websites on earth.

The Mail website is a cesspit of celebrity drivel, freakshow exposures of anything deemed outside the narrow norms of conservative Western culture and stories taken from across the website which are not news in any traditional sense. Again, I don’t mind that such websites exist – I love the randomness of the Internet – but for the sake of convincing me that humanity has some hope, please stop calling this journalism.

Internet Trolling, Twitter and the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail has a long history of attacking Twitter users as sad loners trading insults anonymously with each other and directing their ire at celebrity targets en masse when it suits them – as if Twitter is one giant hive mind. This then seems to contradict with the other articles that the Daily Mail runs, that Twitter is also a site that allows self-important liberals to get all offended all the time and lead ‘campaigns’ against things (like certain Daily Mail articles / writers).

Either way, the Daily Mail enjoys trawling Twitter for easy copy and to generate page hits to the now all-consuming Mail Online website (when it comes to Internet trolling the statistics don’t lie: the Daily Mail is king). There have been a couple of articles that have caught my attention recently. Firstly, the Mail writes some standard guff about how Twitter trolls have been targeting Carol Vorderman – they ‘trade vile insults about her looks‘. Fair enough, but they should perhaps pay more attention to Vorderman’s words:

Speaking to the Mail, Miss Vorderman added she does not let online bullies affect her self-esteem. But she said Twitter abuse should be monitored to protect more vulnerable victims.

Yes, protect vulnerable victims from Internet abuse, I think we can all agree that insulting someone who can fight back is one thing, whilst insulting vulnerable people is generally considered at the very least unsporting. Step forward Daily Mail Reporter and the recent article on Emily Lloyd posted on the Mail Online website. This article is a particularly nasty example of the ‘look at this person, they were beautiful 20 years ago, BUT JUST LOOK AT THE STATE OF THEM NOW!!!’ articles that the Daily Mail delights in (both online and in print). What you need is a little background – which, amazingly in the context of the article, the Mail Online gives:

In 2009 Emily revealed she had been suffering from crippling chronic insomnia and admitted this led to her having more time to analyse her situation during long nights in her bed dwelling on a career that might have been.

For Emily has suffered from mental illness on and off for 20 years and there have been various diagnoses, among them mild schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit disorder.

Emily Lloyd is the sort of vulnerable victim that deserves protection from Internet trolling, yet the Daily Mail is happy to print this kind of article (which is now edited, the original having been airbrushed from history as usual by Mail Online). What the Daily Mail never acknowledges is that most Twitter users spray their hate to a handful of followers and occasionally direct it at a celeb who might have thousands of mentions a day; this is a world away from having the platform of being one of the world’s busiest websites and printing trolling articles aimed at vulnerable individuals.

It isn’t the first time Emily Lloyd has come under fire from newspapers playing the ‘look at what celeb X wore to the shops!’ game, and the Mail article acknowledges this as well;

Trademark wit: Emily may not look on form, but three years ago she laughed off critics of a similar photo by asking what attire might have been appropriate – a ball gown and tiara?

Yet, elsewhere in the article: ‘She wore a mismatched outfit as she walked her dog, carrying a few items from a local shop.’

Even though they acknowledge the stupidity of the main thrust of the article, they go ahead and publish it anyway (You can read more about the Emily Lloyd article on the Rethink Mental Illness website).

Elsewhere Amanda Platell attacks Twitter users in her weekly column of increasingly confused and desperate bitterness:

However many loyal fans a celebrity has on Twitter, it has become the underground playground for twisted inadequates who revel in others’ misfortune.

Be it Stephen Fry or Rebecca Adlington, no one is spared their malign attacks.

Twitter allows trolls, under the cloak of assumed identities, to make comments that they would not dare say even to their worst enemy in the pub. Comments that can be fired off in seconds without thought, decency or shame.

And as soon as one troll attacks, others pile in, validated and encouraged in their bravado by each other’s odious spite. The language of hatred becomes a badge of honour for these subterranean internet-obsessed losers.

This from someone employed as a professional troll, working for the most famously hateful newspaper / website in the world. Especially look at the accusation that Twitter users hide ‘under the cloak of assumed identities’ to make comments they don’t want to take responsibility for, isn’t that exactly the same as all the hateful Mail Online articles attributed only to the Daily Mail Reporter?

Not to mention that Platell exists purely to spread hate – in fact, she’s so good at her job that the Mail have even had to issue apologies for her articles in the past:

A column by Amanda Platell on 17 September 2011 referred to Sheryl Gascoigne as a ‘gold digger’ and as ‘sleazy and degrading company’ for the other participants in the Leveson Inquiry. We now accept that these allegations are entirely unfounded and went beyond fair comment. We have sincerely apologised to Ms Gascoigne in court for the distress caused and have agreed to pay her substantial damages and costs.

You know you’re spreading some hate when even the ‘only-apologise-when-forced-to-in-a-court-of-law-whilst-paying-damages’ Daily Mail feels that a columnist has gone ‘beyond fair comment’.

Platell does reserve a special hatred for Twitter (maybe it’s that Twitter hate is seen as competition) in the past she has dismissed Twitter as ‘the domain of the inane, the insane and the desperate’ whilst declaring:

In a civilised democracy, the idiots who use Twitter should be banned from voting altogether.

At least Twitter trolls do it for the love of hate, rather than the money.

Odd comments on standard Mail Hitler article

The Daily Mail likes stories about Hitler and even after over 60 years of revelations regarding the dead dictator it always seems like their is fresh information to raise the interest of the newspaper that quite like fascism back in the day (and, arguably, still does). The story is of no consequence but the moderated comments are interesting in what comments are positively rated and which negatively:

How can it be that a comment stating that the reader dislikes Nazis and thought that what they did was bad get 22 negative ratings? How can comments suggesting that the history we are taught regarding Nazi Germany and Hitler is wrong, attract 251 and 98 positive ratings?

The persecution of Muslims by the British Media is real, and endorsed by millions

Unitas Communications has today published the report that it has submitted to the Leveson inquiry entitled: “Race and Reform
: Islam and Muslims in the British Media.” Overall, the report finds that:

a persistence of anti­‐Muslim trends in British Media reporting on issues relating to Islam and Muslims has directly contributed to inaccurate stereotypes and misconceptions about British Muslims in wider British society, and thus to an increasingly hostile climate that has enabled a escalation of anti-Muslim hate crimes over the last decade.

The report has some interesting survey findings detailing the sheer scale of negative reporting towards Muslims, Islam and the repeated assertion that British Muslims are ‘extremists’ and a ‘threat’ to the UK. The report also details the impact that such reporting has had, making non-Muslim British citizens increasingly believe the narrative being spun by an influential media – and the report does comment on the ability for tabloid newspapers to set the agenda and tone of news coverage in Britain. The figures are stark:

In 2010, 75 per cent of non‐Muslims now believe Islam is negative for Britain and that Muslims do not engage positively in society. 63 per cent do not disagree that “Muslims are terrorists”, and 94 per cent agree that “Islam oppresses women.”

The report makes several recommendations – some of which address the issues that this blog and others have repeatedly highlighted. For example, their first recommendation:

A key problem that has been identified with the PCC is that the code of conduct applies only to individuals who have been reported about inaccurately, with a resulting inability to launch third party complaints. Therefore the code of conduct must be amended to address discrimination against groups through false and inaccurate reporting, rather than just individuals.

This is something that is badly needed, and something that seems so obvious. It is has been frustrating over the years to blog about purposefully inaccurate reporting targeted at groups, knowing that the PCC (powerless as it is / was to provide effective sanctions) couldn’t even pass comment on one of the most popular and insidious hobbies of the press.

There seems to me to be an concerted effort in Western societies to solidify the misguided belief that the systematic targeting of a race or group of people stopped when Hitler shot himself in a bunker in Berlin. Our obsession with Nazism stems from the belief that this was something extraordinary, unique and never to be seen again. World War II has taken on some kind of mythic status in which the good civilisation – and more worryingly, America, a nation that had all but wiped out the indigenous population of the land they claimed as their own and whilst fighting the horrors of Nazi Germany still retained its right to segregate its black population – won and evil was defeated, for the final time (after all, the war was labelled as a sequel).

Although nations swore never to stand idly by whilst millions were persecuted by the apparatus of the state or its population, it remains a fact that genocide didn’t stop with the death of Hitler. We have seen plenty of genocide since then – in Europe as well as beyond – but we now refer to it dishonestly as ‘ethnic cleansing’ so as to avoid the legal obligation (drawn up after WWII to prevent such horrors ever happening again) to do anything about it.

My point is that we need to move on from this belief that we’re all decent folk because our ancestors played a part in defeating Hitler, this doesn’t make us his antithesis, and it doesn’t prevent our institutions from targeting groups through the systematic use of propaganda. It seems to me that we use WWII as some kind of persecution benchmark, which means that unless British Muslims are being rounded up and sent by train to deathcamps then they’re not really being persecuted. It leads to a society in which Right-Wing newspapers can publish an wilfully inaccurate article aimed to demonise Muslims as an homogenous group, whilst offering a free DVD about Britain’s glorious role in defeating Hitler who demonised Jews as an homogenous group.

We need to start making more of these worrying incongruities, because they really matter.

The report makes interesting reading and it reminds me of this strange Internet phenomenon where apparently any argument is automatically lost if any parallel is drawn between the point under discussion and Nazi Germany. This is, again, trying to isolate Nazi Germany as exceptional, something that captures our imaginations so vividly because it seems to us a kind of fantasy world in which a civilised country abandons any kind of moral code and commits state-led genocide. I just think this kind of attitude – even if it is intended to be flippant and aimed at people whose first response to any argument is to mention Hitler and consider the discussion over – is dangerous because it makes us complacent. It makes it sound as if we are absolutely certain that we would never commit those acts and therefore any comparison of events in our society to events in Nazi Germany is inherently laughable and should immediately result in that person being labelled as so wrong they are do not even require refuting.

I think there are a great deal of parallels that can be drawn between the Nazi persecution of Jews and the British press’ treatment of Muslims. When anyone is taught about propaganda they are, again, taken back to WWII with an analysis of Nazi propaganda, as if propaganda began and ended in Nazi Germany. In truth, you could easily study the increasingly negative and hysterical propaganda aimed at British Muslims and gain just as clear an understanding of the evils of propaganda in a civilised state as you would by looking at Nazi propaganda.

Just because the end result is unlikely to be the same, doesn’t mean we don’t need to start asking serious questions about the kind of press that the citizens of the UK fund with their buying choices. Not to mention a regulatory system that doesn’t even concern itself with the possibility that newspapers could target groups with dishonest reporting in order to demonise them.

It’s been a while

Well, it’s been a while. After trying to push The New Journalist forward (and failing miserably) and messing around with other projects with mixed results I have reached the point where I seem to have the time to write, but not necessarily the motivation.

This is strange, given that the Leveson inquiry has really provided a wealth of issues to get worked up about with regards to the conduct of the media these last few years (and has basically validated my observations about the conduct of certain newspapers since I started blogging about them). I think the problem is that I have no faith in the outcome of the inquiry, or in humanity in general. Since I’ve been away it seems that it has become much clearer just how corrupt our society is. Our politicians still hunt down the poor and disenfranchised whilst simultaneously lining their own class with the wealth of the state. The corporate body goes on poisoning the world, destroying its resources and doing its best to make us fatter, dumber and more subservient to meaningless consumerism (whilst paying little tax and remaining unaccountable to the society it feeds off of). The banks stride from one Titanic act of fraud to another, only to be kept afloat by a collection of world governments who seem to think that if the banks are endlessly handed more money to pass on (at a decent %) that somehow society will kickstart itself eventually and rejoin the road the doom it was speedily heading down before the banks realised a lot of money they handed out would never be seen again.

The point is that everything is so fundamentally wrong that writing about any issue without using that realisation as the starting point seems a little futile. We cannot keep expanding the human race and consumption indefinitely, this isn’t conjecture, it’s a fact: we live in a finite world. Yet everything that is being done around the planet today is aimed at doing just that. All we are told as citizens is that at some point growth will come back and we’ll start increasing our consumption again and make shit and buy shit that we don’t need and everything will be fab. But it won’t be.

Growth in consumption is probably the worst measure of a successful society, yet GDP seems to be the only measure governments want to pursue. When corporations increase consumption, GDP grows and we’re told the economy is doing well, that we should all feel prosperous. The main problem with this is that such growth is always unsustainable because the wealth is never spread out, and it sure as hell doesn’t trickle down, instead it flows upward, leaving a few billionaires at the top, a few more millionaires doing favours for the billionaires and a wedge doing OK. The rest of the planet merely subsists in abject poverty. This, of course, can be masked (for a while) by banks issuing credit so we can all have a slice of the good life until it becomes clear that most people can’t even afford credit and it all comes tumbling down.

In my mind I have a thousand things that I want to write, but they are all jumbled and too big to pin down into a blog post or any other format. Too many things are soiled by an uncontrollable sense of despair that no matter how clear it becomes that our world society is a corrupt and hollow shell serving a tiny elite at the expense of the overwhelming majority, we’ll all still be too distracted by the TV or celebrities or anything that just is not important to actually stand up and do something.

What frustrates me is that the events of the last few years are not a series of isolated incidents (or bad apples) but actually form a coherent narrative about reality that we should all want to understand and challenge. In fact, it’s more than that: we need – for the sake of all of our futures – to understand and challenge it.

I just don’t have any belief that we will.

I didn’t know what I sat down to write when I created this blog post. It just happened and is probably largely cathartic. It isn’t some kind of personal manifesto (and it certainly didn’t set out to be), it hasn’t been months in the writing (about 20 minutes, as you can no doubt tell), it’s merely the frustrations that I may as well put out there to see if I’m alone or not in having them.

In short: I want to make a positive difference to the world, that was why I started this blog a long time ago now, and I haven’t given up; I’m just really struggling to find the words or hope these days.

For the Daily Mail Sorry really seems to be the hardest word

The Daily Mail today published a correction to an article published on 12 December 2011:

AN ARTICLE on 12 December 2011 suggested that Ned RocknRoll was still married to his wife Eliza when he met Kate Winslet. In fact, the marriage had already ended in divorce. We apologise for any contrary impression given.

The Daily Mail apologises for the ‘suggestion’ or ‘impression’ that Ned RocknRoll was still married to his wife when he met Kate Winslet. When you look at the original article this looks like a very slyly-worded apology indeed:

[After Kate Winslet started dating him] Abel Smith, who eccentrically changed his name by deed poll some years ago to Ned RocknRoll, subsequently informed his wife, Eliza Pearson, 23, the sweet-natured daughter of multi-millionaire Viscount Cowdray, that he had fallen for the Titantic star. While Eliza took it on the chin and decided to divorce him, Louis is still struggling with what happened.

The Daily Mail’s apology, therefore, seriously implies that the original article merely ‘suggested’ or gave the ‘impression’ that the couple were still together at the time. What it actually does is clearly state that after meeting Kate Winslet he ‘subsequently informed his wife’ who ‘took it on the chin and decided to divorce him’.

This half-hearted, weasel-worded ‘apology’ is made by the Daily Mail in the week in which its Editor-in-chief Paul Dacre has had to appear twice before the Leveson inquiry. Dacre was – as ever – bullish about press standards – especially when concerning his beloved Daily Mail – and he argued that press standards had improved greatly in recent years (how bad must it have been before?) and that statutory regulation was not needed.

Since the inquiry started Paul Dacre has taken great pleasure in repeating that the Daily Mail has taken the trouble to offer prompt apologies / corrections on page 2 of its print edition.

However, the reality is that apologies are not prompt or sincere and don’t even attempt to admit or acknowledge the true gravity of the original error. They are in many ways absolutely representative of the culture, attitude and ethics that pervades a press that like a stubborn and naughty child isn’t used – or even prepared – to say sorry properly.

‘Could Spider-Man become a reality?’ asks Mail Online

For some reason the Mail Online editor has filed this article under ‘Science’: ‘Could Spider-Man become a reality? Bizarre white cobweb found on nuclear waste that could have come from a ‘mutant’ spider’.

The article – remember Dacre today telling the Leveson inquiry that the Mail employs some of the finest journalists around – reports that:

In a freakish echo of the Spider-Man comic strip, workers at a U.S nuclear waste facility discovered the growth on uranium last month.

In what way is that ‘a freakish echo of the Spider-Man comic strip’? Sadly, it gets worse. First of all, the Mail explains what has been discovered:

Experts from Savannah River National Laboratory collected a small sample of the mystery material to run tests.

A report filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board – a federal oversight panel – concluded: ‘The growth, which resembles a spider web, has yet to be characterised, but may be biological in nature.’

The report said the initial sample of the growth was too small to characterise, and that ‘further evaluation still needs to be completed’.

Then the Mail steps back into childish fantasy:

he bizarre growth will stoke fears that nuclear fuel can cause Frankenstein-style mutations.

It echoes the plot of Spider-Man, where Peter Parker becomes a superhero after being bitten by a mutant spider at a nuclear waste laboratory.

Whilst a image caption claims:

Web of intrigue: The discovery means mutant spiders, like the one that bit Peter Parker, could become a reality.

And to think that Paul Dacre genuinely believes his newspaper group does serious, decent journalism and is prepared to argue his case under oath.

The New Journalist

Just a short message to let you all know that I’m not sure how much longer this blog will be continued.

As you know I have started The New Journalist and it is taking up quite a lot of my time and I’m not sure whether I should post new content to that site or this one.

In the meantime do please visit The New Journalist website, follow the project on Twitter and do consider contributing to the project – whether it be as a writer or reader – and please feel free to post comments on articles as writers should engage with you.

Many thanks.

PS. New posts will still be appearing below this one.