Saturday, 13 October 2012

This isn’t just journalism – this is 'Daily Mail' journalism

Paul Dacre in defensive mode at Leveson.
It’s beginning to appear as though the story about Jimmy Savile has, as our cousins across the Pond might say, gone nuclear.

Revelation follows revelation. The numbers of those making allegations rise almost inexorably.

It is worth noting, at this juncture, that the response from some people, questioning why they had not come forward before, as though this means that their allegations are automatically false, does not hold up.

It is quite normal in cases of abuse for the victim/s not to be able to say anything until the abuser has died – in other words, when the psychological grip is suddenly broken.

But back to Savile. Allegations about his time at the BBC, about his visits to NHS hospitals and about his appointment, in 1988, as the head of a taskforce overseeing the high-security Broadmoor Hospital, after the health secretary had dismissed the hospital’s management board.

It has seen some quite extraordinary coverage in elements of the conventional media.

And social media continues to see journalists themselves wringing their hands one minute and, the next, insisting that, while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that publications knew about Savile – and knew years ago – they couldn’t have done anything.

The whinging is reflected below.

'We had no resources.'

Well, except when you wanted to hire private detectives and employ the increasing trend for chequebook journalism, including making payments to police.

'Okay, so we had resources – but we didn’t have any witnesses.'

Yes. Well that's the sort of thing that real journalists go out and find. And the (regulated) ITV does not appear to have had such a problem in making its documentary about the deceased DJ and TV presenter, does it?

And as it happens, there were witnesses. According to this, in 1994, the Sunday Mirror had "credible and convincing" evidence from two women who claimed that they had been abused, but the paper's legal team warned against publication. At least the paper's then editor, Paul Connew, spread the word with some impact.

'There’d only be an inquiry if someone can say that Savile had a horse that he let the PM ride.'

Because, in case you haven’t realised it already, all those poor, poor journalists who have (along with police and other figures) been arrested as part of Operation Elevedon never did anything wrong (even if and when a jury decides otherwise), and corruption and criminal activities such as phone hacking aren’t really crimes when done by journalists in pursuit of a story, and …

You get the gist of the martyred indignation, one hopes.

So what sort of worthy stories do these put-upon parts of the fourth estate produce with the resources that they do have and do choose to use?

Oh yes. World-changing issues such as how Max Mosely likes a spot of consensual S&M. A story that the News of the World then had to invent lies about in order to present a spurious cover of public interest – as opposed to it simply publishing something to titillate the public.

Sex sells. And to some in our trade, anything goes: there is no privacy if you are in the public spotlight. You are fair game for a profit-making story about your private life even when there is no evidence of a crime or even a note of hypocrisy.

If you dare to suggest that such an approach is wrong, then you're a snob and an elitist.

Instead, such people – and, more to the point – the publishers and editors who are the ones who choose to follow such routes – decide to patronise people and dumb down the public discourse by feeding readers a diet of crass and salacious gossip and ‘scandal’, and anything that will send them into an orgy of knee jerkery, which sometimes goes as far as liberating an actual mob.

The Paulsgrove riots are a perfect illustration of exactly this. And it is not snobbery and it is not elitism to say so.

And whipping up hysteria or peddling the details of people's private lives isn’t ‘proper’ journalism either. It’s a sham.

The reality is that, just as with people in other walks of life, people on newspapers knew about Savile. And for whatever reason, editors and publishers chose not to follow up the stories.

Or, if the one case that has been mentioned is correct, when one title did, it was then dared by Savile himself to publish – and, he told them, in so doing, be responsible for all the monies he raised for Stoke Manderville drying up.

It is a simple fact that the culture in the UK has changed almost out of recognition in terms of child abuse and other forms of abuse and exploitation.

Well into the 1980s, the issues was simply brushed under the carpet – by all sections of society.

A friend, who grew up in London’s East End, once told me how, if there were any rumours of ‘kiddy fiddling’ in the community, a group of local men would go around to the accused’s house, give them a seeing to and ensure they would leave the area and never return.

Knowing about this was almost a rite of passage into manhood.

In the meantime, the problem was simply shifted somewhere else – much as happened with the church, when priests were known to be abusing children.

That that is no longer the case; that we take child abuse seriously and that we listen to children now, is cause for – well, if not celebration, then at least a feeling that things have changed for the better.

But it is bad history to attempt to impose the attitudes of today onto the past – even when, as here, that past is within the living memories of many.

To illustrate this better: were you to study the history of the Colosseum in Rome, you would need to put aside your own horror at what went on there and attempt to understand it in terms of the attitudes of ancient Rome at that time; to understand how it was considered to honour the gods, for instance.

That’s not about ‘excusing’ or ‘condoning’: it is about reading history properly.

Of course, when history is concertinaed, as it is here; when culture has changed so markedly in such a very short time, it is particularly difficult to employ such perspective.

The media could help. Good journalism could help.

Instead, we see a delight in jumping onto the blame bandwagon.

And in the case of some, it is an excuse to promote an agenda that has absolutely nothing to do with the protection of children or any possible justice for the alleged victims.

In a quite extraordinary rant in Thursday’s paper, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre decided to use the Savile case to lay into two of his pet hates: the BBC and the Leveson inquiry into standards in the press.

Suffice it to say that Dacre would like Leveson to broaden the inquiry to look into the Savile affair (having previously said the remit was already too broad).

But let’s examine the issue a little further.

Dacre, as mentioned before, is hardly a paragon of virtue. He might enjoy exposing sex ‘cheats’, but judged by nothing more than his own standards, he is one himself, having been revealed to have had an affair.

His editorial meetings are infamously known as ‘the vagina monologues’ because of the language he uses. He has apparently turned something called ‘double cunting’ into an art form.

Bullying, perchance?

Martin Clarke is the Mail Online’s editor. But Dacre is not only the editor of the Daily Mail itself, he is also the editor-in-chief of the Mail group as a whole.

One could be forgiven for imagining that such a powerful man would, therefore, be able to exercise some control over all aspects of the group’s product.

Mail Online, however, sits so far from the moral posturing of Dacre that it’s really quite hard to grasp.

Let’s leave aside, for the sake of this discussion, the utterly irresponsible cult of cancer scare stories that the group feeds to its readership.

Let’s pass over the ignominious approach to women; to the promotion by the group as a whole – and the website in particular – of a culture of self-loathing, through a variety of means, from the constant photographs and derogatory comments on the weight, shape and clothing of women in the public eye, and even if, in middle age, they have cellulite, to the faddy diets that appear regularly in its pages.

Let’s concentrate, instead, on its obsession with under age girls.

Loath though I am to give the Mail any extra revenue through hits, if you visit its online site and, in the search box, type ‘all grown up’, it will produce at least 10 pages of results for this one phrase.

From the first two pages of search results:

“Classy Chloe: Teen actress Moretz, 14, looks all grown up as she steals the the [sic] show at Hugo premiere” gushed a header for Mike Larkin’s piece on 22 November 2011.

“All grown up! Chloe Moretz looks very ladylike and older than her 14 years as she attends Hugo screening” ran a further headline on 7 December 2011, in case you hadn't quite got the point the first time around.

“Pop star ‘boyfriend’ and a spicy new rock girl image: Dionne Bromfield is all grown up”, said the headline to a piece by Martin Howden on 17 August this year.

The story itself trilled: “Dionne Bromfield may only be 16-years-old, but she’s letting us know she’s not a little girl anymore.

“The goddaughter of Amy Winehouse wore a daring outfit …”

Gist got? Well, at least she’s legal. Just.

“From geek to chic: Modern Family’s little Ariel Winter is all grown up at Critic’s Circle Awards in Beverley Hills”, said the headline for a story by “Daily Mail Reporter” on 21 June 2011.

“She’s beloved as the brainy middle child of the Dunphy Family in ABC’s hit series Modern Family, but Ariel Winter was all grown up – and anything but geeky – at the Critics’ Choice Award in Beverly Hills today.

“The 13-year-old actress …”

To be fair, the Mail does not limit this obsession to girls.

“All grown up! Prince Jackson, 15, stands almost as tall as his bodyguard as he steps out in Los Angeles”, ran a headline for a story on 5 July 2012 about one of Michael Jackson’s children.

“Daily Mail Reporter” wrote that, since Jackson’s death in 2009, “his son, Prince, has seemingly grown overnight into a strapping young man”.

The day after Dacre’s broadside against the “cesspit” at the BBC and how Leveson should Do Something, came this:

“Growing up too fast? Paris Jackson steals the show with a very grown up look on the red carpet.”

Joel Cooper had written: “Looking much older than her 14-years, Paris Jackson stole the show when she arrived at a red carpet event on Thursday night in Beverly Hills”.

Again in the interests of absolute fairness, some of these ‘all grown up’ stories involve celebrities who are now in their thirties. And some of these stories are written by female journalists.

But ‘all grown up’, eh? No hint of Lolita in any of these, is there? Nothing of the Humbert Humbert, if lacking the consolation of Nabokov’s prose.

I am far, far from being a prude. In essence, I am a libertarian on matters sexual. Assuming consent and adulthood, then it is and should be nobody else’s business.

But there is something skin-crawlingly nasty about this Mail obsession – and even more so when considered in the light of Dacre and his rants about ‘morality’.

In that same editorial, he wrote: “The Mail utterly condemns phone hacking. But in truth much of it was practised to obtain celebrity tittle-tattle. Yes, utterly deplorable, but a footling matter, we would suggest, compared to the molestation and rape of 13-year-old girls.”

Or to something akin to the pimping of such girls for a drooling readership, perhaps?

And yes, readers and consumers of such media have a responsibility too. 

Dacre’s Mail decrys the sexualisation of young girls. Yet he fails to use his position of authority in the Mail group of newspapers to do anything to stop this same group doing precisely that.

When appearing before Lord Leveson, Mail Online editor Martin Clarke told the hearing that he reports, editorially, to editor-in-chief Dacre, and commercially, to Associated Newspapers’ managing editor, Kevin Beatty.

So unless he lied or the group's editorial chain of command this is meaningless, it is within Dacre’s capacity to change the editorial bent of the paper’s online edition.

Clarke, incidentally, also described the Daily Mail is an “ethical, decent” newspaper, run by good people. (Clarke’s full witness statement to Leveson is here. All Dacre’s witness statements and submissions can be found here).

But back to Savile.

Some of what is being said about how the news media could not do anything is particularly absurd, though, given that Savile’s own autobiography, published in 1974 and presumably written by him or ghosted from he said, includes the following:

“A high ranking lady police officer came in one night and showed me the picture of an attractive girl who had run away from a remand home. ‘Ah.’ says I all serious, ‘if she comes in I’ll bring her back tomorrow but I’ll keep her all night first as my reward.’ The law lady, new to the area, was nonplussed. Back at the station she asked ‘Is he serious?’

“It is God’s truth that the absconder came in that night. Taking her into the office I said, ‘Run now if you want but you can’t run for the rest of your life.’ She listened to the alternative and agreed that I hand her over if she could stay at the dance, come home with me, and that I would promise to see her when they let her out.

“At 11.30 the next morning she was willingly presented to an astounded lady of the law. The officer was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues, for it was well known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me.” (p56-7)

There are other revealing excerpts too. But it hardly requires much of an imagination to comprehend what Savile himself said or set down on paper.

To take it at face value is to see that the police are implicated. And it appears that nobody batted an eyelid. Nobody read it, was shocked and raised the matter with, say, the police or any other authorities – or if they did, nobody did anything.

Will Dacre also be demanding an inquiry into the publisher of the autobiography (if still extant)? What about the book’s editor, if still alive?

What about any journalist who read and reviewed it? Did the Mail itself review the book?

Eighteen years ago, a senior journalist at the Mail, who had previously been at the Telegraph, told me about Savile. It seems unlikely that nobody else at either of those titles didn’t know too.

In those days, I had no work resources to pursue the story – I didn’t even have basic expenses.

Those newspapers – and others – did.

Former Daily Express editor Brian Hitchen now claims he has known – for 45 years. But, of course, the libel laws and a cult of penning only uncritical celebrity stories stopped him doing anything.

There are many reasons that they may have chosen to do nothing: some have been touched on above.

Whatever the reasoning, the media knew – and it chose not to tackle the issue. It chose not to employ proper journalism to get to the bottom of the allegations and rumours. It chose to turn its back on witnesses.

In the last few days, I have tweeted to @MailOnline, pointing out that the paper knew – and chose to do nothing. Strangely, there has still been no response.

I haven’t done the same to the Telegraph, because there is not the hypocrisy element involved that is clearly part of what is happening at the Mail now.

Our culture, as I noted above, has changed hugely. It would be crass and pointless to go around blaming everyone for behaviour and attitudes that, in days of yore, were considered culturally acceptable – or at least not beyond the pale.

Yet it is the Mail that squeals the loudest – while at the same time showing a continued flagrant disregard for anything other than making a profit out of, amongst many other things, the sexualising of children.

Dacre should take heed of the proverb about people in glass houses before launching into tirades against the morals and ethics of others.

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