Saturday, January 28, 2006

Media Integrity

Right, I think a proper explanation of my view of the News Corp - Liberal Democrat thing is in order.

It should be fairly obvious that newspapers report scandals in a selective way. To illustrate this at a basic level, consider that there is one group of influential, high profile people who are almost never on the receiving end of the exclusive scandal story. They are journalists. There are undoubtedly any number of journalists who've written hypocritical "I can't believe he/she takes drugs" or "he/she is gay but kept it in the closet" stories. The chances of this sort of hypocrisy being exposed elsewhere in the media are slim to non-existent (unless the journalist does something really outrageously ill-advised). The reason why this is the case is simple self-interest. It's not some great conspiracy theory; it's just an implicit understanding that if you do it to them, there's a very good chance that they're going to try to do it to you too. So, although many journalists will certainly know of potentially embarrassing scandals concerning other journalists, they will not be writing an exclusive expose based on that knowledge anytime soon. It may be good for circulation figures but it isn't a clever long term strategy. Not unless you want fellow journalists raking through your bins anyway.

There's also another kind of selectivity in these stories. (I seem to remember watching a documentary about Max Clifford in which they discussed this sort of thing.) The "Kate Moss takes cocaine" story is a good example. I don't take a great interest in this celebrity nonsense but this one was pretty much unavoidable. Without wishing to disparage Ms Moss, the question is, did a single hack journalist think she wasn't taking cocaine? Everyone knows that very many celebrities take drugs. If the hacks wanted to, they could do a story like this about a different celebrity every week. They mostly don't do this because celebrities are big business and they need to keep most of them "onside" most of the time. It's basic financial common sense. Moss, at some point, for some reason, lost her "onside" protection and all of a sudden it's open day on Kate. The point is, it almost certainly wasn't the fact the journalists suddenly discovered that she'd been taking cocaine which led to these stories. The idea that this was a shock to anyone in Fleet Street is implausible to put it mildly. It might have been artibrary, or Moss might have got up the nose (sorry) of a particular editor, but someone decided that it was time for a scandal about Moss. And once one newpaper reports the story, the rest are pretty much obliged to follow suit. The result in this case was a big national story about a supermodel taking drugs. Approximately no-one in the country actually thought that this was news. It did do severe damage (at least in the short term) to Kate's career though.

And there's a third kind of selectivity in these stories. Often, when a reporter finds out something scandalous, they will take it to the person concerned first. Negotiation may then lead to an agreement that the story will not go to press. The person concerned might agree to providing some exclusive interviews or some other service of benefit to the journalist and their employers. Blackmail might be too strong a word. Or it might not. Sometimes an agreement is reached whereby the story will be broken but in a sympathetic manner. Sometimes the journalist abides by that agreement but on other occassions it's a stitch up (a friend of a friend had the Scum do this to them recently actually - "Give us your side of the story and we'll go easy on you" lied the reporter). When a reporter gets their hands on a juicy bit of gossip, there are many options available. The idea that the scandal always get reported to the public is an eroneous one.

On some occassions though, when the target of the scandal is on the "offside" list, there's only one way the story is going to come out; as damagingly and embarrassingly as possible. Editors will sit on the story and time it's release in order to cause the maximum impact on the subject. They will go out of their way to dig up dirt on the "offside" in a way that they never would for the "onsiders". Careers can be destroyed in this way. This, despite the fact that most journalists are quite aware that many on the "onside" list are just as guilty of similar indiscretions.

That is how tabloid journalism operates. It is my contention that the Liberal Democrats are now on the Scum's "offside" list in a way that the Tory and Labour parties are not. The ability of Murdoch's minions to influence the big two is hindered by the existence of a strong third party and a hung parliament would be a nightmare scenario for them. Their traditional claim that the Scum backed the general election winners (can anyone remember the last time they didn't do this?) would be particularly hard if there was no clear winner. It's about influence and patronage. They haven't decided who to back at the next election but they know it won't be the Lib Dems.

This doesn't mean that the Scum will never report a scandal concerning a member of the two big parties. It's does mean there is likely to be a difference in attitude in the way they treat such stories. At some point before the next election, Murdoch and co will decide which horse to back and either Labour or the Tories will join the Lib Dems on the "offside" list. That party can then expect to be on the receiving end of the sort of thing the Liberal Democrats are already dealing with. It is, in my view, highly likely that the scandals reported by the Scum in the run up to the next election will indicate which side they're backing (not backing if you want to be pedantic about it) long before it is officially announced.

As for the two recent stories, I'm of two minds. In the case of Oaten, I genuinly can't see any reason why releasing this information was in the public interest. I couldn't care less. In the case of Hughes, his involvement in the campaign against Hatchell made him fair game. Probably not a resigning matter but he certainly deserves a bit of stick for his hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the motives of the Scum in revealing this information when they did are dubious at best. That's not to say that Oaten and Hughes didn't both made pretty bad decisions. They both made decisions which left them exposed to just this sort of thing.* But when you think of the bad decisions made by the current government (government decisions which affect us all mind, not personal indiscretions) and the Scum's apparent indifference to them, it puts these bad decisions into some sort of sensible perspective.

* The classic circular argument is deployed by the hacks here in the case of Oaten. The Scum says we had to reveal this about Oaten because it shows a lack of judgement. He must have realised that we'd reveal it if we found out and the fact that he did it anyway shows he's guilty of making bad judgements. So, you see we had to to show what a poor decision maker he is. By revealing it.

Do you have to be trained to think that way or is it a naturally occurring phenomenon, I wonder?

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