Press reform: the challenge of addiction

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a substantial section of our press is no longer serving to report the news, but rather functions as a full-blown arm of the entertainment industry. Accuracy, journalistic integrity and moral decency have been replaced by the overwhelming desire to sell as many newspapers and as much advertising space in those newspapers as possible. Whilst it could be argued that printing and selling newspapers has always been about the bottom line, Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News makes a convincing argument that the bottom line used to go hand in hand (at least most of the time) with the basic tenets of journalism.

Perhaps the main driver for moving away from the traditional concept of what a newspaper is (you could easily argue that the name no longer accurately describes what is still known as a ‘newspaper’) is the slow decline in sales caused in part by the Internet, but also by Television and in particular the notion of 24-hour rolling news channels. People can dip in and out of news at their own convenience on their smartphones – with the freedom to choose from any supplier (except, perhaps, The Times which has moved behind a paywall). People don’t need to subscribe to newspapers anymore and the freedom to pick articles from different newspaper websites destroys the idea of traditional brand loyalty, or the expectation that we have to choose the one newspaper that best matches our own outlook.

In Flat Earth News Davies charts the downfall of real journalism as newspaper owners dealt with declining revenues by cutting staff and reducing money spent on investigative journalism. All of this could be easily replaced by making the remaining journalists produce more copy – gleaned largely from Wire services or simply re-written from other news sources. As the numbers of journalists declined so the the workload of those remaining increased until very often bylines indicated little more than who had copy-and-pasted a Press Release or straight copy from a wire service – without checks with regards to accuracy. Thus the notion of churnalism was born.

But this wasn’t the only consequence of declining revenues. Another significant consequence was the change in the product itself. News was no longer the exclusive domain of the newspaper. People could get it quicker, brighter and louder through their TV, radio or picked up on their PCs or smartphones via a social networking site or via the newspaper websites themselves. By the time the newspaper is printed it is already old: it is telling people very little they don’t already know. This meant that the newspaper had to change the nature of the what they did. They became not the breakers or news, but the masters of news commentary (or spin, as it is better known).

Newspapers became concerned far more with opinion – rather than tell us the news they thought they would tell what to think of the news that we had already heard about. Newspapers have abandoned any subtle pretence of neutrality in favour of essentially becoming one giant editorial. People choose newspapers as a filter, they pick the one that bests skewers the news around them to fit their own prejudices. It is, essentially, a slightly more adult way of putting your fingers in your eyes and screaming ‘la-la-la I can’t hear you’ to the rest of the news world.

The final consequence of the new business model is that any money spent by a given newspaper / editor must generate tangible profits for the newspaper. This means that given the choice between spending £3,000 on sending a journalist to a location for what could possibly be an important, newsworthy story (the kind of journalism the press always like to talk about when they tell us how important it is for them to have absolute freedom because they are out there, being journalists to act as a check and balance to the rich and powerful etc) and spending £3,000 buying a photo of Hugh Grant broken down in his car the editor will spend the £3,000 on the Hugh Grant picture every time. Celebrity drivel sells.

It’s expensive, but cheap at the same time. Whilst it might cost a fair bit for paparazzi photos of celebrity-x frolicking on the beach, the price is fixed and clear – all the time, equipment, plane tickets and incidental expenses etc have already been dealt with by the individual pap – the pap takes on the risk and the newspaper gets a guaranteed story for a fixed price.

This is where the addiction begins.

The evidence suggests that reporting on celebrities doing even the most inane things (going to the gym, washing hair, putting out bins, leaving home, arriving home, eating out, looking fat, looking thin, wearing clothes, wearing clothes they have worn before, walking their dogs, leaving a night club and generally doing anything at all that can be photographed) is big business. Sadly, there is a market for this drivel and it is growing. You only have to look at the massive growth the Daily Mail website has enjoyed – which is largely driven by celebrity stories and American web traffic. The Mail have even set up offices in LA to maximise the celebrity crap they can churn out.

Celebrity drivel is the new business plan for a lot of newspapers (like the Daily Star trying to shoehorn Jordan onto the front page of every edition with ever more elaborate inventions or their amazing run of front pages about Ryan Giggs) and it is becoming an addiction for both editors and readers alike. The editors need the sales that celebrity drivel can generate, and it seems enough of the public need celebrity to drivel to fill some kind of vacuum in their obviously meaningless and shallow existences.

Call me a snob if you want, but I kind of find it pretty depressing that the Mail website is currently running this story: ‘Kate Middleton: We’ve seen that dress before, Kate…on Sarah Jessica Parker in 2006!’. It is depressing thinking that a lot of people will probably be quite excited by this news story, or at least interested enough to click and have a look. It is even more depressing to think that at some point in the construction of this story someone who had perhaps wanted to be a journalist had somehow found themselves going through reams of images to find this obscure match and then having to write an article around these two pictures.

But all of this is irrelevant. All that matters is that this stuff does generate page views and shifts newspapers. Editors generally don’t print want no-one wants to read.

So here we are, trapped in a mutual addiction. The drive of newspapers to out-dig and out-titillate TV news led to phone-hacking becoming a standard technique and although it may have originally intended to be used for good it was soon being used to track the relationships of celebrities and eventually to eavesdrop on the grief of families (allegedly) and even to obstruct the Police in their investigations.

Bad journalism isn’t neatly isolated into pockets that we can cut out, it is rather a systematic product of an addictive pattern of selling us what isn’t actually any good for us. The press have become no better than a drug dealer, selling us cheap highs, quick fixes, dishonest scares and above all celebrity gossip. We know it’s bad for us, we know we should be doing something more worthwhile with our lives, but like any addiction it is hard to tear ourselves away from turning the same old pages for the same old content.

It’s just like the food industry packing everything with sugar, making us crave more and more of it as we encounter it in more and more products. If a food company now tried to market a healthy alternative to this they’re stuffed because everyone is addicted to products stuffed with sugar. We know such products are bad for us, but we buy them all the same. To rid ourselves of any addiction takes a lot of willpower, and it also takes a brave producer to try to sell us a product that they can only sell to those of us who want to go cold turkey.

Sadly, the reality of business dicates that an alternative product will only be offered once the original product is abandoned by the consumer. So, the question is, therefore: are we ready to give up the newspapers we currently happily consume?

Daily Mail: the letters

Today David Cameron made a speech about immigration designed to specifically generate glowing tabloid headlines and appeal to the readers who have been systematically lied to about immigration for years. Here are two letters printed in the Daily Mail – one yesterday, one today – that demonstrate the sort of person David Cameron is shaping his immigration policies around:

Joyless Britain

It’s a pleasant evening, so you think you’ll stroll down to the pub for a pint. Then you remember your local has closed and been sold to a property developer. So you decide to take the bus to the next village – but wait a minute, it’s the evening, so there are no buses.

Reluctantly, you take the car, even though it will restrict you to just one pint. But perhaps that’s just as well because at the pub you find a pint of ale now costs more than £3 (and you read recently that it actually costs just 10p to produce).

You buy a pint and are just about to light up, when you remember you’re not allowed to smoke in the pub. You could go outside, but it now looks like rain.

So you stay indoors and share a joke with a friend, but be careful – your joke must be politically correct in case one of the many whingeing minorities overhears you and denounces you, in which case you could possibly be jailed.

You fancy a bite to eat and ask the landlord if he has a pork pie or a sandwich.

‘No,’ he says. ‘But you can have a three-course meal for £20. What do you want, Chinese, Thai, Indian or flambe?’

Making any remark about that would probably be misconstrued as a racist comment by any do-gooder nearby, so you say nothing, drive home – carefully – and read a good book (if you’ve got one because the local library has been closed).

That’s Merry England today.

ALAN CAIRNS, Tadley, Hants.

Jobs for the boys

Here’s my ad for a local government job: ‘Jolly Gym Knickers Officer Required. Frustratedshire County Council is a forward-thinking, newly Tory-controlled council which when under Labour was proactive, multi-cultural, diversity orientated and community paranoid.

‘It seeks to employ a Jolly Gym Knickers Officer who must be white, male, middle-class, healthy, well-built and fully capable of smacking any Socialist or Liberal in the mouth if they so much as mention political correctness in the workplace.

‘Applicants must be of a normal sexual orientation, been born in England and lived here all their lives, with a healthy appreciation of the English sense of office humour, which they should be able to demonstrate by keeping staff supplied with all the latest jokes on religion, sex, culture and race.

‘Duties will include making sure ashtrays are available on every desk. No excuses for stopping work to smoke outside will be tolerated. It will also be the duty of the officer to make sure all suggestions deriving from EU directives must be regarded as anti-English interference.

‘He must also ensure that when the council is in session, the Union Flag is flown and each session is ended by all councillors singing God Save the Queen. Foreigners need not apply.’

Edward A. Walker, Redcar, Cleveland.

We desperately need a better press.

Responsible coverage

Richard Littlejohn has the usual thoughtless throwaway segment at the end of his column today [ link], this time he wonders why there has been so little coverage of the shootings in the Netherlands. Richard suspects that it is evidence that the world is anti-American whilst remaining unquestioning of ‘liberal’ democracies such as the Netherlands. His reasoning is that he didn’t see ‘much of the Dutch massacre on tv’, and:

There wasn’t a great fuss made about it in the papers, either. Just imagine if this had happened in the United States.

There would be banner headlines about the ‘Wild West’ and the usual knee-jerk television specials about America’s rampant gun culture.

It’s called responsible journalism:

Still, no situation is too tragic for Littlejohn when he wants to push his own baseless, simplistic and paranoid agenda.

Too many brown faces in Question Time audience, says Littlejohn

Appropriately, Richard Littlejohn’s last appearance on BBC’s Question Time came on the first of April 2010. It was in Stevenage and Richard Littlejohn looks back on this appearance in his column today – a column that calls for Question Time to be scrapped and ‘put out of its misery’. Why exactly does he want the show to be scrapped, what was it about his final appearance (he insists he has turned down invitations to appear on the show since) that made him no longer want to engage with the public?

Well, it all seems to boil down to the fact that Richard Littlejohn is a bit of a racist xenophobe. He just hates stepping outside of his own gated, white, affluent, Conservative monkeysphere and realising that we’re actually a diverse bunch of non-tory voters. Richard Littlejohn recounts how in Stevenage he looked into the audience and saw:

The audience is always the same noxious, inarticulate blend of Left-wing local government activists, NHS malcontents, trades union officials, spotty students and women in headscarves. Occasionally, they throw in a couple of comedy Tories with dandruff, for the rest of the crowd to boo.

Last time I was on the programme, it came from Stevenage, Herts, where 93 per cent of the population is white, and which elected a Conservative MP in 2010 with 41.4 per cent of the vote.

Yet the audience looked as if it had been bussed in from central casting, carefully selected to reflect the BBC’s view of what Britain should look like. If 41.4 per cent of that audience were Conservative voters, they did a damn good job of disguising it.

He saw the people outside of his monkeysphere and labelled them all as enemies. He saw not just women – a group he has always reserved a special level of deep hatred for over the years – but, gulp, women in headscarves. Thus his ultimate fears – women and foreigners – were combined in one frightening instant before his droopy, vision-less eyes. For the record whilst it is true that 41.4 per cent of people voted Conservative, it should be noted that 33.4 per cent voted Labour (the seat had been retained by Labour since 1997) and another 16.6% Lib Dem. Therefore Conservatives voters where never likely to form the majority of the audience – even more so when the local turnout for the election was only 64.8 per cent.

As for expecting 93% of the audience to be white, well, isn’t the point of BBC programming to be as representative as possible and in particular political discussions should be as inclusive as possible – which is kind of the point in Question Time giving a wide audience of people the chance to engage with senior politicians.

You will have noticed that I suggested Richard Littlejohn was a racist at the start of this post, it is a point he is always quick to deny. In fact he fielded a question during his last Question Time appearance from a young lad who suggested he was a favourite writer of BNP leader Nick Griffin, which he was, Nick Griffin said so. Littlejohn reacted very angrily and made the young lad retract the accusation. I’m pretty sure Richard Littlejohn would never read this blog, but if he does and he wants to get his lawyers in touch for libel I think I would take my chances and stand by my belief that Richard Littlejohn is racist.

Richard does not help his case by constantly providing my point of view with clear evidence, as he does in his column today. When he remembers looking at the audience in Stevenage he recounts his shock that it wasn’t the 93 per cent white, 41.4 per cent Tory audience he had hoped for and comments:

I took one look at them and thought to myself: if this is a true representation of the people of Stevenage, then we really are all going to hell in a handcart.

I’m not quite sure how he could argue that this isn’t a blatantly racist statement, especially given his statistical prelude in which he tried to argue that the number of brown faces in the audience should have been minimal. He is basically suggesting that when even Tory-voting white enclaves are dappled with brown faces then the end of the world is nigh – he is after all suggesting that such a path is a path towards hell. Add to this his normal inverted comma disdain of any attempt to ‘celebrate the “diversity” of the nation’ and you can see why Littlejohn candidly admits that you ‘shouldn’t waste your time’ applying to be in the audience ‘if you happen to be a Daily Mail reader’ (although he doesn’t comment on the frequent appearances of Mail columnists on Question Time, probably because this kind of ruins his very narrow, silly argument).

Indeed, what Richard Littlejohn fails to see is that his argument for why Question Time should be scrapped is actually a pretty compelling argument for why Question Time should carry on just as it is. If you are a Daily Mail reader, or tabloid reader in general, then you already have many ‘news’ outlets filled with xenophobic, dishonest bile that you can cuddle up to everyday; you don’t need Question Time to be turned into more of the same. Littlejohn complains that the BBC should ‘devise a programme which accurately reflects the wider views of the great British public’, without realising that it does reflect the wider views of the public, what it is careful to avoid is representing the noisy minority whom Richard Littlejohn writes for.

Irrespective of how hard the right-wing media try to turn us into a nation of xenophobic, ignorant bigots, Question Time demonstrates time and again that they’ve not succeeded. When a right-wing journalist gets a hard time on Question Time from the audience it is not because that audience is stuffed full of liberal malcontents, but rather that an intelligent audience can easily see through the usual distortions trotted out by such people. What Littlejohn sees when he looks into a Question Time audience is the future: diverse, intelligent, concerned and proactive individuals who want a fairer world for everyone (along with the occasional person that makes me facepalm as happened last night). It is the reason that tired, simple, Conservative thinkers like Littlejohn rarely step outside of their own sycophantic mailbag, and why they decide to lock themselves away in gated communities in foreign countries.

As a brief aside, I also found it amusing for Richard to describe the audience as ‘inarticulate’ given his past record of very famous verbal humiliations, and to claim that Question Time has passed its best when earlier this week he plagiarised his own writing, again, and made a claim that was astoundingly stupid, even by his standards:

Haringey hired someone to give hopscotch lessons to Asian women.

As Full Fact points out:

Back in 1995, former Conservative Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney regaled his Party’s Conference with a story of how taxpayer’s money was being similarly spent on hopscotch for Asian women.

In fact, it later transpired that the public money had been given to the Hopscotch Asian Women’s Centre, a well-respected voluntary organisation that deals with domestic violence, language and integration issues in Camden, which neighbours Haringey.

So could a similar misunderstanding have been made by Richard Littlejohn?

We contacted Hanringey Borough Council to ask about the mysterious job, who weren’t aware of one fitting Mr Littlejohn’s description. We’ve also tried to get in touch with Mr Littlejohn himself to find out more about how he came across this vacancy, but have yet to hear back from him.

But the Hopscotch Asian Women’s Centre did advertise for a management position in May last year.

So whilst as yet we’re unable to say with complete certainty that Haringey haven’t been engaging the services of Asian hopscotch specialists, given the claim’s history and the proximity of an Asian women’s voluntary centre named Hopscotch to Haringey, you might be advised to treat this particular “non-job” with some scepticism.

And isn’t it funny how Richard Littlejohn is only now calling for the scrapping of Question Time, when largely Conservative politicians are getting grief, when he seemed perfectly happy to appear when Labour were getting the same treatment. Or perhaps the audiences back then were still white enough, perhaps his brain has a clear limit on the amount of brown faces in a crowd that are acceptable and it was finally broken last April?

Who knows. What I do know is that if Richard Littlejohn is concerned about certain things passing their sale-by-date, he should really start with his own career.

Multiculturalism and the Monkeysphere

The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the monkey scientists are monkey right, it’s physically impossible for this to be a number much larger than 150…

we all have limits to our sphere of monkey concern. It’s the way our brains are built. We each have a certain circle of people who we think of as people, usually our own friends and family and neighbors, and then maybe some classmates or coworkers…

Those who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They’re sort of one-dimensional bit characters.
David Wong, What is the Monkeysphere?

Whenever I hear people argue that multiculturalism is dead I always think of Dunbar’s number and the Monkeysphere. Robin Dunbar – an anthropologist – researched monkey brains and found that the number of social group members a primate can track appears to be limited by the volume of the neocortex region of their brain. He then studied a human brain and estimated (based on the volume of the neocortex) that human beings also suffer from a similar limit (albeit slightly larger than a monkey) and theorized that the average human being can maintain a stable social relationship with a maximum of around 150 people.

As the above quotation suggests, anyone outside of this sphere of understanding essentially becomes a caricature, a one dimensional stereotype that is simply not a real human being to us. It is for this reason that we can be extremely upset when a loved one has a bad day at work, but can remain surprisingly unperturbed when a busload of schoolkids plunges over a cliff in Chile. We simply do not have the mental capacity to visualise them as human beings. Some people argue that this limited number serves an evolutionary purpose, for why should we concern ourselves with the lives of those that we cannot possibly influence? 24 hour rolling global news can be a terribly depressing affair, given that all of the events take place outside our monkeysphere and we have virtually no chance of having a positive impact or influence on any of the awful events we witness. We’re selfish creatures able to enjoy buying clothes that we know are made by kids in sweatshops because our brains don’t force us to see them as being like the children that reside in our monkeysphere – they exist only fleetingly in an uncaring periphery.

Given the high rate of depression in developed nations it appears that stepping outside of our limited social sphere is not good for us and that in many ways, ignorance is bliss. This brings me back to this idea – so loved by politicians, the media and nationalist groups – that a national culture really exists and that we must somehow all engage with defending it. David Cameron’s recent declaration that ‘Multiculturalism has failed’ just doesn’t stand up to the merest whiff of scrutiny. Culture isn’t a racial thing, it isn’t something that divides people of different skin colours, it is something that divides all of us. Just as I have absolutely nothing in common with a stereotypical EDL member and would never envisage socialising with one, David Cameron would never dream of socialising – or even having anything in common with – 95% of the UK. Likewise, I can never imagine socialising with the elite into which Cameron and most of the elected cabinet of our government were born: culturally we are divided by an impassable chasm.

For David Cameron to imply that Britain has some kind of culture that immigrants should be assimilated into is quite ridiculous, because the people of Britain are not an homogeneous blob. We all live in our own little Monkeyspheres which are full of people just like us. We don’t really know anyone outside of this sphere and what’s more we don’t have the capacity to really know anyone outside of this sphere (nor necessarily the desire). David Cameron and his elitist monkey-chums don’t know anybody who doesn’t have inherited wealth, he’s not necessarily taking any pleasure in the cuts that his government is pushing through, he just simply doesn’t understand the concerns of those who live outside of his monkeysphere. He doesn’t know anyone who has ever had to rely on the government for support, or anyone to whom money is an issue. He can only appreciate the needs of those inside his tiny sphere, hence why he cannot see any problem with combining savage cuts to the not-human-in-his-eyes masses with tax breaks for his friends in the banks. He’s just looking after his own interests in the same way that the person shopping in a high-street fashion store does when they buy stuff they know has been made using slave-labour.

We’re never all going to get along; it’s physically and mentally impossible. The sooner we realise this, the quicker we can stop thinking about the world in such simple terms. Being British by birth can only mean that I share the same place of birth with other British people. It does not mean I share a common bond or culture. Chances are I will never even get close to interacting with a fraction of 1% of my fellow birth-buddies. I have good relationships with the people I work closely with, I have a professional passing recognition of others outside of that small group. I have a couple of friends from university that I keep in contact with, and a few close friends from various jobs I’ve had down the years. I commute to work in my car, I get home, get inside and spend most evenings with my wife. I speak to my neighbours occasionally, not because I consider myself anti-social, but because they’re just not part of my monkeysphere – just as I am not part of theirs.

I enjoy my life but I live in the knowledge that I will spend the vast majority of my adult life in work, not socialising. Our ability to form and maintain close social bonds is limited by how much time we have to participate in such behaviour (Dunbar even argues that language was developed as an easy way of performing social grooming). And for those of you thinking that social networking sites are going to change all of this, think again:

Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.

What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.

Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively. This corroborates Dr Marsden’s ideas about core networks, since even those Facebook users with the most friends communicate only with a relatively small number of them.

The truth is we all exist in tiny bubbles which will always encourage us to act in the best interest of those within our particular bubble. We can certainly acknowledge that we live in a world much bigger than this bubble by creating basic expectations to nullify as much as possible our selfish instincts – this is why we have laws, the Human Rights Act, equality and diversity policies in work and so forth. It is to try to ensure that when we step outside our monkeyspheres we are able to treat those strange beings around us as humans, even if we cannot truly visualise them as such.

What is dangerous with this assumption that somehow other cultural groups cannot also abide by these basic tenets of civilisation and that they must therefore abandon anything that might signify that they are outwardly different to the majority is that it feeds our natural instinct to dehumanise any outgroup. How can we possibly say because a group of around 20 Muslims protested against British soldiers serving in Iraq and 4 individuals bombed London in suicide attacks that somehow multiculturalism has failed? The 2001 census recorded 1,591,000 Muslims living in the UK – making 24 a minute percentage,  whilst a survey conducted in 2009 of attitudes of British Muslims suggested that they ‘were found to identify more strongly with the UK than the rest of the population, and have a much higher regard for the country’s institutions’.

Yet because of our monkey brains we have the EDL demanding that all ‘Muzzies’ or ‘Muzz rats’ be thrown out or worse because of the actions of an utterly insignificant few. We never demand the slaughter of all men whenever a male paedophile is convicted. It is no less insane to treat all Muslims in they way that some people are now.

Repeated experiments across cultures show that when human beings are put into groups – even in the most arbitrary way, such as at the toss of a coin – they will always display ingroup bias and a desire to maintain distinctiveness from other groups. Media narratives about Muslims or any other group that exists outside of our Monkeysphere play into this irrational desire to negatively perceive those outside of our immediate groups – whilst maintaining a positive bias to those in our own groups. Arguing that somehow all his could be resolved if massive cultural groups – which are in themselves split into near infinite amounts of vastly different spheres – were somehow assimilated into what is seen as the dominant cultural norm is ludicrous.

All we can do as individuals is realise that we don’t normally process people outside of our tiny social groups as being real human beings. This is why a loving, doting son is able to mug someone else’s mother and we need laws with significant punishments to suppress such actions. We are hard-wired to stereotype outgroups, homogenising millions of people into one simple schema. But we have conscious thought, we can take a step back and challenge our default cognitive processes so that we can force ourselves to realise that Muslims are individual human beings and they cannot possibly be judged by the actions of an insignificant minority who happen to share the same religious belief.

Multiculturalism hasn’t failed, it’s not even a real concept when we consider how our brains function and that we only really share a common goal with the select few inside our Monkeysphere.


According to his website – currently not operational for some reason – Richard Littlejohn:

has no party political affiliations and believes journalists should be in a state of permanent opposition and scepticism, opposed to vested interests of all political persuasions and fiercely protective of civil liberties.

His job is to sit at the back and throw bottles.

But as I have pointed out before, this clearly isn’t the case and today’s column is no exception. Today Richard has a few words to say about sexism, more specifically the trouble that Andy Gray and Richard Keys have got themselves into for their off-air comments about a female assistant referee and West Ham vice-chairman Karen Brady. Not surprisingly – given that Richard habitually and patronisingly refers to women as ‘pet’ in his column (he does so again today) – Richard asks for mercy for the two men, claiming that ‘their considered view that women have no business running the line at Premier League football matches would be considered utterly uncontroversial by most gentlemen of a certain age’ – not to mention that ‘most women of a certain age would probably agree, too’.

All pretty standard fare for Richard, but more interesting and amusing is Richard’s opening gambit: ‘Why on earth should Sky presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys be pilloried for something they said off-air?’ Cast your mind back to Gordon Brown’s ‘off-air’, private comments about Gillian Duffy that were leaked to the press, did he stand by Brown? Not quite, he wrote a lead column on it titled: ‘Gordon hates everybody – Labour voters included‘. Indeed, he claimed the ‘deranged outburst’ (that was muttered quietly, in private and sounded tired rather than ‘deranged’) provided him with all the evidence that he needed to support and justify his earlier claim that Brown was a ‘sociopath’.

Clearly, Richard ‘permanent opposition’ Littlejohn is biased towards the Conservative Party and only ever attacks Labour – whether they are in power or not. He is inherently biased towards Conservative ideology, even though he claims that ‘has no party political affiliations’. It is therefore even more hypocritical that he attacks the BBC for their supposed left-wing bias just because Peter Sissons (a person who presumably holds right-wing values and someone the BBC obviously forgot to sack to maintain its left-wing bias for a number of years) said so and Littlejohn agrees with him.

Let’s face it, when you are as far-right as Littlejohn that you attract fan mail from racists, compliments from BNP leader Nick Griffin and you’re one of the highest-paid columnists writing for a notoriously right-wing (i.e. supporting Facism in the UK and Hitler during the 1930s and the editorial stance has got worse under Paul Dacre) newspaper, you probably view most other news sources as ‘left-wing’. The BBC has to adhere to strict impartial standards, if it had a systematic bias then action can be taken to correct this. The BBC has to report fact and not get involved in the business of opinion in its news pieces. Often these facts are uncomfortable for writers like Littlejohn because truth to the tabloid press is whatever they wish to print, truth is a construct, not an absolute. Anything that dare contradict this outlook must be smeared, which is why the BBC gets so much stick for being ‘left-wing’, when it is clear that what the newspapers really mean is that they hate the BBC because it is a source of truth that has enough influence to actually resist the world view that the tabloids have tried so hard to create. Why do you think Murdoch hates it so much?

As for Littlejohn, his claims of impartiality, opposition and integrity are not just laughable, they are indicative of just how far from reality most tabloid visions of the world actually are. If you are being criticised by the Daily Mail or the tabloid press in general, then you should – as Stephen Fry does – treat it as a badge of honour for you must be doing something right.


I’ve been spending a little bit of time reading Richard Littlejohn’s website recently. It is a strange experience because the website spends a lot of time building up Richard Littlejohn as a serious social commentator, a brave crusader of free speech who is prepared to say the things that no-one else will. You then head over to the Mail website and see that his latest column is a collection of deeply unfunny – not to mention lazy – rewritten Christmas carols. Littlejohn’s ego is huge – just spend some time on his website and you get a huge sense of disconnect between the person who he thinks he is and the tired old cliched drivel he actually produces year-after-year.

Last week he libeled Julian Assange by stating that he had been ‘hacking into American government computers from a bunker in Sweden’, yet he makes the following claim on his website:

Listen, I’ve said some very unpleasant things about people, but I have never knowingly told a lie about somebody and if I discover something was a lie I always put it right in the column.

So, where is the correction for Julian Assange? According to his website he will be upset that such a glaring mistake was even included:

at nine o’clock at night [on the eve of his column appearing] I get a final proof and I go through it syllable by syllable and get pissed off if I miss something and see it in the paper the next day. That’s called doing the fucking job.

And the final thing that struck me was this:

What most columnists don’t get is that we are part of the entertainment industry as well. You know, there’s no divine right to be read and I like to think that people who turn to my page don’t know if they’re going to get a polemic or a song and dance act or a page of jokes.

You just published a page of carols a school-kid would have been embarrassed to own-up to. I think the vast majority of your readers know full-well right now that they are going to turn to your column and get extremely lazy, tired and unfunny rubbish. The current top-rated comment under his column today is this: ‘About as funny as having haemorrhoids.’ That comments section was far better than the column. Enough said.

An irritable response to a blogger

I was minding my own business this afternoon when I was tweeted by someone who had suggested that ‘you should put a point of view not say the opposition make stuff up‘ and it linked to their blogpost discussing my recent post on the latest Daily Mail attack on immigrants. Basically, the writer of said blog post made the point that there was too much ‘hyperbole’ on the Internet and that:

most of these attacks come from the blogosphere. Here people seem to spend a large amount of time reading newspapers that they know they won’t agree with. This way they can then write a fatuous blog stating in no uncertain terms that everything in the paper is made up and only idiots read it.

I’ll leave this alone for the moment and move onto his real point:

The recent outrage and counter outrage over Harriet Harman’s comments about heroic immigrants sending their dole money abroad is a good example.

Probably unsurprisingly this story broke in the Daily Mail with Tim Shipman giving us the ‘facts’ and Melanie Phillips telling us Harman is ‘immoral’.

Fair enough wouldn’t you say? A news article with a few comments, mostly from Tories but it’s not like anyone is deceived as to the political slant of the Mail. Anyway, the story is about something a prominent Labour person has said so a Tory response is in line with standard journalistic practice.

Not according to the Angry Mob blog it isn’t.

Angry Mob is a website devoted to pointing out the daily lies written by the Mail. In their article More Lies About Immigrants the Shipman article is portrayed as completely misrepresenting Ms Harman’s statement. The key area of discussion was whether she was pleased immigrants were sending job seekers allowance back home or whether they were sending home part of their earnings which included benefits for low income earners.

Angry Mob was not interested in dissecting the Mail’s argument that if you are on income support or housing benefit you shouldn’t have enough money left over to send any home and that the real hero is the unassuming British tax payer who is now funding social security in Africa as well. They just claimed that the Mail made it all up and Ms Harman said nothing of the sort.

This is a shame because the Mail’s argument is pretty easy to pull apart. If people are receiving benefit for being on a low income then they are employed, paying tax, doing a job no Brit wants to do. If they can scrape by and send a few quid home then they are epitomizing the selfless behaviour the Mail now believes is lacking in our society.

Whether you agree with that or not, it is the argument that could be made.

I’m not really sure where to start. Firstly, as I have tried to get across numerous times to the passing readers of this blog, I do not read the Mail simply to write fatuous blog posts about how terrible it is. I write it because bad journalism has a real impact on all of us, it is as pervasive and as poisonous as passive smoking. Secondly, I don’t really think it is ‘fair enough’ that the Daily Mail can attack immigrants simply because it has a certain political agenda and wants to attack a senior Labour figure. It is branded as a newspaper, not a propaganda outlet for any political party; the article was sold as news but was based on a series of lies and distortions.

Frankly, the statement that responding in a ‘Tory’ way ‘is in line with standard journalistic practice’ just highlights poor journalistic practice. A journalistic is supposed to seek legitimate balance, not just open political hostility. Yes, a Tory response is obviously going to be sought out, but the job of the journalist is to put both sides of the argument into clear context so that the reader can make an informed judgement as to which view carries the most weight. In this article Shipman provides a dishonest supporting context for the Tory comments – it is a classic example of anti-journalism. I’m sure real journalists would be utterly appalled of a clearly distorted article like this.

Now, let’s go back to the Shipman article to see if my claims stand.

OK, so what benefits was Harriet Harman specifically referring to, and who was sending them home is what needs to be established. The Mail article quotes Harman:

‘There are many people in my constituency who come from Africa and work and study and bring up their families here.

‘Many of them also send money back to their village in their country of origin.’

Clearly, Harman was referring to immigrants from outside of the EU, specifically, Africans. Next, the benefits:

Some of these families will be receiving child benefit and tax credits to which they are entitled. Charitable generosity has never been confined to the well-off.

So, the benefits being discussed are child benefits – currently a universal benefit that the rich and poor receive alike, and tax credits, something received by all eligible earners.

So, this blogger looks at the Mail’s argument about those receiving ‘income support or housing benefit’ and that they shouldn’t have money left over to send abroad and claims I am not interested in discussing it. But that is the reason I have accused the Mail of spreading more lies about immigrants, income support and tax credits are two very different things. Income support is what is given to someone who cannot work – i.e. a single mother with a young child. Tax credits is the benefit available to anyone over 18 working 37 hours a week or more and earning less than £20,000 per year. Income support entitles you to full housing benefits and council tax benefits, tax credits are paid to ensure you can afford to pay your own rent and council tax because you do not get these benefits.

The Daily Mail is purposely implying that these are immigrants not working and raking in so much in benefits they can afford to send lots of money home, it is a lie, plain and simple. I did consider the Mail’s argument and I did pull apart, quite how the blogger can suggest I ignored it is beyond me. Perhaps what they mean is: ‘It is a shame you didn’t spend more time considering the utterly false argument made by the Daily Mail…’ – it didn’t need attention or time, given that it was false and I pointed out why it was false.

OK, moving on. The Daily Mail article stated that:

Harriet Harman said it should be made easier for immigrants to send benefit payments to relatives abroad.

At a meeting in her constituency, the party’s deputy leader praised claimants who funnel taxpayers’ cash to Africa as ‘hidden heroes’.

Bizarrely she claimed the practice – widely seen as an abuse of the overstretched welfare system – was a way of boosting international aid.

Taxpayers foot a £20million annual bill to pay child benefit to immigrants whose children are not even living in Britain.

Firstly, immigrants are not sending ‘benefit payments to relatives abroad’. This is a lie. They are sending money home whilst possibly – Harman only says that they might be – in receipt of working tax credits and child benefits. This means that a proportion of income sent home could be made up of some benefits. It is not – as the Mail tries so hard to imply – the case that they all get a lump sum of benefits that they just stick in the post to their relatives in Africa. Spending your own money on whatever you want is what any person is entitled to do, just as the wealthy couple can spend their Child benefits on wine if they wish and can afford to – it is their benefit, they can do what they like with it. Likewise, the working tax credit is designed to allow people to pay rent, council tax and live. If they have any income spare they can spend it on whatever they like. The point Harman was making was that it was quite heroic for them to choose to send this home rather than spend it on themselves.

This means, of course, that suggesting that sending their own money to Africa is ‘widely seen as an abuse of the overstretched welfare system’ is an absolutely disgraceful statement, utterly repellent and importantly, completely dishonest. How can receiving tax credits or child benefits to which they are entitled possibly be an ‘abuse’ of the system? The last paragraph of the above quote follows suit, given that this £20 million annual bill is incurred from migration within the EU. It is EU practice for the country that receives the taxes to pay the benefits. So, for example, if a Polish guy lives and works in the UK – so that the UK government gets all of the tax receipts, it is seen as fair that the UK government pays the benefits, even if the children of that worker live elsewhere in the EU. If a British citizen worked in Poland the same would apply.

So, obviously this has nothing to do with the specific immigrants being discussed because they are from outside the EU and therefore outside of this arrangement, this ‘abuse’ and tax bill has nothing to do with the immigrants in question, but nonetheless that Mail is blaming them anyway.

I guess my main rebuttal is this: the blogger claims I was ‘not interested in dissecting the Mail’s argument that if you are on income support or housing benefit you shouldn’t have enough money left over to send any home’. I am making it abundantly clear that this argument was utterly false, given that income and housing benefits were not what was being discussed by Harman. I made that clear in my original post, I pointed out that Harman is talking about working tax credits and child benefits that some of the immigrants might have been receiving whilst the Daily Mail shoved in different benefits that they were all getting to completely distort her points. I dismissed the Mail’s arguments because they were transparently dishonest, not because I was not interested.

As for the blogger’s closing paragraphs:

Political debate is certainly not aided by pretending that everything is a distortion just because it is accompanied by some opinion.

Perhaps if we could all just grow up and have a discussion about the issues rather than believing that everything is some sort of conspiracy people might engage again with politics.

Let me say this. If they still feel I am merely ‘pretending that everything is a distortion just because it is accompanied by some opinion’, then please get in touch because I’ll try even harder to point out that the Daily Mail is branded as a newspaper. Yes, the Melanie Phillips piece was opinion – she is a columnist and plays by slightly different rules – but the Shipman article was news; it was supposed to be based on facts, not opinions. As I have demonstrated above – selecting just a few paragraphs from Shipman’s article – Shipman does distort the views of Harman considerably – talking about different benefits entirely, and inserting EU benefits that have nothing to do with this news story. The whole article is clearly designed to feed into the media narrative that immigrants receive so much in un-earned benefits that they can send some to Africa. If this blogger still genuinely thinks ‘fair enough’ when he reads the Shipman article, then, well it seems they need to drop their frankly patronising pseudo-intellectual attitude and reflect on just what is fiction and fact both in the mainstream media and the ‘blogosphere’.

As I argued originally and have done so again here, these are benefits – universal in the case of Child benefits, an entitlement to any full-time worker earning less than £20,000 in the case of tax credits – that are a basic entitlement for any UK worker. Perhaps the Mail should run an expose next week on the full time ‘indigenous’ recipients of the working tax credit or child benefit who may dare to spend some of their own money on little luxuries for themselves or having a direct debit to Cancer research each month.

PS, please can people stop referring to me in the plural. I am one person. The Angry Mob title refers to the Kaiser Chief song, you know the one: ‘We are the Angry Mob, we read the papers every day, we like who we like, we hate who we hate, but we’re also easily swayed’. The Angry Mob is the Mail reader, not me. The amount of times I have had to explain that has made me seriously consider changing the title of this blog.

PPS, If anyone has a new name suggestion then I really am open to a name change.

Facebook cannot commit crime

Primly Stable blogged earlier about how MailOnline editor Martin Clarke mentioned in a recent speech that 10 per cent of Mail Online’s ‘UK traffic now comes in via Facebook, making it the biggest source of traffic for the site after Google’. I have covered why the Daily Mail likes to criticise Facebook to generate extra hits before but I guess the EDL Facebook pages drive a far amount of traffic to the Mail website as well. Anyway, on the day that Primly Stable blogs the huge amount of traffic the Mail gets from Facebook it goes and prints this: ‘Facebook crimes have soared 7,400 per cent in just three years, police force reveals‘. The article lists the social ill that the website is responsible for:

Facebook was opened to the public in September 2006 after only being accessible to university students for its first two years.

Perverts have used the site to groom victims while criminals have used it to make threats, intimidate, bully and harass.

Campaign groups claim sex offenders use websites such as Facebook and conceal their identity to snare children and women.

The popular website has this year been linked to 255 domestic violence incidents in the county, 426 reports of malicious nuisance and 210 of anti-social behaviour.

Basically, the whole article could be sensibly summed-up as: ‘Facebook reflects society’. Crime happens. Crime happened before Facebook, will happen with Facebook and will continue happening without Facebook. The whole article is just silly. It would be like constantly pointing out that criminals use cars. Imagine the Daily Mail reporting that: ‘Crimes linked to cars increased by 1,00,000% since 1930’. Stories like:

A wife was battered by her ex-husband the other day. The husband was thought to HAVE DRIVEN A CAR TO HER HOUSE to commit the savage crime. It is just the latest example of cars being linked to domestic abuse. Cars have also been linked to untold bank robberies, fraud (some bankers are said to have committed fraud WHILST IN THE BACK SEAT OF A MOVING CAR) and every other criminal act that has involved getting from one place to another in one. Perverts and paedophiles have used cars to transport victims – POSSIBLY YOUR CHILD – to their homes. A police spokesman said: ‘we are seeing an increasing amount of crime that has been committed thanks to cars. I think the main reason is that everyone drives one, so you’re bound to have criminals in some of them’.

Facebook is a social networking site, it is not capable of committing a crime. That is the sole responsibility of the user, perhaps someone should sit down and slowly explain this fact to all of the Daily Mail hacks.

Some new media myths

As you can probably guess I spent a lot of time researching and writing my Winterval essay. Throughout the process I often just sat there, annoyed and depressed with each utterly ignorant repetition of something that was always utterly untrue – and obviously untrue. Fittingly via Twitter I was informed that on the day I finally made the essay available the Winterval myth was being repeated by yet another journalist – this time Nick Robinson on his BBC blog. I guess we can’t accept proper journalism from a man who is essentially nothing more than a paid gossip.

It was also a day in which the usual suspects were inventing new reasons to be outraged. The Daily Mail was accusing the BBC Blue Peter team of ‘sacrilege’ for supposedly burning the Blue Peter advent crown. As Tabloid Watch points out, this is complete rubbish and the photos that accompany the article clearly show that the crown was not burnt at all. Yet they still printed the story as fact. It is not bad journalism, it is ludicrous journalism. The reader can see that the story is complete rubbish. Essentially the journalist is asking the reader to literally abandon their senses and take their word for it instead. Still, readers do fall for this, and worse, other media outlets repeat the story as fact – in this case Carolyn Hitt for Wales Online. She manages to get all of this:

Christmas is so frazzled this year even the Blue Peter Advent crown has spontaneously combusted.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. In an act of sacrilegious vandalism, the presenters set fire to the coat-hanger and tinsel icon of our Christmas Past.

In a bizarre studio stunt, which also involved the ceremonial melting of a Blue Peter badge, a “chain reaction machine” turned the Advent crown to ashes.

Shame on you Blue Peter.

You have trampled on one of most precious Yuletide memories.

The Advent Crown countdown was an essential part of our 1970s childhoods.

Christmas could not begin until John Noakes lit the first corner of the coat-hanger.

By the time Lesley Judd had set the fourth candle aglow, we were at festive fever pitch.

But a 21st century Christmas on children’s telly is evidently more Jackass than Jackanory. Or even a bit Dennis Wheatley with all those witch-crafty flames.

What next?

Sacrificing virgins in the Blue Peter Garden?

So how does one recapture the Magic of Christmas when even Blue Peter has burnt out?

Out of something that was invented by the Daily Mail. All those column inches for something that never happened.

Every time I see bad journalism now I see flashbacks of the thousands of words, the despair, the accusations, the blame, the hatred, the bigotry and the xenophobia that were all tagged onto the Winterval myth. Something that never happened.

Likewise, the absolute rubbish written about immigrants by the Mail yesterday provided the basis for an entire column from Melanie Phillips who swallows the Mail’s lies whole and adds layer upon layer of bitter, twisted and outraged distortion to them – as is her way. She states:

Such payments are intended to relieve their own poverty. So if welfare recipients can afford to give some of their income away like this, it might be thought that, far from amounting to no more than breadline subsistence, welfare benefits are rather too generous.

The more fundamental point, however, is that this is money provided for the hardship relief of people who are living in Britain and contributing to its economy. It is emphatically not provided for the relief of those abroad who have nothing whatever to do with Britain — except milk its coffers…

she is trying to pretend that welfare payments to people living in Britain are in fact a branch of overseas aid.

But they are nothing of the kind. And it is outrageous to extol their diversion to prop up the needy abroad. For this is ­swindling the British taxpayer, who understands that this money is to be used to support the needy at home.

That indeed is what a ‘welfare state’ means. It is a compact between Britain’s government and those who reside in the country. The idea that it is to be used instead as a kind of global poor relief fund is utterly bizarre.

Just one slight problem Melanie, Harriet Harman was not talking about immigrants on welfare sending home money because they get so much of it from the state they can afford to send it home. She was talking about welfare payments that are paid to WORKING PEOPLE – like tax credits and so forth. The benefits that any UK employee is entitled to. At no point was it suggested that unemployed immigrants were sending home chunks of welfare because they had more than enough to live on.

When I read Melanie Phillips I understand extremism. I know that there is no debating, no reasoning, no exchange of facts that could ever convince her that she is utterly wrong about 99% of the things she writes about. So, what can you do?