It's weird. You go away for a while and mean to come back to write about things other than the tabloids and find out two things that scupper your plans. The first is that the break has taken care of some of the weariness you felt at looking at the same old hateful bilge every day, and the other is that an unusual confluence of events has exposed just how ineffective press self regulation is, and how rotten the whole business can be.
They start with David Cameron apologising for the Conservatives introducing Section 28. The introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 happened as the result of an almost perfect example of a newspaper driven moral panic. From 'Culture Wars: The Media & the British Left' (which includes a chapter about Section 28):
What does need stressing, however, is the perfectly circular process whereby myths about the alleged 'promotion' of homosexuality by boroughs such as Haringey were propagated. As Sanders and Spreggs observe:One of these fallacies that were created at the time was probably the single most important story for supporters of new legislation. Papers had widely reported that a book - Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was stocked in school libraries across London.
"Anything which had been published in a newspaper was given total credence and weight by both peers and MPs. Even when an item of so-called news had been clearly shown to be a fabrication, the story continued to be repeated as 'evidence' by supporters of the legislation." (1989: 85)
These stories were then often repeated by newspapers in their parliamentary coverage, and so the process continued. As Davina Cooper puts it: 'In this way, a self affirming cycle of information and opinion was contituted, beneficial to the right and media alike' (1994: 142). In such a situation, fallacies are created...
In 1987, the Press Council (predecessor to the Press Complaints Commission) issued a judgement against the Sun for making that claim. According to Culture Wars...:
This found that the paper had wrongly stated that the book was available in London schools, and that the editor had failed to correct these misrepresentations. The judgement drew attention to a statement by William Stubbs, education officer and chief executive of ILEA, that the Authority did not consider the book suitable for general use in primary schools and that it should therefore not be available to pupils. Further testimony from ILEA showed that the Authority had only one copy of the book, that this was held at a teacher’s centre, and that it could be used only with older pupils, and even then only in particular and exceptional circumstances after the parents had been consulted.Still, this story and others like it led to the hasty introduction of shoddy legislation.
But the Press Council judgement took care of things and prevented the false allegation about the stocking of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin in school libraries from being repeated, right?
Reaction to Cameron's apology appeared all over the press, but two columns in the Daily Mail, 'Councils should NOT be spending your money on promoting homosexuality' by Harry Phibbs, and 'Dave, leader of the 'Heather has two Mommies' Party...' mention Jenny Lives..., although only Phibbs says explicitly that it was stocked in school libraries. Hitchens cleverly avoids that, but says
Section 28 resulted from a fuss over the appearance of books aimed at children, intended to spread the view that single-sex couples could bring upchildren without any disadvantage to those children.That's a neat bit of dodging. As we know, Section 28 was introduced not because these books appeared, but at least in part because of the erroneous belief that they were being stocked in school libraries.
I still remember the titles: ‘Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin’ and ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’.
So, the Press Council judgement was so effective that 20 years later, columnists can still either allude to the original claims or repeat them, apparently under the misapprehension that they were genuine. Classy.
Now though, we have the Press Complaints Commission, which is far more effective than the Press Council. We should be able to clear up the repetition of untrue claims tout-suite with a swift complaint to the PCC. They'll sort it out.
Or perhaps not.
Recently, newspaper columnists have been repeating a demonstrably false claim - about homosexuals again, as coincidence would have it. Columnists including Melanie Phillips and Allison Pearson have claimed, falsely, that studies provide overwhelming evidence that being raised by a homosexual couple has a damaging effect on children. The truth is the exact opposite. Of the very few studies that have loked into the subject, the overwhelming majority have uncovered no ill effects.
To remedy this, well meaning people at 'Don't Get Mad, Get Accuracy' lodged a complaint with the PCC expecting them to stop the repetition of a clear untruth - as anyone would, since that's the PCC's job.
Or, at least, that's what the PCC pretends its job is. The PCC's judgement showed how its actual job is to protect papers from complaints, rather than protect the public from papers' misconduct. Astonishingly, the PCC ruled that:
While the column had been phrased in stark terms - the journalist had made one claim that was prefaced by "the fact is", for example - the author's claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact. the columnist was entitled to present her particular views on the issue of gay adoption in robust language.and rejected the complaint at the same time as acknowledging that the columnist - Melanie Phillips in this case - had misrepresented the evidence.
Effectively, this ruling states that newspaper columnists can make up any old rubbish they like, because nobody believes them anyway. To work out how laughable this defence is, imagine it working in a libel case. You can't, right? That's because it's ridiculous sophistry, although it is a nice explanation for Richard Littlejohn's continued employment. It also gives us a hint as to the outcome of a complaint about the repetition of a twenty-two year old lie.
Peter Hitchens needn't have been so coy with his mention of Jenny Lives.... He might as well have said that every schoolkid in the 80s was forced to go to the school library and have their eyes propped open while cybernetic monkeys flipped through the pictures and shouted the book's words at them, and any child who remained heterosexual was locked in a room full of angry bees until they converted. Mind you, that makes more sense than the average Peter Hitchens column.
It's not just the papers' tendency to make stuff up that the PCC are complicit in. It also stretches to potential criminal activity. On Wednesday, Nick Davies revealed that the News of the World phone-tapping scandal, where a NotW hack was jailed for having the phones of Prince William and Prince Harry hacked illegally, was far more widespread than that. News Group Newspapers had paid over £1m to three individuals to keep details about the hacking of their phones secret, but one Metropolitan Police source had revealed that 'thousands' of phones had been hacked by pivate investigators on behalf of News Group at the time.
Despite this, the PCC claimed to have already investigated the hacking of mobile phones and didn't uncover any illegal activity. That might be because the Commission rather cynically stopped the investigation as soon as Andy Coulson, who was editor at the News of the World at the time, resigned. Thus, News Group were covered and only one hack was punished.
Even if the PCC's investigation had been continued in as thorough a manner as possible though, what could it have done? Very little, by itself.
The PCC just issued a stinging rebuke to Express newspapers for the Scottish Sunday Express's disgraceful front page splash attacking survivors of the Dunblane shootings for being normal teenagers. The hack involved acheived this by befriending them on Facebook and then taking their profiles out of contaxt and trowelling righteous indignation over the fact that teenagers had been - gasp - talking about drinking and sex!
The adjudication said:
Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.And that's all it could do. You know what the Scottish Sunday Express has done beyond the apology since the PCC said it wasn't enough?
Bugger all. And it doesn't have to.
So even if the PCC's investigation had gone on, the Commission itself could have done very little. What it did do was "published 6 specific recommendations to publishers to ensure that phone message tapping - where it had taken place - was eliminated, and that steps were taken to familiarise journalists with the rules on using subterfuge in the law and the press Code of Practice."
That approach worked so well with the extra guidelines for editors for reporting on asylum seekers. The guidelines were so effective that the Daily Express covered the capture of two of the failed bombers of 21 July 2005 with the headline 'Bombers are all scroungeing asylum seekers' despite the fact that police only knew the identities of two of the four, and neither of them were asylum seekers according to the PCC's own definition. So strongly did the PCC feel about its guidelines that when there was a complaint about the story that the Commission rejected it.
One thing the Commission could have done, had it carried on its investigation, was report its findings to the police. But the Met has reacted to the current revelations by, suspiciously quickly, moving everyone on and concluding there's nothing to see here.
Trouble is, if there really was widespread misconduct that involved hacking databases and obtaining information by subterfuge, the Met could well be implicated. No wonder they want us to move swiftly on and stop gawking. As Chris Huhne said in a letter to Paaul Stephenson:
This was a suspiciously quick review of what Mr Yates himself describes as a complex case. Where there is a potential neglect of duty by a police force, surely another police force or the Independent Police Complaints Commission should look into the matter. Instead, we merely have assurances from the same department that conducted the original investigation that it did so well and thoroughly.What compounds the impression that something is rotten here is that everyone's denials are so selective. Andy Coulson has only denied knowing about Gordon Taylor's payoff by News International, not of widespread misconduct of journalists while he was at News of the World. News International have only alluded to confidentiality, which appears to confirm that they have indeed paid people off. The Met seems to only have focused on a very narrow set of circumstances - the facts around the case involving Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire only - rather than whether underhand and illegal practices were widespread at the News of the World.
Andy Coulson's job is apparently safe. He'll be very handy as David Cameron's spin doctor should the tories win the next election. He's still on good terms with his old News International cronies since he seems to have fallen on his sword to save the necks of those responsible for thousands of phones being hacked. Cameron will need good coverage in the right wing tabloids.
Especially if he needs their help in whipping up public support for any reactionary legislation he might dream up. Tabloid behaviour of the sort that led to the introduction of Section 28 could be very useful in that regard. And it's horrible when the tabloids aren't pleased with your tabloid-pleasing flourishes, as Phil 'Numpty Boy' Woolas would no doubt be eager to confirm. Who knows what made up bullshit tabloid columnists will be regurgitating as if it were true twenty years from now?
We're in for a lovely time after the next elections. In his excellent coverage of the Coulson affair, Septicisle points out that we haven't seen tabloid misconduct of the sort we saw in the eighties.
We may still yet. There's plenty of time.
**UPDATE** Sunny has more on the Coulson business at Liberal Conspiracy, and Slugger O' Toole points out that Labour were more interested in getting Andy Coulson than examining the misdeeds of News International.