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.

Here lies Winterval: 1998-2011?

So, after a lot of resistance – distorted, truth-bending resistance – the Daily Mail have published a correction after Melanie Phillips claimed that:

Christmas has been renamed in various places ‘Winterval’.

Tabloid Watch has charted the great effort the complainant – regular Tabloid Watch reader James – went to in order for the Daily Mail to admit to the simple truth that Winterval was simply a tabloid fiction. As usual the Mail took a month to respond to the complaint – remember the PCC’s slogan is ‘Free, fast, fair’ and that Daily mail editor Paul Dacre keeps defending the PCC as effective – and when they did they argued that:

The nit-picking suggestion that the term “Christmas” refers only to Christmas Day cannot be supported by anyone with a modicum of common sense. And Phillips did not say the term was intended to replace Christmas Day.

Much wrangling later they finally issued in print and online the following apology:

We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval. Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.

Amazingly – in what appears to be a first – the Daily Mail website has also added the same clarification to the bottom of the original article as well. The Daily Mail is to be commended for this – they have done the right thing.

There are a few remaining questions:

  1. Will Melanie Phillips acknowledge the correction in her next column with any sort of apology?
  2. Will Melanie Phillips apologise to me for responding to my polite email pointing her in the direction of my essay on the Winterval myth by claiming that my message was ‘as arrogant and ignorant as it is offensive’?
  3. Will she also admit that her claim that my blog post about her was ‘highly defamatory and contains false allegations for which you would stand to pay me significant damages in a libel action’ was complete rubbish – given that her own newspaper has now had to issue a correction on her behalf?
  4. Will Winterval still be repeated by politicians / journalists and so forth in the same way that it always has done following various previous debunkings?

I will always be tempted to refer back to my initial point on the Winterval myth: the most depressing thing about it isn’t neccesarily its longevity, but the fact that the original story was so clearly completely untrue and contained clear statements from the council that demonstrated this. It should never have been born, let alone be fed until it was big enough for politicians and far right groups alike to befriend.

Anyway, if you’re in the spirit for more on this please feel free to read my piece on Comment is Free. Or, you could settle down and read my lengthy essay on the matter.

Do computer games leave children with ‘dementia’?

Daily Mail headline: ‘Computer games leave children with ‘dementia’ warns top neurologist’. The first two paragraphs of the article:

Children’s brains could be left damaged and they could suffer temporary ‘dementia’ by playing computer games, a leading scientist has warned.

Eminent neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield said yesterday that spending time online gaming and browsing internet sites such as Facebook could pose problems for millions of youngsters.

Three paragraphs from further on in the same article:

However, she did not reveal any research that had made a connection between screen technologies and brain degeneration.

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and Directory of Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, said he knew of no scientific evidence that such a link existed.

He said: ‘If anything the fact computer games are arousing can aid education by keeping children engaged.’

So, basically she is speculating that constantly being at a computer screen could damage your brain (for example, if you spend too much time on the Mail website) but she fails to provide any evidence to support her hypothesis. The Daily Mail chooses to ignore that and prefers to instead publish a headline that clearly implies the claim is based on evidence – i.e. if they accurately reported what the neurologist had said the headline would read: ‘Computer games could leave children with ‘dementia’ warns top neurologist’ rather than: ‘Computer games leave children with ‘dementia’ warns top neurologist’.

Paul Dacre doesn’t seem to realise that there is a lot more to bad journalism than just phone hacking and that tougher regulation isn’t just a result of that one crime, but rather the fact that the vast majority of newspapers publish bullshit every single day.

Daily Telegraph reheats Daily Mail rubbish

Last week the Daily Mail claimed that Thomas the Tank Engine had got rid of Christmas in an attempt to be politically correct. The article did seem to contradict this claim by including the following two paragraphs near the end:

Hit Entertainment, the company behind the DVD, said: ‘It was put out some time ago. It was not a seasonal release specifically aimed at a Christmas audience, but we do put out seasonal releases that have Christmas in the title.

‘Last year we had Christmas Express and next year we are planning another Christmas title.’

So, the Daily Mail article made it clear that the DVD they were referring to was an older release, and as such was not exactly ‘news’ nor was the DVD intended as a seasonal release.

The Daily Telegraph today ran the following headline: ‘Christmas removed from Thomas the Tank Engine to be politically correct’. They followed up this headline with this sub-heading:

The daughter of the clergyman author who created Thomas the Tank Engine has criticised television producers for writing Christmas out of a new series. [emphasis is mine]

The article continues:

In the offending TV episode called “Keeping up with James”, the trains compete to carry presents to children against a background with a fir tree decorated with baubles and a choir.

But instead of using the word Christmas, the programme talks of the “winter holidays” and a “holiday tree.”

Just a couple of problems:

  1. The episode referred to in the Telegraph article – presumably what the Telegraph means by ‘writing Christmas out of a new series‘ – first aired in 2005.
  2. This year a Thomas the Tank Engine Christmas special is being released on the 31st October – complete with ‘Wishes come true in this Christmas special!’ slapped on the front cover.

The Telegraph does seem to make the vaguest reference to what the Mail article made clear: the removal of overtly Christmas language was a cynical attempt to flog the DVD all year round and all-world-round. However, it doesn’t offer the same level of transparency that the Daily Mail article does and simply states in the closing paragraph that:

Hit Entertainment has said references to Christmas were removed because the DVD on which it featured was designed to be sold all the year round.

And, as is very clear by the expected 31st October release of the Thomas the Tank Engine Christmas special, we can clearly see that new episodes will indeed be cynically exploiting the Christmas theme for profit. Just as Jesus would have wanted, no doubt.


With thanks to @notjarvis for tweeting this story to me.

Richard Peppiatt’s speech to the Leveson inquiry

Your must read article of the day, largely because it is someone from inside the newspaper industry confirming my own arguments about how media narratives are constructed and adhered to by all of the journalists working for a particular newspaper:

In approximately 900 newspaper bylines I can probably count on fingers and toes the times I felt I was genuinely telling the truth, yet only a similar number could be classed as outright lies. This is because as much as the skill of a journalist today is about finding facts, it is also, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, about knowing what facts to ignore. The job is about making the facts fit the story, because the story is almost pre-defined. Laid out before you is a canon of ideologically and commercially driven narratives that must be adhered to. The newspaper appoints itself moral arbiter, and it is your job to stamp their worldview on all the journalism you do.

If a scientist announces their research has found ecstasy to be safer than alcohol, as a tabloid reporter I know my job is to portray this man as a quack, and his methods flawed. If a judge passes down a community sentence to a controversial offender, I know my job is to make them appear lily-livered and out-of-touch. Positive peer reviews are ignored; sentencing guidelines are buried. The ideological imperative comes before the journalistic one – drugs are always bad, British justice is always soft.

This ideological imperative is bound to a commercial one, founded on one main premise: It is easier to sell people something that reinforces their beliefs and prejudices than to sell something that challenges them.

Your success as a reporter is determined by how well you apply this philosophy to your news judgements. Pitch a story to your newsdesk about a peace conference in Wembley attended by thousands of Muslims, you’ll likely get more sneers than you will paragraphs in print. Pitch a story about a three Muslim men shouting “death to infidels” outside a courtroom, you’ll likely be brought a pint and given the front page.

Such narratives, Peppiatt claims, are not driven by the team of journalists but the editor:

typically news stories are passed down the chain of command rather than up, with reporters being assigned stories by their editors. It is here that many of the worst journalistic and ethical failures occur.

News editors, keen to appease their superiors with eye-catching news lists, dump the onus on reporters to stand-up their fantastical hunches and ill-informed assertions. The question is not: “Do you have a story on X?” It is “Today we are saying this has happened to X -make it appear so.”

Go and read his full speech here.

Daily Mail launches astonishing attack on OUR Christian heritage

The Daily Mail have today been accused of ‘an attack on Christianity’ after choosing to use the controversial politically-correct C.E. date format – showing blatant disregard for the AD/BC system based around the year of OUR lord. Critics suggest that a Diktat has been issued by senior staff to all journalists to scrap the use of AD/BC with immediate effect.

The guilty article carries the byline ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ suggesting that the writer is afraid of suffering from an aggressive backlash from the ‘ageing dinosaurs’ that make up a large proportion of the Daily Mail newsroom. The article brazenly uses C.E. without even offering the AD/BC equivalent:

The same object that dazzled skygazers in 1054 C.E. continues to fascinate astronomers today by pumping out radiation at higher energies than anyone expected.

Sources suggest that several big name columnists are set to ignore the Diktat – with Richard Littlejohn reported as saying: ‘Luckily my only terms of historical references are 70’s cop shows, the Carry on films and 80’s sitcoms so although I will make a point of only using AD/BC my readers might not notice’. Other senior figures at the newspaper have labelled the decision as ‘barmy’ and ‘political-correctness gone mad’. Some have suggested the terms are being quietly written out of history in order to ‘avoid antagonising Muslims’ and ‘the flood of immigrants that swamped this country under New Labour’.

An unnamed source quoted Paul Dacre as launching a ‘tirade’ on the subject as he insisted his staff ‘stop living in some kind of fake 1950’s Utopian that had never existed’. Indeed, Dacre – known for his modern outlook – has been battling to enforce his liberal vision of Britain onto the Daily Mail’s writing team throughout his loyal years of service and this is just his latest attempt to embed what he describes as ‘multi-cultural marxism’ into the house style and editorial outlook of the newspaper.

For his dwindling Christian readership this might be one step too far from the daringly liberal, forward-thinking Dacre and critics suggest that a national boycott might occur.


UPDATE:

The Daily Mail have now changed the article:

The same object that dazzled skygazers in 1054AD continues to fascinate astronomers today by pumping out radiation at higher energies than anyone expected.

Initially they updated it to BC, rather than AD which is amusing.

As people in the comments have also pointed out, this article is also a classic bit of churnalism, taken from here.

The lies keep on coming

So, the old myth about the immigrant that avoided deportation thanks to owning a cat was mentioned by Theresa May in her conference speech. Theresa May was laughed at because this never actually happened and had been debunked at the time. So far, so simple. Even the Daily Mail reported on the story – conveniently forgetting that they were one of the early spreaders of the false story back in 2009 when it first started doing the rounds. However, now the Daily Mail have gone and done this:

The Daily Mail: enemy of truth

Even though the lawyers involved in this case have issued a categorical denial of the story only yesterday, they make a complete mockery of the truth and publish this shit. On the front page.

I despair. How can they get away with this? Why do people keep buying this shit? This last few weeks have been amazing in terms of just how many lies the Daily Mail have been happy to repeat. And still nothing can be done.

OK, enough, this has to stop

The Daily Mail is still publishing stories about the BBC’s non-banning of AD/BC from ever more bizarre sources:

Vatican

The ‘journalist’ behind this article is Simon Caldwell and if he doesn’t realise that this story is a complete lie, then he must be one of the most incompetent journalists around, or one of the most morally bankrupt. The article is just breathtakingly dishonest:

The Vatican has accused the BBC of an ‘act of enormous foolishness’ for dumping the terms BC and AD in case they cause offence to non-Christians.

The Roman Catholic Church also severely criticised the ‘senseless hypocrisy’ of Britain’s public service broadcaster for using a false respect for other religions to purge Christianity from Western culture.

Caldwell claims, despite the BBC issuing clarifying statements and the original Mail on Sunday admitting that each presenter was free to choose what terms to use, that:

The new guidance from the BBC asserts that the abbreviations for Before Christ and Anno Domini (the Year of the Lord) infringed its protocols on impartiality.

It instructs employees to instead replace them with the non-religious phrases BCE and BC – Before Common Era and Common Era.

No, the BBC have not issued any such instructions. Anybody with seconds in which to search Google knows this. Everyone who knows how the Daily Mail blusters and lies constantly to attack the BBC for the most inane reasons knows that any such story should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

How can articles like this be published? How can the Daily Mail exist in such a vacuum of truth? This story was an invention of the Mail on Sunday and it was immediately debunked – indeed people reading to the end of the Mail on Sunday article realised that is was invented because the Mail on Sunday admitted as much in the original article. Yet here we are, another myth has entered part of the national consciousness – the paranoid, ignorant and vocal minority of Daily Mail readers who our politicians feel it is so important to pander to.

I cannot clearly express how frustrated and angry I am becoming that shit like this can be published day after day when it is just a lie, a complete fucking lie. The BBC have never issued any order for presenters to abandon AD/BC and you only have to watch BBC programmes to realise that AD/BC is still used, frequently. It is beyond a joke now. People lap this bullshit up, believing it even though it seems laughable to anyone with half a brain how anyone could take this myth seriously.

We need proper press regulation because a loud minority have provided consistent evidence that they do not have the mental capacity to tell fact from fiction anymore and they must be saved from their own ignorance.

As for the Vatican: this is an organisation that can find the time to be outraged at the BBC because they are under the false impression that they are swapping one arbitrary term for another; whilst they are painstakingly attempting to cover-up years of systematic child abuse. I think they need to reassess their priorities.

Theresa May’s Littlejohn moment

So Theresa May repeated the 2009 myth that an immigrant was allowed to stay in the UK because they owned a cat. Worryingly, her speech had – according to Left Foot Forward – been checked by no less than David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. Oh dear. For the record (in case you somehow missed this)  this is what she claimed in her speech:

“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act. The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.”

To be fair to her, she wasn’t making this story up – that is the job of our wonderful press which can do so safe in the knowledge that it faces no sanctions for doing so. The story originated in the Sunday Telegraph and, even though it was clearly rubbish, it was copied by the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Star.

As I’ve written so many times before: dishonest journalism has consequences.

It has only been a few days since David Cameron attacked the Human Rights Act based on nothing more than an incident he read about in the Daily Mail. Needless to say, that Daily Mail article was utterly dishonest and was discredited here long before Cameron repeated it. It seems to me that the main problem with democracy in the UK is that all politicians can ever focus on is the next election and therefore they feel they are always at the mercy of public opinion. They therefore discuss what they think the country cares about, which largely means that they (having no knowledge of the country as a whole) simply look at what the newspapers are writing about and base political discourse around the same few tired narratives – most of which are extremely distorted.

Thus every time a politician wants to appeal to the electorate they feel as if they must go for the short-term topic of the day and that they can only connect with the public by repeating some crap they read in the newspaper – as if newspapers are some magical conduit to our souls. This is why in a time of a world financial crisis politicians think our main concerns are the 100 or so illegal immigrants who we fail to legally deport each year due to the Human Rights Act, or weekly bin collections, or immigration or council tax or people on benefits or whatever else is easy to attack, say or promise. We are treated as if we were selfish children, unable to see past our own immediate wants.

I don’t think we are, and I think – increasingly – we are becoming more and more conscious of just how poisoned political discourse has become in this country thanks to the distorted media narratives created by a largely amoral and unregulated press. It might at first seem pretty funny that the home secretary should make such an obvious gaffe during a big speech. But it isn’t funny, at all, because it happens far too often and on most occasions it is rarely challenged.


In case you are wondering, yes, Richard Littlejohn did cover this story.