Well, it was only a matter of time.
The tedious, long-running, press-bashing, minor-celeb tufty hunt that is the Leveson Inquiry has finally wrought a backlash.
And leading the charge are the lefty-libertarians at spiked, which has launched The Counter-Leveson Inquiry.
In his article announcing the launch, spiked editor (and Telegraph blogger) Brendan O’Neill notes that ones re-opening the inquiry on Monday, Lord Leveson mention he found ‘publicly expressed concerns’ about the inquiry ‘troubling’.
The most remarkable thing about Leveson’s admission to feeling troubled by public criticisms is that, sadly, there has been very little public criticism of his showtrial of the tabloids. You could count on one hand, or at a stretch two hands, the number of journalists and politicians who have dared to question the right of one judge to marshal celebrities and coppers to the cause of redefining the ethics of the press.
Quite so. There has been the usual drooling over the attacks on the Murdoch tabloids by the more totalitarian-inclined of our “liberal” lickspittle media – The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC etc – but the rest of the mainstream media has generally cowered in the corner, with only the Mail‘s Paul Dacre putting up any semblance of a fight in what is really a kangaroo court.
And it is a kangaroo court. Witnesses line up and grab their allotted 15 minutes of fame – or, the case of faded celebrities and failed politicians, to grab another 15 minutes of celebrity – making whatever allegations fits their agenda of vengeance, outrage, paranoia and shamelessness. There is no forensic cross-examination of these allegations such as would occur in a court of law, either criminal, where the criteria is beyond reasonable count, or civil, where the criteria is the balance of probabilities.
Instead, they are met with gentle questions eliciting their feelings, impressions and thoughts more appropriate for a student counselling session than a formal, quasi-judicial inquiry. For many of the witnesses, this is true nirvana: not only do have a spotlight of a softer, more flattering hue cast upon them, they get a free ego-massage thrown in too.
One troubling aspect of the Levenson inquiry that O’Neill doesn’t comment on in his article – strangely, since it’s one of his hobby-horses – is that by almost solely attacking the tabloids, this is really just another extended prole-bash. The tabloids cater for a sizeable readership who loves celeb gossip; some of the tabs catered to this demand by nefarious means, by illicit phone-hacking or paying cops for tip-offs of celeb shenanigans etc. Of that there’s no doubt.
But hang on: during the Leveson recess, we had the unedifying sight of the usual suspects – the aforementioned Guardian, Independent, BBC etc – drooling over “hacked” documents “proving” that the right-wing US Heartland Institute, which takes a robust anti-man-made global warming line, along with many other activities, was plotting to use the untold millions it gets from Big Oil to foil pro-climate changee scientists by “dissuading teachers from teaching science”.
The fact the central “strategy” document was a crudely cobbled-together fake and that the genuine documents – which were blandly routine meeting reports that hardly showed Heartland wallowing around in Big Oil bucks like Scrooge McDuck – had been obtained by fraud by pro-climate change activist, Peter Gleick, who has since confessed to the phishing, though not to the faking.
That they had tacitly supported and thereby endorsed illegal activities because it suited their news agenda in this instance did not seem to faze then usual suspects. Indeed, the Guardian even ran an extraordinary piece by The Ethics of Climate Change author James Garvey in which he said:
Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland’s money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he’s undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.
So: the ends justifies the means, eh? But only if it’s the Guardian’s ends, it would seem. It certainly doesn’t apply to those filthy red-tops’ ends. Some may call that moral relativism. I call it rank hypocrisy.
But don’t expect such high-minded shenanigans to get even a mention at Leveson. It’s the tabloids which are in the firing line, and while it’s them, the usual suspects will happily cheer the inquiry on.
But O’Neill is surely right to note that whether they are active cheerleaders or cowering curs, mainstream journalists are oblivious to the bonfire which is being built under their feet:
It is alarming that, in a country where the poet John Milton demanded freedom of the press more than 350 years ago, and where many other writers and activists subsequently fought tooth-and-catapult to expel state forces from the worlds of writing and publishing, so many should now acquiesce to an inquiry which gives a judge and his chums the power to tell the media what its morals should be.
O’Neill ends his call to arms with another fiery quote from Milton which I urge you to check out for yourself. Because whatever you might think of their views on other topics (which I myself have a love/hate relationship with), on this issue, the spiked gang is definitely on the side of the angels.
Tim Worstall makes a good point about one line of defence used by Energy , Climate Change and Tidal Reversal Secretary Canute Huhne’s new partner, Carina Trimingham, in her current action against Associated Newspapers. One of her complaints is that the Daily Mail published an “inherently private” photo of the 2007 civil partnership ceremony between Miss Trimingham and another woman, which one presumes is Julie Bennett.
Hang on, says, Timmy:
A civil partnership, as with a marriage, is a public declaration. In fact, by definition it’s a public declaration, that’s the whole point of it, to stand up and in public declare the legal relationship between the two people, in front of witnesses and all.
Quite so. Whether it’s a marriage or a civil relationship, whether it’s celebrated in a church, a temple, a “designated” place or the Drive-in Chapel of the Blessed Elvis in Las Vegas, such a union must occur in public and be witnessed to be legally binding. That’s the law. And if someone takes a photo of such an event, there ain’t much you can do about it if they flog the pic to the tabs/email it to all their mates/put it on Facebook.
It just surprises me that for a woman described as “an experienced communications consultant”, Trimingham seems deeply ignorant of Media Law 101. What doesn’t surprise me is that Huhne should thus pick up on such a woman. When you look at it, his whole career has been one “cataclysmic interference” after another.
The Daily Mail, along with Guido Fawkes and others, is quite rightly having a lot of fun with this online NHS ad for an anaesthetist:
Across the pond, the National Review has also picked up on it, with Corner blogger John Derbyshire saying it’s an example of a “newspaper editor’s worst nightmare…that his scribbled instructions to journalists (“insert usual blather abt need 2 fix schools etc …”) might end up in the finished copy.”
It’s similar to those times when a layout artist’s “Insert text here jlkjlkj ssffssd kljllkj” instruction boxes appear in the national papers: similar, but not synonymous, since news editor’s comments often betray a particular feeling on the writer’s part.
Certainly, we all know what the writer of the NHS ad thought about the “usual rubbish” regarding equal opportunities that are de rigueur in public service job ads. Not that he or she was necessarily against equal opportunities, just that, with that wise native intelligence of the average Brit, they had long realised it was a foolish, time-wasting and expensive parroting of meaningless platitudes necessary purely because politicians have decreed it so.
Fellow National Review blogger Richard Brookhiser picked up the baton and mentioned his fave example from the Boston Globe, which I’d not been aware of.
On Saturday, March 15, 1980, following a speech on the economy by President Jimmy Carter, the Globe headlined an editorial:
I’m not going to comment directly on the news that the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, has brought contempt of court charges against the Sun and Daily Mirror over their Joanna Yeates coverage, since the matter is now clearly sub judice, other than to raise a quizzical eyebrow that a certain national daily newspaper we might all have expected to be included has not been. But the matter is now firmly one for m’lud.
Instead, I wish to turn to a particular instance of journalistic history. By happy coincidence and through the auspices of the Raynes Park Public Library, I happen to be reading Judith Flanders’ rather good The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. I’m currently engrossed in Chapter Two, Trial by Newspaper, in which she outlines a particularly juicy and sensational murder, that of William Weare, on or about October 24, 1823 (so it actually preceded the Victorian age by 14 years).
Briefly, the facts of the case were that the victim, who claimed to be a solicitor who lived in Lyon’s Inn (once an Inn of Chancery), but who seems to have earned his living through more rakishly Regency occupations such as waitering, billiards-making, gambling and promoting crooked fights, fell in with John Thurtell, a failed mercenary (during the Napoleonic Wars), failed cloth merchant, failed publican and failed gambler, but who considered himself a “man of the fancy” – ie, a prizefight promoter. A star-cross’d bout, as Shakespeare might have said if he were a man of that particular fancy.
Weare arranged to go for a weekend’s shooting with Thurtell and his friend Joseph Hunt at Gill’s Hill, now part of Radlett, Hertfordshire, staying in the cottage of William Probert, a spirit merchant who seems to have run a lucrative sideline supplying dodgy credit. It was later alleged that Thurtell was the perpetrator of a murderous conspiracy involving Hunt and Probert to kill Weare and relieve him of the enormous wealth (about £2000) he was rumoured to habitually carry about with him.
The weekend seems to have run with all the smoothness of a Ben Travis farce – Thurtell arrived before Hunt, whom Probert had dropped off at an inn to await Thurtell, who was waiting for Hunt at the cottage etc – but it ended in tragedy for Weare, who was shot in the face, then bludgeoned to death before having his throat slit, being stuffed in a sack and dumped in a nearby pond. This was not the end of his indignities: the perpetrators later recovered the body and then dumped it in a pond in Elstree. The proceeds were rather less than the expected £2000 windfall – about £15, plus a few trinkets.
The police – in the form of the Bow Street Runners – arrested Thurtell, Hunt and Probert. Hunt quickly grassed, and fingered Thurtell as the main man. You can read the rest of the case in Flanders’ book, or, if you must, on Wikipedia, but what I’m interested in is one particular newspaper’s coverage of the case at this stage: ie, after arrest, but before trial.
This newspaper, says Flanders, ran a “stream of vitriolic – and completely unsubstantiated – stories” about Thurtell. On November 6, for example, it said: “Thurtell is reported to have been with Wellington’s troops at the siege of San Sebastian, where he lurked behind the lines to murder and rob a fallen officer.” According to the newspaper, Thurtell boasted:
I thought by the look of him that he was a nob, and must have some blunt [money] about him; so I tucked my sword in his ribs, and settled him; and found a hundred and forty doubloons in his pocket!
Readers commented that 140 doubloons would be more than a soldier could easily carry from a battlefield. At this remove it’s hard to tell, since at the time “doubloon” seems to have referred to any gold coin of Spanish origin. But it’s interesting that the newspaper’s readers were prepared at this stage to call it up on what they judged to be over-excitement in what was clearly an excitable age.
Not that it stopped this particular paper: it also reported that an airgun in the shape of a walking stick had been found in Thurtell’s lodgings. Nothing more was ever heard of this cunning device, but no matter: the paper later reported that a James Wood, supposedly Thurtell’s rival for the fair hand of Miss Caroline Noyes, the sister of Probert’s wife, had been evilly lured into a trap in a tenement where he was attacked with a pair of dumbbells – and, wouldn’t you know it – such dumbbells had been found in that building.
As if that were not proof enough, the paper reported that Probert had testified (note that this is still before the trial) that Thurtell “had picked out 17 persons of substance that he intended to rob and murder, and that [Weare] was one of them.” The other 16 obviously had a lucky escape “from the late horrid conspiracy”, the paper noted.
Another who had a lucky escape was one Sparks, who had declined to go into business with Thurtell, thus evading by the skin of his teeth “a horrible doom, which otherwise, in all probability, awaited him”.
As far as this paper was concerned, it was all done and dusted when a week later, and still to come to trial, it pronounced Thurtell, Hunt and Probert as “the guilty culprits.”
The question of the day is: which newspaper is this?
Clue: It’s not the Sun, nor the Daily Mirror, nor the other paper I hinted at previously. None of them were around at the time.
Award yourself a fluffy toy if you guessed it was this.
FOOTNOTE: The Weare murder trial inspired many a rhyme, something that is sadly lacking today. One such was:
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.
William McGonagall eat your heart out.
The Thurtell case is also memorable for the testimony of Mrs Probert who, when asked “Was supper postponed?”, replied “No, it was pork.”
The Pythia of Journalism has a revealing post comparing various national papers’ “audience” divided into print, web and “social media” (for which read: Twitter).
It contains this infograffiti, taken – inevitably – from the media blog de nous jours, The Media Blog:
Pythia, using all the accumulated knowledge of grub street back stabbing and opportunistic job-hopping that today secures you a sinecure as “Professor of Journalism” at City University London, opines thusly:
As Sturgeon readily concedes, it’s only a snapshot. But it is revealing all the same. Note, for example, the Daily Mail’s enormous reach in print and online compared to a relatively small social media (Facebook and Twitter) following. The Guardian, by contrast, has almost as many social media fans and followers as it has daily visitors to its website. Its reach is, arguably, more penetrating.
But that’s by the by. Let’s look at another of Pythia’s points, which is that the Guardian’s reach is, arguably, more penetrating. In what way could the Guardian’s obsession with Twitter be more arguably penetrating?
Oddly, I think I found the answer in Sam Leith’s Arts Column in yesterday’s…well, Guardian 2, actually:
My current favourite fact about human civilisation is that fully 3% of all activity on Twitter consists of conversations about [Justin] Bieber. That is, 3% of an entire communicative medium – on which any and every idea in human history can potentially be discussed – is spent on talking about Bieber.
Could it be that a lot of the Guardian’s arguably penetrating social media reach is really just twittering about an 18-year-old Canadian pop singer with backwards-facing hair? Does a good 3% of that dark blue block next to the Guardian in the graph above actually comprise furrow-browed Guardianistas earnestly tweeting each other about the recent egging of Justin Bieber in a Sydney concert hall?
I do not pretend to know. But if so, the Guardian must stop this arguably more penetrating obsession.
UPDATE: More on the Guardian’s twitter obsession. Apparently, according to Frédéric Filloux, news coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden showed how news organisations “have mastered social media such as Twitter”.
Quite apart from ignoring the fairly mundane fact that however you get the news – via Twitter, Facebook, heard it from a bloke in the pub or messenger pigeon – you still have to do the routine, basic journalistic work of verification and actually writing it up into readable prose, Filloux unwittingly betrays the extent to which media organisations are in awe of shiny new media while forgetting those first principles.
For instance, he links to this startling piece of infograffiti (I use that phrase to indicate that, like graffiti, it gives more pleasure to the perpetrator than the hapless viewer). It purports to show how news of the terrorist’s death was spread via Twitter:
Wasn’t that interesting? Well actually, no. It is, in the useful phrase of P J O’Rourke, informationally subtractive: you know less about the subject after looking at it than you did before.
I’m going to alert Peter Sands to this particularly egregious example of the infograffitist’s art, as he has a good blog posting on this sort of nonsense.
The traditional media silly season has kicked off a bit earlier this year. Rather than waiting for the traditional starting gunshot that is Parliament dissolving, packing its buckets and spades and heading off for the hols, the media is indulging itself in a frenzy of increasingly hyperactivity over Wills ‘n’ Kate, Cam ‘n’ Clegg (uncunningly disguised as the AV referendum) and the Greatest Threat to Western Civilisation As We Know It Since The Last One, the super-injunction.
Of course, after Kate has made an honest man of Wills this week, and the country decides on AV next week, that more or less leaves the latter to run and run. And, as they say in Hollywood, it sure got legs. The trouble is, one leg points one way, to which the other is directly opposed.
With the childish hyperbole that is increasingly the norm among today’s kidult university-educated journalists (even on the increasingly lightweight “heavies”), all injunctions are “super”, even when they’re not, some are even “hyper”, even though there has only ever been one hyper-injunction (a word made up by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming) and that had nothing to do with privacy or the media per se, and the media has closed ranks to fulminate against, in words of Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, “Amoral judges, shameless celebrities and a Britain that’s coming close to a police state”, with that ever-favourite judicial bugbear, Eady J, coming in for special attention (such as here in the Telegraph and here in the Indy). In short, Their Honours are accused of making up privacy law as they go along, without recourse to any legislation enacted by Parliament. Those bewigged bench-entrenched bastards.
Whew. There are several aspects of media law swirling around here, some relating to privacy law and others to defamation law and a few relating to both which, either through ignorance or intent, the national media are conflating into one.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to at least pick apart some of these threads and make an attempt to sort them all out.
And while doing so, it’s also worthwhile to adopt the adage of that wise old bird Confucius: “Above all, call each thing by its correct name.”
From the Mail’s coverage about the Russian spy ring, about one of the arrested couples:
Another neighbour told the New York Times: ‘They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.’
Personally, I’ve always had my suspicions about Alan Titchmarsh…