They're really not for reporting the news

If there's a central point to this blog, something I constantly bang on about almost to the point of barking it at whoever's sitting next to me on the tube so they clutch their bag a bit tighter and shift their weight in their seat, trying to get as far away as possible without making visual contact with my boggling eyes; it's that papers, especially the tabloids, don't exist to report the news.  They exist to crowbar events into pre-existing narratives and create propaganda by trying to disguise editorial as information.  I bang on about it because it's true.  The voices tell me.

An example is a story I looked at earlier this week - 'Single mother of eight living in a £2.6m mansion - so much for Labour's housing benefit crackdown'.  I'd thought it was a bit fishy that several tory councils have suddenly started to uncover tabloid bogeymen living in ridiculously expensive accomodation in the run up to an election year, but I'd forgotten that the point of tabloids is not to report the news.

This story isn't new.  As romanhousing pointed out in the comments of 'Colour me supicious', it's about a year old.  The Mail demonstrated its famed Christmas spirit in 2008 by moaning about what other people were getting on Boxing Day in 'It's great here, says the mother of eight living in a £2.6m townhouse paid for by you', which it had churned from the story the equally Christmas-spirited Christmas Eve edition of the Evening Standard, which publihed 'Revealed: the £2.6m council house family' - as Anton Vowl said in the same comments.  Even the pictures are the same.  The references to celebrity neighbours are sort of different - they mention Elle Macpherson as well as Hugh Grant, David Cameron and Richard Curtis.

Some of the quotes are very familiar too, but the newer ones are the most interesting, like:
I've started my own business making organic soaps and bath products but any money I make I have to pay straight back to the council so there's no incentive for me to work hard to grow my business.
How much does Ms Walker pay to the council?  How much of her income does her rent represent?  What proportion of the rent does it cover?  How many council properties have been sold off in Kensington and Chelsea since the 80s?  How many are the council left with?  Would the coucil have been allowed to insist on a smaller property?  What would the alternative had been if she hadn't been housed here?  How much would it have cost to put the family in bed and breakfast accommodation?  How does the LetStart scheme, which the council used here, work?

None of these questions are asked, because the point of the article is not to give readers a rounded view of what is happening in this case and in the wider context of the lack of availability of local authority housing in the capital.  The point is to scare readers about the government's policy with stories like someone appearing at your window at night in a fright mask.  That's why it focuses on the '£2.6 million' cost of the house in the headline and not the £270,000 the council will actually be paying in rent over the three years of the lease they've signed.

The reason we're getting treated to stories about people getting expensive accommodation being paid for by local councils is actually included in this article - after all, the paper wants readers to draw connections between its fright stories and what it wants readers to be frightened about, so:
While then Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said he would crack down on the failing system last year, little seems to have been done although a Government source said yesterday that a crackdown on high rates of housing allowance would be announced this week.  [Emphasis mine].
See - I forgot the rule about tabloids not reporting the news and assumed that the three stories in 'Colour me suspicious' were, well, new.  Of course, the paper is mashing together disparate stories about the same subject to poison the well for the government announcement.

This is quite common.  A couple of years back, the government was due to publish a paper covering the benefits of immigration to the UK.  The Mail published 24 anti-immigration articles in one week in the lead up to the publication.

Before that, official statistics were released to show how many Romanians and Bulgrians had applied for permits to come to the UK in the first three months after the two countries joined the EU.  The figures included details of people who applied for some specialised jobs, but not every job that the people had come to do.  The top of this list for Romanians was 'Circus Artiste'.  The Mail's reported this with the headline '120 immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria arrive in Britain every day to be circus stars'.  The real number of people who listed 'Circus Artiste' s their profession was 55.  Not 120 a day, or even 55 a day.  55 spread over three months.

Of course, with both these examples, the paper wasn't reporting the news.  It was attempting to cast doubt on government claims and make it look incredibly easy to play the system.  It was printing propaganda by disguising attempts to persuade as information, just as it is now.

I suppose the moral of the story is that if there's a choice to make between there being a nefarious conspiracy involving several councils deliberately assigning tabloid bogeymen expensive accomodation and co-ordinating leaks at the same time, or the Mail just pushing shameless propaganda - go with the Mail's propaganda.  Are tory councils involved?  Who knows.  Occam's razor and all that.  Go for the simplest solution.  Mind you, if you used Occam's razor to decide whather anything was Mail propaganda or really news you'd arrive at the same answer.  Even if the question was, 'did that bear really shit in that wooded area, or is it Mail propaganda?'


FlipC said...

What I'd like to say is that it's the old case of agreeing with things you already believe and vice versa, but I can't.

It seems that the current situation is that if those in power say something the first instinct is to assume they're lying because they're power-hungry souls who'll say anything to further their own careers; but anything published in a newspaper is pure truth, because journalists are fine upstanding, unbiased citizens with nothing to gain by lying to us.

The sooner the majority of the population starts treating the 'news' with the same level of scrutiny they do missives from those in power the better.

Viva la blogosphere, no wonder the print media hates it.

Gavin said...

Interesting twist on a similar story in the Star (I know it barely counts as a newspaper) today.


Not sure why they couldn't find a nice 'spongeing Asian family' - obviously they don't have the same talented and dedicated (ahem) reporting team as the Mail.

Not exactly sure why a family who are able to budget and save up over a year so they have money at Christmas is 'a bad thing', but 'critics are furious' (aren't they always?) so it must be a scandal...

Keep up the good work 5CC - You are always an entertaining and informative read!

Tom said...

They may not be trying to poison the well for the govt announcement, as such. It may be an altogether more subtle strategy of trying to make themselves look influential. They publish a few stories in which they 'REVEAL' people living in luxury accommodation on housing benefit, and just a few days later the government announces a crackdown. If you don't look too closely, the Mail appears to be setting the agenda.

Tom Evans said...

If all these disgruntled hard working families really have as little income as they claim, they can get housing benefit too. It's available to anyone on a low income whether working or not.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Good of you to re-outline your manifesto so to speak.

Keep up the good work.