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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?



Postscript:


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.

Friday, 17 March 2017

British Press pays homage to Emperor Dacre


Daily Mail covers itself in glory
The Daily Mail covers itself in glory

It's nice to win prizes. We may say they don't matter, that they're not the reason we do whatever we do, but a bit of recognition is always welcome.
Last Tuesday, The New European was presented with the Chairman's Award at the British Press Awards. Newspapers cannot "enter" this category, the prize is in the gift of the judges and is awarded only when they want to honour something special (though they do manage to find a winner most years).
As an occasional contributor to The New European, I was delighted by their decision - as was my Twitter feed. This, of course, is the Twitter feed of a snowflake Remainer. Those who move in other social media circles will have been less enthused. Michael Gove was among them, tweeting:

Well, for a start, Michael, the Press awards are open only to national newspapers (although the London Evening Standard is also allowed in) and the two publications you mention are periodicals.
And for what reason? Because it was innovative. Because editor Matt Kelly was astonishingly quick off the mark in identifying a potential market, astonishingly quick in getting the first issue on to the news stands, and astonishingly quick in securing the services of far better writers and bigger names than this blogger to move things along.
In a year that had seen the birth and death of The New Day, here was a print success story to celebrate. The Trinity Mirror group, with all its resources, managed to keep its baby alive for only three months. Archant, a far smaller local newspaper group, did not expect its little one to survive for more than a few weeks, yet it's now a strapping seven-month-old showing every sign of reaching at least one birthday. It is very good at what it does.

Matt Kelly
Matt Kelly of The New European

Once Kelly had left the stage with his trophy, having had a pop at Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and a slightly ungracious joke about coming back next year for the Cudlipp "prize we really wanted", it was time for the big one - the "best picture" of the Press industry's Oscars. This is what the judges had to say:




In the seismic year of Brexit, the battle for No.10 and campaigning journalism, the winner had its finger on the pulse of the national conversation. Not only did it shape both the agenda and the narrative, it reflected the temper of a large part of the country in a year of political upheaval. It was a must-read across the political and public spectrum and its strong and provocative voice never wavered.
From crusading reports on press freedom to Brexit, the Sepsis scandal, the madness of drivers using mobile phones, wasteful foreign aid spending, betrayal of Afghan interpreters, the harm caused by ‘plastic poison’ and the battle to end the witch-hunt against British troops, the conviction of this paper’s commentary and campaigning in 2016 was only matched by its energy. It is also never afraid to have a strong opinion.
It is the job of a newspaper to hold power to account and to forensically question and probe those who act in our name.
The decision of the judges was that it dominated the narrative and produced agenda-setting and stand-out coverage in 2016.
The Newspaper of the Year for 2016 is the Daily Mail.

 Dacre was there to collect the award and make a brief acceptance speech commending his "brillliant" journalists and an industry which had "still got a hell of a life in it", before compere Nick Ferrari ordered everyone to the bar.

SubScribe, watching the event on a streaming service, certainly felt in need of a drink. A paper that bends and distorts facts to its will; a paper whose stock in trade is to invite readers to hate or mock people trying to go about their daily lives; a paper so cocksure that it deliberately sets out to make its core readership of middle-class women feel guilty or inadequate. This was what the newspaper industry held to be the shining example of our trade?

Many journalist colleagues, mostly of the broadsheet persuasion, were equally perplexed. As one said:


How the pernicious, mendacious, xenophobic Daily Mail, a publication that produces disgraceful front-page headlines like 'Enemies of the People', won Newspaper of the Year in last night's British Press Awards is quite beyond me.
Others, mostly of the pop persuasion, came back to argue that - unlike most news organisations these days - the Mail invested in journalism, paid people decently, understood its readers, and actually exercised a great deal of rigour in making sure that what it printed was right. As SubScribe has frequently pointed out, accuracy is not the same as truth or balance, but diligence in making sure that you can defend what you say is a start.

Nobody would deny that the Mail is the most polished newspaper to come out of what used to be Fleet Street. It - or rather Dacre - does have the knack of knowing exactly what will strike a chord, which battles to fight, which stories will amuse. From conjuring up imaginative picture spreads out of nothing  to telling the Government what to do, it does everything it does better than anyone else.
Look back at the citation and its list of campaigns. Brexit? The Telegraph, Express and Sun all campaigned every bit as vigorously. Mobile phones? The Sun was there first. Foreign aid? The Times and the Express have been there, done that. Afghan interpreters? Ditto. And so it goes on. But no one campaigns quite like the Mail,  and it certainly achieves results - most notably, in SubScribe's opinion, on charity cold-calling.

Daily Mail 16-03-17

Only this week it was claiming victory - by applauding its readers' contributions to the defence fighting fund - in the battle to get Marine Alexander Blackman's murder conviction overturned. Blackman had, the paper said, been hung out to dry by top brass. It was to be hoped that no other soldier would be charged with murder for a battlefield killing.
Blackman was the first serving soldier to be found guilty of murder on active service after shooting a dying Taleban insurgent. Video footage taken from helmet cameras provided evidence that he knew exactly what he was doing and that he knew it was wrong. He even said: "I've just broke the Geneva Convention."
We can only speculate on how the Mail might have reported the case had the roles been reversed and it been a British soldier on the ground with an Afghani standing over him, gun in hand. What we do know is that when Blackman was first convicted by a court martial, the Mail endorsed the murder charge it later denounced, writing in a leader that nothing excused or justified the sergeant's actions:




The Army - which has such an admirably proud record of treating detainees with humanity and respect - had no option but to bring a prosecution against him for murder.
His conviction yesterday, while deeply saddening, affirms Britain's unyielding commitment to the Geneva Convention - no matter how grievously our soldiers are provoked.

As time goes on, more information comes to light, understanding of the complexities of a situation grows, views may change. It is not, perhaps, unreasonable for the Mail to adjust its stance in such circumstances. The same might be said about its attitude to child refugees - a call for compassion last April to leader column silence on the ending of the Dubs scheme last month. Maybe people were taking advantage, maybe there were better ways to help.

The thing is, though, that while the Mail allows itself to reverse ferret (and is punctilious in admitting as much when its new opinion runs counter to its prevailing argument), anyone else who does so is a hypocrite to be reminded of what they said earlier.

This "one rule for us, another for the rest of the world" attitude is pervasive, but was most sharply in focus during the referendum campaign and its aftermath. The Mail's coverage was relentlessly one-sided - as was its right, as an independent newspaper - but it had a constant eye out in case anyone or any organisation that "ought" to be impartial strayed towards the Remain side of the argument. The BBC, always a target (publicly-funded, unfair competition) was commended for its "surprising balance" - which meant that any time someone said something that might help the Remain cause, someone else had to put forward a Leave counter-argument. Since there were lies told on both sides, this may have been balanced, but it was far from informative.
So it was, too, with the Governor of the Bank of England, the IMF, the CBI, the Treasury, even the head of the NHS: all should have taken a vow of silence while the Mail should be free to say whatever it liked.
Once the battle had been won, it was the "will of the people" - as interpreted by the Daily Mail - that should hold sway over unelected Eurocrats and judges. Oddly, it seems the unelected editor of the Daily Mail and the unelected Prime Minister should also hold sway over elected MPs.
Mail 04-11-16

Freedom of speech is a vital democratic right for a free Press that "holds those in power to account", Freedom of speech for those who hold a different view from the Mail - celebrities with opinions on refugees, in particular - is another matter. They can, of course, say what they like, but they'll be pilloried for it. And if they suffer because trolls and stalkers have been worked up into a lather by intemperate columnists, well, the Mail doesn't condone such behaviour - but nor will it take responsibility for it.

These are the sorts of things that make people dislike the Mail and make some journalists uneasy about the honour bestowed on it last Tuesday.
 About a million and a half people buy the paper every day, ten times as many look at its website. But that leaves some 50 million who don't. The vast majority of those will be ambivalent about the Mail; many thousands actively detest it - but how many of those ever look at it? I don't care for East Enders, but I don't watch it. I've made my decision on the basis of what little I've seen and heard about it. Hardly an informed judgment. The same could be said of the non-reading Mail haters.
The only real evidence we have is those people who do buy the paper and stick with it. Paul Dacre is clearly giving them something they like - or at least tolerate.

So by what measure should we be judging which newspaper is most deserving of prizes? The quality of the journalism? And how would you assess that? By the amount of effort that goes into it? Its readibility? Its relevance to its audience? The impact it makes? Its business model and ethos? Its politics? If papers are free to campaign for justice for poppy sellers, are they not also free to campaign to secure the election of the political party they favour?
We like to say they have a duty to inform, to present facts, but most "facts" are subject to interpretation. There are experts in every field with differing opinions; there is no absolute truth.
Where many of us take issue with the Mail - and also with the Express and Telegraph, though they are not under discussion here - is its ability to play down or even ignore inconvenient facts. But aren't the Guardian and the Mirror just as partisan on issues close to their hearts?
 Interestingly, it seems that the Mail's closest rival for the crown this year was the i - the paper that tries hardest to be impartial, but which just doesn't have the same confident swagger.

Maybe it all comes down to that swagger: to the lesser children in the playground sucking up to the classroom bully. More likely it is simple admiration for someone who has come up with a viable commercial model in a declining industry.
If so, the same could be said for The New European. A hat was tipped to its "brilliant roll call of contributors", but the prize was really for its "unusual success - the counter-intuitive story of a new print launch in a digital age". Like the dog walking on its hind legs, the accolade was not so much for the excellence of its journalism as for the fact that it existed at all.
Those of us who admire The New European and sometimes despair of the Mail would do well to remember that both are partisan, opinionated papers with a direct connection to a dedicated readership.
The Mail is mean and shouty and cruel. It is not a good role model for budding journalists or students of ethics. It is certainly not a good advertisement for responsible, compassionate journalism.
But, yes, after an initial gasp of dismay, SubScribe suspects that by most measures, the Mail probably was THE newspaper of 2016 - rather as it was inescapable that Time would name Trump its person of the year. It virtually governs the country, for heaven's sake.
So as the Emperor Dacre was duly crowned, plenty in the crowd were cheering.
But there are many more of us on the sidelines muttering about his clothes.

Paul  Dacre
Emperor Dacre accepts his due

*Photographs from The Society of Editors