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Wednesday, 5 February 2020

That Downing Street walkout

Three cheers for Lee Cain and his clumsy Downing Street rug apartheid.
Two cheers for the political journalists who walked out in sympathy with those on the "wrong" side of the mat.
One cheer for the Tory loyalists who remonstrated in print, on radio and on Twitter this morning.

Why three cheers for Cain, the villain of the piece?
Because the Prime Minister's communications director's crassness finally prodded a dozing mainstream media into action, exposing to a wider public both Boris Johnson's chronic accountability-dodging and the way the hand-in-glove political lobby system can be manipulated to control what information reaches the people.

Why only two cheers for Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston et al?
Because while their protest is welcome, it is also late. Because those on the "right" side of the rug have been far too cosy to Mr Johnson and his chief of staff Dominic Cummings; tweeting, broadcasting and printing "Boris says" stories - essentially propaganda shared in private "briefings" - without the most basic checks. Remember the Matt Hancock aide who was "assaulted" by "Labour activists" on a visit to a hospital where a child patient was photographed lying on the floor? Except he wasn’t, he walked into a cyclist’s waving hand.
The Sunday Telegraph was at it again only this weekend: Boris was "privately furious" because the EU was reneging on its offer of a Canada-style Brexit trade deal. Except it wasn't, as the most cursory glance at the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration the Prime Minister so boastfully negotiated and signed would have told both briefer and briefed.

Why only one cheer for Stephen Glover in the Mail, Michael Deacon in the Telegraph, the Times and Mail leader writers, the Julia Hartley Brewers?
They are absolutely right that the Government should not impede journalists, sympathetic or hostile, in their task of scrutinising the executive and explaining to their audiences what policies mean to them. Right to point out that there would be uproar if Jeremy Corbyn's team tried such a stunt. But what took them so long?

Boris Johnson has been refusing to answer to anyone but the softest audience ever since he put himself up for the Tory leadership. He holds "press conferences" for children, but shirks real press conferences with real journalists. And when he can't avoid them, he can, Trump-like, choose which “friendly” publications are allowed to pose their questions.
He holds "People's Question Times" on Facebook, where, as Deacon pointed out this morning, he is quizzed on such vital issues as what shampoo he uses. But in forcing through the biggest change to the country in a generation, he swerved real Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons (only three appearances in his first 20 weeks in office).
He sits on Holly and Phil's sofa, but not Andrew Neil's black chair. 
And all the time he is flooding social media timelines with videos where he can speak without interruption or challenge.

During the election campaign Pippa Crerar of the Mirror - one of those on the wrong side of the rug on Monday - was refused a place on the Tory battlebus. Did other journalists covering Johnson's journey disembark in solidarity? Nope. Because that was "party" business, rather than "government" business? Even though it was the same team pushing the same agenda?
One of the reasons given for denying her access to David Frost's Brexit wisdom this week was that she wasn't invited. A Times journalist was apparently also barred, because he or she wasn't the one who had been asked to the party. "We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want," said Cain, who accused those not on the approved list of "barging in".
Now there's a thing. One of the occasions that Johnson chose not to be put on the spot was Channel 4's pre-election climate change debate. As you may recall, he and Nigel Farage were represented by ice sculptures. There was a bit of barging in that day, too. Michael Gove and Johnson's father Stanley turned up, uninvited. Gove said he wanted to appear on the programme and was told he couldn't; the event was for party leaders only. Rather as Monday's invitation was for political editors only.  (Bear in mind, the C4 debate was open to all party leaders, the press briefing only to selected political editors.) Sauce. Goose. Gander?
And how did Mr Johnson's party respond? By complaining to Ofcom and threatening Channel 4's licence. Yet the press corps' justifiable complaint that a briefing from a politically neutral civil servant was being politicised is written off as snowflakery; the exclusion of some reporters justified, according to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, "because the public backs the Prime Minister". So they should get their information only from publications that generally support him? 

The Prime Minister and his team are making media enemies everywhere - having already ordered ministers to boycott the Today programme and Newsnight, they have now fired the first wounding shot in what is going to be a nasty war against the BBC - and the journalists on Monday were right to take a stand.
But it was these very people who allowed this situation to develop, by dancing to Cummings's tune for fear of being cast out into the cold.
They all want to be in Dom's contacts book. If he whispers in their ear (or gets someone to do it for him), they are happy to take dictation. If he calls two or three of them, they don't ask "why aren't you telling everyone this?" They take the "scoop" with thanks. It's their job to be on the inside track.
There's nothing particularly new about it. Look back to the Blair-Campbell years. Joe Haines wrote to The Times today to remind us that Harold Wilson tried exactly the same stunt as Johnson back in the Sixties, adding that he was so aggrieved to be excluded as a junior reporter that when he became Wilson's press secretary he stopped lobby briefings altogether.
Today an exclusive one-to-one briefing or a nod and a wink to two or three favoured journos are accepted practice. If only the favoured few had turned up on Monday, would our heroes and heroines have said: "Why isn't there anyone here from the i or Mirror?"  Possibly not. They'd probably have thought it was a limited briefing - which was, of course, what No 10 intended. But it all gets a bit uncomfortable when you actually see a fellow journalist being sent on their way, when you see enacted before your very eyes how you are all being controlled.

There is a genuine point to be made about the importance of a free press across the political spectrum, but there is also a sense of grandstanding virtue-signalling in this morning's papers; a sudden concern that is absent when moves are being made to stifle the BBC. The Daily Mail did not think the Downing Street walkout worthy of reporting on Tuesday, but today it ran a leader alongside Glover's thousand-word essay - which still managed to bash the Beeb in what was supposed to be a defence of media freedom. 
This response could be taken as a warning shot to Johnson "don't take us for granted" - or the dawning realisation that "we may be his friends now, but for how long?", a reluctant recollection of that chilling poem "They came first for the socialists..."
Of course journalists want to cultivate friends in high places. Of course politicians want to nurture friendly journalists. But for rather too long, our media have given the impression of being used. The fear of being locked out, of not getting the story, has been getting in the way of objective reporting.

There was supposed to be a public inquiry into the relationship between politicians and the press: Leveson 2. Neither the Tories nor the papers wanted it - the existing snuggle suits them both too well - and it was duly squashed. 
So while Monday's protest was a welcome reminder to Johnson and Cummings that they shouldn't - and won't - get it all their own way, don't expect the "Boris says" splashes to dry up any time soon.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Right to Rent

It is the role of the Opposition to oppose and the role of the Press to hold those in power to account.
So, putting Brexit aside for once, how have they fared with regard to the Government’s attempts to tackle illegal immigration over the past five years or so?
Last week the High Court ruled on Theresa May’s “Right to rent” policy, which requires landlords to check that they’re not letting out properties to people who shouldn’t be in the country. The judge decided that it had actually caused discrimination, was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and that there would be a “certainty” of illegality if it were extended from England across the UK. What’s more, it wasn’t even achieving its objective of rooting out illegal immigrants.

The judgment made yesterday’s splash for the Morning Star and the online-only Independent, but was given short shrift by most national newspapers.
It was, perhaps, to be expected that the May-supporting rightwingers with little sympathy for the ECHR would play down the story (the Express ignored it altogether), but surely the Daily Mirror might be expected to capitalise? Not a word.

The Guardian put it way back on page 18. The i and The Times both put it on page 6, the former as a small page lead, the latter as a tiny downpage double. The only paper to return to it today was The Observer, with a leader headlined “Shame on a government that is creating race discrimination”.

This prompted a little research into the history of the policy and how it has been covered by the Press. This is what I found.

In July 2013, at around the time “go home” vans were touring London housing estates urging illegal immigrants to leave the country, Theresa May’s Home Office issued a consultation document on plans to recruit private landlords as enforcement officers for her “hostile environment” strategy.

They would be required to check that prospective tenants were entitled to live in the UK. Not only were they to perform this function unpaid, but if they failed to do so and ended up renting to illegal immigrants, they could be fined.

Various interested parties responded to the consultation, expressing concerns that the policy could lead to illegal discrimination and might contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Government acknowledged the risk of discrimination and emphasised that this would not be tolerated. It said it was confident that the policy complied with the ECHR.
When the consultation process was complete, it reported that 58% of respondents had expressed concerns about possible discrimination, but said that the checks required would be minimal and landlords would be given guidelines and a code of practice.

Parliament passed the necessary legislation in 2014 and a pilot scheme was set up in the West Midlands. Landlords in breach of its provisions could be fined up to £3,000.

This was where the story finally reached the consciousness of our national newspapers’ newsdesks. Local papers and property correspondents had been more on the ball. There were a number of features about what landlords need to do – but stories about the obstacles facing people looking for a home were almost non-existent.

In February 2015, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants released its first findings on how the policy was working out. Things seem to be going exactly as predicted with landlords avoiding foreigners. The story was reported in the Independent and its baby sister, but nowhere else.

The following May, the Tories were re-elected with a Commons majority and David Cameron announced his intention to roll out the scheme across England.

In August, with political pressure mounting over the Calais Jungle, the Government announced that it was not going to wait for detailed evaluation of the pilot, but would legislate for the roll-out with stiffer provisions. Landlords would be able to evict tenants without a court order, while those who failed to conduct the required checks would risk up to five years in jail.

By now the language had changed. The overwhelming majority of private landlords were individuals with a single buy-to-let property who had been dragooned into service as part of the Government’s solution to illegal immigration. Now “rogue landlords” were the problem.
Maybe there had been a resurgence of Rachmanism that necessitated more draconian penalties and inspired Communities Secretary Greg Clark’s declaration that the Government was “determined to crack down on rogue landlords who make money out of illegal immigration – exploiting vulnerable people and undermining our immigration system”. If there had, the news had not reached the national Press and no minister put forward any evidence to demonstrate that this was the case.

The Guardian splashed on the story and, even with the death of Cilla Black, the decision also found a home in the Mail and Sun. There was no report anywhere of what happened when Clark addressed MPs on the subject (the Monday morning stories were the result of advance briefings), nor of any Opposition reaction.

The following month, the JCWI published a report on the impact of the pilot scheme, entitled “No Passport No Home”. It found that 42% of landlords surveyed said that, because of the scheme, they were less likely to rent to someone without a British passport; 27% said they were reluctant to rent to someone who “appeared foreign”.
The findings went unreported.

In October, the Home Office published its own report on the impact of the pilot. It said it had found “a very small number of potentially discriminatory attitudes” – some landlords had shown a preference for “lower risk” tenants with a local accent. The Home Office research had involved questioning 114 landlords (52 of whom had not taken on new tenants during the pilot) and 68 tenants (most of them students and most of whom had not moved during the pilot).
On the same day, the Government announced that the scheme would be introduced countrywide the following February.
The Independent on Sunday swung into action with a Jane Merrick splash and an Oped by Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham in which he expressed the fear that the scheme could become the modern day equivalent of “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish”. 

The Guardian and Times picked up on Burnham the next day.

In February 2016, the JCWI published a further report based on surveys of landlords, letting agents and organisations working with affected groups, coupled with FoI requests, parliamentary questions and a “mystery shopper” exercise involving 1,708 inquiries and 867 landlord responses. 

It concluded that foreigners and BAME people were being discriminated against on the basis of nationality and race. The FoI requests also showed that the Government was not monitoring the scheme to see whether people were suffering discrimination, whether the scheme was achieving its objective in encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country, or whether it was cost-effective. 

The story did not find a home in any national newspaper, but the following month the European Commissioner for Human Rights expressed disquiet about Britain’s attitude to immigration and alluded to the Right to Rent policy. His words caught the attention of the Guardian and the Mail - one seemed a little chastened, the other defiant.

In May 2017, with the Government planning to extend the scheme across the UK, the JCWI asked Home Secretary Amber Rudd to order a full evaluation of the policy and said it would go to the courts if she declined. It updated its research figures in line with a survey taken in February, in which 51% of landlords now said the scheme would deter them from letting to foreigners. The Guardian and Independent (now online only) were the only papers to report the development.

With the referendum over and interest in immigration waning, there was  little appetite for keeping tabs on the “Right to rent” policy, but it did crop up from time to time over 2017 with updates on the numbers of landlords fined. The Press couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it was a flop because so few were being fined or an unfair assault on landlords. Few seemed concerned about the plight of would-be tenants who couldn't find a home.

Last spring, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reviewed the scheme and concluded that it had “yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool to encourage immigration compliance". The Home Office had "failed to co-ordinate, maximise or even measure effectively its use, while at the same time doing little to address the concerns of stakeholders".

The report was one of five inspection reports, all critical of the Government’s immigration strategy, released just before Parliament rose for the Easter recess – and on the same day it was announced that the rapist taxi driver John Warboys was to be given parole.
The Government rejected the inspector’s recommendations and the assessment troubled only the Mail, i and FT.

The story burst into life, however, with the Windrush scandal a couple of weeks later.  Especially when an internal Home Office document from 2015 -  when plans were being made to expand the pilot from the Black Country to the whole of England -  emerged. Two years before anyone knew anything about the Windrush timebomb, officials had warned ministers:

"Some non-UK born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation.  Some may have had their immigration records destroyed. Some will have originally come into the country under old legislation but may have difficulty in evidencing this."

When the JCWI applied for a judicial review of the scheme, the Government argued that it did not fall within the ambit of the ECHR – even though in launching the scheme it had claimed that it was compliant.

It also ruled that people were suffering from discrimination because of the scheme. Essentially, it was too much hassle for landlords to bother with all the paperwork in letting their properties to tenants who couldn’t produce a passport to prove they had the right to rent. This was making it difficult for people with a perfect right to live in the UK to find a home.
As Mr Justice Martin Spencer put it in his judgment:

  • “The scheme introduced by the Government does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not”;
  •  “The State has imposed a scheme of sanctions and penalties for landlords who contravene their obligations and, as demonstrated, landlords have reacted in a logical and wholly predictable way”;
  •  “The safeguards used by the Government to avoid discrimination, namely online guidance, telephone advice and codes of conduct and practice, have proved ineffective”;
  • “The Government cannot wash its hands of responsibility for the discrimination which is taking place by asserting that such discrimination is carried out by landlords acting contrary to the intention of the scheme”.
The judge accepted that the Government was entitled to take measures to effect its immigration policy – and he noted that it enjoyed public support in this – but that the “right to rent” scheme was not the way to do it. It was incompatible with the ECHR and should be reconsidered. There would not only be a risk, but a certainty of illegality if it were extended to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What’s more, it wasn’t even working. Independent research had found that of the 654 people who had been drawn to the Home Office’s attention as a result of the scheme, 31 had been removed from the country. There was nothing to suggest that the remaining 623 were here illegally.

He said:
  •   “I have come to the firm conclusion that the defendant (the Home Office) has failed to justify the scheme, indeed it has not come close to doing so”;
  • “Parliament’s policy has been outweighed by its potential for race discrimination”;
  •  The measures have a disproportionately discriminatory effect and I would assume and hope that those legislators who voted in favour of the Scheme would be aghast to learn of its discriminatory effect;
  •  “Even if the scheme had been shown to be efficacious in playing its part in the control of immigration, I would have found that this was significantly outweighed by the discriminatory effect”;
  • “The nail in the coffin of justification is that the scheme has had little or no effect and the defendant has put in place no reliable system for evaluating the efficacy of the scheme”.

This sounds like a pretty devastating critique of a policy instigated by the woman who is now our Prime Minister – a policy that has been questioned not only by organisations concerned for the people who have to implement it and the people who will be affected by it, but by officials within the very department that dreamt it up and by the border force it is supposed to help.
Yet from the day it was first mooted to the ruling on Friday, coverage in our national newspapers has been at best sporadic and at worst non-existent.
Hardly anyone listed the four litigants in the court case - the JCWI, Liberty, the Residential Landlords Association and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. And none bothered to explain what these organisations were, who they represented and who served on them - not even The Guardian, which named the JCWI as one of five beneficiaries of its 2018 Christmas appeal because of the work it had done to help Windrush victims.
The Mail’s Guy Adams did have a pop at the committee in August 2015; not in the context of Right to Rent stories, but as one of a handful of charities “using YOUR money to sabotage all efforts to rein back immigration”.

The key claimant in this case – JCWI – was a charity with a staff of fewer than 20 and an annual income of well under £1m. It took on the Government on behalf of vulnerable people and won.
But even the David v Goliath element was apparently not interesting enough for our national newspapers.
Of course Chris Grayling’s failings and Brexit are going to be hard to shift from the front pages. Of course, people care more on a Saturday about the cost of their holiday or the weather or Prince Harry.
But shouldn’t they at least be told when the Government is acting illegally?


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Paperchase, the papers and a question of bullying

This is an inordinately long post. I'm sorry if it's indigestible. Thank you for your thoughts on how to deal with this. I've now tried moving some bits to the end as "asides" - and attempted superscript! I hope this makes it better, even though it's still long.

“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 Mail. 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).

The Newsnight interview

Sarah Baxter and Richard Wilson on Newsnight

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.”

The Mail reaction

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, berating a “tiny motley bunch of leftwing Twitter warriors, rabid Corbynistas and Remainers” and their 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” when it was, in fact, 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 1 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.1

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 three-page Guy Adams blockbuster.

Someone called Rob had previously cautioned SFH 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.2

The storm grows

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 the campaign is being orchestrated by  a bunch of remoaning lefties. Wilson says the movement has supporters from all political parties -  which seems to be born out by the people posting on the FB page -  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 kept to a minimum. 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” naive businesses (so na├»ve that they have shops on every high street) and threaten the foundations of freedom and democracy.

Baxter may have misheard when Wilson told Emily Maitlis on Newsnight that his end purpose was “the media we all want” - the "all" was spoken quietly and, of course, "the media we want” is something entirely different. That was certainly how the Mail, Sun and others interpreted his words, 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.

What's the campaign all about?

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’s 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.
The Sun has just been cleared by the regulator over a column that referred to “The Muslim Problem”. The same regulator said it was all right for Katie Hopkins to describe refugees as cockroaches, for Kelvin MacKenzie to protest about a newsreader in a hijab.

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”, “Catholic”, “Englishman”, “Straight” or "Male".
Reputable institutions at home and internationally have repeatedly criticised British newspapers for this sort of 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 that 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.

Getting an alternative voice heard

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, consumer stories and fashion, the clever picture specials, horoscopes and puzzles – 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.

But it's censorship isn't it?

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.
So it is asking advertisers 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 discredited 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 threatening democracy? It’s nonsense.
Except there are more of them that that. The group has nearly a quarter of a million Facebook followers and 80,000 on Twitter.

Even with that many supporters, Stop Funding Hate 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.

The Twitter trolls

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 a PR unused to this sort of thing, it can frighten you.” That, she thinks, is why Paperchase capitulated.

The trolls are now out for the SFH ‘fascists’ too, with the police investigating threats of violence against some of the team.Those threats 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.”

Do newspapers still matter?

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 that the immigration coverage had no impact, and certainly not on the vote for Brexit, because “people don’t read these papers”. 
 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” - the fat-cat energy companies, the supermarkets, the banks – have tens of millions more customers. But do politicians court their approval? Do their leaders get invited to one-on-one private dinners at Downing Street? Do they have the ear of ministers? Does the Prime Minister go to their long-service parties?
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”. Rupert Murdoch has his “good man” Michael Gove at the heart of Government, if not in No 10 where he wanted him.

Our newspapers punch way above their weight when it comes to political influence and the way the country is run. Why are they so afraid of a little protest group they could just ignore?
The Mail and Sun do some great journalism with panache and flair. They invest in it where others are slicing editorial budgets beyond the bone to the marrow. 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. 
Swift to accuse others of arrogance, they are so convinced of their infallibility - or afraid to show weakness - that they refuse to listen to critics or to concede they may occasionally get it wrong. Instead of stopping for a moment to consider whether they might be able to up their game, they come over all self-righteous: “We take lessons from no-one. We are answerable only to our readers.” Readers who are haemorrhaging away by the thousand every month.

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? 4


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, I was taught that if you didn’t put quotes around a statement without an attribution, it became the view of the paper. Quote marks are shunned – banned even from splash headlines – these days, and there is an attribution in the strapline. But the choice of words for the lead heading is a good indication of what the paper is thinking; just imagine what it would be if Corbyn urged people not to shop at Tesco.

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?

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.

The Times leader "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?" was about the jail sentence imposed on Mick Jagger in 1967 for a drugs offence. The headline was taken from a poem by Alexander Pope, questioning the use of torture (the catherine wheel) to punish a misdemeanour.

And finally...SubScribe shares Stop Funding Hate's concern about the tone of the public discourse and the growing stridency of our newspapers - the Telegraph's "Brexit mutineers" suggests it has now become the norm, even in the quality Press.  This blog wishes there were greater responsibility and admires SFH for taking action to try to improve the situation. It does, however, have doubts about whether targeting advertisers is the right way to do it. There are real dangers in advertisers seeking to influence editorial and SFH is trying to dance on a pin. SubScribe only wishes it had an answer. 
(And yes, I'm a Remoaner, but not a Corbynista. More Blairite - which means hated by all sides.)