Jump directly to main content

The Crack Magazine

megxit.jpg

When Journalists Attack...

We have all watched the press attack. Suddenly an individual’s visibility noticeably increases as they are humiliated, vilified and cast out from “respectable” society. Willingly or unwittingly, we may have joined in by clicking on content, comments, subtweets, shares and likes. In stat driven news rooms, our own online choices and behaviours have greater influence on what is published than ever before.

Many celebrities have highlighted how social media users and the press now seem to come together to intensify such attacks. Prince Harry recently discussed how some elements of the abuse against his wife Meghan Markle – including the Megxit slur - originated with misogynist and racist social media trolls and was then picked up by the British press. In the wake of her tragic death, the family of reality TV host Caroline Flack spoke about how her depression stemmed from both abuse online and in the press, which often discussed her sex life. Many attacks on young black footballers such as Raheem Sterling focus on their spending habits, as if they are some proof of lack of moral worth, and he has discussed how this “emboldens racist rhetoric”.

But it is not just the famous who might suddenly become a target, and sometimes there can be horrific consequences. Retired teacher Chris Jefferies just happened to live next door to landscape architect Joanna Yeates when she was murdered in 2010. For no other crime than being a bit eccentric, newspapers declared him a peeping tom and a suspect, which even led to his arrest. When new dad Omar Salem, whose baby daughter was seriously ill, confronted Boris Johnson during a hospital visit about cuts to the NHS, numerous papers declared that he was a “Labour stooge”, an activist and an anti-Brexit campaigner, which resulted in threats and abuse on social media. Victims of attack who turn to press regulators find no recourse. In the seven years since it was set up, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has never fined a member organisation for an attack despite numerous complaints from members of the public, celebrities and politicians alike.

And as the Online Harms Bill moves through Parliament – which recommends legislation to tackle toxic social media discourse including trolling or “instigating pile-ons”– change is now pressing. There is little chance of stemming abuse without also tackling mainstream news, not least because such content often leads the charge. But it would be a mistake to think such attacks are a new cultural phenomena. In fact, it was built into the DNA of the British press as it developed in the 18th century and has had many different political and social consequences ever since. Tackling this particularly vicious form of news is long overdue.

Attack journalism has an identifiable methodology. It is sustained, usually across multiple publications and now social media platforms. It often refers to characteristics of difference such as class, race, gender or sex or religion. It blurs the meaning of the “public interest” with what is of general interest and often creates false narratives or “fake news”. Individuals are offered limited or no opportunities for right to reply, are personally vilified, and there is little regard for their wellbeing.

The oldest example in newspaper archives was by The Times but this quickly escalated across multiple publications and focused on the journalist, celebrity and political revolutionary Thomas Paine. When, more than 300 years later, then Labour Leader Ed Miliband was attacked during the 2015 General Election campaign, there were startling similarities in tone, language and purpose. The reason for each attack were simple enough. Both Paine and Miliband threatened the power of the established press and the political order. Paine radically disrupted models of print production by offering pamphlets that could be read, understood and afforded by ordinary people and argued for wide-scale political and social change, including votes for the working class. Miliband criticised the ethics of tabloid media and monopolies; suggested Rebekah Brooks should resign; and that Rupert Murdoch’s empire be dismantled. As a result, a News Corporation executive allegedly threatened, this meant that they were “going to make it personal”.

The language was remarkably similar too. Miliband was rather unimaginatively labelled “Red Ed” and Paine “Mad Tommy”. Both were falsely accused of criminality with suggestions that Miliband used “slave labour” and that Paine was a thief. They were both portrayed as stupid and bent on class division – in Miliband’s case a “grisly mix of left and lefter” and Paine was labelled newsgathering practices, but neither directly address abuse through persistent publication. And as all press codes of practice have a ‘public interest’ get-out clause for invasion of privacy or harassment, we need greater discussion of the constant conflation with this and what is simply interesting to members of the public. Regulatory codes define the public interest in substance, but this also needs to be clarified in opposition to examples that are not. For celebrity journalism in particular, attack is powerful click-bait and justification for breaches of the code often seems to be that it is popular. Too often, amplifications of falsehood or rumour are justified by journalists and by many other social media users to themselves because information is already in the public domain. Changes to regulatory codes are needed, but we can all step back from the keyboard too. Dr Bethany Usher Dr Bethany Usher is deputy head of media, culture and heritage at Newcastle University, and the author of ‘Journalism and Celebrity‘. She is also a former tabloid journalist who quit and spoke out about cultures of attack in newsrooms. a “public pest” who was “envious” of the wealthy. There were references to them being “barmy” or to their “lunacy” and suggestions that each of them would “defile” the political and social order. Perhaps the most curious similarity was that the masculinity of each was questioned specifically in relation to their trousers. Miliband would “not wear the trousers” while Paine’s “breeches” were found in the “water closet”

Tracking attack journalism offers tantalising glimpses into how media cultures travel across time and space – in this case through word of mouth in newsrooms and the power of journalism’s linguistic constructions. By understanding how to spot it, we have means to separate what is legitimate debate from what is not.

But how might we counter it? In order to tackle cultures of attack we must look to two things – at institutional levels, the codes of practice which govern the press, and at an individual level: our own online behaviours including what we click on and the print products we buy. The key areas for British news media regarding the IPSO code is “harassment” and for Ofcom “fairness”. At present, both of these bodies address persistent pursuit as harassment or “unfair” newsgathering practices, but neither directly address abuse through persistent publication. And as all press codes of practice have a ‘public interest’ get-out clause for invasion of privacy or harassment, we need greater discussion of the constant conflation with this and what is simply interesting to members of the public. Regulatory codes define the public interest in substance, but this also needs to be clarified in opposition to examples that are not.

For celebrity journalism in particular, attack is powerful click-bait and justification for breaches of the code often seems to be that it is popular. Too often, amplifications of falsehood or rumour are justified by journalists and by many other social media users to themselves because information is already in the public domain. Changes to regulatory codes are needed, but we can all step back from the keyboard too.

Dr Bethany Usher

Dr Bethany Usher is deputy head of media, culture and heritage at Newcastle University, and the author of ‘Journalism and Celebrity‘. She is also a former tabloid journalist who quit and spoke out about cultures of attack in newsrooms.

journeyincolour.jpg