Ever since we had a baby we’ve been listening to Radio 4’s Today in the morning, because you need to have some background noise on when you’ve got a baby (strangely, they’re not keen on the deathly depressed silences that are my preferred ambience) and all the other morning broadcasting options are shrill and intolerable.
As a rolling news show, Today is basically Okay, but then there’s the interviews.
Oh fuck, the interviews. Some newsworthy figure is wheeled on to have some half-baked challenges and queries barked into their face. Interviewee bats these away. Questions are repeated, and avoided every time. If there’s more than one interviewee, some fatuous opposition is set up between the two, and questions are ping-ponged between them to create some arbitrary drama.
It’s rubbish, and much congratulations must go to Graham Linehan for steadfastly refusing to play ball when Justin Webb (not pictured) tried to get him to engage in a meaningless argument with a theatre critic last week. That Webb insisted on playing arch-twat in the face of Linehan’s insistence that the whole scenario was meaningless and pathetic, and continued to do so on twitter afterwards, just shows how far down the rabbit hole of their own reputation the Today team have disappeared.
Because the mythology of Today is this – that it is the centre of the national conversation, where the great and good are brought to account on important issues, pinned down by the fiercest voices in broadcast journalism. That it is vital listening, where vital matters are revealed, and a compulsory start to the day for anyone who wants to know what’s what in the UK.
Or, to be realistic, it’s a news show with some deeply uninformative interview segments where Ministers, Executives and other members of the interchangeable managerial smear who run things in this country get to be lambasted by James Naughtie (actually pictured) or John Humphrys, get on the radio and then send an email to all their underlings including a full transcript later that day, insisting that it’s vitally important that they all know how vewy bwave their boss was on the wadio. No policy is changed by these interviews, the most lasting consequence being the occasional unflattering soundbite that will be repeated on other BBC News broadcasts for the rest of the day.
The myth of Today as a gladiatorial arena of accountability is fantastically flattering not just for the BBC team who make the show but for the sense of self importance of the highly appointed dimwits who get ‘grilled’ on it. For, make no mistake, ministers and civil servants and senior business types love Today for the sense of importance it ascribes to their half-baked policies. It fuels the myth that their decisions shape our world, and that organisations really can be changed at the top (but that’s another rant for another time). It makes them feel special.
Whereas I’ve finally come up with the exact phrase for what Today really is: an Accountability Pantomime. A raucous, knockabout bit of nonsense where the powerful come on, shout it out with the presenter, and we can all go away feeling cathartically pleased that some high-placed clown was given a bit of a hard time while in fact they’ve been held to account for precisely fuck all.
A good example of this went out this morning, with an executive from beleaguered care home company Southern Cross. Humphrys gave the bloke a bit of a grilling, battered the same simplistic points again and again, and I found myself smugly pleased that Southern Cross bloke had been given a hard time, as if that somehow constituted a significant restitution for Southern Cross’ alleged crappy behaviour.
I shouldn’t have felt that, of course, because all that had happened to him was that he’d had a conversation with a rude man. He’ll have gone back to his job, and the key meeting with Southern Cross’ landlords (the subject of the interview) will have gone ahead exactly as well as if no interview had ever occurred.
Of course, the one useful thing Today could do would be for the BBC to leverage the exaggerated sense of importance the political classes put on it, to which I make the following suggestion:
The next time BBC funding is threatened, the first thing the BBC should offer to cut is the radio cars that allow Ministers to do Today interviews in their jim-jams. If that doesn’t cause an immediate policy reversal, suggest slashing the length of Today by an hour.
MPs will, of course, insist that to reduce the scope of Today in this way would be stifling democracy by failing to give a platform to our duly elected officials to big-up their initiatives, but as Today is basically about politicians listening to the sounds of their own voices rather than speaking to the electorate that’s bullshit.
Press the bastards, threaten to smash their stupid little soapbox to pieces. That should protect the licence fee for another generation, at least.
If anyone doesn’t want to read a serious and strident post on the blog of a writer who churns out pulp SF for a living, please feel free to move on to the next one. Because this is fairly heavy.
You know how sometimes, something is too big to process, and it takes 24 hours or so to work through your subconscious, and only then can you squeeze your feelings down into a form that can translate into vaguely comprehensible words or manageable actions?
Well, late on Friday night I read this article on the feminist blog Sian and Crooked Rib, about a Daily Mail article on the case of five footballers on trial for the gang rape of two 12 year old girls. It was an excellent piece by Sian, in many ways not surprising as I’ve been reading a bit about Rape Culture lately due to the Dickwolves affair, and not surprising in terms of the despicable lows the Mail sinks to and the horrific underlying attitudes they embody.
Sian’s post had sufficient impact that I felt physically sick with the world. My vision got blurry, I felt a deep nausea, and I went to bed feeling quite unwell.
On Saturday I woke up, felt better, and got on with the day trying not to think too closely about what had made me feel so ill the previous night.
Then, this morning, I read a tweet linking to a Daily Mail story about a guy who claimed he created Davros as a competition entry when he was thirteen, or thereabouts.
(I’m not going to go to the article and check that, for reasons that will become obvious.)
So, a couple of thoughts pass through my head:
1. I’m going to see this Daily Mail link passed around a lot amongst Who fan friends in the next few days.
2. Well, by Daily Mail standards this guy was old enough to be complicit in his own rape, so really if he did get ripped off by the BBC then by Daily Mail logic he got off lightly.
… which made me realise the sheer extent to which I don’t want to give the Daily Mail my clicks, or my time, or anything that might reasonably pass for support or tolerance.
Because, make no mistake, what articles like that Daily Mail piece about the ‘lolitas’ do is foster and support myths that make it easier for rapists to justify their actions, get away with it, and defend themselves publicly for their actions.
In this particular instance what they’re doing is even worse due to the age of the victims. In this case, by spreading those myths, the Daily Mail is, albeit indirectly, supporting a system of prejudices that defend and excuse the sexual abuse of children.
Let’s reiterate that thought and unpack it a little further: by promoting such weaselly justifications for forcing children into sex, the Daily Mail validates those excuses for further use elsewhere. These views encourage men like these rapists to believe that coercing women and girls into sex is ‘normal’ and allowable, and reinforce the idea that blaming the victim is a valid defence.
(Sian puts this more coherently than me, so go to her piece if you want a better unpicking of the issue.)
It follows then, that by encouraging the Daily Mail, by tolerating it and its readers, its journalists, its editors by buying the paper, reading the paper or circulating links to its online version, we support them in everything they do.
By clicking, and encouraging clicks, we help support a culture that excuses the rape of children.
Now, I do not have the energy and mentality to be a campaigner. I don’t have the fervor or temperament to be confrontational about these things. To link to Sian again, my main response to the huge problems of violence against women and girls is to despair, and in my case despair is debilitating and dysfunctional.
I’m a father of a tiny daughter, and of course the scale of the problems terrifies me. But letting myself be flattened by the enormity of it all would just make me a permanent emotional wreck, unable to work of parent, which wouldn’t help anyone.
So, selfishly, no big campaign from me. That’s for braver, more determined voices like Sian.
However, I can draw a line. In the little online spheres I inhabit, I can discourage links to the Daily Mail, although I’m not going to banish Facebook and Twitter people I barely know in real life on the basis of a link here and there. I’m going to point people back to this post to tell them why I don’t want to read that shit.
I’m certainly not going to tolerate any more arguments from media pals o’mine that Mail journos are just doing their jobs, serving the demands of editorial/their publishers/their readership.
Would the Mail’s reporters be so forgiving when reporting on, say, a warehouse worker who turned a blind eye to massive amounts of child abuse images being trafficked under his nose because he wanted to keep his job?
No, they wouldn’t, and in this case the Mail would be right – some crimes are so grievous that any level of support or tolerance is unacceptable. As rank as I find the Mail’s baiting editorials and columns on immigrants or homosexuality or whatever, those are political positions, obnoxious as they are.
But child abuse is an issue that EVERYONE who isn’t an actual abuser is supposed to agree is terrible. And just like my imagined scenario of the neglectful warehouse worker, tolerating articles like that Mail report, support an ecosystem that allows the abuse of women and children to thrive.
So in my own ineffectual and minor way, I’ll be taking a zero tolerance policy with the Daily Mail from now on.
If you’d like to do the same, and use Firefox, you’ll find a good start is Tom Royal’s excellent Kitten Block plug-in.
More jovial matters next time, promise.
… in fact, the customer – and I say this as a customer and consumer, who hasn’t worked in anything even vaguely ‘customer facing’ for years – can often go fuck himself right off a pier.
[UPDATE: OOPS. Someone (Cheers, John!) has kindly pointed out that the article quoted below is a year old. So, while I seriously doubt Amazon have changed their working practices that much (digging back, the issue of – entirely legal – employment practices at their packing centres has been raised a couple of times in the last decade), the first bit of this should be taken with a degree of salt – Mr Attention-to-Detail rides again. The rest… well, I think that still stands, which is why I haven’t pulled the whole piece. Please continue…]
Take this article on working practices at Amazon. For those who want the short version, here’s a simple visual summary:
I’ll leave you to surf the details for yourself, but the most interesting thing is that Amazon don’t deny anything, but instead offer a statement in their defence, which opens as follows:
“Every single member of the Amazon.co.uk workforce, be that a temporary picker in Marston Gate, a permanent packer in Gourock, a customer service representative in Cork or a product manager in our Slough head office, is currently working flat out to ensure that our millions of customers receive the products that they have ordered on time this Christmas. Our number one focus is our customers and everyone at Amazon works hard on their behalf.”
Well, holy fuck, if it’s for the benefit of the customer then that’s all right then, isn’t it? Long shifts, constant monitoring, having to ask for permission to not piss your pants, being penalised for being sick in winter… none of these practices employed against – and I mean against – your workforce matter a shit providing Jimmy Q Fuckwit gets his copy of The Lost Symbol at a rate cheaper than Waterstones, or that little Camelia Queequeg receives her DS pony grooming game on Christmas morn, and not within 28 days after that date. I mean, grud alone knows there isn’t anything more important than the customer.
Fuck the customer. Fuck the customer as hard and as fast as those other nebulous reasons for treating other, usually working, people like shit, the market and national security. If the customer is going to cry a river because they ordered something online and it takes slightly longer to get there than expected, then the customer is a whiny, self-involved, self-pitying little dickwad. (And yes, if the present is for a member of your family, then that’s just a slightly expanded radius of selfishness, and you are still a dickwad.)
Get over it and wait, or go to a shop and pay the full price to get it now. Why should a warehouse of lowly paid staff be sweating blood to get you your underpriced goods at ridiculous turnaround times? What makes you, Mr Customer, so fucking special that you need a slave army to work themselves into the ground so that you get Modern Violation 4 within five days rather than eight?
Aside from anything else, the fact that such priority can be placed on something as blissfully, vacantly fucking trivial as the arrival of Christmas presents shows exactly how empty the talk of Britain being in some deep economic and social crisis is. When we can’t afford to order loads of random shit over the internet, or when those Amazon workers follow the tracking system back to Daddy Visacard’s gated development and raze it to the fucking ground, then we’ll talk about a bloody crisis.
It’s a little early for resolutions, but here’s a wish for 2010: higher, sustainable prices for consumer goods. Yes, HIGHER. High enough that creative people get royalty rates, workers in factories in the far east can feed themselves, and that delivery people in warehouses everywhere can be allowed to go to the toilet without begging permission from the man with the drum.
Merry Christmas, one and all.
What is the problem with journalism? Is it falling literacy, lower circulations, the threat of the internet, cuts in budgets leading to poor fact-checking and lower standards?
Or is it attitudes from insiders like this piece on the Jan Moir fuss, from Fleet Street Blues?
Moir or less
Let us simplify the narrative a little:
1. Stephen Gately dies
2. Jan Moir writes an article published by the Daily Mail, strongly implying that he died not of natural causes, but from some abstract moral crisis caused by his gay-civil-partnership lifestyle.
3. The internet explodes in outrage as this repellant little tirade, and floods the PCC with complaints.
4. The odd dissenting voice says don’t blame Moir, blame her editors, because she was working within the editorial guidelines and ethos of the Mail.
5. Fleet Street Blues says its all OK, because Moir doesn’t necessarily believe what she writes, she’s a professional working for the Daily Mail, a professional publication that very successfully targets its audience.
Those last two points seem to me to be promoting a number of false defences that I’ve seen doing the rounds recently, usually when there’s a vitriolic online response to a disgraceful tabloid piece, such as the piece about Dunblane survivors that ran in the Scottish Sunday Express earlier this year.
The cases for the defence
The intertwining arguments in defence of the offending hacks and their paymaster seem to go something like this:
1. Journalists working within an editorial regime cannot be held responsible for their involvement in stories that offend wider moral sensibilities, providing they did so within industry-accepted journalistic standards.
2. Providing all concerned – journalists, editors, publishers – act within the law and within those internally accepted industry standards, its all OK, and they should not receive any negative flak from online whiners about their work.
3. Don’t blame us for giving the public what they want, if they pay for it, then its fair game.
4. It’s one, entirely acceptable, thing for journalists to intrude and insinuate on the grief and personal affairs of others, but any attempts to mock, insult or otherwise deride those who churn out such stories is shameful bullying of professionals doing their jobs.
Now, there’s a lot to unpick in there, but it seems that there are some basic presumptions underlying these defences that are worth challenging.
The basis for the defence
1. That the practice of journalism is virtuous, or at least morally neutral, regardless of what political or moral purpose the fruits of that journalistic activity are used for.
2. That it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and it would be unreasonable to expect people to stop taking the pay cheques and walk out just because their employer is involving them in something they know is wrong.
3. That if there is a demand for a product, it is always OK to fulfil that demand.
I would humbly suggest, from my outsider’s perspective, that these three presumptions are Wrong, Wrong and Wrong, in that or any other order you like. I’ll rebut them separately.
Journalism is not an inherently moral activity, and accepted journalistic ethics are not a moral gold standard
We all know the platonic ideal of a free press, bringing truth to light and exposing injustice to the light of day. Informing, educating, presenting arguments – these are all good things that journalism can do. We wouldn’t want to live without them.
However, the fact that journalism can do all these good things does not make it an infallible engine for good. The freedom of the press is worth defending, but that does not mean that the press shouldn’t prove to the rest of us that it is worthy of that defence.
And, while codes of practice and ethics are all well and good, the industry’s own view of these is not infallible either. Something can be ‘best practice’ in journalism terms and still not morally acceptable to the rest of us. Acting within the ‘rules’ of journalism does not absolve you of the requirement to act within the framework of basic human decency, or to throw aside any consideration of what is factually correct.
Put it this way – we would all agree that being a doctor or nurse, devoting yourself to helping others get better, or at least manage their intractable illnesses or conditions as best they can, is a good thing. This does not mean that every doctor, every nurse, every hospital is inherently good.
Equally, being a journalist, being professional to the standards set by your peers, is not good enough if you are using those highly professional skills in the service of distortion and disinformation, or to attack people through misrepresentation.
“I’m just following orders” is not a good defence, right?
If there’s a scandal in the public services, journalists are always eager to find someone to blame. It was the Minister! It was the Head of Services! It was this civil servant, that manager, SACK HIM, SACK HIM, SACK HIM! Didn’t he/she know what they were doing was wrong? If they couldn’t do the job, they should quit.
In the eyes of the press, the rest of us are always culpable for our own actions, and for what we let go on around us. No-one ever wriggled out of a headline grabbing scandal by shrugging their shoulders and saying “What did you expect me to do, resign? Who would pay me then?”
In all this talk of responsibility, you’d think that journalists themselves would be required to look to their own consciences, right?
Wrong, according to Fleet Street Blues:
“The Daily Mail‘s line isn’t one its journalists always personally believe in, but they’re pros, and how many of us can honestly say we’ve never written a story with an angle we didn’t personally support? Journalists are mercenaries, after all.”
Lovely. This seems to partially hark back to my previous point, in that the presumption that it’s OK to be a mercenary presumes there’s some worth in being a journalist regardless of the moral context of your work. But it also seems to suggest that journalism is a tough world where assignments are hard to find, and it’s tough to find paying work, and therefore it’s OK to chase the cheques.
No. People quit their jobs on matters of principle, or are sacked or steadily ‘let go’ because they refuse to tow a line they believe is wrong every fucking day in this world. People also change their career paths, work in different areas, shift priorities and do different things. We get sick of the way things are done, so we go to another firm, or find another line of work altogether.
Not everyone does, but plenty do. And when those who see bad practice around them blow the whistle, and lift the lid on corruption or mismanagement that threatens the public good, that benefits journalism. Good journalism. How many good stories, important ones, come from people risking their own positions because they believe their superior’s activities, or the secret reports that pass their desk, are wrong and that the public should know?
If all those Whitehall sources covered their own arses, considered themselves to be doing a job to a professional standard, and ignored everything they thought the public should know, the papers would have nothing to run but official lines.
Is it too much to ask that journalists apply the same standards to themselves? That if they are writing or editing material that they consider to be hateful, untrue, pandering to base prejudice at the expense of anything verifiable, that they quit? Even if (shock, horror) that means that they can’t work in the media any more, and have to go do something else?
Apparently so. Because journalism is a calling, apparently. Regardless of how bad it is.
Just because people are willing to pay for it doesn’t mean you should sell it to them.
Crack. Smack. Bootlegged videos of executions. Nasty, nasty types of pornography. Racist material that tells you that you and yours are the only real people and that they, they who seem to have all the luck, are just animals and not people at all. Illegal firearms to ‘defend yourself’.
There’s a market for everything. There are plenty of things that people would buy by the shitload that we, as a society, have decided they shouldn’t be sold, for very good reasons.
It seems the simplest thing of all, then, to refute FSB’s claim that the Daily Mail is OK because it reflects a lot of people’s views, regardless of how repellent those views might be, even if everyone from the editor to the journos to the print workers might disagree with every word.
No, it isn’t. Feeding people’s bile to them is not just satisfying demand, it is not a neutral or positive activity. By repeating prejudices, especially by actively ignoring the medical evidence in favour of a half-baked ‘moral’ position, as Moir did, you are reinforcing those prejudices through agreement. By putting those opinions in WH Smiths, Tescos, and every corner newsagent you are saying ‘it is OK to think this’. You are fostering a climate where our worst instincts are not suppressed, or driven into the naughty corner, but held proud as legitimate, authoritative positions.
This is just my opinion
And if you think I’m wrong, fine. That’s a matter of conscience, and I may think you’re completely wrong, but that’s OK. That’s freedom of speech. If someone believes the kind of thing that the Mail or the Express publish, loves working on it, and believe that they’re putting out a paper that tells truth to power then, although I disagree with them, they’re at least acting using the tools of journalism for the purposes of something good, albeit only in their eyes and definitely not in mine.
But if those tabloid journos agree with me, if they disagree with prejudice such as this, if they believe that the tabloids peddle distortions and bigotry and hateful nonsense, and yet they participate in the process of writing and publishing those words, then I don’t think they’re doing good work, I think they’re betraying themselves and their own principles for selfish, careerist reasons.
And you know what? I don’t care whether they hit their deadlines, or how little editing the subs need to do because they’ve written perfectly in the house style. I don’t care whether they’re professional to their own industry standards.
This isn’t some kind of highly tuned philosophical argument. I’m sure that, should anyone bother to read this, they will be able to pick apart my arguments from a million different directions. I’m not a trained journalist, I’m a fiction writer who has done a few reviews.
What I will say is this, and would ask this one question to whoever may pick nits in all of the above –
Is it right to do something you believe is wrong for the money?
Edited to take out hilarious write/right freudian slip in that last line.