Monday, 31 January 2011

A True Story Of Daily Mail Lies (guest post)

In a departure from this blog's usual jokey fisking, what follows is a guest post from fellow Manchester-dweller and fellow cool person Juliet Shaw. It's the story of how she agreed to be the subject of what turned out to be a deeply misleading Mail article, and her subsequent fight against it.

I grew up with the Daily Mail. When I was younger and living with my parents, they read it every day. As I got older and began to form my own opinions, I decided I didn’t like it and instead opted for what I thought to be the more independent viewpoint of The Guardian. However, I didn’t actively oppose the Daily Mail. I had no opinion on it, other than it wasn’t for me.

Pre-Facebook, pre-blogs and Twitter, if you didn’t like a particular newspaper, you didn’t buy it and could quite easily go about your life without becoming involved in any discussions about its content.

So when, in 2003, I received a request on Response Source (an online resource for journalists to request information from PR companies) from a freelance journalist working for the Daily Mail looking for people who had left the city to live in the country and the benefits it had brought, I decided to respond. I vaguely knew the journalist as she’d started work at the Manchester Evening News just a few weeks before I left my job there. I’d recently left Manchester to return to my home town in Cumbria with my two children (three and 10 at the time) because of an acrimonious relationship breakdown, and I was working as a freelance copywriter and PR consultant and keen to raise my professional profile in my new home town, where I lived in an unremarkable semi-detached house 10 minutes away from the beach.

What followed was a catalogue of events that proved just how little regard the Daily Mail has for the people it relies on for its content. Some might argue that the celebrities the Daily Mail and other tabloids pick apart on a daily basis deserve the negative coverage they get. After all, they’re only too keen to court publicity when it suits them, when they’ve got a new film or book to plug – so they’re fair game when it comes to exposés about their love life and can’t be surprised if they’re the subject of a negative article about their weight/hair/dress sense, right?

However, I wasn’t a celebrity. Some might be of the opinion that, working in PR, I knew the game and how it worked and that by putting myself forward to appear in a national newspaper, I too deserved everything I got. But my speciality at the time was business to business PR – writing case studies about wonderful things IT companies did and then getting them placed in the trade press. Everything I wrote was – and still is - backed up with statistics and evidence, and then sent to my interviewee to confirm that I’d quoted him/her correctly and in the right context. I’d never have dreamt of paraphrasing or using artistic licence – I was of the opinion that if I had to start making bits of the story up, then I didn’t really have a story.

So I naively (or stupidly, depending on how far you’re willing to push your sympathy levels) believed that when I was interviewed about the benefits of leaving the city to live in the country, my comments would be reflected accurately and I would have a nice bit of publicity in a national newspaper with which to promote my business.

My response to the journalist was met with a request for a photograph, and after sending it I was told I’d be ideal and that the feature would be a great plug for my business. Unfortunately, rather than promoting my business, the feature made me a laughing stock. I earned a reputation within my community for being a fantasist and a liar, and spent the next two years learning the intricacies of the laws of defamation and in order to try and salvage what was left of my reputation.

The whole episode started badly. I was alarmed by the line of questioning during the interview, which seemed entirely focused towards the number of men I’d been out with rather than the benefits of country living.

Then I was coerced into attending a photo-shoot in London – a round trip of 580 miles - after being told by the journalist that her “neck was on the line big-time” if I didn’t. Not wanting to be responsible for someone I barely knew getting into trouble and perhaps losing a commission, I reluctantly agreed to attend after they agreed to pay my travel costs and put me up in a hotel for the night – coming all the way from Cumbria, it couldn’t be done in a day. It took many weeks and countless emails to increasingly senior members of Daily Mail staff before my expenses were eventually reimbursed.

On 11 September 2003, the article appeared in the Femail section of the Daily Mail. I’ll reproduce it here – what was printed, along with what actually happened.

“Sex & the Country – What happened when four singletons, fed up with shallow urban lives, upped sticks in a quest for rural romance?”

Shallow urban lives? I didn’t have a shallow urban life. I had two children and a career. I’d just been through a very traumatic relationship breakdown and a period of severe depression. And I certainly didn’t force my children to move 100 miles in a ‘quest for rural romance’. I wanted a better life for us all, away from a situation that had caused me immense distress.

“Sex And The City is back on TV – but an increasing number of British career women are turning their backs on metropolitan life in favour of the traditional courting rituals of the countryside.”

So now it became clear that the article had never been about the benefits of leaving the city to live in the countryside, as it had been told to me. The article was a reposte to the final series of Sex And The City. I was never made aware of this. Had I known the feature was to take this angle, I would never have taken part.

“FEMAIL spoke to four, including Juliet Shaw, 31, a PR consultant, who moved from Manchester to Walney Island, Cumbria, in August 2000. She split from her partner four years ago and has two children, Amelia, four, and Bethany, ten.”

I was 33. I moved in April 2000. I’d split from my partner three years ago. Nothing defamatory there, but inaccurate nonetheless.

“She says she has been asked out on more dates in her three years in the country than in 20 years in the city.”

No I didn’t. Not true. I said I rarely went out and, other than two occasions which I’ll describe later, I didn’t meet men - repeatedly, in response to the increasingly probing questions about my love life.

“Juliet says:”

That simple line made it all oh so much worse. I wasn’t being paraphrased, or speculated about. What was to follow was directly from me, in my own words. Or so the Daily Mail would have its readers believe.

“The ‘best’ man I met in my final year of being single in Manchester, a doctor, ‘forgot’ to tell me he was married until a few weeks after we met in a nightclub.”

Fabricated. All of it. In my final year of being in Manchester I was in a relationship with my daughter’s father. My final year of being single in Manchester? It had never been discussed. Without sitting down with a calender, I’d struggle to work out when that even was. Either way, I had certainly never had a relationship with a doctor, married or otherwise. During the interview, after racking my brains for romantic encounters following increasingly probing questions from the journalist, I had finally remembered a drunken snog I’d had with a friend of a friend on a night out around six months’ previously. He was a doctor, but he wasn’t married and there was certainly no relationship. We didn’t even exchange phone numbers.

“To me, it summed up the hypocrisy of the whole city experience, and I despaired of ever finding a man to settle down with.”

No I didn’t. I left Manchester because of an extremely traumatic relationship, and I would have been quite happy to never date again. As for the ‘hyprocisy of the whole city experience’, I don’t even know what this means.

“It was all the more difficult for me because I had two children from a previous relationship.”

What was difficult? Dating? I didn’t want to date. Before I left Manchester I was in a relationship, so no dating there. When I left, I was more than happy to be on my own with my girls. I certainly didn’t begrudge them from preventing me from going out on the pull.

“But I have been delighted to discover that most social events in the countryside are children friendly, such as garden parties, camping and walking on the beach.”

I’ve never been to a garden party in my life. I enjoy camping and we did walk on the beach regularly. I did these activities to have fun with my children, not in a desperate attempt to snare a man.

“In the city, dating revolves around the sort of places to which you can’t take children, such as bars and clubs.”

Does it? I wouldn’t know. I was in a relationship so didn’t go out dating.

“It was difficult to find a man when I could go out only if I had a babysitter.”

I already had one so wasn’t looking.

“My sister had lived on a farm in Cumbria for ten years, and she and her husband loved it so much that I decided to move nearby. I grew up in Derbyshire, so I was used to the pace of life in the countryside.”

No I didn’t. I spent a few years in Hadfield, Cheshire, but the majority of my early years were spent in Barrow-in-Furness. Again, nothing defamatory, just a simple inability to get things right.

“I now live in a gorgeous three-bedroom semi-detached house with a massive garden and its own beach.”

Now, this is where I started to become really alarmed. I lived on Walney Island which doesn’t have any houses that have their own private beach. You can walk all the way around the island on very public shores, and anyone familiar with the island will know this to be the case.

“I am a ten-minute drive from the Lakes, and it costs me just £400 a month, which is what I paid to live in a two-bedroom flat in Manchester. I have started my own PR business and because it’s online, it doesn’t matter where I am – I’ve been earning more than I ever did as a wage-slave in the city.”

Again, basic factual errors. I’d been working as a freelance PR consultant and copywriter for four years by 2003, and started doing so two years before I left Manchester. My business wasn’t ‘online’, whatever that may mean, and I was never a wage-slave in the city. I had a job I loved which I chose to leave after the birth of my second daughter.

“But most importantly, I’ve been asked out on more dates in the past three years than in the 20 years I spent in Manchester.”

Leaving aside the assertion that had I spent 20 years in Manchester which meant that, using the ages in the article, I would have been 11 when I left my family and moved there (and she’s already stated I grew up in Derbyshire), this was simply not true. It was made up.

“Eligible country bachelors have asked for my number in village pubs, on the high street, on the beach and at the local fete.”

Fabricated. All of it. Never said it.

“Now I’m more experienced at countryside dating, I take full advantage of all the opportunities there are to meet men.”

I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I had two young children. I worked from home. I rarely socialised. My idea of a day out was doing the big shop in Tesco.

“I’ve helped out on a local farm, feeding lambs and collecting eggs, because there were several young, fit and handsome men working there.”

My sister lived on a farm. I never helped out on it. Sometimes she gave me eggs, I never collected them. The only men who worked there were here husband, his father, his brother and, some years previously a man called Kevin who I shall refer to in more detail shortly.

“I would never have imagined myself in wellies scrabbling around in the dirt a year ago – I was more at home in designer stilletos – but I have to admit I really enjoyed it.”

Fabricated. I’ve never worn designer anything. I hate shopping. And the only time I’ve worn wellies and scrabbled around in dirt was when I went to Glastonbury in 1997.

“Being at the farm every weekend, I ended up getting to know one of the farmhands, Kevin, very well. He’s three years younger than me and we saw each other for a month before we drifted apart.”

Now the fabrication is damaging not just me, but other people. Kevin was a friend of my sister and her husband, and he had indeed worked at the farm. However, this was a couple of years previously and he’d been married at the time. We saw each other a couple of times long after he’d left the farm and long after he’d got divorced. This single sentence makes it appear that, again, I was dating a married man.

“It was so refreshing talking about nature and the countryside while sitting and cuddling on hay bales, rather than discussing something vacuous about work in a noisy city bar or club.”

Oh my. I laughed so hard when I read this (before the reality of the whole article hit in and I cried). I can categorically state that, prior to attending the photoshoot for the Daily Mail when we were asked to pose on bales of hay brandishing pitchforks, I had never sat on one, never mind cuddled on it. Totally, completely made up.

“Another great place to meet men is on the beach. There are always lots walking their dogs or riding a bike who will smile or stop to talk to me.”

There are men on the beach. Some of them will be on bikes, some of them will have dogs. However, I never said any of this.

“People aren’t afraid of each other the way they are in cities, where even making eye contact with someone can lead to verbal abuse. I’m also convinced the men you meet in the countryside are nicer characters than those in the city. They are easier to approach, less arrogant and not at all concerned iwth how you look or whether you’re wearing designer clothes.”

Not defamatory, but not true either. I never said any of it.

“The only thing I really miss is the shopping and the nightlife.”

I hate shoppping.

“But then I don’t feel the same kind of pressure to keep up with trends.”

What pressure? I’ve never felt any pressure to keep up with anything, except perhaps my rent.

“I’ve swapped my Jimmy Choos for Timberland boots, and I’ll never go back.”

I’ve never owned any Jimmy Choos or Timberland boots. I didn’t say it.

This article appeared in the week my youngest daughter started infant school. I’d been looking forward to it immensely, because I’d spent the last three years working from home and looking after two young children. Working from home meant I didn’t have the social aspects of life that working in an office could bring and being a single parent of two young children meant that nights out were rare. I’d suffered depression of varying degrees, particularly since the birth of my second daughter, and had been happy to stay at home with my girls. But I saw my youngest daughter starting school as an opportunity to meet some new people, make some new friends and the start of a new chapter in my life.

This article changed all that. When I went to school on the day it was published, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was audible mockery and thinly-disguised pointing and sniggering. I didn’t blame the perpetrators – after all, here was the braggart who lied in a national newspaper about having her own private beach and boasted of her endless pursuit of men on beaches and at garden parties. I would probably have done the same.

But there was no way of defending myself. I couldn’t approach every single person who sniggered at me in the street or while I was doing my shopping and ask them if they’d read the article, and explain I hadn’t said any of it.

Obviously, I wrote to complain. They responded that they were happy the article was an accurate reflection of what I’d said and were standing by it. I wrote again, pointing out in detail the discrepancies. Again, they stood by their article and told me that they would not enter into any further correspondence with me and considered the matter closed.

I certainly didn’t consider the matter closed. My name, image and brief details of my life had been used to fabricate a story which bore no resemblance to me or my life, then presented as fact, said by me, in my own words. It was damaging to me, my children, my friends and had a significantly negative impact on my life.

I emailed the other three women who’d been interviewed for the article – I found their addresses on an email the journalist had sent about the photoshoot. They each confirmed that they’d been horrified by the article, that it bore no relationship to anything they’d said and that they too had complained to Associated Newspapers and been similarly stonewalled. Sadly, after consulting solicitors they decided not to pursue any legal action because of the prohibitive costs.

I made my own enquiries with a solicitor and he was very sympathetic, but told me that I’d need a five-figure sum to consider bringing a claim.

Not having a five-figure sum, but determined to bring the Daily Mail to account for their damaging article, I decided to pursue my own claim.

So I researched the laws of defamation on the internet, identified the areas appropriate to me and acted as a litigant in person in an action against Associated Newspapers.

In response to my original claim for defamation, the Daily Mail brought a claim against me citing that I had no prospect of success and proposing that my claim be thrown out. This meant that instead of Associated Newspapers responding to my grievances, I was forced to defend myself to them and prove that I had been wronged. They also applied for me to pay their costs.

It took two years of legal wranglings before the claim was finally heard in front of Mr Justice Tugendhadt in the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

I won’t go into detail of his summing up – I’d have to go down to the cellar and sift through boxes and boxes of paperwork to do that, and I’ve already spent two years of my life on this. (You could probably double that if you included all the time I spend jabbering on about it to people I meet at parties.) But Mr Justice Tugendhadt ruled in my favour, and gave me leave to proceed to a full defamation trial with jury. The two or three points he didn’t allow weren’t on the basis that he believed them to be true – it was because although it was accepted they were fictional, I couldn’t prove that my reputation had been harmed as a result of them being in a national newspaper: technicalities. He also declined Associated Newspapers application for costs against me of around £24,000.

Immediately following the ruling, their barrister approached me outside the court and asked what I required to settle. Having not thought that far ahead – I hadn’t dared to believe I might win that round of my battle, so hadn’t given my next move any further thought – I declined to answer, asking her to contact me in writing.

All I’d ever wanted was an admission that they had got it wrong. If, in the response to my original letter, they’d have apologised for the freelance journalist getting some facts wrong, or admitted their sub editors had been a little heavy-handed, I would have left it there. But I was not prepared to be defamed in a national newspaper and then bullied into silence.

While I was considering my position, I received a call from the senior partner in the law firm representing Associated Newspapers. He ever so kindly pointed out that trials cost lots and lots of money, and it would be such a shame if they were forced to take my house off me were I to lose such a complicated case. I pointed out my house was rented and I had nothing to lose. He then very sympathetically informed me it would be just horrid if they had to take my business assets in order to recover their costs should the outcome of the trial not be favourable for me. I thanked him for his concern, and pointed out that as a freelance working from home, my only asset was my brain and I was more than happy to put it to good use fighting my claim to the end, whatever the outcome.

Surprisingly, the next day I received a letter asking me what I wanted in order to avoid the need for a full trial. It was simple – always had been. I wanted an apology. I wanted them to admit they’d fabricated the article, made me look a fool and damaged my reputation.

And given they’d tried to make me pay upwards of £20,000 in costs just to get to that point, I thought it only fair I was reimbursed for my losses: for the money I didn’t earn when I was spending time preparing my claim and subsequent defence; for the reams and reams of evidence and statements I’d had to prepare in triplicate; for the money I’d spent travelling to London to attend the hearing.

I worked it out as accurately as possible – the number of days, the photocopying, the train tickets – and asked for exactly that, with a breakdown of how I’d come to my figure. Given that the partner in Associated Newspapers’ law firm had warned me a trial would cost upwards of £100,000, I could have plucked a number from thin air and added a few zeros. But it was never about the money. It was the principle. It was about standing up to a corporation that thought nothing of using my image, my name and my location alongside a story purporting to be about me, in my own words, but that bore no resemblance to my life or my values. It was about wanting them to accept responsibility for the damage they’d done to my life.

So I sent them my conditions to settle; my costs, and an apology. They agreed to one or the other. I could have the costs and the matter would be resolved. Or they would print an apology, but offer no financial recompense.

By this time, I had spent two years bringing this case to court and defending myself against a national corporation. I was tired of fighting, and although I had been determined to see it through to the bitter end, the prospect of recouping some of my losses and never having to spend another night sifting through hundreds of pages of statements and quotes was too appealing to refuse. I also suspected that had I agreed to an apology being printed, it would never have found its way into the newspaper and I would have to start another lengthy legal battle. And I knew that if I did proceed to full trial with jury, and the jury ruled in my favour but their settlement was the same or less than the figure I’d requested, I’d be liable for all the costs of the trial.

So I went for the money. It wasn’t a massive amount, certainly not life changing. The majority of it went to my mum, who’d been bailing me out when my earnings dipped due to spending so much time on the case. A couple of weeks later my engine blew in my car, so the rest went on a second-hand Punto. That’s the sums we’re talking about, not Ferarri territory. Not even close.

In the five or so years that have passed since my claim was settled, things have got much, much worse. The huge growth in the Mail’s online presence has meant that its search for content becomes ever more desperate, and it gleefully prints pictures of 15 year old girls in bikinis - “Hasn’t she grown up!”- while whipping the nation into an outraged frenzy by falsely claiming Muslims insist extractor fans are removed because they’re offended by the smell of bacon, or that schools are being forced to teach ‘gay maths’ to corruptable young minds. But the majority of the people the Daily Mail tells lies about won’t do anything about it. Bringing a libel claim is prohibitively expensive, and there’s no legal aid. And for those who have the time and inclination to take the law into their own hands, it just got a lot more difficult.

The same judge that ruled in my favour, Mr Justice Tugendhat, ruled in June 2010 that in order to bring a claim for libel, claimants must prove that they have been substantially affected by the offending article, rather than simply being able to demonstrate an adverse effect of publication. The ruling was made in response to a claim against Lynn Barber and the Telegraph Newspaper Group over a book review, and applauded by journalists and news organisations as a step forward for press freedom.

Unfortunately, it also made it much easier for unscrupulous tabloids to print whatever they like about members of the public in order to fit their own agenda, with very little prospect of recrimination.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Melanie Phillips and "normal sexual behaviour" vs the gay McCarthyites

Reading Melanie Phillips' columns holds a weird kind of fascination for me. Some people just had to watch '2 Girls 1 Cup', others graphic videos of beheadings or extreme porn. I, sadly, have the same morbid curiosity towards Melanie Phillips. I shouldn't read her pieces, I know I shouldn't. It's bad for me. No good can come of it. And yet, I can't tear myself away...

The thing that fascinates me is not so much what she talks about, as her tone. She has this dramatic, apocalyptic tone to everything she writes. The words drip with melodrama. Just look at the very title of today's: Yes, gays have often been the victims of prejudice. But they now risk becoming the new McCarthyites. Gays! The new McCarthyites!
Here’s a question ­shortly coming to an examination ­paper near you. What have mathematics, geography or science to do with homosexuality?

Nothing at all, you say? Zero marks for you, then.

For, mad as this may seem, schoolchildren are to be bombarded with homosexual references in maths, geography and ­science lessons as part of a Government-backed drive to promote the gay agenda.

The Mail has gone big on the story about terrifyingly gay maths and science lessons. I don't want to digress too much here, go read Forty Shades Of Grey for an analysis of the scaremongering bollocks involved. Again, the thing that strikes me is just the palpable fury and drama with which she writes. There aren't simply gay references in these lesson plans; kids are to be "bombarded" with them. And it's not to encourage acceptance of homosexuality, it's "a Government-backed drive to promote the gay agenda". Ah yes, the "gay agenda". No-one really knows what this is, (who can say for sure what goes on in the crazed minds of The Gays?), but what we do know is that involves brainwashing our kids.

And yes, she does actually say "brainwash":
Alas, this gay curriculum is no laughing matter. Absurd as it sounds, this is but the latest attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the ­camouflage of ­education. It is an abuse of childhood.
The difficulty in blogging about Phillips is that her sheer absurdity makes her difficult to satirise. How can you top the claim that mentioning gay people in passing in a textbook question equates to "an abuse of childhood"? Next, we come to perhaps the most vile, hate-filled sentence in the piece:
And it’s all part of the ruthless campaign by the gay rights lobby to destroy the very ­concept of normal sexual behaviour.
That's a sentence absolutely dripping with contempt. The "gay rights lobby" isn't about gay rights, it's about "destroy[ing] the very ­concept of normal sexual behaviour". Destroying it. They want to destroy everything you hold dear. Hey, you know that sex you heterosexuals are having? That's normal! It doesn't matter if you're dressing up as Luke and Princess Leia and are shoving toy lightsabres up each's all NORMAL because one of you is a dude and the other one is a chick. Go for it. I mean, as long as you're married. But still, even if you're not, it's normal for men and women to fuck, right? Two guys though? What's that all about? Two women? The world's gone mad!
Not so long ago, an epic political battle raged over teaching children that ­homosexuality was normal. The fight over Section 28, as it became known, resulted in the repeal of the legal requirement on schools not to promote homosexuality.

As the old joke has it, what was once impermissible first becomes tolerated and then becomes mandatory.
That last line is just baffling, isn't it? Can anyone please tell me when it's going to become mandatory? I don't remember being consulted. I'd just like some notice of when The Gay Lobby are going to brutally force me to change my sexuality as part of their Agenda.

The rest of the column is shot through with myopia and misrepresentation.
The bed and breakfast hoteliers Peter and Hazelmary Bull — who were recently sued for turning away two homosexuals who wished to share a bedroom — were but the latest religious believers to fall foul of the gay inquisition merely for upholding ­Christian values.
They weren't merely upholding Christian values. They turned away a couple in a civil partnership because they disapproved of their sexuality, contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law. It's tales like that which are exactly why there still has to be a gay rights lobby. Let's hope that one day we can all be grown-up enough to treat each other equally. Until then, unfortunately we're going to have to use the law to enforce, y'know, basic fairness and human decency.
It seems that just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda.
For, in addition to the requirement for gay-friendly hotels, gay adoption and gay mathematics, now comes, apparently, gay drugs policy.

Last week, the Government announced the appointment of some new ­members to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who included a GP by the name of Hans-Christian Raabe.
Here, Phillips launches into a perplexing rant about the appointment of Dr Raabe. You would think that his actual appointment, in spite of his homophobic views, would be evidence that perhaps not everything is "run according to the gay agenda". But no. The fact that people have complained proves that it is. Presumably, then, by the same token, the fact that Phillips is complaining about gay rights proves that the country is in the vice-like grip of the authoritarian Melanie Phillips lobby. Everything is run according to the Melanie Phillips agenda!
It was the BBC’s Home Editor Mark ­Easton who led the charge. On his BBC News blog, he announced that Dr Raabe’s views on homosexuality were causing such fury among (anonymous) members of the Advisory Council that at least one member was threatening to step down.

Well may you rub your eyes at that. Just what have his views on homosexuality got to do with illegal drugs? Well, according to Easton, more than one member of the ­council is gay or lesbian.

How extraordinary. Just imagine if the boot were on the other foot and Dr Raabe had refused to serve on the drugs council because some of its ­members were gay. He would be out on his ear within the hour.
At the end there, you get a little hint of the reasons for Phillips' beliefs. In conflict with all available evidence, she seems to believe that being gay is a belief, an opinion, a lifestyle. Refusing to work with someone because you believe they have virulently anti-gay beliefs is, to her, the same as refusing because they are gay. Phillips simply cannot see a difference here. And, of course, she singles out a fairly straightforward piece of reportage and presents it as a clarion call from Mark Easton. Because, y'know, he's from the BBC. You know what they're like.

The curious thing about it all is Phillips' claims about tolerance for free speech. She makes a big fuss about various cases where she believes people have been unfairly persecuted for expressing sincerely held, anti-gay, beliefs. Freedom of speech is important, she argues. And yet, the mere idea of mentioning gay people in a textbook is something that must be opposed, stopped, cried out against. Where's the freedom of speech for that? It doesn't matter. That is brainwashing our kids, destroying our ideas of "normal sexual behaviour", and thus it must be stopped.

Phillips finishes off by describing the "crazy, upside-down world of the equality agenda", and expressing fear of the "seemingly all-­powerful gay rights lobby". If there's one thing Melanie Phillips can never be accused of, it's understatement.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Liz Jones: murder, disappointing bars and buttons

Of all the the journalists in Britain you would want to write about the Joanna Yeates murder, Liz Jones is probably nestling somewhere near the bottom of the list. You might think, after all, that Jones' penchant for consumerist superficiality and ill-directed moaning doesn't quite carry the gravitas required to really deal with such a case of genuine human tragedy and emotion. Well, you'd be right.

Jones has travelled to Bristol to recreate Yeates' final evening and put her own, er, unique talents to use, covering the story in a lightweight human interest style, in Is lovely Jo becoming just another thumbnail on the police website?. Right off the bat, from the very title, it's starting to go wrong. Yeates is one of the most high-profile adult murder victims of recent times. There are people dying all the time who don't get a mention in the national papers, much less the dizzying 24-hour coverage that Yeates' murder got.

It doesn't take long for Jones' peculiar obsession with class and social mobility to surface:
This is where Joanna Yeates spent her last evening before she set off up the hill, past all the twinkly shops and bars (a Habitat, a Space NK beauty emporium; Bristol is nothing if not upwardly mobile) towards her death.

The bar is OK but ordinary. The wine list, chalked on a board, says ‘Lauren Perrier’.
I wish she had spent what were probably her last hours on earth somewhere lovelier.
Yes, the real tragedy is that Yeates didn't even get to spend the evening of her violent death in a posh enough bar. You can rest assured that if Liz Jones ever gets strangled, her family will be able to take some comfort in the fact that she was no doubt yukking it up drinking overpriced cocktails in a pretentious London drinking hole before she met her end.

You get the sense that the surroundings make it all the more tragic for Jones. She's not alone in this; it's common for papers to treat more middle-class victims of crime, or crime in 'upwardly mobile' areas, as more upsetting. These aren't council estate scumbags that might deserve it, these are people you could see at a cocktail party!
I walk past the beautiful university building on my right, with Waitrose on my left. I wander the bright aisles, full of young women rushing round after work, leaving with carrier bags and expectation.

I head up the hill towards Clifton, the leafy part of the city. It’s quieter now, and darker. I find Tesco, and go in. I almost buy that upmarket pizza; the choice tells me Jo wanted a lovely life, something above the ordinary.

There's almost a flicker of emotion in whatever passes for Jones' heart here; this girl wanted a slightly more expensive pizza. If Liz Jones ate a pizza, she would probably choose a more expensive one too. Isn't that profound? That connection? Doesn't it make you want to weep, just a little? This could have happened to our favourite self-absorbed newspaper columnist! What then? What would we do?

Jones talks to some police officers:
I tell them I’m spooked, walking here. ‘Don’t be spooked,’ one says. ‘Residents are campaigning to get brighter street lights installed.’ So the antique, lovely ones are to disappear to be replaced by ugly ones because of something even uglier.
It just gets worse, doesn't it? I mean, the murder is one thing. But the ramifications of it are severe. What if we lose the pretty antique street lights? What might that do to house prices? I can barely bring myself to consider the horror.

Jones then wonders why other, perhaps local, drivers, aren't slowing down to gawp at Yeates' house, like she has done. Don't they respect Jo Yeates? It's almost like they have somewhere they need to get to, as if they don't get paid handsomely to mooch about waiting for material for their pointless articles.

Towards the end, Jones uses all her skill as a writer to haul her own petty problems into the story, and connect them thoughtfully.
My satnav takes me to the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The theory is the killer took the long route from the flat to where he dumped the body to avoid the CCTV cameras. Perhaps he also wanted to avoid the 50p toll.

I don’t have 50p and try tossing 30p and a White Company button into the bucket. It doesn’t work.
Never mind Jo Yeates; when are they going to come up with a toll bridge that accepts designer buttons, for those of us too classy to carry small change? Then follows possibly the weirdest paragraph I have ever read in a national newspaper column. Jones attempts to find some kind of poignancy in this moment of personal awkwardness. Is there a way we can link toll bridges refusing to accept designer buttons with the tragic murder of a young woman? Liz Jones can find a way, sort of:
There is now an angry queue behind me. Isn’t it interesting that you can snatch a young woman’s life away from her in the most violent, painful, frightening way possible, take away her future children, her future Christmases, take away everything she loves, and yet there are elaborate systems in place to ensure you do not cross a bridge for only 30 pence? No, that isn't interesting. It's irrelevant, facile and absurd. Bridge tolls are no more relevant to this murder than the tooth fairy is. There is no sad irony, no lingering meaning to be found here. Are you proposing a system where murder is given a prohibitively expensive pre-paid toll? You just drove onto a toll bridge without having enough cash. Stop it.

Luckily, fortune favours the vacuous, and Liz Jones is suddenly presented with a convenient get-out, not just of her toll bridge nightmare, but of the article, as a man, who I shall call Mr Deus Ex Machina, helpfully gives her both fifty pence and a neat feed line to set up her finale:
Finally, a man in a taxi jumps out, and runs to me brandishing a 50p piece.

‘Not all men are monsters,’ he says, grinning. Maybe not. But one monster is all it takes.

Perhaps the real story is about Bristol's omniscient taxi drivers/users; men who can sense what a journalist is writing about and offer forth convenient set-up lines, despite not formally being given any context to do so. I hope Liz Jones' next article is about that.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The art of headlines

Over the past few weeks, the press has managed to get a ton of headlines out of mass animal die-offs. Birds, fish...there have been several incidents widely reported from across the world where a couple of hundred critters are found dead somewhere, and this has been great fun for conspiracy theorists, armchair occultists and people who just wish something more interesting was going on than by-elections and cuts.

Today's Mail reports another such incident with a typically dramatic headline, pleading desperately with the authorities to stop covering shit up and tell us The Truth, dammit! "Now 300 dead birds fall from the sky in Alabama (how much longer can scientists keep saying this is normal?)", it seems to yell. Yeah, Mr Science Guy, how long are you gonna keep bullshitting us and admit it's time to start stocking up on shotguns and fortifying our basements?

The strange part is, though, the article is...actually fairly sensible. Y'know, for the Mail, I mean. Early in the piece, an entirely rational, non-apocalyptic, and deeply mundane explanation is offered for this particular incident:
It appears that the birds died of blunt force trauma - possibly from being hit by a truck, wildlife biologist Bill Gates told local news station WAFF
The article goes on to give a similar explanation for a recent incident in California. Flock of birds hit by truck. Not, perhaps, the start of the Rapture. DAILY MAIL REPORTER briefly mentions the excitement about the apparent spate of incidents, but then punctures such giddiness with a note of skepticism:
The reality, say biologists, is that these mass die-offs happen all the time and usually are unrelated.

Federal records show they happen on average every other day somewhere in North America. Usually, we don't notice them and don't try to link them to each other.

Indeed, most of the article is a pretty decent, if lightweight, debunking of the fuss around these animal deaths; the bottom line being that these things have always and will always happen, and we're just reporting them all of a sudden which makes it look like more. It's a little reminiscent of the Bridgend suicides, which were not particularly unusual statistically speaking but ended up portrayed as a massive sinister suicide pact. Or indeed the recent Implanon contraceptive jab story, where out-of-context absolute figures gave the impression that a massive amount of failures were occurring when in fact the failure rate was very low.

So what of that title? As we know, it's usually a sub-editor or someone other than the author who adds the title. If you'd given this article a title along the lines of "Animal deaths 'not unusual', say scientists", it would have made a lot more sense in the context of the article. But would people have read it? We live in an age of short attention spans where a shouty headline is what's needed to get hits, even if it's wildly misleading. I suppose the thing that bothers me about this case is that it's not just sensationalism; the headline seems to actively try and scorn the relatively sensible article beneath it in the name of cheap publicity. The person who wrote the article seems to think it's perfectly reasonable that "scientists keep saying this is normal", yet that ridiculous headline wants you to click on the article in the expectation finding that something deeper, something weirder, something perhaps conspiratorial or apocalyptic is going on. Why, I can only speculate, but it would hardly be surprising if the headline was purely designed to get a fairly mundane story Tweeted and Facebooked around the world by people who haven't really got any desire to read past the headline.

Friday, 7 January 2011

How to report a murder in the absence of facts? Use a psychic!

The time between a murder and someone being charged has always posed problems for the tabloids. Eager to keep the story running, but with no real hook for it, they often end up scrabbling around for something, anything to keep people glued in anticipation of someone being caught. So it is with the Joanna (now just 'Jo') Yeates murder.

Today we find several papers tossing wildly different logs into the fire. The Sun goes with this good old-fashioned campaign nonsense:


The Mirror features the previous suspect, now released without charge, continuing to vow to clear his name. The Mail, meanwhile, goes back to one of its favourite social ills, Facebook, with a rather flimsy-sounding suggestion that Yeates may possibly have been killed by someone who knew her through the social networking site:


I won't go into much detail on that, as it's already been very well covered by Natalie Dzerins over at Forty Shades Of Grey, which you may go and read now as long as you promise to come back.

Today's prize for most grotesque coverage, though, must go to The Daily Star, who have gone for this:


It's a bad enough headline in itself, but it becomes even more grim when you realise that this story, this new 'evidence', worthy of a front page headline no less, is based entirely on the claims of a single psychic. Yes, you read that right, a national newspaper has given over its front page to the wild claims of a psychic investigator.

In the article we get some more detail about the claims;
The psychic investigator insists she “saw” Jo being attacked by two of a group of five men after she rejected their offer of a lift.

It's later revealed that this vision took place 10 days before Yeates went missing. She speculates further, saying "The girl wasn’t bosom friends with the men. It looked like they offered her a lift but she didn’t take it and they followed her". It looked like? Is a psychic giving rough details of something she saw in a vision of something which may or may not have been relevant, really good enough for a national newspaper front page? Apparently it is.

The psychic in question is Carol Everett, a shameless self-promoter who has attached her, er, unique gift, to various high-profile cases, including the Ian Huntley murders and the Washington sniper. She claimed to have drawn Huntley and Maxine Carr before they were arrested, a claim which seems impressive at first but falls apart when you scroll down to the untouched image, which has 'Carr' with beyond-shoulder-length hair, and an utterly generic white male drawing which claims Huntley has blue eyes (he doesn't), piercings (none visible) and isn't even sure whether the thing on his head is hair or a scarf. [EDIT: thanks to @tabloidwatch on Twitter for correcting me here, I think the 'piercing' may have been a description of Huntley's eyes. Which still aren't blue, mind].

I don't want to get dragged too far into the subject of whether psychics are real or not, but ultimately this kind of unfounded speculation from a single source who has no knowledge of the case can't be helpful, particularly when she's allowed to toss out potentially serious misinformation like this:
Carol described the killer she saw as of mixed race, 5ft 11in to 6ft tall and in his early 20s
Perhaps it's the mysterious "some Puerto Rican guy" from South Park. Either way, this really feels like tremendous barrel-scraping from a paper content to give a platform to self-promoting bullshit merchants for the sake of keeping voyeurists entertained.