'This is outrageous!' said Tarquin FitzTory

Imagine this. It's a warm and bright summer Saturday morning in suburbia. Birds are chirping, lawnmowers are buzzing and Johnny Mailreader skips along the hazy, sun warmed street on the way to the newsagents to buy his Saturday copy of the Daily Mail. He breathes in the smell of cut grass and puts an extra spring in his step. He's got bacon in the fridge and he's looking forward to frying up a nice sandwich to eat slowly at the kitchen table with a crisp copy of the Mail spread out in front of him. All is right with the world.

At the newsagents, everything changes. 'Save our Chipsticks' shouts the Sun's headline. 'Fury as Council bans Chipsticks' yells the Mail. 'Now Muslims bathe in the blood of sacrificed Christian virgins' screams the Express. Johnny snatches up a copy of the Mail and reads the first sentence. It says:
A row erupted in Lewisham last night as the Council banned Chipsticks because they feared they'd offend the Polish.
Rather than read it in the shop, Johnny pays up and rushes home past the annoying buzz and clatter of the lawnmowers and through infuriating wind-blown drifts of cut grass to sit at his table and read the story, his bacon sandwich forgotten.

Reading the story makes his grip on the paper tighten and tighten. Why on earth would the Polish be offended by Chipsticks? There's a Tory MP in the article who asks the same question. And someone from MigrationWatch who talks about how the arrival of more and more immigrants will change our way of life. Everyone in the article agrees with Johnny! Why can't these fools at the Council see? Someone from the Campaign Against Political Correctness calls the decision 'bonkers'. A representative from the Taxpayer's Alliance calls it 'mad'. There's even a quote from the head of a Polish Centre in Lewisham saying, 'I don't know what the Council is talking about. I love Chipsticks, and most of the people at our Centre are fond of the salty snack.' It's madness! Even the Polish don't mind Chipsticks! It's just like Littlejohn talks about in the book he got for Christmas - or should he say, 'Winterval'? This country is being taken over by madmen and gays and foreigners! In a spasm of anger, he pulls the paper in two and sinks to his knees, holding the pieces aloft in his tightly grasped fists, 'Why?' he screams at the sky through his anguished sobs, 'Why, damn you!'

It's just like any other morning in the Johnny Mailreader house.

It shouldn't be, though. If Johnny had read a bit more closely, he might have spotted the hints that cast doubt on the story. If he'd read some other papers as well, he might have found out that Chipsticks had never been banned at all, but that one Council building had stopped selling them (and other things) in their vending machines for just one day as part of a healthy eating initiative, and that it had sweet Fanny Adams to do with the Polish.

Once he found that out, he might have wondered how so many people knew about the Chipstick ban and agreed with him that it was bonkers, which might have led him to discover one of the most commonly used sneaky tabloid tactics. That of calling people up with a made up or exaggerated version of events and asking for a reaction without giving the full story, so the paper can put some meat on the bones of its nonsense by making it look as though lots of people know that what the paper claims is going on is actually true, and agree with the paper that it's outrageous. This tactic works on a few levels, and the people asked for quotes aren't always exactly innocent victims of tabloid skulduggery, but the basic tactic remains the same - although it must be said that the paper doesn't always know the story is rubbish, it likely as not just hasn't bothered to do any checking.

The best recent example of this is a story in the Sun, which told of how evil Muslims tried to hound out some brave squaddies from their prospective new home in Windsor by daubing the house with graffitti and making threatening calls to the squaddies' barracks. After they'd bravely served in Afghanistan and everything. The trouble was, the story was rubbish. It wasn't Muslims at all. The story has since been pulled from the Sun's website, and the paper has issued a half-hearted apology. (*UPDATE* It hasn't actually been removed from the website, I underestimated the power of the tabloid dark side. It's still there, without any hint being given of an apology being made.) Mask of Anarchy covered this in a lot of detail at the time, but especially interesting is how the Sun backed its article up with a quote from Philip Davies MP, who said:
If there’s anybody who should f*** off [the graffiti shown in the article said 'Fuck off' in massive letters] it’s the Muslims who are doing this kind of thing. Police should pull out the stops to track down these vile thugs.
After it was revealed that the story was rubbish and the Sun apologised, Korova contacted Philip Davies and asked for an apology. Now, I don't want to cover the same ground as Korova, but Some of Philip Davies's reply reveals a lot about what I'm banging on about:
Newspapers and television media approach people every day and ask people their reaction to events as they relate to you. Everybody makes their comments in good faith presuming the story is true.
So that's how it goes, at least officially, and it's a very common practice. One of the things we should always be sceptical about when reading a tabloid story (or any story in a newspaper, for that matter) is the impression we're given that what's going on in the story is widely known about because lots of people have commented on it. Remember how easy it was for Chris Morris to dupe eejits in 'Brass Eye'. It's just as easy, if not easier, for a Sun journalist to phone up a Tory MP and say, 'What do you think of Lewisham Council banning Chipsticks then?' and the Tory MP to splutter, 'It's outrageous! It's political correctness gone stark staring bonkers! We've been eating Chipsticks in this country since the reign of Charles I,' and so on, and so on.

Of course, it helps if the paper knows it's going to get a quote that agrees with its stance. In stories about Political Correctness Gone Mad, Tory MPs are a good bet, and some are more reliable than others. David Davis seems to be a favourite, as does the similarly named David Davies, and Philip Davies must be king of them all. That's because he represents the Campaign Against Political Correctness in Parliament. He's the gullible type of right winger who probably still believes that black bin liners were banned in Tower Hamlets so as not to offend black people, and that by law we have to call manhole covers 'non gender specific access entry space units'. He represents a group that falls for all these stories hook, line and sinker.

Other groups might not necessarily be gullible as much as eager to push their own agenda. The Campaign Against political Correctness and the Taxpayers' Alliance might fall into this category, and MigrationWatch definitely do. Groups like this would be more than eager to give a nice juicy quote without caring one way or the other whether the story is actually true. What's important to an anti immigration group like MigrationWatch is to dissemminate the message that immigration is a Bad, Bad Thing. Whether or not Chipsticks had actually been banned would almost be an irrelevance.

Sometimes, these groups even set up the stories that the tabloids lead with and the whole thing works in the opposite direction, with the paper becoming the willing dupe. Look at the coverage MigrationWatch got of its spurious claims that immigrants contribute the 4p a week to GDP per head. Or the fantastic coverage that employment law firm Peninsula got over the Christmas period by providing the tabloids with a completely rubbish study that was supposed to show how loads and loads of firms were banning Christmas but actually looked more like an attempt to tout for business by giving firms the impression that they needed legal advice on what to do about Christmas decorations. Nobody bothered to check their working before publishing the claims in both cases, because they sat well with what the papers believed - or at least wanted their readers to believe - in the first place.

Some of the people quoted may well have been fooled. The Polish Centre manager in our Chipstick story would be unlikely to suspect that the paper is giving a less than truthful account, and who could blame them? Most people wouldn't suspect. And even if they did, they'd probably be more concerned with letting people know that any ban has nothing to do with them or the people they represent. Keith Vaz falls into this category a lot. He often appears in stories saying Muslims don't mind Christmas decorations or pictures of pigs or something. It's easier for him to do that while he's on the phone to the paper than it would be to investigate the story to find out if it's true in the first place.

Even if these people did question the story and show some scepticism, the papers may well just misquote them anyway. Our Polish Centre manager might well have actually said, 'I don't believe for a second that the Council has banned Chipsticks and this is probably just another attempt to smear the Polish. If it has, I don't know what it's on about,' and so on. The Sun did this spectacularly last Christmas, when it edited Tony Blair's sceptical comments about the banning of Christmas to make it look as though he agreed with the paper (covered brilliantly by Obsolete). It even devoted a separate story to its spectacular misquote.

Still, be careful of assigning blame to someone for making the whole thing up in the first place. It's not as if there's always an evil, cacking baddie behind these stories saying, 'Excellent! I have made the ridiculous sheep believe in the Polish ban of Chipsticks. MWUH-HUH-HUH-HA-HAH-HAH-HAAAAAH!' There is sometimes, obviously - but often, what happens is that a group of organisations and people who all believe in something look to each other for proof that what they believe is true, without really knowing that they're all as clueless as each other. Sure, sometimes they don't care, but its only human nature to look for agreement when you're sure you know the truth. It's called confirmation bias.

The bottom line is this. Never assume that any quotes in a tabloid story actually add any weight to the paper's claims. They could be gullibly given reactions to a made up or distorted story. They could be a reaction to something that the person or organisation quoted knows to be untrue, or at least doesn't care either way. The paper itself might be colluding with another organisation, knowingly or not, in setting up the story in the first place. The quote itself might actually be a deliberate misquote.

Always look for external sources that might include a more complete quote if you're that interested. Even then, take it with a pinch of salt, eh? And if the person quoted is Philip bloody Davies, take it with a whole grit bin full.

Poor old Johnny. There was no need for his anger.

*UPDATE* More on misleading quotes in '"This is outrageous!" says Tarquin FitzTory II'


septicisle said...

Excellent piece, my only point being that despite the Sun correcting its piece about the Windsor Muslim yobs, it hasn't been removed from the site: http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2006460631,00.html

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Cheers for that. For some reason I thought it had been pulled, but that must've been another story.

All fixed with an update now.