Do the clicktivists who enraged the Mail want to kill press freedom or create a better media?
PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 December 2017
The furore over high street chain Paperchase's U-turn over advertising with the Daily Mail has caused an almighty row over what is pressure group Stop Funding Hate's objective. LIZ GERARD investigates
“The British people relish a good hero – and a good hate.”
Thus spake Sunny Harmsworth, first and only Lord Northcliffe, pioneer of popular journalism, coiner of the term “tabloid” and founding editor of the Daily Mail.
There’s been a lot of hate swirling round the Mail over the past week, thanks to Paperchase’s public remorse over its decision to collaborate with the paper to offer free Christmas wrappings.
Supporters of the Stop Funding Hate campaign tweet-bombed the chain, urging it to think again about working with the paper. It responded with an apology saying it was truly sorry and would never do it again.
The Mail was so affronted that it detonated Nuclear Option C. That involves using the full armoury of news stories, columnists, a leader and finally a “Guy Adams investigates” spread (but not the big splash/multiple news spread combos that are deployed in Options A and B).
It had at first ignored the story, contenting itself with issuing a statement that internet trolls were trying to suppress legitimate debate. But it was stirred into action when Newsnight pitched SFH founder Richard Wilson against Sunday Times deputy editor Sarah Baxter. That was as painful to watch as a puppy being mauled by a tigress. Wilson could barely get a word in edgeways, but he did manage to say: “The end point for us is a media we all want, that upholds the public interest and treats people fairly.”
Baxter jumped down his throat: “The media YOU want? You and your activists want to decide what people in Britain can read or not. That’s very arrogant and self-appointed and very, very wrong for democracy.”
And so the Mail came out with guns blazing: a news story headlined “Media must do what we want” described SFH as a “small group of hard-Left pro-Remain Corbynistas” and quoted assorted media types denouncing both the campaign for bullying and Paperchase for cowardice.
Further back in the book, Sarah Vine joined the party with a column headlined “The REAL hate mob: arrogant tiny minority who want to impose THEIR views on us all”. SFH were, she wrote, a “tiny motley bunch of left-wing Twitter warriors, rabid Corbynistas and Remainers” with an agenda of extreme snowflakery. These liberal fascists were bullying businesses with thought-shaming and virtue-signalling based on the notion that “everything the Mail says or does is born out of prejudice”. In fact, it was a great newspaper with a deeply caring heart.
On the opposite page, a leader declared: “We would be just as concerned if big business had used such internet blackmail to try to silence The Guardian for criticising capitalism.”
But not, apparently, as concerned about influential financiers using “such blackmail” in the real – as opposed to cyber – world. A Deputy Governor of the Bank of England had advised savers to shop around to find better deals if their banks didn’t pass on interest rate rises, and the result was a splash headlined “Boycott the greedy banks”.
So on page one it was OK for someone to call for a boycott of a business whose actions he disliked (although Sir Jon Cunliffe neither called for a boycott nor described the banks as greedy), but on page 16 it was an “attack on freedom” for a group of people to call for a boycott of a business whose output they dislike.
The Mail would argue that it was reporting, not endorsing, Cunliffe’s words – but if it didn’t want to attack the banks, would the story have been the lead to the paper?
As a young sub editor I was taught that if you didn’t put quote marks or an attribution in a heading, it became the paper’s opinion. Quote marks are often shunned these days but with or without them, the choice of words for the lead headline is a good indication of what the paper is thinking. Imagine what the headline would be if Corbyn urged people not to shop at Tesco.
Next day there was another story in which the advertising industry validated the Mail’s position (including a small quote from Wilson) and then, on Saturday, came the Guy Adams blockbuster. Someone called Rob had previously cautioned Stop Funding Hate on Twitter: “Be very careful... they will be raking through everybody’s tweet history looking for an angle.”
Spot on that man. That was exactly what Adams did. He found half a dozen people with a history of Twitter unpleasantness among those tweeting for SFH. These, he wrote, were the real hate-mongers. Naturally they were all Corbyinistas and Remain zealots, out to do down the Tories.
It’s an age-old tactic to shame an enemy by the company he keeps – the Mail has attacked Corbyn because Hamas supporters were among the crowd at a rally at which he was a speaker – but how far should an organisation be judged by its followers? If SFH is to be defined by the nasty few among its supporters, are papers happy to be judged by the aggressively racist, homophobic or anti-Tory vitriol that some readers post under their articles online?
Commentators on other papers piled in: Liddle in the Sun, Moore in the Telegraph, Ferrari in the Sunday Express, Baxter in the Sunday Times, even Peter Preston in the Observer. SFH was wrong, wrong, wrong. A bunch of bigoted self-appointed far-left bullies – clicktivists, as Baxter imaginatively described them, or “shrivelled insects of social media” as Moore put it – seeking to muzzle free speech.
How did this disparate bunch of individuals end up as a far-left cabal of Corbyn-loving Remoaners? It is true that a key member of Wilson’s team is a Labour Party campaigner and tweeter “Rob” doesn’t hide his allegiance (his avatar is a picture of Corbyn), but apart from the handful of people picked out by Adams, there is no evidence from the campaign’s website or Facebook page to support the widespread assumption that this is a bunch of remoaning lefties. Wilson says the movement has supporters from all political parties and insists that it is non-partisan.
But the one thing we aren’t hearing in all this is Wilson’s voice. On television he was shouted down and in print his words were heavily edited. The result is that viewers and readers have been given little clue as to what the campaign is all about. To judge from the commentators, it is to close down papers with which it disagrees politically. They all emphasise how tiny this group is, yet it is managing to “bully” naïve businesses (so naïve that they have shops on every high street) and threaten the foundations of freedom and democracy.
Wilson told Emily Maitlis on Newsnight that his end purpose was “the media we all want”, but the “all” was spoken quietly and Baxter may have misheard it as “the media we want” – something entirely different. It was certainly misinterpreted by the Mail, Sun and others as meaning “you must do as we say”, while the bit about treating people fairly was generally ignored.
Having asked Wilson for a comment, the Mail ran three sentences in which he defended the Mail’s right to print what it liked within the law, the people’s right to express themselves as consumers, and the “polite, friendly” tone of the campaign.
Of course the paper had no duty to run his complete statement, but for the record, he also said there was a growing concern that hate in the media was fuelling hate crime on the streets and urged the Mail to reflect on why so many felt attacked by its “hostile” coverage.
This gets to the core of the campaign: alarm about the coarsening of public debate and the harm it can do. It is aimed at the Mail, Sun and Express not because they are Tory papers or because they support Brexit, but because these three were specifically named by the UN as giving cause for concern over the way they cover certain issues – mostly relating to race and immigration.
Last year nearly a quarter of the Daily Express’ lead stories were on immigration. You might say that is fair, given the public interest in the subject, but there was no rounded view. Every piece (and there were hundreds more inside the papers) was hostile.
We are fed a diet of stories about foreign murderers and rapists we can’t deport. The Mail treats us to a front page full of foreign lorry drivers on mobile phones – as though British school-run mums, white van men and taxi drivers would never do such a thing. The Times thinks it’s a disgrace for a Christian girl to be fostered with a Muslim family. Mail Online has recently featured two stories about women murdered by their partners. One killer was a “controlling husband”, the other a “Muslim husband”.
The words “Muslim”, “Romanian”, “Migrant”, “Asylum-seeker”, “Gay” and “Trans” pepper headlines in a way you would never see the words “Jew” or “Catholic”, “Scot” or “Straight”.
Reputable institutions at home and internationally have repeatedly criticised British newspapers for this sort coverage, but that message is having no impact on their behaviour and it is certainly not being passed on to their readers.
The LBC presenter James O’Brien took a call last week from a listener who said the Daily Mail had “destroyed” his grandmother’s brain. She lived in a small village and had never seen an immigrant, but had come to despise them, and this had ruined his relationship with her. Hundreds of people responded by tweeting similar stories.
The Mail cannot be responsible for all these family rifts – but it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least some of O’Brien’s correspondents were accurately reporting what was going on in their lives.
As I write, Wilson is in Geneva at a forum convened by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, where SFH is hosting a session on countering anti-migrant narratives. He is sharing the platform with representatives of Ikea, Ben & Jerry’s and Oxfam. It is unlikely that anything they say about our press will find its way into print tomorrow.
And so people have to resort to blogs, to Twitter, to Facebook to get their voices heard; to the “irresponsible” internet and social media so despised by the mainstream press.
“We are regulated, but those internet liars can print what they like,” the papers cry. Google and YouTube are justifiably attacked for failing to block “hate” sites promoting terrorism and “vile” videos of child abuse. The BBC is under constant fire for its “bias” (the Telegraph and Sun have both called for the licence fee to be stopped – so maybe there’s nothing wrong after all with targeting the funding of a media organisation). Rivals on every platform should be subjected to new laws and curbs on their activities. But a polite request to newspapers to tone it down a bit is an infringement of free speech.
All these papers insist that they are not racist; that they are reporting on matters of importance; that immigration, not the coverage of it, is the problem; that they are reflecting and articulating readers’ concerns.
Which is exactly what they should be doing.
The Mail is right that its “four million readers” (an extrapolation based on two or three people reading each paid-for copy) should be able to enjoy the columnists, fashion and cute animals, the clever picture specials, horoscopes, crosswords – whatever it is that draws them to the paper. And it’s right to project the issues that are most of interest and concern to its customers.
Newspapers have the right to choose what to report and they should absolutely not be influenced on whether to run or withhold a story based on what an advertiser might think – look at the trouble the Telegraph got into over HSBC.
Stop Funding Hate walks a tightrope that carries the risk of falling into censorship on one side and of exerting inappropriate influence on editorial judgments on the other. It doesn’t want either. It just wants papers to be, well, nicer.
SFH isn’t asking advertisers to tell newspapers what to print or not to print, but to consider whether they are comfortable with the material next to their brand – and, if they aren’t, to walk away. Just as they are walking away from Google because its robots are placing their names against unacceptable content. The decision may be more clear-cut with Google, but the principle is the same.
Customers are telling companies: “Our purchases produce the money for your advertising budget and if you choose to spend my money with that newspaper, I’m not going to give you any more. It’s your choice.” It’s no more censorship than newsagents in Liverpool deciding not to sell The Sun, which doesn’t seem to trouble anyone but The Sun. Maybe the rest have got used to it after 30 years; the edifice of press freedom hasn’t tumbled as a result of the backlash over ill-advised Hillsborough coverage.
Shopkeepers have no obligation to sell material they disapprove of; customers have no obligation to spend their money with companies that finance material they disapprove of. But by telling the companies why they are abandoning them, those customers are apparently blackmailing them, imposing their views on the rest of the country and attempting to destroy the free press.
Five hundred tweeters? It’s nonsense.
Except there are more of them than that. The group has nearly a quarter of a million Facebook followers and 80,000 on Twitter.
Even with that many supporters, SFH still isn’t the thin end of a very big wedge. It isn’t going to silence the press. It isn’t going to drive newspapers out of business. Its only ambition is that if enough people find a voice, editors might think more carefully as they put together stories about vulnerable people.
To some that will sound like cloud-cuckoo land dreaming, and you might expect the campaigners to be characterised as woolly-headed idealists. But for the Mail – which uses the lexicon of war to denounce gainsayers as “unpatriotic”, “collaborators” and “enemies of the people” – SFH campaigners are sinister bullies.
For Baxter, its activists are dangerous trolls, and her phone has screenfuls of ever-so-courteous hostile tweets posted after her Newsnight appearance to back her up. “I can deal with it. I don’t mind,” she says. “But if you’re the PR unused to this sort of thing, it can frighten you.” That, she thinks, is why Paperchase capitulated.
The trolls are out for the SFH “fascists” too, and there is much glee at the disclosure that Wilson’s publisher once negotiated a £1,000 deal for the Mail to publish an excerpt from a book about his sister’s death in an African massacre. It’s a skeleton, if a dusty one: the extract was published in 2006, ten years before Stop Funding Hate was even thought of. Still, Wilson could have been more vigilant about where his work was appearing: his mother had sent a Mail reporter packing after the killing, having seen at first hand in Burundi what she regarded as the harmful effect of the paper’s reporting.
Now his colleagues are being threatened with violence, which has prompted SFH to issue another statement – so far printed only by the Guardian and the Huffington Post – reasserting the right to peaceful protest and reiterating the campaign’s non-partisan position.
“Stop Funding Hate is not linked to, or aligned to, any political party,” it says. “We are proud to have supporters from a wide range of backgrounds and political viewpoints.” It also restated its long-term goal as “a media free from hatred and discrimination that does the job everyone wants it to do: reporting accurately and fairly, and upholding the public interest rather than undermining it”. And Brexit? “We have no position on any other issue”.
We all know that newspaper circulations are falling off a cliff and many regard what they print as an irrelevance – people prefer to get their news from their phones or the BBC. Baxter herself said that the immigration coverage had no impact, and certainly not on the vote for Brexit, because “people don’t read these papers”. Tell that to The Sun editor Tony Gallagher, who texted a Guardian journalist “So much for the waning power of the print media” after the referendum result was announced. But while the press may be in decline and even held in contempt, it still exerts great influence where it matters. The big corporations that newspapers “hold to account” have tens of millions more customers. But do politicians court their approval?
Only this week Ken Clarke told the Competition and Markets Authority that News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks had described herself as “running the Government in partnership with David Cameron”.
Our newspapers punch above their weight in political influence, which means on the way the country is run. Why are they so afraid of a little protest group they could just ignore?
A free press is essential for society and democracy. The Mail and Sun do some great journalism with panache and flair. They invest in it. They are entertaining, slick and capable of orchestrating genuine public interest campaigns.
In doing so, they sit in judgment on everyone – from judges and prime ministers to gymslip mums and benefit scroungers. But then they balk if anyone dares suggest they may not be right about everything; instead of stopping for a moment to consider whether they might be able to up their game, they come over all self-righteous.
They are big and powerful. Do they need absolute freedom to victimise and vilify the vulnerable, to destroy people’s lives? Would it hurt so much to show just a little restraint? The Stop Funding Hate campaign may be flawed; it may have some undesirable followers. Yet all it’s asking for is a bit more tolerance. For that it won an award presented in the name of the murdered MP Jo Cox.
But the full might of Fleet Street has decided that it must be crushed.
What was it that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s dad once wrote about butterflies and wheels?