Into the gutter with the Daily Mail

Daily Mail

THERE are only a few things in life I really hate, and one of them is the Daily Mail.

It is a poisonous rag which cloaks itself in the clothes of middle class decency while demeaning everything which is good.

And, as a journalist, I find its pretence at factual reporting frightening.

Its so-called news reeks of innuendo and loaded propaganda.

And its agenda is unwavering: preserve Conservative Britain from the rabid threat of Marxism, the Labour Party, Comrade Corbyn, trade unions, the unemployed and working people.

There are many reasons to despise the Daily Mail… its casual attitude towards the truth which it pretends to be both seeking; the way that minorities are ridiculed and blamed; how it randomly chooses which causes to back and which to dump; the way in which “outsiders”, such as recent immigrants are demonised and its gutter trawling for so-called “dirt” on anyone who stands in its way.

My own dealings with the Mail as a journalist were rather more obscure.

I would like to take you back to 1997.

I was at the pinnacle of my career working as the Chief Investigative Reporter for The Scotsman.

A whole world away from the Daily Mail.

In three years, I had broken a series of major exclusive investigations. Among the highlights were the dumping of millions of tons of munitions in the Irish Sea, the deadly legacy of the Dounreay experimental nuclear plant in Northern Scotland and a probable link between pesticides and BSE.

I had also been honoured with two back-to-back awards as Scottish Journalist of the Year and was in line for a third.

I loved my job and the collegiate atmosphere I worked in. I honestly believed I would spend the rest of my working life at North Bridge, with no aspirations other than to continue in my role.

But all that changed when in December 1996, our newspaper was surprisingly bought out by property billionaires and close friends of Margaret Thatcher: the Barclay Brothers.

With the new owners came a new Editor-in-Chief, the infamous Andrew Neil.

There was a corporate intake of breath as we all wondered for the future.

That intake turned into something approaching choking when our much loved editor, Jim Seaton, was placed on ‘gardening leave’ awaiting early retirement and a new editor Martin Clarke was announced.

We all winced… Clarke had trained under Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail and he was well known as a Rottweiler in the newsroom.

Clarke’s editorial demeanour attracted a range of tributes from former colleagues: “vile”, “offensive”, “appalling”, “obsessive”, “childlike” and “foul-mouthed” being among the less flattering.

Like Dacre, whose briefings were called “the vagina monologues” for their reliance on one particular expletive, Clarke went one better.

“He would start by saying, ‘You’re all a fucking disgrace and one of you is going to be fucking sacked this week,” and the terrible thing was, one of us usually was,” said Alexandra Blair, The Times educational correspondent, who worked for him for a year and a half at The Scotsman.

Another reporter who worked under Clarke said: “He once said to me: ‘You’ve got to go and shout at the bastards or they won’t respect you.'”

My stay under Clarke’s editorship was brief… just six months.

I moved on after being told to follow his own loaded agenda, which included one weird instruction to prove that wild deer being pursued by hounds are “no more stressed than a cow in a slaughterhouse”!

The final straw came in a bleak week, which began by Clarke blanking me at a press awards lunch after I had been highly commended as reporter of the year and finished by him standing over me at 10pm on a fourth rewrite of a story, berating my journalism as “fucking bollocks”.

I introduce a clipping of a piece written by Rob Brown in June 1997.

“Senior writers and sub-editors now find themselves being showered with expletives by their new editor Martin Clarke, whose lexicon of abuse is fairly extensive.

“Several executives have resigned in disgust. They included the picture editor Paul Dodds, who quit after being ordered to get better pictures from his “f***in’ monkeys”.

“Also out is associate editor Lesley Riddoch, who suddenly found her articles being repeatedly spiked.

“One of the journalists who has quit in disgust said: “I have worked for some brutal editors in my time, but Martin Clarke behaves like a feudal squire and treats his staff like serfs. Change was certainly needed at The Scotsman, but not this. He is running amok, creating a totally demoralised and demotivated staff.”

“But, put it to Clarke that he is pursuing a monstrous form of macho management and he professes his innocence with almost schoolboyish sense of hurt.

“Clarke, 32, says the complaints are emanating from only a couple of “malcontents”. Some people, he says, are driven by “personal pique because they never got a job they wanted”. Nic Outterside, head of the paper’s investigative unit, left last week. Clarke says the unit was disbanded because it was “a crock of shit”.

“Others, according to Clarke, have become “malcontents” simply because they cannot stand the new pace in the newsroom.

“I demand a greater level of working than perhaps some people are used to here and I can be robust at times, like all editors,” he says.

“Clarke confirms that he drew up a five-and-a-half page document a few weeks after he took charge recommending that a number of senior Scotsman staffers should be removed from their posts. This “operation review” leaked from the editor’s office into the newsroom, where it was seen as a sinister hit list. Clarke admits to some regrets about that.

“Of course it was bloody unfortunate, but you don’t expect to work in a place where such illegal activities take place. It was stolen from my computer. I’ve worked in some pretty rough newspapers, but nowhere where people are that underhand.”

At the time of writing this blog, Clarke is tipped to succeed Paul Dacre as the next editor of the Daily Mail.

And the art of being underhand is surely what the Mail is all about.

 

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The Crippled Estate of BBC Spin

THERE is quite a storm raging around the hallowed sanctuary of the British Broadcasting Corporation today.

As a hard news journalist of some 30 years standing I am angry at the events which have unfolded, but not at all surprised.

It is a few weeks since I blogged on The Bankruptcy of the Fourth Estate https://seagullnic.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/paris-isis-syria-and-the-bankruptcy-of-the-fourth-estate/ and The Loaded Language of the British Press https://seagullnic.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/the-loaded-language-of-the-british-press/ and it feels that today a few of those journalist chickens have come home to roost.

So let’s bring you up to speed.

Soon after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party last September, the BBC was accused of an ‘anti Corbyn bias’ and challenged with a 61,000 strong petition demanding that they stop using the prefix ‘left-wing’ when reporting on events related to his leadership.

But even before he won a stunning 59.5% of the vote, ensuring the largest democratic mandate of any Labour leader in modern history, Mr Corbyn was subject to daily bias from the UK Media. And heading this assault of loaded reporting was the publicly funded BBC.

Former BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, even wrote to his colleagues over concerns about the Corporation’s bias against Mr Corbyn, and Channel 4’s Michael Crick issued a hard-hitting rebuke to broadcasters referring to non-left MPs as ‘moderates’.

Despite these protestations, the BBC’s agenda has not changed. Yesterday, Mr Corbyn’s so-called ‘revenge reshuffle’ led to the revelation, that BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Daily Politics presenter Andrew Neil and so-called ‘moderate’ Labour MP Stephen Doughty planned his live resignation on their programme hours before it began.

Any right-minded person must surely ask: how it is the job of the BBC’s political editor to be of service to a malcontent shadow cabinet member intent on weakening the Labour leadership?

The truth was soon to come to light… Last night, the producer of the programme bizarrely admitted in a BBC blog – now deleted, but appended here – that Neil, Kuenssberg and himself manipulated the news to create an impact during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

In the blog, the producer – Andrew Alexander – admitted that the BBC team were not just reporting the day’s news but trying to influence it: “This was a story where we could make an impact… We knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact,” he wrote.

“We took a moment to watch the story ripple out across news outlets and social media. Within minutes we heard David Cameron refer to the resignation during his exchanges with Jeremy Corbyn.”

As a fellow journalist I find this admission shocking, but also symptomatic of degraded and biased practise.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I believe we are now witnessing a bankruptcy of freedom within our Fourth Estate.

For the uninitiated, the Fourth Estate commonly refers to the news media or “the press”.

Edmund Burke, first used the term in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting in the House of Commons. Burke described the journalists’ role in representing the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our names.

But my belief is that position has now been hi-jacked by big business ownership of our media.

These are the same big businesses which support a Conservative government and in turn influence draconian monetarist and capitalist policy at every turn.

Almost 78 per cent of our press is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based billionaires.

The nature of a media organisation is set by its owner.

Newspapers and broadcasters exercise power and influence in many ways. And one of their most powerful forms of influence is the ability to effectively set the political agenda for the other media and more widely, in parliament, the workplace, the home and the pub.

So-called editorial independence is a sham. Proprietors choose editors who they know share their views.

I witnessed this at first hand when Margaret Thatcher’s close friends the Barclay Brothers bought Scotland’s flagship daily newspaper The Scotsman in 1996.

Within a few months, the new owners had Andrew Neil installed as Editor-in-Chief of The Scotsman and its sister title Scotland on Sunday.

Neil already had a track record.

The former Conservative Party researcher was Editor of The Sunday Times from 1983 until 1994. The Sunday Times during this period campaigned for an already discredited claim that AIDS was not an infectious disease and was not caused by HIV.

So when he took up the reins at The Scotsman we all had a fear of what might be coming next.

So it was here that my job as an award-winning Chief Investigative Reporter and Neil’s as my ultimate line manager crossed.

Although the memory of him striding orange bronzed through the oak-panelled corridors of the paper’s headquarters at Edinburgh’s North Bridge, with his red braces straining at his chest, still brings a shiver; it is his loaded editorial as an editor which will remain longest.

At the time of his appointment, Edinburgh was suffering from a huge homelessness problem, with many poor souls rough sleeping in shop doorways at night and begging on the pavements by day. This is turn had fuelled a growing problem of young male prostitution – teenage guys selling their bodies just to earn enough to eat and maybe rent a flat.

I witnessed the problems every day as I strolled around the city centre and each evening as I walked to Waverley Street Station to catch my train home.

So, I suggested that a colleague and I should sleep rough in the city for a couple of nights to report first hand on the problems, and in doing so shame the authorities into taking some action to ameliorate them.

Neil was quick to put the idea down as “dangerous” and “foolhardy”.

But he wasted no time in using his next two weekly columns in The Scotsman to call for the city council to “hose” the homeless rough sleepers from the shop doorways amid a spurious claim that they were driving tourists away from Edinburgh’s famed Princes Street.

This one incident, for me, sums up Andrew Neil.

More than 60 members of staff voted with their feet and left The Scotsman during Neil’s first year in charge. In that time, a once proud newspaper was transformed into a pale pro Union broadsheet imitation of the Daily Mail.

Although Laura Kuenssberg was a young trainee journalist at the time I worked in the Scottish press our paths never crossed.

But her reputation as a privileged career driven reporter was being born.

The daughter of wealthy Scottish businessman Nick Kuenssberg and his wife Sally, her maternal grandfather was Lord Robertson who was a High Court of Justiciary judge. Her great-uncle was Sir James Robertson, the last colonial Governor-General of Nigeria.

Following this family tradition Laura’s sister Joanna was recently appointed the British High Commissioner in Mozambique

Kuenssberg grew up in Glasgow and attended Laurel Bank School, a fee paying independent girls’ school. She studied history at the University of Edinburgh, followed by a journalism course at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where she worked for NBC News.

After returning to UK, her career progressed quickly through the BBC and at rivals ITV. During this time she was praised for her reporting and blogging by the Conservative Home website.

In July 2015 she was appointed the BBC’s Political Editor, the first woman to hold the position – as successor to  Nick Robinson.

Her tenure has been dogged by many criticisms of bias against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Today, a Change.Org petition was launched demanding that the Producer of Daily Politics along with Andrew Neil/Laura Kuenssberg be Sacked. The petition, which had more than 5,000 signatures at the time of writing states: On the Daily Politics it appears the producer Andrew Alexander and Laura Kuenssberg conspired to arrange the resignation live on air of Stephen Doughty MP. This appears to have been done for max damage to the Labour leader and to create news, rather than report it. If these individuals did indeed conspire in this manner then they along with Andrew Neil should resign or be sacked. In signing this petition you are asking the BBC to consider their positions. 

You can sign the petition here: https://www.change.org/p/bbc-we-demand-producer-of-daily-politics-along-with-andrew-neil-laura-kuenssberg-be-sacked

BBC News forms a major department of the Corporation, but for years has received complaints of bias in favour of the conservative Establishment.

The commentator Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman pointed out the right-wing backgrounds of many BBC presenters and journalists.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones is also of the opinion that the BBC is biased towards the right, owing to numerous key posts being filled by Conservatives.

A study by Cardiff University academics, funded by the BBC Trust, and published in August 2013, examined the BBC’s coverage of a broad range of issues.

One of the findings was the dominance of party political sources.

In coverage of immigration, the EU and religion, these accounted for 49.4% of all source appearances in 2007 and 54.8% in 2012.

The data also showed that the Conservative Party received significantly more airtime than the Labour Party.

In 2012 Conservative leader David Cameron outnumbered Labour leader Ed Miliband in appearances by a factor of nearly four to one (53 to 15), while Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

Former Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, has criticised the BBC as part of a “Westminster conspiracy” to maintain the British political system.

 

The deleted blog by BBC producer Andrew Alexander:

Resignation! Making the news on the Daily Politics

Thursday 07 January 2016, 15:17

Andrew Alexander is an output editor for the Daily and Sunday Politics series

Wednesday is always an important day for the Daily Politics because we carry Prime Minister’s Questions live, which brings with it our biggest audience of the week and, we hope, a decent story.

As I arrived at Millbank at 7am it was clear that Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet reshuffle, which had ended before 1am, was going to dominate at Westminster.

When the programme editor phoned in we agreed that in addition to covering other major stories, including the junior doctors’ strike, fallout from the reshuffle was likely to continue throughout the morning and this was a story where we could make an impact.

When the producers arrived at 8am they began putting out texts and calls to Labour MPs we thought were likely to react strongly to the sacking of several shadow ministers for “disloyalty”.

Just before 9am we learned from Laura Kuenssberg, who comes on the programme every Wednesday ahead of PMQs, that she was speaking to one junior shadow minister who was considering resigning. I wonder, mused our presenter Andrew Neil, if they would consider doing it live on the show?

The question was put to Laura, who thought it was a great idea. Considering it a long shot we carried on the usual work of building the show, and continued speaking to Labour MPs who were confirming reports of a string of shadow ministers considering their positions.

Within the hour we heard that Laura had sealed the deal: the shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty would resign live in the studio.

Although he himself would probably acknowledge he isn’t a household name, we knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact. We took the presenters aside to brief them on the interview while our colleagues on the news desk arranged for a camera crew to film him and Laura arriving in the studio for the TV news packages.

There’s always a bit of nervous energy in the studio and the gallery just before we go on air at 11.30am, but I’d say it was a notch higher than usual this week. By this point we weren’t worried about someone else getting the story as we had Stephen Doughty safely in our green room. Our only fear was that he might pull his punches when the moment came.

When it did, with about five minutes to go before PMQs, he was precise, measured and quietly devastating – telling Andrew that “I’ve just written to Jeremy Corbyn to resign from the front bench” and accusing Mr Corbyn’s team of “unpleasant operations” and telling “lies”.

As Andrew Neil handed from the studio to the Commons chamber we took a moment to watch the story ripple out across news outlets and social media. Within minutes we heard David Cameron refer to the resignation during his exchanges with Jeremy Corbyn.

During our regular debrief after coming off air at 1pm we agreed our job is always most enjoyable when a big story is breaking – but even more so when it’s breaking on the programme.

* Credit to Evolve Politics – www.evolvepolitics.com

 

Paris, Isis, Syria and The Bankruptcy of the Fourth Estate

SINCE the atrocities in Paris three weeks ago, the British press has been on overdrive to give us every twist, turn and snippet on who is to blame and what we “must do” to “protect our freedoms”.

Freedoms, which the same press tell us must be supported by restrictions, MI5 eavesdropping, tightened border controls and censorship once only dreamed of by George Orwell.

As a newspaper journalist for almost 30 years I have grieved deeply at the unbridled spin, sensationalism and political propaganda of the news reporting since Friday 13 November.

The ink is barely dry on the reports of Wednesday’s 10 hour debate in the House of Commons and the decision to bomb Syria, but already the pencils are being sharpened and the keyboards warmed to lead us to the next pre-ordained national conclusions.

I believe we are slowly witnessing a bankruptcy of freedom within our Fourth Estate.

For the uninitiated, the Fourth Estate commonly refers to the news media, especially print journalism or “the press”.

Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons. In 1841 Carlyle wrote: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

He described the journalists’ role in representing the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our names.

The intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries who gave us the conception of the Fourth Estate as a civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power, also provided the philosophical argument for defining the public citizenry and the nation-state as two separate entities with differing interests.

But my belief is that position has been hi-jacked by corrupt big business ownership of our media.

If we accept the premise of the Fourth Estate, we also have to ask ourselves if the “national” and the “public” interest are the same thing. It might be easy to think that they are, but it would be a mistake.

They exist as ideas, but in reality the nation and the public are not homogeneous.

In a capitalist world both are divided along class lines. In this context, the national interest is about state secrecy and keeping things from us. On the other hand, the public interest is about disclosure and our right to know.

But if we look at who trained and funded the ISIS terrorists and which countries now sustain them to carry out attacks, such as those on Paris and Beirut, the press has not been forthcoming in its reporting. Instead it focuses on Muslims, refugees, border controls, divisions within the Labour Party and the “need” to bomb Syria.

Governments that claim to act in the public interest must face closer scrutiny of their actions. They must be called to account when overstepping the bounds of what citizens will support, or when taking actions that are clearly not in our interests. According to national polls, most British citizens were against bombing Syria, yet that fact was overtaken by another politically led agenda.

The news media – as the tribune of “the people” – must be constantly on guard and alert to actions of the state, particularly when those actions may harm the interests of citizens.

Have they really done that in their reporting about Middle East terrorism, ISIS and the need to bomb Syria? I don’t believe they have.

This separation between the people and the state becomes more important when the economic interests of the powerful so frequently dominate society.

But today, the state is the executive branch of the ruling class and its big business paymasters.

Almost 78 per cent of our press is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based billionaires.

Our newspapers like to paint their own role as heroic – they are the brave defenders of democracy who hold our elected representatives to account.

Watergate is the archetype of this kind of journalism and it does occur now and again in the UK, but it is rare – perhaps the Telegraph’s revelations over MPs’ expenses in 2009 is one of those rare examples.

But too often, far from protecting our democracy, our papers subvert it.

In his Inquiry, Lord Leveson quoted some lines from Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day – Milne: “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.” Ruth: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

In a free press, the nature of the newspapers matter very much.

The nature of a paper is set by its owner. Press barons wield far more power and influence than all but a very few MPs and have, unsurprisingly, used it to further their own interests.

Since 2010, the barons have pushed the highly contentious argument that there is no alternative to Austerity and have largely ignored the stories of the widening social divisions and the swelling numbers at food banks – the 21st century’s soup kitchens.

Newspapers exercise power and influence in many ways. And one of their most powerful forms of influence is the ability to effectively set the political agenda for the other media and more widely, in parliament, the workplace, the home and the pub.

Newspapers put great store by the concept of editorial independence. Sometimes, it is a reality. The Lebedevs, for example, own papers – the Independent and the Evening Standard – which take markedly different political stances.

Too often, however, editorial independence is a sham. Proprietors choose editors who they know share their views.

In my own experience I witnessed this at first hand when Margaret Thatcher’s close friends the Barclay Brothers bought The Scotsman in 1997. Within a few months, the new owners had their own right wing editors, the odious Andrew Neil and his Fleet Street bulldog Martin Clarke installed in the editors’ chairs. It took this vile pair less than a year to transform a newspaper, once the bastion of Scottish broadsheet journalism, into a pale imitation of the Daily Mail.

Rupert Murdoch’s candour at the Leveson Inquiry was revealing. He said that if someone wanted to know his opinion on a subject they should just read the leader in the Sun.

That most newspaper owners should seek to define the political stance taken by their publications is not especially surprising. Newspapers are rarely profitable and it is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘the press barons are in newspapers for power, influence and easy access to the establishment’.

Likewise, the mechanisms through which owners can, and do, interfere with or shape content to promote particular viewpoints are not difficult to identify; they range from directly dictating the line a newspaper should follow on particular issues, to appointing senior staff with a shared political outlook, as well as forms of indirect influence over the ethos of the organisation which may prompt journalists to engage in ‘self-censorship’.

The Sun’s infamous claim following the 1992 general election that ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won it’ is widely known. Yet, in almost half of all general elections since 1918 ‘one newspaper or another has claimed to have swung the result’.

The Fourth Estate is now more powerful than ever, but it is no longer the once heralded “civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power”.

It is shaped by two dominating principles – sensationalism and simplification, the consequence of “hyper commercialisation”.

It has led to ever fiercer ratings and circulation wars, which inevitably leads to what is called “dumbing down”. To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people.

Of course it is one thing to pander to lower instincts. But they have to be there in the first place, and so has the willingness to be pandered to. In the end, people have a choice.

One has to face an unpalatable reality: Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets are giving the people what they want – fun, games and entertainment – which in some ways is more “democratic” than the cultural elites, who tried imposing their values and standards on the masses.

In the “democratic age” news and information have been transformed. The way politics is covered has changed radically.

Papers don’t report news, they present it according to their preferences and prejudices.

The growth of columnists has led to the birth of a Commentariat. It contains a few excellent and analytical minds, but all too often reasonable, balanced voices are drowned out by journalists who seem untainted by facts or deeper knowledge but replace this with gleefully presented prejudices. Look no further than Katie Hopkins or Jan Moir for examples of this type.

A lot of modern political journalism ignores context and complexity, presenting everything in black and white, while the nature of politics most of the time is a balancing act between contradictory interests and demands.

News has thus become more superficial and sensational. The need for images and pictures is greater than ever. Note how the single photograph of a dead Syrian child on a Mediterranean beach in September this year shaped the Western view. For a short time our newspapers referred to the hapless refugees by the correct terms rather than the “swarms of migrants” favoured by David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

But that didn’t last and following the Paris attacks these self-same Syrian refugees were being labelled migrants and potential terrorists by our press.

Sensationalism and oversimplification are affecting the output of all media. There is less room for a balanced approach, for analysis instead of going for the crass headline or extraordinary story. The merciless hunt for weaknesses and inconsistencies of politicians and other public figures has become prevalent.

All this has contributed to change democratic politics for the worse. The electorate has become hostile and distrustful of the media and politicians alike.

Trust has broken down threefold, between people and politicians, media and people, journalists and politicians, with the latter now observing each other with deep distrust and mutual antipathy. A vicious circle has established itself.

The chances of the public receiving the information they need to participate in democracy is declining even more.

Democracy and civil society need informed citizens, otherwise they will have difficulties in surviving. Without a free Fourth Estate, aware of its own power and responsibility, an informed citizenship cannot be sustained.

What our democracies have got today is an electorate which is highly informed about entertainment, consumer goods and celebrities, while being uninterested in and deeply cynical about politics, equipped with short attention spans and a growing tendency to demand instant gratification.

If this trend cannot be reversed the political arena might become even emptier than it is now.

 

Frankie Boyle on the fallout from Paris: ‘This is the worst time for society to go on psychopathic autopilot’

(This is quite possibly the funniest and most poignant commentary on the Middle East crisis I have read in a very long time. Written by Frankie Boyle and it appears in today’s Guardian, 24 November, 2015)

 FROM authoritarian power grabs to Andrew Neil’s nonsensical eulogy, the reaction to the Paris attacks proves that we haven’t learned from our past mistakes.

There were a lot of tributes after the horror in Paris. It has to be said that Trafalgar Square is an odd choice of venue to show solidarity with France; presumably Waterloo was too busy. One of the most appropriate tributes was Adele dedicating Hometown Glory to Paris, just as the raids on St-Denis started. A song about south London where, 10 years ago, armed police decided to hysterically blow the face off a man just because he was a bit beige.

In times of crisis, we are made to feel we should scrutinise our government’s actions less closely, when surely that’s when we should pay closest attention. There’s a feeling that after an atrocity history and context become less relevant, when surely these are actually the worst times for a society to go on psychopathic autopilot. Our attitudes are fostered by a society built on ideas of dominance, where the solution to crises are force and action, rather than reflection and compromise.

If that sounds unbearably drippy, just humour me for a second and imagine a country where the response to Paris involved an urgent debate about how to make public spaces safer and marginalised groups less vulnerable to radicalisation. Do you honestly feel safer with a debate centred around when we can turn some desert town 3,000 miles away into a sheet of glass? Of course, it’s not as if the west hasn’t learned any lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. This time round, no one’s said out loud that we’re going to win.

People seem concerned to make sure that Islam gets its full share of the blame, so we get the unedifying circus of neocons invoking God as much as the killers. “Well, Isis say they’re motivated by God.” Yes, and people who have sex with their pets say they’re motivated by love, but most of us don’t really believe them. Not that I’m any friend of religion – let’s blame religion for whatever we can. Let’s blame anyone who invokes the name of any deity just because they want to ruin our weekend, starting with TGI Friday’s.

The ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, evaded detection by security services by having a name too long to fit into one tweet. How could the most stringent surveillance in the world not have picked up Abdelhamid Abaaoud before? I mean, they’d have got him even if they just went through lists of terrorists alphabetically.

We’re always dealing with terror in retrospect – like stocking up on Imodium rather than reading the cooking instructions on your mini kievs. The truth is that modern governments sit at the head of a well-funded security apparatus. They are told that foreign military adventures put domestic populations at risk and they give them the thumbs up anyway. Charitably, the safety of their populations just aren’t of great concern to them. Realistically, domestic terrorist attacks play into their agenda: they allow them to grab ever more authoritarian powers with which to police their increasingly unequal and volatile societies. Of course, no one wants to believe that our government isn’t interested in our safety, just like everyone really wanted to believe that Jimmy Savile cared about whether kids got to meet Duran Duran.

It’s not an insult to the dead to wonder why France, a $2tn economy, couldn’t make a better offer to its disenfranchised youth than a bunch of sick bullies grooming them on the internet. It’s not apologism to try to understand why something happened. When Syria’s drought kicked in, 25% of the population became unemployed. The vast majority of the country’s livestock has died over the past decade. A lot of Isis are farmers with nowhere to go, their entire industry destroyed – you’d think they’d have more sympathy for journalists. Those who think radicalising a youngster has nothing to do with climate – have you seen Tatooine?

No one is saying climate change causes terrorism. Stop thinking that a global death cult is caused by one thing – it’s a complex situation involving several different countries and ideologies, not a rattling sound in your washing machine. Personally, I think that for all our blaming religion, there will be peace in the Middle East when the oil runs out. But knowing their luck, then somebody will invent a way of making fuel by mixing sand and falafel.

Maybe the west’s approach is right. After all, if you’ve got a massive fight in, say, a pub car park, the best way of solving it is clearly standing well back and randomly lobbing in fireworks. You can’t get rid of an ideology by destroying its leaders; you’d think if there’s anything “Christian” countries should know, it’s that. Europe has rejected the death penalty on moral grounds, and yet we relax this view when it comes to a group who want to be martyred. You can’t bomb ideas. If your kid shits on the carpet, you can’t stop them by bombing the person who invented shit – though it would tidy up ITV’s Saturday night schedule.

Andrew Neil went viral with an impassioned eulogy that, like most eulogies, was just inaccurate nonsense in the form of nice memorable words strung together with angry sad words. A speech that would have made those named within it proud, but only because a good few of them were nihilistic absurdists. Listing the great French thinkers in a tribute to nuclear power showcased the worst aspect of historical fame: these were figures Neil could name but appeared to know nothing about.

For a list supporting the French government’s foray into bombing its former colony he chose Satie, a composer so questioning of state he put a question mark into La Marseillaise; Zola, a man so adamant about the function of a fair and full trial he may have been murdered for his beliefs; Rousseau – “Those who think themselves masters of others are greater slaves than they”; Ravel, who rejected all state honours; Gauguin, a passionate defender of indigenous peoples; and Camus, the great Algerian-born philosopher, who died in 1960, a year before he would’ve been thrown into the Seine at the orders of the Nazi head of the Parisian police.

Out of his list of peacenik, thoughtful, anti-government icons, one of the few who might have been in favour of bombing Syria was Sartre, and that’s only because he thought we were all dead anyway. Of course, we mustn’t forget Coco Chanel, who Neil threw on to the list in such a blatant “if we don’t include a woman we’ll get into trouble” rush, he didn’t notice a quick wiki would reveal her to be a Nazi spy. These are the people who made France great, because what they asked of France was to question, to look death in the eye, to commit to full trials and never resort to military force, to step away from government, away from indigenous lands, to never see themselves as superior, and most, most of all, for people to stop regurgitating rhetorical cliches and think for themselves.

Neil asked us to consider who will be remembered in 1,000 years, and the answer of course is Thkkkkkkkzzzzxrrkksd, the insane Cockroach Emperor, who revolutionised the mining of our bones for fuel. But let’s go with his conceit. A thousand years is a long time; the first book published in French wasn’t until 1476. Goodness knows what an Islamic caliphate would have been doing 1,000 years ago? They built the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, one of the first universities in the world; they asked scholars of all faiths to translate every text ever written into Arabic; they demanded the first qualifications for doctors, founded the first psychiatric hospitals and invented ophthalmology. They developed algebra (algorithms are named after their Arab father) and a programmable machine … a computer. They introduced Aristotle to Europe, Al-Jahiz began theories of natural selection, they discovered the Andromeda galaxy, classified the spinal nerves and created hydropower using pumps and gears.

And Neil is right – we don’t remember any of that. Not to say that this is what Isis want – Isis are like the group that closed the House of Wisdom, the next caliphate who decided science was irreligious. Isis want to destroy the knowledge that Islam is a beautiful, scientific and intelligent culture, and we are way ahead of them.

We want Paris to be remembered in 1,000 years and we don’t remember the names of the victims 10 minutes after reading them – we don’t remember Amine Ibnolmobarak, a Moroccan émigré who was designing an architectural solution to the 2,000 deaths at Mecca; we don’t remember Elsa Delplace and her mother Patricia San Martin, who died shielding Delplace’s young son from bullets. We remember that the female terrorist was blond and one had no pants on. We remember that the terrorists came in with refugees even though they don’t seem to have done, especially since they were all French or Belgian. We expect our descendants to remember Daft Punk and we don’t even remember that invading Iraq caused the birth and rise of Isis. And we won’t remember any of this once the new series of Britain’s Got Talent starts.

 

The British Media’s ‘Grotesquely Selective’ Reporting of Terror Attacks

IT is sometimes times strange how events and people come together.

Yesterday, I was enjoying a day out in Ludlow – a small market town in deepest sleepy south Shropshire. It was a day to revisit the place where I spent seven years of my life and enjoy a pie and a pint of bitter in one of my old haunts. A day to forget about the horrors of national and global politics and my own life battles and just enjoy some R&R.

Suddenly, while sitting down to a rather scrummy steak and blue cheese pie and chips, my mobile phone pinged. I glanced down and was amazed to see an email from and old journalist friend called Fred, whom I had not spoken with in about 17 years!

Fred is a well-travelled and widely read former Reuters’ foreign correspondent and a hugely respected writer. More than that, he is a lovely man with a good sense of right and wrong and natural justice.

His email was a ‘hello’ but also a rant against right wing broadcaster (and former Sunday Times editor) Andrew Neil, who the previous day, on national TV, had tried to take the moral high ground on the issue of ISIS and the terror attacks on Paris, Beirut and Yemen.

Fred and I have both had the misfortune to work for Andrew ‘Brillo’ Neil and know his devious and nasty ways too well. Fred summed Neil well: “I still maintain, that if our islands were ever invaded by some new Nazi Germany, he and Charles Moore would be among the first into collaborator SS officer uniforms.”

In my opinion Andrew Neil is a grotesque caricature of everything that is wrong with the British media.

But, I digress, and the less about Andrew Neil, the better.

Having digested Fred’s email and the pie quite well, I switched off from news and views again and lost myself in an old antique emporium before driving slowly back to Wolverhampton.

Once home I settled down on the sofa with another beer to catch up on over two dozen emails and Facebook messages which had dropped in while I was enjoying my day trip.

Then I was stopped in my tracks for the second time in a day. Among the messages was a wonderful piece in the Huffington Post concerning thoughts about the recent terror attacks from the UK’s most respected foreign correspondent John Simpson – a former colleague of Fred.

What follows, coalesces our joint feelings about the propaganda type bias of the reporting of the attacks on Paris, Beirut and Yemen.

This is the Huffington Post report. I believe it is essential reading:

John Simpson has hit out at the British media’s “grotesquely selective” reporting of deaths from terror attacks around the world.

 

Admitting he is “depressed” over where newspapers and television are headed, John says he is disheartened at how foreign correspondents have “almost vanished” in recent years.

“You see newspapers which used to pride themselves on foreign coverage – like The Daily Telegraph – now just rewrite stories from other people,” the veteran journalist says. “I absolutely despair when I see how that’s happened.”

“It’s grotesquely selective actually. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think the [Paris attacks] don’t matter, it matters hugely what happened in Paris. It’s one of the most important things of this decade. It’s just that you know, 130 people die in other countries and we shouldn’t let ourselves be blinded to that simply because we’re more interested in Paris.”

According to Simpson, it is where people are being killed which decides the extent of coverage.

“It matters less when it happens in Lebanon because Lebanon is a country which, although is quite close, is not where most people go.

“Honestly, I spend a lot of my time reporting from Iraq and you know, once a week, there are dozens of people killed in bomb attacks and suicide attacks and so forth. And it scarcely gets a mention. And the same thing in Afghanistan.

“I can rant about this from hour to hour because it makes me so angry that we should walk into other people’s countries and completely demolish whatever system they might have had beforehand, and then after, when the pressure gets a bit too great and you walk out, we never notice again what’s happened.”

Simpson says he doesn’t think there should necessarily be equality between “any one thing and another”, as he admits the Paris attacks was more important than the bombings in Beirut – but only in one sense.

“It’s likely to have a bigger effect on Western policy than the Lebanon attacks. So only in that sense.”

British media was recently criticised for not reporting on recent incidents in Beirut, although several outlets had in fact drawn attention to the events. “We just aren’t so interested,” the 71-year-old says simply.

“There’s no doubt about it. The British media is not as interested in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, as it is in other places. And I feel that’s really wrong.”

As for the reasoning behind the lack of interest, geographical distance “certainly” plays a role, but according to Simpson it is because “almost no news organisation” has bureaus in Kabul, Baghdad or other Middle Eastern cities.

“Yes, there are companies which honourably report there – Reuters, the BBC – but by and large the newspapers which once reported quite heavily on Iraq and Afghanistan and other places have left. It’s partly money, it’s partly safety.

“I don’t want everything I say to be regarded as a criticism. It’s just a statement of what’s happening. But the result of that is we seem not to be so interested really in deaths in one part of the world compared to another.

“Journalism has changed out of all recognition from when I started,” he continues, although he admits that was around 50 years ago.

“But it stayed the same until about 10 or 15 years ago. I suppose it’s the dawn of the new century, but I’m really very kind of depressed about the way that newspapers and television has developed.

“The jobs are fewer, the pay is much, much less. I’m afraid we’re back to where we used to be a century or more ago, in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period, when journalists were pretty much self-financed.

“So all those courses in media studies which were producing really high qualified and able people have suddenly kind of hatched up in the sands because the money to employ them is not there anymore.”

Nor, according to Simpson, is the high quality reporting on government policies, which has instead been replaced with politician’s slanging matches.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to cover the accusations and name-calling, politics has always had that element. But the policy elements in this are what don’t get reported so much now.

“If you don’t do serious articles about policy, it is a bit, you know,” he pauses, searching for the right word, “empty”.

“I remember when I was younger the Times, Telegraph, the Guardian, all would talk about public policy a great deal. Newsnight used to be very concerned about the nature of education policy, and of things that other people tended not to be very interested in, like water supply and so forth. Now that’s all finished, you don’t get that kind of thing from the broadcasters any more than you get from the newspapers.”

As for journalists trying to identify the “real” pressing issues of today, “it’s a question of sorting out the chaff from the wheat”.

“The chaff is all the talk about it”, Simpson explains. “Social media, the chit chat that goes on.

“The wheat is a proper understanding of how things work. I’m afraid it’s boring but it means plugging into the old traditional political party system.”

I ask Simpson to take his journalism hat off for a moment, and tell me what his proudest moment of his career was; reporting from Belgrade during the Kosovo War, disguising himself in a burqa to enter Afghanistan in 2001, being present during the Beijing Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989?

But it’s none of these.

“It would be silly not to mention the fall of the Berlin wall, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the end of communism in Russia. These were all epoch-making things. But if you ask me what I was most proud of, I’m proudest of having done something that nobody noticed, scarcely got used by the BBC, but which was really difficult to do.

“It’s nothing that anybody except me would have noticed. But there’s a town called Fallujah in Iraq which was attacked by the Americans with weapons of such deep questionability that the incidence of birth defects among children is astronomically high. Even still. And I made it there and I went and saw it and I spent only one morning there because it was so, it was really difficult. I mean, Fallujah now, it’s this death sentence to go there.

“It was hard. And the rewards weren’t very great and the BBC paid almost no attention to the story and it just got me a shoal of attacks from the US, but that was,” he pauses, seemingly caught up with memories of that small town, 69km west of Baghdad. “I felt that was what I ought to be doing. Not the grand stuff, but just trying to show what was really happening.

“Of all the stuff I’ve ever done, I am proudest of that.”

 

 

The Shadowy One Who Fires the Gun

Daily Mail

THERE are only a few things in life I really hate, and one of them is the Daily Mail.

It is a poisonous rag which cloaks itself in the clothes of middle class decency while demeaning everything which is good.

And, as a journalist, I find its pretense at factual reporting frightening. Its so-called news reeks of innuendo and loaded propaganda.

And its agenda is unwavering: preserve Conservative Britain from the rabid threat of Marxism, the Labour Party, trade unions and working people.

So the savaging of Daily Mail deputy editor Jon Steafel by Alistair Campbell on BBC 2’s Newsnight over the paper’s scurrilous article about Ed Miliband’s late father Ralph, was an unexpected delight.

Particularly pleasing was the bright light Mr Campbell shone on the paper’s shadowy editor Paul Dacre.

My own dealings with the Mail as a journalist were rather more obscure.

I would like to take you back to 1997.

I was at the pinnacle of my career working as the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Scotsman.

A whole world away from the Daily Mail.

In three years, I had broken a series of major exclusive investigations. Among the highlights were the dumping of millions of tons of munitions in the Irish Sea, the deadly legacy of the Dounreay experimental nuclear plant in Northern Scotland and a probable link between pesticides and BSE.

I had also been honoured with two back-to-back awards as Scottish Journalist of the Year and was in line for a third.

I loved my job and the collegiate atmosphere I worked in. I honestly believed I would spend the rest of my working life at North Bridge, with no aspirations other than to continue in my role.

But all that changed when in December 1996, our newspaper was surprisingly bought out by property billionaires, the Barclay Brothers.

With the new owners came a new Editor in Chief, the infamous Andrew Neil.

There was a corporate intake of breath as we all wondered for the future.

That intake turned into something approaching choking when our much loved editor, Jim Seaton, was placed on ‘gardening leave’ awaiting early retirement and a new editor Martin Clarke was announced.

We all winced… Clarke had trained under Paul Dacre and he was well known as a Rottweiler in the newsroom.

Clarke’s editorial demeanour attracted a range of tributes from former colleagues: “vile”, “offensive”, “appalling”, “obsessive”, “childlike” and “foul-mouthed” being among the less flattering.

Like Dacre, whose briefings were called “the vagina monologues” for their reliance on one particular expletive, Clarke went one better.

“He would start by saying, ‘You’re all a fucking disgrace and one of you is going to be fucking sacked this week,” and the terrible thing was, one of us usually was,” said Alexandra Blair, The Times educational correspondent, who worked for him for a year and a half at The Scotsman.

Another reporter who worked under Clarke said: “He once said to me: ‘You’ve got to go and shout at the bastards or they won’t respect you.'”

My stay under Clarke’s editorship was brief… just six months.

I moved on after being told to follow his own loaded agenda, which included one weird instruction to prove that wild deer being pursued by hounds are “no more stressed than a cow in a slaughterhouse”!

The final straw came in a bleak week, which began by Clarke blanking me at a press awards lunch after I had been highly commended as reporter of the year and finished by him standing over me at 10pm on a fourth rewrite of a story, berating my journalism as “fucking bollocks”.

I introduce a clipping of a piece written by Rob Brown in June 1997.

“Senior writers and sub-editors now find themselves being showered with expletives by their new editor Martin Clarke, whose lexicon of abuse is fairly extensive.

“Several executives have resigned in disgust. They included the picture editor Paul Dodds, who quit after being ordered to get better pictures from his “f***in’ monkeys”.

“Also out is associate editor Lesley Riddoch, who suddenly found her articles being repeatedly spiked.

“One of the journalists who has quit in disgust said: “I have worked for some brutal editors in my time, but Martin Clarke behaves like a feudal squire and treats his staff like serfs. Change was certainly needed at The Scotsman, but not this. He is running amok, creating a totally demoralised and demotivated staff.”

“But, put it to Clarke that he is pursuing a monstrous form of macho management and he professes his innocence with almost schoolboyish sense of hurt.

“Clarke, 32, says the complaints are emanating from only a couple of “malcontents”. Some people, he says, are driven by “personal pique because they never got a job they wanted”. Nic Outterside, head of the paper’s investigative unit, left last week. Clarke says the unit was disbanded because it was “a crock of shit”.

“Others, according to Clarke, have become “malcontents” simply because they cannot stand the new pace in the newsroom.

“I demand a greater level of working than perhaps some people are used to here and I can be robust at times, like all editors,” he says.

“Clarke confirms that he drew up a five-and-a-half page document a few weeks after he took charge recommending that a number of senior Scotsman staffers should be removed from their posts. This “operation review” leaked from the editor’s office into the newsroom, where it was seen as a sinister hit list. Clarke admits to some regrets about that.

“Of course it was bloody unfortunate, but you don’t expect to work in a place where such illegal activities take place. It was stolen from my computer. I’ve worked in some pretty rough newspapers, but nowhere where people are that underhand.”

At the time of writing this blog, Clarke and Steafel are both tipped to succeed Paul Dacre as the next editor of the Daily Mail.

The art of being underhand is surely what the Mail is all about.