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Saturday, 15 April 2017

Kelvin MacKenzie the fall guy?

Kelvin Mackenzie column 14-04-17

How did it get in the paper? And on this Hillsborough anniversary weekend?

1: Because, after the Ipso rulings on cockroaches and hijabs, the Sun believes that it can be as obnoxious as it pleases?
2: Because no sub or backbencher dares question star columnists?
3: Because there are no subs left?
4: Because comparing a man to a gorilla is a mild insult by Mackenzie's standards?
5: Because no one in Liverpool reads the Sun, so they wouldn't notice?
6: Because the editor is incompetent?

Why has Mackenzie been suspended?

1: Because he wrote something offensive?
2: Because the Merseyside police are investigating something that he wrote?
3: Because the Mayor of Liverpool objected to something he wrote?
4: Because of the Sky takeover bid?

Last July, Kelvin MacKenzie managed to insult an entire religion with a few ill-chosen words. More than 800 people complained to Ipso after he criticised Channel 4 for allowing Fatima Manji to appear on screen in a hijab in reporting the terrorist murders in Nice.
Did The Sun or News UK retract? Not a bit of it. The article was cleared as "fair comment" by the regulator's complaints committee, Mackenzie crowed about his victory, and Trevor Kavanagh - who sits on the Ipso board - injudiciously weighed in with another pop at Manji in his Monday column.

Last Friday, MacKenzie managed to insult an entire city with a few ill-chosen words. Hundreds of people complained on Twitter after he likened the Everton footballer Ross Barkley to a gorilla and said that drug dealers were the only people in Liverpool to earn his sort of salary.
This time the Sun's initial bullish response that its columnists were known for their robust opinions was swiftly overtaken by a statement from parent company News UK saying that MacKenzie had been suspended over his "wrong and unfunny column". As in the past, it also noted that the columnist's opinion did not reflect the "view of the paper".

Ross Barkley note

Which brings us to the first question: how did such a piece get into print?
Did no one look at it?
Of course they did. But tinkering with top writers' copy tends to be a dangerous strategy on virtually any title (Giles Coren wrecked a Times sub's career over a two-letter word), and Sun subs are probably inured to MacKenzie's personal offensiveness.
An insider says that the procedure for Mackenzie's golden prose is for it to be sent to both features and news backbenches (features to get it into the paper, news for cross-reference purposes). It is then subbed, revised on the middle bench and lawyered before returning to the backbench for the final revise. The editor sees the column at the beginning and end of this process.

Unlike the attack on Manji, MacKenzie's note was not overtly racist. Could he have been expected to know that Barkley's grandfather was born in Nigeria? Even if he did, he didn't allude to his race at all; he was simply rude about the footballer, questioning his looks and his intelligence. And being rude about people's appearance and intellect is stock in trade for tabloid columnists (take a bow, Sarah Vine). Editors believe that is what sells papers.
Nor was there anything particularly nasty about the page layout, matching two pairs of eyes in line with the start of the piece. (The web version was far more egregious, with picture researchers digging out a photograph of Barkley in "gorilla" pose with a side-splittingly witty "missing link" caption.)

Online version of Mackenzie comment

The real problem was not that he insulted Barkley, but that he insulted the whole of Liverpool. Again.

Can there be anyone on the paper who doesn't understand the problems involved in even straight reporting of the city, let alone the perils of publishing a gratuitous - and demonstrably unjustified - swipe at its people?
Why did no one in the extensive chain of command question it? Well, in spite of all the executive assessment of the material, it is entirely possible that the first person to read the column properly was the sub.  They may have just ticked it up without thinking - if the paper can traduce all Muslims and all migrants with impunity, why not all Liverpudlians?
Or they may have dared to ask someone higher up: "Do we think this is ok?" and been told to get on with it and stop asking awkward questions.

And where in all this was Tony Gallagher? Editors may not read every word in their papers (though Andrew Neil did at the multi-supplemented Sunday Times), but any editor worth his salt makes sure that he sees certain pages: the leader, the splash, the big columns. With a loose cannon like MacKenzie on the staff, Gallagher would be a fool not to keep a close watch on what he was writing, even when on holiday - which he may well have been, given that it's Easter.
(Remember Rebekah Brooks's phone hacking trial testimony about how she kept tabs on what was going in the paper while she was away? Every editor I have ever worked for has been exactly the same. Control freakery is part of the job description.)
So Gallagher was either negligent in not checking on his columnist or incompetent in not recognising that the note was beyond the pale.
Unless he wanted rid of the man occupying a rather splendid top-floor office at the Baby Shard, courtesy of his friend Rebekah, and deliberately allowed him the rope to hang himself. But that would be a dangerous strategy, since whatever any contributor writes, it is the editor's choice - or judgment - whether to publish and, if it comes to it, be damned. It is, after all, the editor, not the reporter, who carries the can when a libellous story appears in print.

Which brings us to the second question: why the suspension and the statement disowning MacKenzie as though no one else had anything to do with publishing the offending article?

The Sun page 2, 15-04-17

The News UK statement, reported on page 2 of the Sun on Saturday, says that the matter will be "fully investigated" when MacKenzie returns from holiday, but what is there to be investigated that requires his return? Imagine the conversation:

"Why did you write such a horrible piece?"
"Because that's what you pay me for."
"But it was really nasty."
"So why did you put it in the paper? Writers write, editors are supposed to edit. I didn't choose that gorilla picture on the website."

News UK knows that the Sun will never be accepted in Liverpool. The suspension and apology will change nothing. A paper that has made clear its scepticism about "race crime" incidents  is unlikely to have been influenced by the mayor's complaint or a police investigation. Brazening it out is always the default position in the face of such challenges.

Except that, just at the moment, it is important for its parent company to be seen as a responsible news organisation. The O'Reilly furore at Fox News in America and Europe questioning Murdoch's suitability to take full control of the TV network he founded are making life quite difficult enough, thank you.
It is hard not to conclude that, just as an entire newspaper and its staff were sacrificed in a doomed attempt to save the Sky takeover after the hacking scandal in 2011, this time it is MacKenzie who is being tossed to the wolves.

Welcome to the post-Truth world, Kelvin.

The Sun's Hillsborough slur

PS: News UK may have suspended MacKenzie, but it still ran a full-page ad for his comparison website in Sunday's paper.

A Spokesman Said advert 16-04-17

A Spokesman Said website
The advertisement in Sunday's paper, left, and the
"about us" page  of the A Spokesman Said website

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Press v Google - or pots v kettles

Google front pages March 2017

You could almost touch the schadenfreude as big-name advertisers walked away from YouTube after finding themselves appearing alongside extremists.
 "At last!" proclaimed a Daily Mail leader hailing the "fightback against web anarchy". Google (which owns YouTube) rightly stood accused of profiting from hatred, it said:

Day after day, the already deeply tarnished reputations of the filth-peddling, tax-dodging terror-abetting internet behemoths sink lower into the mire.
For many years, Google, Facebook and Twitter had wilfully turned a blind eye to poisonous content, it continued. But now the day of reckoning had arrived. The BBC and Whitehall had pulled their ads. And when banks, supermarkets and Marks & Spencer joined the exodus, there was more from Dominic Lawson on the "utter shamelessness of the filth-peddling web giants".

For The Times, which set the ball rolling with an investigation by Alexi Mostrous, this was the "shaming of Google", which should now face up to its responsibilities. The alternative was "an unacceptable role as an accessory to barbarism".

The Mail and the Murdoch stable hate the internet giants because they think they are stealing their revenue and readers. Having had the field to themselves for more than 200 years, newspapers resent the interlopers. Free marketeers all, they just can't stand competition. It's the same as their gripes against the BBC (publicly funded left-wing propaganda - just look at that anti-Brexit Countryfile with the farmer saying he'd go under without migrant fruit pickers) but writ larger.
Essentially, their cry is "It's not fair!"

Murdoch titles dominate the British print media and his Sky channels dominate the satellite television market. The Sun and Times reach 31 million people a month, according to the National Readership Survey, and figures from the British Audience Research Bureau suggest that the Sky channels between them achieved a total audience of about 8 million last week. The Mail is the most successful news website in the world and its print and online offerings now reach 29 million a month. But they want more.

Murdoch not only wants full control of Sky, but he wants the opposition nobbled. Having moved into BT's world of telephones, he started complaining - through his newspapers - that it was anti-competitive for BT to have control of the cabling. And when a deal was reached with Ofcom for Openreach to be hived off as a separate company under the same umbrella, that still wasn't enough. He wants an enforced sale.
The "respectable" argument is that BT is failing to invest enough in improving broadband speeds - a view that SubScribe wholeheartedly endorses - but it's hard not to notice that BT Sport has been outbidding Sky for key football rights.

The fight with Google goes back even further, with Murdoch threatening in 2009 to remove his newspapers' content from the search engine in a row over free access. That was followed in 2014 by News Corp's appeal to the much-derided European Commission for action to combat what it called "a platform for piracy". Then came the furore over tax in January last year. Mostrous, who had been honoured for his work on celebrity tax avoidance in 2015, was again on duty for The Times, showing how little tax Google paid and how the Government had failed to get as much as other European countries out of the company.
It was a legitimate investigation - if a bit rich from a paper whose parent company had previously managed to pay not a penny of UK corporation tax on billions of pounds of income over a period of 11 years.

The Times inside coverage

The latest assault is also a valid inquiry - the speed with which MPs and big businesses responded proves as much - and it has thrown up three distinct strands:
  • the content itself;
  • the algorithms that place advertisements alongside extremist videos;
  • the fact that money generated by the ads goes to the video makers and so funds extremism
One of the biggest beefs of the Mail and the Sun is that the internet is not regulated. British newspapers, they say, are subject to the toughest regulatory system in the world. They invest money in journalism and strive for accuracy, but their very existence is being imperilled by people like Gary Lineker who can reach millions with a tweet that turns out to be misinformed. And don't get them started on fake news. (Well, actually, they’ve already started with the News Media Association’s submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry saying there should be a government investigation into Facebook and Google – but “don’t bring in any new rules for us”).

The Mail warmed to that theme in its leader on Saturday, accusing the web giants of ruthlessly invading the privacy of their users by gathering and exploiting personal information, going on: "Meanwhile, endless fake news and blatant libels are spread with impunity around the world."
Impunity? They must have short memories in Kensington, for only days before the Mail Online's own columnist Katie Hopkins had to pay libel damages and costs over a tweet.

Mail Google coverage

For a technophobe who does not use a computer, Mail editor Paul Dacre seems remarkably well-informed about the "vile" material all over the web and its malign effects on society. His newspaper has run hundreds of stories on the subject and appears to be of the opinion that all such material – porn, fanaticism, body-shaming - should be removed. Yes, some of it is execrable, but wouldn’t that be censorship, an attack on free speech?

The advertisers seem more concerned about their good name than about removing content from the web. They don't want to be associated with inappropriate material. If Google cleans up its algorithms, they'll go back.
Then there's the notion that advertisers and their customers (and, in the case of Whitehall and the BBC, the taxpayer) are inadvertently funding hate because a proportion of the fees they pay ends up in the hands of the people producing the page on which their ad appears.
The papers say this adds up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Google says it is "pennies".
[SubScribe can attest to the fact that Google is not exactly generous in sharing the proceeds of web ads with the page producers, but then again SubScribe does not get millions of views, so please click on an ad or two!]

So the Mail could be said to be in favour of the ad boycott to force the removal of material that spreads hate and fear.

Wait a minute. Funding hate? Ad boycotts? Material that spreads hate and fear? Doesn't all that sound familiar?
For the past eight months a group called Stop Funding Hate has been trying to persuade household names not to advertise with the Mail, Sun and Express while they continue to run so many anti-immigration stories. It chose those three papers because they were called out by the UN for the tone of their coverage. The organisation - which has just raised more than  £100,000 through a crowd-funding appeal to expand its work - argues that it is not good for companies to be associated with such a material, that the newspapers are profiting from spreading hate and fear, and that by advertising with the newspapers, advertisers are effectively using their customers' money to fund those hate messages.
This is what the Mail had to say in a leader about that:

A more malicious threat comes from Left-wing campaigners who seek to blackmail firms into withdrawing advertising from newspapers with which they disagree.
Particular targets are those, like the Mail, which voice public concerns about mass unrestricted immigration and the wanton waste of taxpayers' money on overseas aid, while the elderly and vulnerable suffer at home.
But with fair-minded companies refusing to be bullied by groups such as Stop Funding Hate, this assault on free expression can also be overcome.
Thus far, only Lego and the Body Shop have shown tangible support for the SFH campaign. Most other advertisers, including some that have pulled away from Google, have responded along the lines that they have no say in what appears near their ads.
But their reaction to the Google "scandal" proves that they think they do - or at least that they do not want to be seen next to material that runs counter to their brand image. That is exactly the judgment SFH is asking them to make about the newspapers.

Let’s be clear:
  • It is censorship for campaigners to ask advertisers to influence the mindset - as opposed to the specific content - of newspapers.
  • It is not censorship for the Press to demand that Google removes material from its platforms.
  • It is not censorship for advertisers to seek to influence what appears on Google’s websites.
Come on! That’s obtuse! You know that a radical cleric who has been banned from the country preaching jihad is far more dangerous than a newspaper telling you that migrants take all new jobs - even if the 120pt splash caps heading and story are wrong. One is a threat to Western democracies, the other is an honest mistake made in the rush of getting important information across to readers who need to know. And newspapers own up and correct their errors (months later, in 8pt on page 2 or 32).

Of course it's all a question of scale. There are some really bad people on the web advocating some really nasty stuff. We can see how lives could be put at risk, so it's an easy call for M&S to say it doesn't want to be shown alongside real people with real guns and bombs (as opposed to the ones in Homeland).
It's harder to take a stand against a stream of prejudicial headlines, especially when those headlines are delivering the very Middle England readership it wants to talk to. But there is evidence from a number of respected sources, not simply lobbyists, that lives are being blighted - and possibly endangered - by some of things printed in our newspapers. A lot of blind eyes are being turned.

Richard Wilson, who set up SFH, is encouraged by this week's developments, saying:

We think it's brilliant that there is now a serious discussion about hate speech and about the responsibility of advertisers to acknowledge their role in it. Obviously this is a major concession from the previous position of insisting that any suggestion advertisers should consider these things was an abuse of free speech. Even the Mail now accepts that advertisers do have to think about this and act accordingly.

The Mail would naturally argue that that it does not print "hate speech". But here's a thing.  In listing obviously offensive and extremist videos from "terror groups, neo-Nazis and homophobes", the Mail reported:

An investigation by The Times found that the Home Office, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force all had advertising promotions placed beside video rants from 'shock-jock' Michael Savage, who infamously told one gay caller he should 'get Aids and die'.

The often-offensive Savage Nation podcasts pull no punches, but they come with a health warning of "adult content, adult language and psychological nudity", and they are sufficiently mainstream for the presenter to have been inducted into the radio hall of fame last November.
If it is reasonable for advertisers not to want to be associated with his output, what about the output of a woman (Katie Hopkins) who calls refugees cockroaches or a man (Kelvin MacKenzie) who thinks it's outrageous for a newsreader wearing a hijab to report on a terrorist attack  - both "vindicated" by the toughest newspaper regulator in the world?


In taking the Google story on from the Times's findings, the Mail also reported that Google, Facebook and Twitter had been "branded morally bankrupt for hosting thousands of images showing youngsters how to starve themselves or self-harm". It helpfully reproduced a photograph of a thin young woman. There is a real problem of mental health issues among teenagers and pro-anorexia sites exacerbate it. The Mail has written a fair bit about the tyranny of fashion and size zero models, but it would never do anything to make women worry about their body image, would it? This collection was taken from half - yes half - of yesterday's "sidebar of shame".

And one last thing:

The Mail also reported  concerns about Google's "political clout" and its "cosy relationship" with Whitehall, as evidenced by  figures showing that the company had at least 27 meetings with ministers in the 17 months after the 2015 election. There was also a "revolving door" that had seen at least 26 Whitehall staff hired by Google in the past decade.
Murdoch made a similar point in January last year, when he tweeted that Google was infiltrating Downing Street and the Obama White House.

Those Google meetings included one with David Cameron and another with Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. Over the same time period, executives of  News Corp held 20 meetings with senior government ministers, 18 of them with the Prime Minister, Chancellor or Culture Secretary. Murdoch attended seven. His chief executive, the former Times editor Robert Thomson, was at eight.

Pots and kettles.

SubScribe has analysed coverage of immigration and related issues over 2016. You can read about the front pages here and about the white-top inside pages here.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Sun piles on the agony for Lizzie Kelly

Last week Lizzie Kelly became the second woman to ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Her horse fell at the second fence.
It's the sort of story that would get decent coverage on the back  pages and a sentence or two in the news report of the race. It is, after all, one of those events that transcend the sports section.
The Sun found a better line, however. It could "reveal" that some intimate videos of Kelly had been leaked and had been doing the rounds during the festival.
A reasonable story. Except...
First the heading: "Girl jockey sex vid agony".
There is no evidence that Kelly was agonised. The Sun clearly hadn't spoken to her to gauge any reaction. Instead, it "believed" that she was aware of the leak - which "a source close to the jockey" said had been doing the rounds for a year. Nor could it be sure about her boyfriend: it "understood" that she had set up home with another jockey.
Then there's the photograph. If you want to illustrate a story about a woman apparently distressed by people ogling revealing pictures of herself, of course the best way to do it is to show her naked.
The portrait of Kelly on a horse simulator was taken by The Times's award-winning photographer Marc Aspland as one of a series of carefully posed nudes entitled "My Sporting Body". Other subjects included stars of  rugby, tennis, judo, weightlifting, swimming and golf. They can all be seen, with commentary, on The Times's website here (if you can get behind the paywall), where Aspland explains:  "From rugby players to Isle of Man TT riders, by stripping the athlete of their kit we were able to show how many years of hard work has given them the perfect physique for their sport."
The Sun report mentions the feature, but not the rationale.
We can be pretty sure that neither Kelly nor Aspland intended the photograph to be used as a "come on" to readers who might think that it was a still from a sex video. But, as The Times's sister paper, The Sun presumably didn't need to ask permission to print it.
Shoddy work.

On the same page, the Sun showed its class again with a photograph of a man in a recognisable pose by the wheel of a lorry. Oh those Cheltenham headline writers, such wags.