SubScribe: April 2016 Google+

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Hillsborough and why that Times blunder matters

The 96 Hillsborough victims

The Sun had no hope of getting it right. The Times got it spectacularly wrong. And then got it wrong again. And again.
There is now nothing anyone at London Bridge can do to heal the rift with Liverpool opened by that infamous Sun front page four days after the Hillsborough disaster 27 years ago.

With one bad decision, The Times has handcuffed itself to its pariah stablemate in a cell of opprobrium policed by the indignant righteous.
Rita Ora, a man shovelling snow, posh handbags, a couple of free theme park tickets, psychosomatic ailments: none of these was dispensable when it came to deciding where to put the Hillsborough inquest verdict.

Sun 27-04-16

What was the Sun to do? Give over the whole front page to the unlawful killing finding? If it had run a banner heading saying "We were wrong", it would have been thrown back in its face. If it had run a "Justice at last" head, it would have been accused of hypocrisy. If it had put any other element on the front alongside Hillsborough, it would have been accused of underplaying the story, of showing disrespect. So, knowing it was on a hiding to nothing, it took what it presumably saw as the least worst option and left it off altogether.
Which might have been a strategy of sorts had it a fantastic scoop to offer instead. A confected splash about the "scandal" of team Cameron's tactics to keep their "EU plot" secret  (excuse me, it's not a plot, it's government policy) doesn't cut it.
And Rita Ora? My guess from research for a forthcoming magazine article is that there are algorithms showing that Ms Ora's appearance on the front sells papers. But this wasn't the day to keep plugging this "did she-didn't she" nonsense about JayZ.
Bad decisions. To have any credibility as the country's best-selling paper, it should have gone all out on the inquest, apologised again for its past, then put on a tin helmet and waited for the flak.
times first edition 27-04-16

It was The Times, though, that really came a cropper.
How could my old paper make such a monumental error? 

First, let's try to understand what happened at The Times last night.
John Witherow is, by all accounts, a forceful editor who is not to be gainsaid. He was in the office yesterday, but left before the first edition went offstone to attend an awards function with Michael Heseltine and Peter Stothard's farewell on the 17th floor of the Baby Shard.

Also in the office yesterday was one newlywed media magnate.

That single fact and the absence of Hillsborough from either of his daily newspaper front pages would be more than enough for the anti-Rupert brigade. Let's all attack evil Murdoch and his lackey editors. For even if he didn't tell Witherow and Sun editor Tony Gallagher to bury the story, they might have been trying to please him. I can imagine him saying "**** 'em" as he riffled through the page proofs - but banishing the story from the Times front page? Unlikely.

One version of events is that Hillsborough was slated for a front-page slot throughout the day, but was inexplicably dropped by the executives left in charge when Witherow left. 
That's a little hard to credit for such a micro-managing editor. As one observer said: "John looks at the front in the middle of the Atlantic. He'd certainly monitor it from the 17th floor."
Another account says that one of those executives and the newsdesk argued consistently and in vain for the story, but that Witherow had ruled that he didn't want it on the front because it was "old news". Old news because it had been around since 11am or old news because the police cover-up had been rumbled years before? 
Whichever it was, Witherow - who hasn't responded to my inquiries on the matter - apparently gave the impression of truly believing that it was not worth the front. 

That was an extraordinary misjudgment for so experienced an editor and a most unfortunate call to get wrong. But every one of the dozen or so people who have contacted SubScribe about what happened last night was convinced that this was cock-up, not conspiracy (maybe the alternative was too awful to contemplate). 
As one said: "Everyone was outraged. Witherow was the only one thinking along those lines. It seems that there are too many sycophants at the top level around him."
Another said: "This is the inevitable outcome when an editor is too aggressive, too much of a bully. They can't be told anything and the backbench is too cowed to stand up to them."
A third respected Times writer rued the omission, but was of the opinion that broadsheet fronts didn't matter as much as tabloids and that "hopefully it will blow over". He pointed to "good coverage inside".

Hmm. The first mention of Hillsborough comes on page 12, behind mushroom scrumping in Epping Forest, a photograph of the actress Elizabeth Olsen and a new treetop walkway at Westonbirt.
That might supports the theory that a proper page one story was intended or further demonstrate Witherow's cavalier attitude to the subject. He dislikes football and reporter David Brown is said to have had a fight to be allowed to go to Warrington to cover the end of the inquest in person.

If you want to see good coverage, read David Conn in the Guardian.

times 2nd edition 27-04-16

So what made the paper change up? The Twitter storm that greeted publication of the first edition or protests from within? 
Henry Winter and Matt Dickinson are reported to have complained and Liverpool football correspondent Tony Barrett's "unbelievable" tweet is there for all to see. But a senior executive told me that the Guardian report of a sports desk mutiny was inaccurate and I believe him - not least because of his reluctance to say anything else.

Experience tells me that editors, having made a decision, are more likely to heed outsiders than staffers playing the same record, so I'm backing Twitter over Winter. But thank goodness for whatever it was that prompted the rethink.

This morning there were huddles in corners and distraught executives, but Witherow was reported to have told everyone to forget about it. Jessica Carsen, who looks after The Times's PR insisted that matters couldn't be left to fester. A statement was tweeted saying that a mistake had been made and been fixed.

That went down well.
"Fixed". What a choice of word!
A misspelt name can be fixed. An error of judgment can't. You can review what you've done and change your approach, but something that is fixed is put right. Who's to say that the change was adequate?

And then, rather than retreat quietly, The Times's social media team couldn't resist tweeting links to the good elements of the paper's Hillsborough coverage: the interactive biographies of the victims, Henry Winter's excellent essay. Was this part of the PR strategy? If so, it was flawed.

Carsen, who operates from the group managing editors' office under the title Director of Editorial Communications, tells SubScribe that this was the first time in her seven years with the company that such a statement had been issued and that the feedback, including from the staff, was that it was good that they had owned the mistake publicly.

Twitter didn't seem convinced and promptly emptied another hailstorm onto The Times, with the inevitable demands for contrition and apology. 

Twitter responds to Times statement

Everyone must say sorry publicly for every lapse, real or perceived, these days. It's nonsense, but you can't blame the Twitterati for chirruping along with that chorus, given the strident demands from various newspapers - though not generally The Times - for apologies from all and sundry.
Apologies are not required to clear the air, to allow all parties to shake hands and move on. They are required for humiliation; the offender must be seen to grovel.

The Sun, it may be remembered, grovelled in September 2012 - a quarter of a century late - when it was shown conclusively that it had swallowed a pack of lies from the police about the victims of the disaster. It ran a front-page heading saying "we are profoundly sorry for false reports" and inside it described its "The truth" front page as the blackest day in the paper's history.

It reproduced the offending front page and wrote:

It is to the eternal discredit of The Sun that we reported this misinformation [from the police] which tarnished the reputation of the Liverpool fans including the 96 victims.
Today we unreservedly apologise to the Hillsborough victims, their families, Liverpool supporters, the city of Liverpool and all our readers for this misjudgment.
The role of a newspaper is to uncover unjustice. To forensically examine the claims made by those who are in positions of power. In the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy we failed.
And by failing in our duty we heaped more misery on the families of those who lost their lives and the people of Liverpool. Nothing can excuse The Sun's page one presentation under the headline The Truth.
It was inaccurate, grossly insensitive and offensive. This version of events was NOT the truth...
A newspaper that prides itself on serving ordinary working people betrayed their trust 23 years ago.
The people of Liverpool may never forgive us for the injustice we did them.
All we can do is offer them an unreserved and heartfelt apology that is profound, sincere and unambiguous.
Much good did it do the paper or its staff, who were barred from yesterday's press conferences and subjected to further barrages of online abuse in retribution for the sins of others - sins committed when today's bunch were in nappies or at school. The reappearance of Kelvin McKenzie, the man who presided over that 1989 calumny, as a columnist has not helped any hopes of rehabilitation.

It is this background that makes the error of judgment at The Times the more serious.
Of all the things to get wrong.

Whether it was the editor himself or one of his two unfortunate lieutenants who blundered, an apology is in order. Not to the baying masses on social media (I confess that I both tweeted and posted on Facebook my horror at that first edition front), but to the staff.
To Tony Barrett, whose already difficult job covering Liverpool FC for the paper has been rendered almost impossible. Indeed, I believe he may have resigned.
To Andrew Norfolk, whose magnificent work exposing the failings of that same South Yorkshire police force not three decades but three years ago brought justice for the abused girls of Rotherham. (Talking of Norfolk, why wasn't he all over this story - or big gun Sean O'Neill or crime editor Fiona Hamilton?)
To all the reporters and subs and photographers who have been robbed of the pride they will have felt at seeing their paper improve and increase circulation while other titles lost their way.

How could such an apology be conveyed? In an email? In conference? At a meeting of all staff? Then what would happen? Someone would leak it to Private Eye - or the likes of me - and instead of being taken at face value, it would be ridiculed as The Sun's effort was four years ago.
We live in unhappy, churlish times. This was a bad mistake and there is no acceptable way to atone.

When I posted the first edition front page on Facebook, a friend asked "Does it matter? All papers have their own little oddities. The Telegraph and its advertisers, the Sun and Liverpool, the Mail and its hatred for anything that moves and breathes that isn't Paul Dacre..all of them and the BBC, most of them and the EU..."

front pages 13-09-12

Well, first of all it matters because Hillsborough matters.
Yesterday's events may, to some, appear to have added little to what we learnt from the independent panel whose report four years ago led to the Sun's belated mea culpa and the front pages above.

We knew then that police who are paid to protect us had killed some of us and then repaired to a drinking club to recover from the stress of the afternoon. There they cooked up lying smears of drunkenness and hooliganism to cover up their wrongdoing. As they were doing so, families of the victims were made to queue into the small hours outside a gymnasium for their turn to look at their loved ones in body bags. Not only that, senior officers went on to hoodwink politicians and journalists who were supposed to hold them to account. The details of this behaviour from members of the force that gave us the battle of Orgreave can't be repeated often enough.

But it didn't end there. Throughout this inquest, some persisted with their lies and deceit, putting the families through further anguish. Officers whose purpose in life is to uphold the law stood in a courtroom and lied on oath. But the jury saw through their lies and delivered verdicts that said: "You killed those people. Unlawfully."
It was a momentous judgment and vindication of the families' perseverance and common cause.

Second, it matters because that front page diminishes a great newspaper. It reinforces the impression that ordinary people in the North West don't matter to arrogant privileged media types in London, that the Establishment can still get away with anything.
It will be seen as further evidence that our Press is out of touch; that it has disintegrated to such an extent that it prefers to feed readers propaganda than to inform them.

Newspapers have always had their own agendas, but never before have editors been so blatant in shoving their opinions down people's throats - and in distorting or concealing inconvenient facts- as they do now.

Great journalism is still being done, but it's hidden on the foreign, oped and sports pages while the screaming fronts focus on Angelina Jolie and immigrants, turning off potential customers in their millions.

I don't want to see that happening to my industry and I especially don't want to see it happening at The Times. I don't believe it is happening there - or at least to anywhere near the same extent as elsewhere - but front pages like this morning's first edition tarnish its reputation.

times pages 66-67 27-04-16

It is a failing of people who have long since left the engine room to talk about how things were "in my day", but I can say with confidence that in previous eras, under the likes of Charlie Wilson, Peter Stothard, John Bryant and Ben Preston, a piece of writing with as much class and style as that produced by Henry Winter last night would not have been buried on page 66. They might have made it the splash. There would certainly, at the very least, have been a big display quote from the front to direct readers to his work. 
As a final example of why it all matters, I offer that here now:

The police froze, inhibiting the rescue operation. It was the Liverpool fans who were the heroes, leaning over from the tier above, pulling people to safety. It was Liverpool fans who were on the pitch, trying to resuscitate their friends. It was Liverpool fans who grabbed advertising hoardings to use as stretchers as the ambulance service reaction was insufficient. Yet it was the Liverpool fans whose reputation was besmirched by the police and The Sun, who wickedly alleged that supporters had misbehaved.
This strikes a particular chord with me because the Hillsborough image that I find most chilling does not involve penned fans begging for help or scrambling to safety, victims being given first aid or the anguished faces of relatives. It is of the string of police officers along the centre line, immobile in the face of carnage, still viewing the fans as hooligans, watching and doing nothing as people were dying before their very eyes.

Hillsborough 15-04-89

It all matters.

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Taking a stand against Mail Online's plagiarism

Update: The Mail has paid Fletcher's invoice "with no admission of liability" and removed the plagiarised article from its website. Perhaps the people featured at the foot of this post might care to take up the cudgels?

war graves stories
Spot the difference: Fletcher's story, posted at 1am and  McLelland's 6am version

"Their name liveth for evermore," the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow.  The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should be forever England, yet patently is anything but.

So begins an exclusive article by Martin Fletcher for The Times about the desecration and neglect of war graves in Iraq. It was published on the newspaper's website at 1am yesterday.
Fletcher, a former Times staffer who is now freelance, went to Iraq under his own steam, paying his way, organising his own transport, finding his own contacts, taking all the risks inherent in visiting that part of the world.

By an extraordinary coincidence, the Mail seems to have been working on the same story. For five hours later a piece appeared on its website containing this as the second sentence:
Despite being etched with the immortal line: 'Their name liveth for evermore', the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.
It came from the pen of  Euan McLelland, who actually filed his copy at 4.02am, shortly after completing a story about the importance of teaching children phonics and as he prepared to report on outrage over plans to allow a police killer outings from jail.
Apart from writing for the Mail, McLelland has a personal website on which he describes himself as a "driven proactive and reliable multimedia reporter". At 28, he is proud of his journalistic record thus far and says his job requires him to "consistently deliver hard-hitting and breaking news stories as they happen to a global audience".
It certainly keeps him busy. His night shift on Sunday also involved writing about garlic that doesn't give you bad breath, an interview with Lee Rigby's mother, insight on SAS plans to attack ISIS and an update on the junior doctors' dispute.

Edgar Cookson VC
Edgar Cookson VC

With such a workload, it is impressive that McLelland managed to research the background to one of the war heroes buried in the neglected cemetery - Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Cookson, above, who was awarded the VC after being killed, aged 31, while trying to clear  a river blockage in September 1915. 

Unfortunately, McLelland rendered Cookson's first name as Edward and got his age wrong, but mistakes do creep in when you're working under pressure.

The rest of his story bore a striking resemblance to that published on The Times website. 
Here's Fletcher: 
More than 4,600 soldiers killed in Iraq during the First World War, three of them winners of the Victoria Cross, are buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in the southern city of Amara, but you would never know it. A century after they died for their country, their resting place is an unsightly expanse of mud, weeds and uncut grass the size of four or five football pitches.
And here's McLelland:
The war graves of almost 3,000 British troops killed in Iraq during the First World War have been left in such a state of disrepair that the entire site has been transformed into football pitches...
Fletcher again:
The smashed remains of the traditional Cross of Sacrifice are piled in the middle. Plaques naming the dead have fallen off the commemorative wall.The headstones were mostly removed in the 1930s because they were crumbling in the saline soil, but the gravemarkers, gatehouse, date palms and many of the perimeter railings have all disappeared. 
And McLelland:
Most of the headstones were removed in the 1930s after they crumbled in the heat, leaving behind plaques, gravemarkers and several stone memorials.However, they too have now gone - leaving the cemetery a weed-peppered mud heap.
Still, this cemetery has fared better than the adjacent graveyard for 5,000 Indian soldiers who died beside their British counterparts. That has been commandeered by the Maysan Funfair with its merry-go-rounds and giant ferris wheel, and by the construction company that built it.
An neighbouring graveyard for Indian soldiers who died alongside the British has fared worse.With almost all of its memorials now gone, a funfair now operates on the formerly serene plot. 
Fletcher also notes that another cemetery in Basra was not only the size of four or five football pitches - but was actually being used as such:
It has also fared better than the British and Indian war cemeteries in Basra, 100 miles further south. The former really has become four of five football pitches, replete with goalposts. Hordes of boys now play on the graves of 2,906 British soldiers, including one VC winner.
McLelland must have lost his bearings whizzing about Iraq between his other assignments on Sunday night, because he writes this of Amara:
Worst of all, goalposts now mark as many as five football pitches on the once sacred ground, meaning scores of locals are now enjoying a kickabout on the final resting places of thousands of British war heroes.
Silly me! Of course he wasn't there at all. For he acknowledges his source when quoting a woman mentioned in Fletcher's report:
Barbara Heyburn, from Ashford, Kent, lamented the state of the cemetery - in which her grandfather is buried. She told The Times: 'Those soldiers didn't choose to go to war. They were told to.'They ended up losing their lives and nobody remembers them.'
Notice the hyperlink to The Times. That's there in the text. As is another at the foot of the piece:
Read more:
None of this will surprise seasoned Mail Online watchers, but that doesn't make it acceptable. Fletcher was so irritated to see his copy not only plagiarised but mangled and rendered inaccurate under someone else's name that he sent an invoice to Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke with this covering letter:

Dear Mr Clarke,
Please find attached an invoice for the article that appeared on Mail online today (April 25) entitled:
Thousands of war graves in Iraq marking soldiers killed in the First World War become site for football pitches and a fairground after being left to crumble
Although this appeared under the by-line of someone called Euan McClelland you will see that it is based almost entirely on an article by me that appeared in The Times the same morning - same story, same quotes, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors:…/britains-war-graves-left-dusty-…I hardly think the perfunctory nod to The Times deep in the story justifies your plagiarism. In any other profession this would be called theft - theft of my story, of the research I financed, of all the time and energy I put into my journey to and around Iraq.

When Clarke had not responded after 24 hours, Fletcher sent a further letter to McLelland this morning:

Good morning, Euan.
I'd like to know whether you are intending to pay me for the use/theft of my exclusive story on British cemeteries in Iraq by Mail online yesterday?
I am a freelance journalist. I paid my way to Iraq. I did the research. I put in the time and energy. I took the risks of visiting that unstable country. How dare you steal my work and pass it off as your own? How can you possibly describe yourself on your website as a "driven, proactive and reliable young media reporter". Are you completely without shame or pride?
I sent an invoice to your publisher, Martin Clarke, yesterday, but he has not had the decency to reply (why am I surprised?). So I am sending it again - this time to you.
I look forward to your reply,

Will his letters bear fruit? Others have shamed the Mail into paying up, but nothing seems to change. Clarke, overseeing the world's most successful website, appears bombproof.
The Australian sued for plagiarism two years ago and ended up reaching an undisclosed settlement with Clarke.
This time last year Jim King wrote a piece for Gawker entitled "My year of ripping off the web with Mail Online" describing his experiences working under Clarke in America. SubScribe readers responded to that with their own tales of life under the Clarke regime in New York. All water off a duck's back.

Examples of the Mail's kleptomania abound:

In August 2014 when Isis drove the Yazidis up Mount Sinjar, the only journalist with them on the mountain was Jonathan Krohn, who was filing for the Sunday Telegraph. His copy went up in full on that paper's website and was then subsumed into a wider story for the print splash. It also appeared in the next day's Daily Mail, complete with picture byline.  Krohn told SubScribe at the time that he hadn't authorised the Mail to use his work - although they had tried to contact him by text and email when he was out of signal.
He fired off a legal letter and the Mail settled out of court. So he is living proof that the organisation knows that it can't steal copy with impunity. How many journalists who have had their work ripped off realise that?

Fletcher's Facebook post on his tussle over the war graves brought a clutch of sympathy tales from other correspondents - and some stirrings that might just lead to a legal challenge in this country.
One photographer offered the name of an intellectual property lawyer and Leo Lewis suggested one possible avenue:
The UK introduced something akin to the US style class action suit last october, intended mainly, from my shallow understanding, to allow for large consumer groups to pursue price fixing claims etc. An ambitious lawyer could easily see all the foreign corrs that have been ripped off by this despicable practice (it happened regularly to me and other colleagues when I was in China) as a single class of plaintiffs. There really is so much about IP theft that goes unpunished and unremarked upon, or worse, simply viewed as an inevitable feature of the new normal.
Simon de Bruxelles had another thought:

The fact your Times article is behind the Paywall means it was not in general circulation on the internet. I assume you could have sold it or versions of it to several different publications at their usual rates and that having it available to everyone on the MailOnline could mean they are no longer interested or would pay significantly less.
I would take this to the small claims court. Bill the Mail the maximum you could have anticipated in terms of syndication and secondary deals with photographs and/or video. I would also claim your expenses as though you had gone there to do the story for the Mail. I assume this could amount to quite a tidy sum of money. 
 It would then be up to the Mail Online to defend your claim and argue why they thought it was okay to appropriate someone else's work from behind a subscription site and place it in the public domain, thereby depriving them of the product of their labour.
Others cheered from the sidelines:
This kind of theft would not be tolerated or allowed in any other industry. And the tragedy is that it all goes back to giving away copy online for free. by devaluing their own work to zero newspapers have signaled that it can be taken for nothing. Onion farmers don't give away their onions to create a market for onions. 
Well done Martin. They do this stuff frequently. It's not called the Daily Fail for nothing and I would keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response 
Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft? It seems mean to pummel the hapless McLelland, who is probably being paid fourpence three-farthings to churn other people's copy while most of the world is fast asleep, but let's start with his output for yesterday morning, which included a couple of exclusives, a serialisation that would have cost the Mirror money and and Oped piece that Michael Gove was probably happy to see disseminated outside the Times paywall:

Euan McLelland's workload

British special forces troops set to launch double attack on ISIS in Iraq and Libya within weeks after teaming up with French and US counterparts
A well-placed military source told The Mirror: 'Our people have been at the forefront in dismantling IS across northern Iraq and Syria and are already preparing the ground for the battle to recapture Mosul.'
Read more:
Original author: Chris Hughes

 Fury after killer given five life sentences after stabbing policeman to death during triple murder spree is allowed supervised outings from prison
Sgt King's widow Monica told The Sun: 'It's disgusting.'The 65-year-old added that her husband's killer was 'pure evil'. 
Read more:
Original author: Mike Sullivan

Teaching children to read using phonics has 'significant benefits' in helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds or who have English as a second language
A DfE spokesperson told The Guardian: 'Our latest phonics screening check on six-year-olds showed that 120,000 more children are on track to become excellent readers than in 2012, when the check was introduced – showing the impact this method can have.'
Read more:
Original author: Sally Wheale 

The garlic that doesn't cause bad breath: Duo prepare for first harvest of giant 'kissing' variety that has a milder flavour and is odourless after spending three years developing it
Speaking to The Guardian, Guagni said: 'We thought this was a typical example of Italian excellence that has been forgotten. The taste is very good and very light so we thought about the possibility of reintroducing it to the market.' 
Read more:
Original author:  Stephanie Kirchgaessner

'I hate these men so much it burns my soul': Lee Rigby's mother tells explains how she faced her son's killers in court and why an incident at their sentencing left her ill 
In an extract from her book Lee Rigby: A Mother's Story, serialised in The Mirror, Mrs Rigby also described how she thought she was having a heart attack when the two 'evil b*******' erupted in court after being told by a judge their views were 'a betrayal of Islam'.
Read more:
Original author: Rachael Bletchly

Gove warns of migration 'free-for-all' if Britain votes to stay in the EU because expansion will hand millions from five nations including Turkey the right to move freely to the UK
In an article for The Times, Mr Gove insisted potential new members of the EU such as Turkey and Albania pose a 'direct and serious threat' to public services like the NHS, and social harmony
Read more:
Original authors: Michael Gove and Francis Elliott

Maybe these journalists might care to join the Fletcher campaign?
Oh yes, and in the way of old-fashioned (old-far) journalism, SubScribe emailed and tweeted Mr McLelland to ask if he'd care to comment. He has yet to respond. If he does, his words will appear here - or, if they're interesting enough, at the top of the post.

Monday 25 April 2016

Sexist? Fattist? Maybe. But how many people read that Victoria Wood obit before condemning it?

Victoria Wood Times obit

How often do you "like" a link posted by a Facebook friend without reading the article they're sharing - or even clicking on the link? Never? Ocasionally? Daily? Almost always?
We all do it. No one has the time to follow every link that turns up in their timeline, and pressing the "like" button is often no more than a courtesy, It's a way of acknowledging and reinforcing your relationship with the sharer, an endorsement of their general view of life, rather than a critique of whatever it was that moved them.
What about commenting? Most of us are a bit more cautious on this. You'd have to trust your friend's judgment implicitly to echo their opinion publicly without first checking what they were on about.
And sharing? Somewhere between the two perhaps.

The FB status update above turned up on my timeline last night. I don't know Daniel Smith, and we have no mutual FB friends, but it was widely shared and a real friend tagged me in a discussion on someone else's thread.
As I write, it has been shared more than 2,900 times and attracted 248 emoticons.

Smith's statistic also made it on to Twitter - although two of the sources for retweets have deleted their originals.

twitter feed

Disgrace, shameful, outrageous, bloody newspapers!

My own reaction was one of despair. First because of the substance of his comment, and second because I had just submitted an over-length magazine article about the treatment of women in the Press. That dealt mostly with the tabloids and I feared I was going to have to beg the editor to allow me an extra paragraph to say that serious papers could be just as culpable.

Then I read the offending obit. Three times. I found five paragraphs referring to Wood's weight and food issues, one description of a character she created as being "fat", and one quote from her about the British people not seeming to mind "if someone looks like a baked potato".
I've now been through it six or seven times and am at a loss to find the full dozen - but then again, I was always hopeless at those "spot the difference" games in childhood puzzle books.

Cellulite, pot noodles and dieting yoghurts all get an early mention - but in relation to her comedic material rather than to Wood personally. We learn that she ate tinned mince during a "grey period" and that she was vegetarian and teetotal, but these facts are not linked to her body shape.

The first mention of her weight appears in the fourth par:

Modest and self-deprecating - she struggled with shyness and her weight as a girl - she credited her success to luck, hard work and determination, playing down the considerable and multiple talents that made her a stalwart of stage and small screen for more than 40 years.
The eighth paragraph includes the description of her character Maureen in the award-winning TV play Talent as "plain and fat" compared with her "glamorous" friend Julie. Other obituaries describe Maureen as "frumpy"; the script stipulates that she is overweight.

We return to Wood's eating disorder four paragraphs later:
She was dogged by issues with food, and stung by criticisms of her weight early in her career - the worst moment came when one critic described her as "rolling on stage like a witty tank".
This is followed by a par about her preference for trousers and trainers to fancy frocks and high heels and her baked potato comment.
Three paragraphs later we are told:
Her teens were marked by shyness, which she said was because she was fat and would over-eat. 
The next mention of food comes in a description of what she called a grey period when her success on the New Faces TV talent show didn't turn her into an overnight star:
She lived in a bedsit and ate tinned mince. 
The next is ten paragraphs later, in another list of the subjects she turned into comedy:
Her sell-out stand-up comedy tours exploited whatever was current in her life: shows dealing with pregnancy, childbirth and raising kids were followed by middle age, the menopause and her issues with food. She even wrote jokes about her emergency hysterectomy.
Finally, three pars from the end we learn:
Wood sought therapy in the mid-Eighties and onwards to help her come to terms with the underlying causes of her eating problems, and for what she described as a "puritanical" streak which prevented her from fully enjoying the fruits of her success. 
So there we have it.
Daniel Smith is, in my opinion, right that there are too many references to Wood's weight and, yes, it's reassuring to know that some men notice these things. The first sub-clause is gratuitous, given that the subject will be tackled later on; the critic's "witty tank" comment should not have been given a first airing, let alone a regurgitation forty years later.

But was it really as awful as Smith and his disciples think? Was there another, better, way?

The job of a modern obituary writer is to try to get behind what made the subject the person they were, not just to list their works and awards. Victoria Wood's eating disorder clearly shaped both her mind and body - and provided her with comic material. It could not be ignored. Nor, indeed, could her onstage costume, any more than an obituary of Grayson Perry should avoid mention of his dresses and bonnets. It was a departure from the conventional and part of who she was.

The Guardian described the Maureen character as "frumpy" and quotes Wood as saying that as a teenager she was "addicted to sugar, which makes you depressed". It also mentions therapy, but declines to elaborate on what the treatment was for, saying simply that she emerged "with a confidence that surprised those who suspected she was doomed to be awkward and vulnerable". It's a good obit, but in avoiding all mention of Wood's weight and its impact on her self-confidence it denies the reader a key insight.

The Independent and Telegraph also mentioned the therapy, both saying that the reasons for it "were never specified". They must have read the same cuttings.

The intro of the Telegraph piece describes Wood as a "plump chantreuse" and later asserts that she "cultivated a deliberately frumpy roly-poly image, attracting such epithets as the Daily Telegraph's 'plucky, buxom singing blonde from Lancashire'".
It goes on to say that the teenage Wood was withdrawn, lazy and "tortured by low self-esteem". In that low period after New Faces she "stayed in bed for 14 hours at a stretch, eating too much" of that tinned mince.
When success follows the airing of Talent, The Sunday Telegraph critic says that Wood's talent is as "ample as her frame". But that was 38 years ago. Would anyone write that now? Hopefully not. But the obit continues:
For years she had agonised about her weight, having envied her two older sisters who were thin and, to her mind, more attractive. As a young woman of 15 stone, she suffered from a compulsive eating disorder which she overcame and later incorporated into her stage act.

This is interesting. It is brutal, but it gets right to the point, dealing with cause, effect and ultimate outcome succinctly rather than meandering around the issue as the Times does.

The Independent, meanwhile, restricts its thoughts on the subject to a single paragraph:
Wood suffered from low self-esteem and later talked about being shy, lonely and overweight as a child. In the Nineties she had therapy relating to her past, though the specifics were never revealed. She also talked openly about her struggles with an eating disorder.
This seems to me to be the best approach of the four.

I had, of course, noticed that Wood was larger than most women who appear on television, but until I read the obits I had no idea of how big a deal it was for her. Like her, I have spent my life fighting with my bulk; it colours my every thought. A friend similarly tortured said today: "I hope that if I ever get an obituary, people write about how fat I was and how miserable it made me."

Another Facebook friend defended The Times (albeit prefacing his comment with the dreaded "I haven't read it but...") saying:

If there was an emphasis on her weight, surely that is because it was so important to Victoria Wood herself. Her body image is surely crucial to her development as a comic and how she overcame her insecurities by draw attention to them. Significantly the BBC Radio 4 obituary programme drew attention to exactly the same weight related anxieties.
Challenged "Would it have been the same for a man?" he replied:
If height, size and weight is crucial to the genius of the obituary subject then it is perfectly acceptable to discuss these. Simply witness the many obituaries to the wonderful Ronnie Corbett. There were few indeed which did not mention at length, and then again some more, his short stature.
He's not wrong there. The Times obit of Corbett included ten references to his height, including the fact that he bought his size four-and-a-half shoes from the children's department, that he was treated to a course called "How to stretch yourself" by a well-meaning aunt, that he was once the shortest commissioned officer in the British Forces, that he wrote a book called The Small Man's Guide to Life, and that he was honorary president of an organisation called the Five Foot Club, "which was formed to fight for a better deal for little people".

Hmmm. Two wrongs or a fair comparison?

The Times obituary editor is on holiday, so was unavailable to comment - but it would be surprising if next Saturday's Feedback column didn't offer some answers.
Time constraints may be one (unsatisfactory) explanation: the version that appeared in the paper went up online at 8.04pm on the night Wood died. A much more polished version was posted on the website at 1am. The preoccupation with weight has been overcome to the extent that it is dealt with in a single paragraph three pars from the end. "Plain and fat" Maureen has gone. So, too, have the tinned mince and the baked potato.
Of course it would be better had the original never appeared. The author and sub were both at fault. At least someone at London Bridge realised that it was inadequate - beyond the pale, even - and set about improving it. Hats off to whoever that was, though it's a pity the print version wasn't also updated.

My initial question remains, however. Given that both web versions of the obit are behind The Times paywall, how many of those 2,900 sharers and tweeters read either?

Friday 15 April 2016

The two Isabels and and a masterclass (mistressclass?) in attack-bitch journalism

isabel oakeshott article

An MP describes a journalist as "totty". She tweets as much, without identifying him, and reports him to the whips. He apologises. 
The exchange takes place in a semi-private arena in which matters of far greater public interest are aired, so does anyone who wasn't involved really care? Isabel Hardman's complaint is not going to wipe out sexism at a stroke. Old warhorses like Bob Stewart will not be jolted into the 20th -  let alone 21st - century as a result of a slap on the wrist.
But this sort of incident is the fuel that drives the Daily Mail machine. A newspaper that appeals mostly to women, it rarely wastes an opportunity to put them in their place. And if it can do so by using women writers, under a cloak of sisterhood (paradoxically, a concept the Mail despises), so much the better.
Yes, I hear you say. We know all this. Please stop banging on about the bloody Mail.
It would be a pleasure. But for now, please bear with me.

A few years ago The Times introduced a feature in which leader writer Phil Collins, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, would go through big-occasion political speeches, highlighting the message and reasoning underlying certain words and phrases. Reading Isabel Oakeshott's take on the Hardman-Stewart encounter, I couldn't resist having a go myself. For this is a classic of the Mail's attack-bitch genre.
The italics are the quotes from the piece highlighted in the picture above. The bits in black are SubScribe's opinion. The bits in blue are my interpretation of Oakshott's thinking

1: Strong women don't need to whine about sexist bores calling us 'totty'...
As a female political writer complains about an MP's jibe, a colleague says there are better ways to handle things
We know from the off where we're coming from: women who complain tend to "whine" or sometimes bleat. This contrasts with the language used when the Mail is unhappy about a state of affairs. It "demands" action or "calls people to account".
The "us" in the main heading establishes that Oakeshott is a strong woman; the "whine" means the jury is out on Hardman.
It is necessary to emphasise that the wayward journo in question is "female", just in case the picture didn't give us the clue. Oakeshott may swim in the same pool as Hardman, but the use of the word "colleague" suggests a closer relationship than is probably the case.
There were not only "other" ways to respond to being called totty - they were all "better". Be in no doubt, Hardman got it wrong.

2: At a glitzy party recently, I was making small-talk with a group of Westminster types...
I mix in exalted company. I know what I'm talking about.

3: Someone pinched my bum...
I'm just as attractive and desirable as Hardman.

4: As everyone in political circles knows, Sir Alan is gay and happily committed to his other half in a civil partnership, so there was no suggestion that his cheeky gesture was a come-on...
I move in political circles and am in the know. Possibly unlike you.
Never miss an opportunity to remind readers of someone's homosexuality. 

Pinching someone's bottom may be a "cheeky gesture" if you are good friends. It certainly wouldn't be if you'd met only once or twice. We don't know how well Duncan knows Oakeshott. 

5: It prompted some entertaining banter about  the interaction between politicians and female journalists and the unwritten rules of the game.
Casual sexism is a trivial subject to be chortled over in "entertaining banter"? 
Interaction between politicians and "female" journalists is part of a "game"? That has unwritten rules? Hardman is clearly unaware of this or is not playing by the rules.
Is there also a game for politicans and male journalists? Does it have rules, too? 

6: "I can't get away with anything like that these days" was the rueful response of a Cabinet minister...
At least the Cabinet minister (another reminder that Oakeshott moves in the corridors of power) recognises that times have changed and that Duncan's "cheeky gesture" might have been out of order. Oakeshott sounds as "rueful" as her minister chum.

7: As the unfortunate MP who dared to describe political reporter Isabel Hardman as "totty" this week has found, not all female journalists take flirtatious behaviour in good part...
Unlike me.

"Unfortunate" MP? Dared? We can see who is the victim here.
As we discover later, Oakeshott knows nothing of the circumstances of the exchange. There is nothing to suggest that Stewart was being flirtatious. But it is a woman's place to "take in good part" any derogatory remark a man cares to toss at her. Failing to be a good sport is a crime in Mail land.

8: I have the greatest respect for her as a journalist and commentator and am loathe to criticise a colleague, particularly another woman...
But that's what I'm paid to do.

9: I was amazed by the way Hardman handled the incident and fear she may come to regret it...
How many more times? A woman should know her place or be prepared for reprisals

10: Hardman took the drastic decision to complain to party whips...
How dare she? Is she mad?

11: It is a sensitive area, so I am treading carefully...I do not think she should have complained over what seems to have been a trivial incident...
I'm jumping in with both feet.
I think it was trivial, but I don't know. I wasn't there.

12: She could have taken him to task herself. I have no doubt he would have been mortified and would never make the same mistake again...
Poor chap. He'd have been "mortified" to learn that he'd been offensive? And after a lifetime in that hotbed of equality that is the British Army, he would have changed his attitudes had one woman put him right on his "mistake"?
If  Oakeshott is in no doubt, maybe she knows Stewart personally? If she does, she is concealing a vital fact. If she doesn't, she is presumptuous.

13: Perhaps she felt this would be too embarrassing (though in my experience it is perfectly possible to get such messages across with charm)
Hardman was out of her depth. She needs lessons in handling people. I can offer friendly advice. I'm good at these things.

14: She could simply have put it about that the old git had offended her and it would quickly have got back to him
Gossip is a weapon I'd happily use
That "mortified" chap and "unfortunate MP" from earlier on? He's now an old git.

15: She did the equivalent of running to teacher to tell tales. The MP was hauled before the whips for a dressing down.
We're back to the whining women of the heading. Women should not complain to the appropriate authority. And look at the result: the  MP was "hauled" before the whips - probably dragged along between two beefy men with tattoos, his legs trailing behind. We can see who is the victim and who is the villain(ess) here.

16: At best her reaction looks humourless. At worst it looks attention seeking. 
Just like people on dating sites, women at Westminster must have a GSH, be good sports and definitely not make an exhibition of themselves. And don't forget who is in the wrong here. Never mind the fact that the whole episode was about unwanted attention.

17: I know she is not like that...
My last sentence was preposterous

 18: Of course I don't condone sexism in the workplace or anywhere else...
Did I go too far? 

19: In theory Hardman certainly has the moral high ground...
Only in theory?

20: I can quite see why, with her intelligence, she bristled at being described as totty...
It's quite all right for men to talk about less intelligent women in such a way. They wouldn't notice or care.

21: As she has not divulged any details of the exchange, we do not know the tone in which the remark was made...
I don't know what I'm talking about

22: If it was meant lasciviously or dismissively, of course it would be insulting...
I still don't know what I'm talking about

23: Having had numerous such experiences over the years, I strongly suspect that the "culprit" was being mildly, if clumsily, flirty...
I still don't know what I'm talking about, so I'll assume the best of the bloke and the worst of the woman. After all, I've been there, done that loads of times. I know about these things. 
Note the quote marks round "culprit"

24: My guess is the MP meant it as a light-hearted compliment to Hardman, rather than a slight to her impressive professional credentials...
I still don't know what I'm talking about. I wasn't there. So I'll guess. And again put the best gloss on it from the male perspective. But best I remind everyone how much I admire Hardman.

25: There is a case to be argued that she should have been pleased. After all, he expressed the inclination to talk to her over and above whoever else was there.
There was a man there and the MP chose to speak to the woman. Gosh! Fancy that! 

26: If a handful of male MPs are a little more forthcoming because we wear skirts, who are we to complain?
We should be honoured they deign to talk to us.

27: I'm not suggesting female political journalists should flaunt themselves for the sake of a story...
Well, actually...

28 Years ago a Telegraph journalist (who has long since moved on to other things) used to make a point of being scantily clad and positioning herself in the middle of the lobby...where male MPs would queue to talk to her...
See? It works. This lady has moved on to other (better?) things. 
Or has she left journalism on a tide of opprobrium and unprofessionalism?

29: She used her gender to her advantage. It happens every day in workplaces up and down the country. What's the big deal?
As I said, I'm not suggesting female journalists should flaunt themselves...

30: What surprises me is that Isabel Hardman is a well-established political journalist...
More damning with faux respect

31: Surely she is too clever to be offended by a flippant comment from some old fart?
Only silly people take offence when people are rude to them? 
Flippant comment? Didn't we establish earlier that Oakeshott did not know anything about the tone of the remark?

32: The sadness is that male MPs will be a little more guarded next time they talk to her, and no doubt the rest of us...
I'm worried that if I don't write this sort of tosh, no one will feed me stories about Prime Ministers and pigs.

33: I suggest she smiles sweetly, issues a cutting rebuke and remember...we usually have the last laugh
Women should always smile sweetly. 

And of course Ms Oakeshott laughed all the way to the bank with that unsourced story about the pig.

Finally, for another view of the encounter, try this from Gaby Hinsliff of the Guardian