Two stories played out on opposite sides of the Atlantic during July 2013 have illustrated how media campaigns can all too easily cross the boundary of what can be considered to be in the public interest…
Story No. 1: The Weiner sexting scandal
In July 2013, Anthony Weiner was a candidate in the upcoming election for Mayor of New York City. He had previously resigned from Congress after admitting sending photos of his private parts as attachments to text messages. Later he appeared on US national TV, supported by his wife, declaring that he had finished with ‘sexting’ for good. In July 2013 it was revealed that he had continued with this dubious activity, described in the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper as “compulsive online fantasising with a woman calling herself Sydney Leathers”. Again, Wiener admitted to these misdemeanours on TV, but refused to pull out of the mayoral election race. You can read more about this story here: http://nation.time.com/2013/07/30/anthony-weiners-brutal-week/
Story No. 2: The SAS soldier with an illegal firearm
Gun laws here in the UK are very strict and strictly enforced. In this country we take very seriously the possession of an illegal weapon—we are proud that we have a largely unarmed police force, and want to keep it that way. So, when Danny Nightingale, a soldier in the Special Armed Services, was discovered to be keeping an illegal pistol in his army house, he was taken to trial, found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in jail. That decision was later overturned on appeal. Then, in July 2013, Danny Nightingale faced a retrial court martial for his actions. You can read more about this story here: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/jul/25/sas-sniper-danny-nightingale-avoids-jail. For an alternative view, read this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10205755/Rough-justice-for-Sergeant-Danny-Nightingale-a-man-we-trained-to-be-the-toughest.html.
Many media campaigns are for good causes. They provide a platform around which ordinary people can coalesce and have their voices heard. They have been successful in convincing governments to change bad laws; implement badly needed new ones; introduce or modify regulations; and take action against organisations or individuals that are generally held to be doing things that are injurious to society as a whole. Media campaigns have led to the elimination of injustices and compensation for victims.
But, as with all types of power and influence, there need to be boundaries set. Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times of 28th July 2013, described this succinctly in the Anthony Weiner case—it should not be the media that determine whether or not New Yorkers get a chance to vote (or not vote) for Weiner. “He’s not a criminal and not a hypocrite,” Sullivan observes, “just a pathological narcissist…” The right response to Weiner’s situation, argues Sullivan, is not to call for him to drop out of the mayoral race, but for him to plough on and “let the voters decide if his character or lack of impulse control makes him unfit for the mayor’s office.” The point Sullivan is making is that there exists a democratic process that should be allowed to run its course. The media campaigns against Weiner are undermining and potentially subverting that process.
Switch now back to the UK. The judge in the Danny Nightingale court martial criticised the public campaigns mounted in his defence, telling the soldier that he had “made up a spurious defence which falsely impugned a fellow soldier and caused a number of SAS soldiers to risk their own security in giving evidence.” Bolstered by the support he was receiving from a section of the UK media and from some MPs, Nightingale had sought to have his retrial dropped. As it was, he received a two-year suspended sentence. Just as with the Weiner situation in New York, the media had been campaigning for the suspension of due process.
Campaigning to have laws, regulations or processes changed is one thing. Media campaigns that call for existing laws, regulations or processes to be ignored—no matter what the circumstances—are an altogether different proposition: one that crosses the boundary of what is in the public interest and goes too far.
[Check out my upcoming novel ‘Retribution’, dealing with issues of press intrusion. Coming soon. http://bit.ly/19m0V4U ]
Readers not based in the UK may have difficulty following the stories of what happened to two serving ministers of the UK’s coalition government. So please bear with me while I try to explain …
Minister No. 1: Chris Huhne
Many years ago, Chris Huhne’s car was caught speeding. In the UK, this offence earns the driver a fine, plus an automatic 3 points penalty on his or her licence to drive. Get 12 points on your licence and you lose it for a while. If Chris Huhne, a Liberal MP at the time, had confessed to being the driver of the speeding car, he would have lost his driving licence. Instead, he arranged for his wife to take the penalty points. This is against the law.
Fast forward to 2012. By then, Chris Huhne was Energy Minister in the Conservative/Liberal coalition and had separated from his wife in favour of his secretary. His wife, Vicky Pryce, approached the Sunday Times, saying that she wanted to expose the fact that Chris Huhne, many years ago, had convinced another person to accept responsibility for a speeding offence, to avoid a driving ban.
According to the Sunday Times, the paper knew, but didn’t reveal, that this ‘other person’ was, in fact, his wife, and warned her that what she was doing could well lead to consequences for herself. With the help of the Sunday Times, Vicky Pryce tried, unsuccessfully, to trap Chris Huhne into admitting what he had done in a series of testy taped phone calls. Eventually (again, according to the Sunday Times), Vicky Pryce lost patience and approached another paper, the Daily Mail. It wasn’t long afterwards that the full story broke that it was the wife, Vicky Pryce herself, who had taken the points. Stories appeared in the UK press under headlines like: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.
Although Chris Huhne vehemently denied the accusation, he resigned as a minister but stayed on as an MP, pending a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service whether or not to proceed to a court case.
Minister No. 2: Andrew Mitchell
Until last October, Andrew Mitchell was Chief Whip for the conservatives. One evening he left Downing Street on his bicycle. As he approached the gates at the end of the road, which were guarded by two policemen, he was involved in an exchange of words with the officers. The result was that Andrew Mitchell had to wheel his bicycle through a side gate, which annoyed him.
Somebody leaked to the press that the minister had referred to the policemen as ‘plebs’, a derogatory term overloaded with connotations of upper-class snobbery. The implication was that a serving minister of the crown looked down on the police force. The tabloids and even the broadsheets went into a frenzy, stoked by outraged comments by senior police officers. No part of the media seemed to be interested in finding out what actually happened, simply siding (almost entirely) with the police. Andrew Mitchell admitted to losing his temper, but denied using the word ‘plebs’. However, when a detailed transcription of the alleged conversation was leaked, backed up by an emailed confirmation from a ‘passer-by’, who claimed to have witnessed the incident, the writing was on the wall for the embattled minister. He resigned, still maintaining that he had not said the words he was accused of.
It was only then that a Channel 4 News investigation looked into the matter and presented a very convincing case that Andrew Mitchell had been ‘set up’. A CCTV tape showed that there simply was not enough time for the conversation to have taken place, as detailed by the police, and there was no sign of a passer-by.
You can read a good summary of the Andrew Mitchell situation here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/dec/23/plebgate-andrew-mitchell-police-stitch-up.
Chris Huhne maintained that he was innocent right up until he was due to go on trial, when he admitted that he had been lying. Both he and Vicky Pryce were sentenced to 8 months in prison, but released after 8 weeks. More detail here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/may/13/chris-huhne-vicky-pryce-prison.
The Andrew Mitchell affair continues to bring up new revelations, but it appears that the police have been guilty of manufacturing a situation for their own pseudo-political purposes, then trying to cover this up. The mysterious ‘passer-by’ witness turned out to be a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, and not a ‘member of the public’ as he had first been described. Andrew Mitchell’s claim that he was the victim of a ‘stitch-up’ now seems very likely to be true.
So, the minister who was lying all along was given the space by the UK media to decide his own fate, resigning of his own accord as minister, and then resigning as an MP once he had been charged. The minister who has almost certainly been telling the truth all along was forced from office, and is only now beginning the process of political rehabilitation.
I invite you to draw your own conclusions from these two significantly different treatments of serving ministers by the UK press. Once again, the media have “influenced events” – both through what they do, and what they choose not to do.
The shootings of elementary school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, 14th December, were horrific. According to GunPolicy.org, in the country of Switzerland, which has one of the highest militia gun ownership rates in the world, individuals are 17 times more likely to die from gunshot wounds than in the UK. If you live in the USA, where all citizens have the right to bear arms, you are 100 times more likely than in the UK to be shot and killed. That is all I want to say directly on this subject.
Instead, I want to focus on what happened to an accountant working at Ernst & Young in Times Square, New York. On the afternoon of the killings, within the space of a few hours, this innocent young man of 24 years was named as the main suspect; vilified on television news networks, Facebook and Twitter; and hounded from his office. On YouTube, someone re-posted a video of this man discussing politics, naming him as a ‘Gunman’. He was later arrested at his home and taken away in handcuffs by police. Facebook users set up pages naming him as a ‘mass murderer’ and a ‘terrorist’, and righteously demanding that he should ‘burn in hell’.
This unfortunate person was the younger brother of the actual perpetrator of the terrible crimes. But it took just one erroneous tweet from Associated Press to spark the media frenzy. So-called ‘respectable’, traditional media outlets CNN and Fox News broadcast the wrong man’s name, along with his Facebook photo, without bothering to check whether the original tweet was correct. Hot on their heels came the self-important Twitterati and Facebook (ab)users. This is the lynch mob at work in the digital age. In case you have not read the story of poor Ryan Lanza, you can learn what happened here: http://bit.ly/UaKAGq.
I recently read a fascinating novella by R.C. Wade called ‘The 50 Megaton Tweet’. Its premise is that a single erroneous tweet, stating that the president of the USA has been killed, could set off a sequence of events leading to potential global catastrophe. With the author’s permission, I wish to quote the following text from the Prologue to the story:
“… media companies … quickly found themselves fighting over tweets and blog posts …, racing to be the first to add credibility to a plausible, if not dubious, report … they were afraid of being left behind … Concepts like integrity, duty, fairness, and truth were supplanted by competition, speed, marketing, and ratings … Demands always to be right eroded to a general satisfaction with being mostly right … in modern media, information came to be recycled and reprinted without regard for ownership or accuracy … Simply put, big media lost sight of their obligation to report accurate news …” Copyright © 2012 R.C. Wade http://on.fb.me/T9GxJm.
In my review of ‘The 50 Megaton Tweet’, which I posted on Amazon, I wrote: “The author has done a sterling job here, cleverly knitting ‘real life’ happenings over the last decade to what might happen in the near future—unless we are all on our guard to prevent it. Maybe ‘The 50 Megaton Tweet’ should be a compulsory text in every school.” http://amzn.to/Xphsf4
America has to do something about its terrible record of innocent deaths at the hands of gunmen. But worldwide we have to take more responsibility for what we report, read about, retweet, post and re-post. In the UK recently, traditional media organisations and people who tweeted and retweeted erroneous and libellous allegations about an ex-politician and Member of the House of Lords have learned the hard way what this responsibility entails. See http://bit.ly/U0oJiq.
Remember, it took just one incorrect AP tweet: “Law enforcement official: Ryan Lanza, 24, is suspect in Connecticut school shooting” to make this young man’s life hell for an afternoon, and his grieving for what his brother did, including the killing of his own mother, all the more difficult to bear.
We are used to bemoaning the press for their relentless pursuit of celebrities and politicians: digging up the dirt; making unfounded insinuations; frequently having to apologise or pay damages for getting it wrong (or, more usually, for ‘making it up’). So it was with some disbelief and wide-eyed stupefaction that we witnessed here in the UK, just a few weeks ago, the unravelling of a sad and sorry tale from within the celebrity firmament: a story that for more than 40 years had remained completely unreported by the nation’s media.
I refer to the case of the now deceased Jimmy Savile, well-known and ‘much loved’ DJ and television presenter, who during his lifetime did a great deal for charities and good causes in general. It now seems, though, that Sir Jimmy Savile OBE was using these good works as cover for a long series of sexual assaults on under-age and vulnerable girls. If you are unfamiliar with the details of the allegations against Mr Savile, then this article is a good summary from the Guardian of what was known about the case as of last Friday, 12th October – http://bit.ly/V7t7fr.
No doubt as the police investigation proceeds we shall learn more about what actually took place in dressing rooms and hospital wards up and down the country. But what is intriguing me, for the moment, is the way that some elements of the UK press are trying to pin the blame for what happened wholly on the institutions that gave Jimmy Savile the access and freedom he needed to perform these alleged acts of molestation. It is as though the press are saying: “How were we to know what was going on?”
The fact is that rumours abounded about the man and his predilection for young female victims. Nothing, as yet, has emerged that suggests anyone actually knew for sure what Mr Savile was doing. But it seems strange indeed that journalists who are so quick to pursue stories on the basis of much flimsier hearsay and gossip should have ignored this particular one for so many years.
There seems to have been a collective ‘decision’ amongst the press and the TV media not to print or say anything about Mr Savile in case it harmed his good charity works. In clips that have been aired recently on UK TV, the man appears to have hidden successfully behind ‘a smokescreen of the truth’—on the one hand cracking jokes about his unsavoury reputation, while on the other emphatically denying there was anything behind the rumours whenever seriously challenged. On the few occasions when newspapers were toying with the idea of running a story, Mr Savile would always play the ‘charity trump card’, saying: “Do you really want to stop all that money flowing into the charities I support?”
If there is any justification at all for the press’s relentless pursuit of tittle-tattle and innuendo surrounding celebrities and others in the public eye, then it must be that occasionally (very occasionally) they do turn up something that is indeed shocking and should be exposed in the public interest. The fact that all the UK’s media seem to have connived for 40 years in allowing this particular series of alleged crimes to continue—assaults on some of our most vulnerable members of society—is in itself a disturbing revelation. The editors and journalists who took the decisions that enabled Mr Savile to carry on his activities unquestioned should hang their heads in shame.
Once again we see how the press is capable of influencing events, but this time through inaction rather than action. A curious spectacle indeed.
In April 1989 the UK tabloid newspaper the Sun published an article setting out what was supposed to have happened at a football (‘soccer’) ground in Sheffield, in the English county of South Yorkshire. Under the headline ‘The Truth’, the newspaper told its readers that the crowd disaster that had only a few days previously so tragically claimed the lives of 96 people had been caused by drunken fans of Liverpool Football Club. The coverage on the front page also alleged that Liverpool fans had urinated on police constables (PCs), stolen from corpses and prevented PCs from resuscitating victims. If you’re not familiar with this story, you can read an account of it here: http://bit.ly/NobrNL.
That MediaGuardian article, written 15 years after the event, also records how one man, the editor of the Sun at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, took the decision to publish under the headline ‘The Truth’.
Today Kelvin MacKenzie offered what he called his “profuse apologies to the people of Liverpool”. He stated: “I too was totally misled. Twenty three ago I was handed a piece of copy from a reputable news agency in Sheffield in which a senior police officer and a senior local MP were making serious allegations against fans in the stadium. I had absolutely no reason to believe that these authority figures would lie and deceive over such a disaster.”
That may well have been the situation at the time. But it is clear from the description in the MediaGuardian article of how MacKenzie decided on ‘The Truth’ as a headline that there was little if any effort made by the Sun to try to establish whether or not it really was the ‘truth’.
Now, 23 years later, we have the report from an independent panel that was set up to investigate what has become known as the ‘Hillsborough Disaster’. The report finds that 164 statements from witnesses were “significantly amended” and that 116 had been altered so as to remove negative comments about the policing operation that day. The panel also found flaws in the police operation and new evidence that the police carried out checks on those who had died in order to “impugn their reputations”. David Crompton, the current chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, has said he “profoundly apologises” to both the families of the 96 Hillsborough victims and to Liverpool fans in general. David Cameron, the current UK prime minister, has also issued what he termed a “proper apology” to the families of those that died.
This whole sorry saga is both depressing and shocking. But what is of even more concern is that it is just an extreme example of what still happens every day. The media print, publish and broadcast ‘The Truth’ – not because they know it to be true, but because it is what they think their audience wants to believe is the ‘truth’. And we, the gullible, willing public, lap it up and pass it on to one another.
On 17 August 2012 the Huffington Post published an article recording what had taken place in the UK in connection with a sealed letter said to have been handed by ‘moors murderer’ Ian Brady to his legal advocate, Jackie Powell. If you’re not familiar with this story, you can read it here: http://huff.to/OY4R1v.
What the Huffington Post article doesn’t record is that the police raided the home of Brady’s advocate only after an outcry in the UK national press.
In an interview published in the Sunday Times a few days ago, Powell claimed that the whole affair might have been instigated by broadcaster Channel 4 to promote its documentary about Ian Brady, scheduled for screening this week. Powell said that she told police about the sealed letter two weeks prior to their raid on her home. Her implication is that the police only reacted in the way they did because of the national outrage conjured up by the media. The idea that the letter might reveal the location of the remains of Ian Brady’s one remaining undiscovered child victim was suggested by the broadcaster, then repeated by the tabloids. It resulted in a public cry for action: “Why hadn’t the police done something about it?”
As Powell underlined, Ian Brady is a highly intelligent, manipulative character. She told the Sunday Times that in her view, as a trained clinical psychologist, it was likely that the letter was a ruse by Brady to focus attention onto his request to be moved away from the institution where he has been incarcerated for many years. As his legal advocate, Powell was unable to open the letter, since Ian Brady had specified that it should only be opened after his death. However, if she believed the letter could contain information pertaining to a crime, she was legally obliged to reveal its existence. So Powell told the police about it; and she told Channel 4 about it in the documentary.
Because of supposition, rumour and half-truths, Powell was subsequently hounded by the media, subjected to a humiliating police search in her own home in front of her teenage son, and allegedly verbally abused by a police officer during the search. Powell claimed to be so upset by the whole affair, and so rigorously pursued by the press, that she was forced to go into hiding. Once again, the media had dictated events. They decided that: “Something has to be done.” So it was, with a vengeance, and with scant regard for first establishing the facts.
It is tempting for writers to be pleased when real-world events mirror their own fiction. On the day I launched my novel ‘Web of Deceit’ last week, a woman was trapped overnight on cliffs near Porth Dinllaen in North Wales. This happens in my own story! But more sinister is that in the novel the main character is portrayed in the UK national press as a despicable figure who has to hide away. Further, a heavy-handed police raid is carried out on the home of an innocent woman. These coincidences are by no means happy.
I set my novel in 1999. Now, here we are, 13 years on, with the Leveson enquiry continuing its investigation into the UK press phone-hacking scandal, still permitting the media to tell us what to think and how to react. And the fact that the UK police is not immune from outbreaks of national paranoia must surely be a cause of concern for every citizen.
I woke up this morning with a vision of the future in my brain. I had been dreaming about a news programme on TV. But it was totally unlike any news channels that are currently broadcast … or was it?
The format was unusual, for two reasons. First, there was a studio audience. Second, the news was read out as headlines. Each time a headline was read out, the audience would react.
As is the nature of dreams, I can’t remember the detail (except for the final news item, which woke me up). But the format went something like this:
Male newsreader (I remember, this was an American news show):
‘Michael Phelps, the US swimmer, has become the first sportsman in Olympic history to win 19 gold medals.’
Enthusiastic cheering, whistling and hooting from the studio audience.
‘The court-martial of the muslim accused of killing 13 people is postponed while an appeals court decides whether he can be forcibly shaved.’
Studio audience: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ‘Outrage!’
‘Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, has been granted asylum by Ecuador.’
Cries of ‘No’ and ‘Shame!’ from the audience. Along with: ‘Where the **** is Ecuador?’
You get the picture. The last news item by the way (the one that woke me up) was about a device used in the US to verify that a message from the president is actually from the president. [Don’t ask me how it works. It looked like a reading light attached to a briefcase!] Anyway, the news was that the UK government had asked if it could borrow it. The audience reaction was similar to the second news item.
So, why have I bothered to record all this? Well, you might have noticed that each item was broadcast in 140 characters or fewer. And the audience reaction was instant, passionate and full of righteous indignation, expressing an opinion based on very little factual input. Does this remind you of anything?
The hundreds of Irish people clustered in front of giant Screen 4 at BT Live in Hyde Park were anticipating a golden moment. Thanks to the generosity of telecommunications provider BT and its co-sponsors, they had together just witnessed boxer Katie Taylor win Ireland’s first, and perhaps only gold medal of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was late afternoon on Thursday 9 August, Day 13 of the games. Now, clutching their Irish flags and basking in the warm early evening sunshine, the crowd waited eagerly for the medal ceremony. This was going to be their “I was there” moment of the Olympics. They would stand proudly, sing along to the Republic of Ireland’s national anthem, and celebrate with their fellow countrymen.
I imagine, as they waited patiently for that medal ceremony, that most gathered in front of Screen 4 were feeling pretty good about BT: for organising this wonderful outdoor show and providing the opportunity, not only for tourists from Ireland but also Irish people from across London and other parts of the country, to come here for free and celebrate together.
The medal ceremony for the women’s lightweight boxing was announced. The podium was clearly visible in the centre of the ring. Twenty minutes or so earlier the crowd had watched the ceremony for the British gold medal winner of the women’s flyweight competition, and had applauded and cheered her. But this was going to be different. This was going to be their own girl, their own Katie Taylor from Ireland. The excitement was palpable.
Then, just as the medallists were about to emerge and take their positions in the ring, the screen changed to the London 2012 logo, followed by a succession of advertisements for BT and its sponsors. The crowd couldn’t believe it. Surely this must be a mistake. Heads turned towards the BT Live media control centre over on the far side of the arena. Boos rang out. “Give us back our live feed. Let us see Katie get her gold medal. We want to sing our national anthem.” It was like we’d all been invited to a fantastic New Year’s Eve party, and then someone had switched off the music at five minutes to midnight and told everyone to go home.*
Personally I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. A feeling of helplessness overwhelmed us all. Some faceless apparatchik in the Media Control Centre had decided we shouldn’t have our “I was there” moment. More boos rang out across the park. One man threw an empty plastic glass at the screen in sheer frustration. It was inevitable that comparisons would be made. It was fine to show the Team GB girl being awarded her gold medal, but not the girl from Ireland. Now the Irish people felt hostile. They, like me, probably left the BT Live arena thinking ill of BT and its co-sponsors.
Trying to analyse what happened dispassionately, I would say that at first a fear, and then a dawning realisation came upon us all that there was nothing we could do about the situation. There was no one to complain to, nobody to reason with. As the seconds ticked by and advert after advert appeared on the screen, we felt powerless to change what was happening. All we could do was boo. We couldn’t grab the remote control from whoever was denying us our moment of supreme London 2012 delight. There was no ‘rewind’ button. This moment was passing and there was nothing more we could do. The Media Control Centre was indeed in control, deciding what we should and shouldn’t see, and what we should and shouldn’t celebrate. In the electronic, highly connected world that we now inhabit, this was an apt and strangely troubling metaphor for our everyday lives. Although the internet and social networking tools are enabling us, to some extent, to bypass traditional methods of media control, we are still dependent for much of our ‘raw data’ and day-to-day experiences on whatever the media choose to deliver to us.
* The reason for BT Live’s action was almost certainly because Team GB’s Victoria Pendleton was being brought onto the main stage. But the timing was unfortunate, to say the least. It resulted in Victoria being greeted by raucous booing from one quarter of the arena. Not the BT Live organisers’ finest hour.