Monstered by the Mail

25 Jul 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Monstered by the Mail

Following an attack by the Daily Mail this week, Raymond Snoddy looks at how the newspaper likes to scatter its own brand of malevolent fairy dust over facts

It was nice to be asked, out of the blue, for a contribution to Viewpoint, the Radio Times opinion column.

There was an idea to hand, and it was great to be able to reach a diverse audience in what is the UK’s biggest selling magazine. The publication also pays freelancers a respectable rate, an increasing rarity in the contemporary world of journalism.

The idea was straightforward. The BBC is always under attack from right and left, usually unfairly, and as for the Daily Mail nothing the BBC ever does could possibly please.

But something strange was happening. Some of the BBC’s most natural supporters were turning into ferocious critics - first over its referendum coverage and now over its reporting of the UK’s increasingly difficult and fractious exit from the EU.

In 2016 the complaint was the crude binary coverage of the referendum in the main BBC news bulletins and the creation of a false equivalence between the two sides.

For example, when 1,280 business leaders wrote to The Times warning of the perils of Brexit they were “balanced” by the view of one pro-Brexit entrepreneur, Sir James Dyson.

Likewise, a warning from 10 Nobel prize-winning economists was balanced by a BBC regular, Professor Patrick Minford.

But now matters are much more serious. The editorial decision by the BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall is that we are no longer in a binary situation. The argument now is about what kind of Brexit and the effect of Brexit on the rest of the world and our place in it.

By definition such a decision accepts the Government line that Brexit is irreversible and in effect that Brexit means Brexit.

Of course across the enormous media shelf-space of the BBC a variety of views can be found but it’s a matter of where the emphasis lies and the direction of travel.

Labour peer Lord Adonis, who would have been a normal friend of the BBC, has accused Lord Hall of a dereliction of his public duty and lodged a formal complaint.

It was wrong in both law and public debate to say that Brexit was irreversible, argued Adonis who pointed out that Nigel Farage, who has never been elected to Parliament, had appeared 32 times on Question Time in recent years. Jacob Rees-Mogg is omnipresent on BBC airwaves while those who believe Brexit can and should be reversed through a vote on the terms, or lack of them, are marginalised or non-existent.

There is never any shortage of time for ill-informed Brexiteers such as Tim Martin, founder of Wetherspoons.

He went unchallenged on Radio 4’s Today programme recently when he claimed, probably correctly, that he employs more people in the UK than Airbus, Philips and BMW put together, companies which were reviewing their position post Brexit.

So there you have it, people serving cheap beer and food are effectively the equivalent of skilled engineering jobs that are under threat.

Then there is the view of former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, an obvious BBC sort of person, who drew parallels with the Corporation’s reporting of the Suez crisis in 1956 for which it was subsequently criticised.

In the New Statesman Rusbridger argued that those who believe that Brexit will be an economic and foreign policy disaster for the UK are being portrayed by the BBC as “undemocratic extremists.”

They are allowed a voice “only if repeatedly challenged, and balanced by fervent Brexit hardliners."

There wasn’t room in the short Radio Times article for the views of distinguished investigative journalist Nick Cohen who has accused the BBC of under-reporting the scandals around Brexit and Russian interference in British politics.

Cohen, in the New York Review of Books (reprinted in The New European) denounced the BBC’s “abject performance” and said its coverage is platitudinous, frightened and irrelevant.

The essay is too long for this venue but it can be found, complete with limp response from the BBC and further riposte from Cohen, on the New European website.

The Radio Times piece concluded with the hardly revolutionary thought that however people voted in the referendum they were entitled to the best analysis and information from the BBC and not just the best form of Brexit. It was a modest article but not one that the Daily Mail could leave alone.

In Daily Mail land there is little room for opinions other than theirs. Cue a mini-monstering, although I'm not yet declared an Enemy of The People - that is a title reserved for judges.

The piece is an intriguing personal insight into how the Daily Mail scatters its own brand of malevolent fairy dust over the facts to create a largely false impression which is then amplified by a misleading, combative headline.

The precise argument was that the public is in danger of being misled as a result of an editorial decision that Brexit is irreversible and that therefore only seven shades of Brexit should be offered.

This is subtly turned into the more general statement that the article claims the BBC is too pro-Brexit, a rather different thing which is then ridiculed.

Once we have got there, there is just about enough superstructure to carry the headline.

“What planet’s he on?” Dear reader can they really be talking about me?

It goes on: “Ex-host (of Newswatch) says the BBC is pro-Brexit.”

Well up to a point.

Just a small piece and nothing compared to the outrage surrounding the warning by Amazon UK boss, Doug Gurr that a no deal exit could lead to civil unrest which led the page, but interesting all the same.

Naturally Jacob Rees-Mogg was wheeled out on Radio 4 and then on into the Daily Mail with the usual suspects to attack the Amazon executive, although in this case Doug Gurr’s views are almost certainly exaggerated. After all, food and medicine are already being stockpiled, as the Daily Mail has confirmed.

As for Lord Hall and the BBC there is a case to answer that the Corporation, because of its own editorial guidelines, is marginalising the views of those who think that Brexit is a thoroughly bad idea.

History, Alan Rusbridger believes, could judge the BBC harshly over Brexit as it did after the event over Suez. At the very least it is a very strange interpretation of the due impartiality required by the BBC’s Royal Charter.

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 25 Jul 2018
“Commiserations, although does this count as fame?! ;c)
Two main themes come to mind. The first is that it could be argued that the BBC can't win. It was already derided as having an overwhelming liberal bias before Brexit, and so it is obviously hyper-sensitive to continued accusations of one-sidedness. And there is some logic, I suppose, to the idea that for some people, Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson are their political knights in shining armour; for those people, the BBC isn't truly a broadcaster for everyone unless it features them in some way. That said, JRM being given airtime to 'debate' about the merits of Brexit does make me want to punch my radio... There's a meme going round at the moment, something like "if one expert says it's sunny outside and another said it's rainy, it's not the job of a journalist to present both sides of the argument - it is the job of media to go and see what the weather is". The BBC's crass binary equivalency of points of view is beyond the pale now; and if reporting the facts causes them to be labelled as liberal propaganda, it's not their job to pander to those who don't want to believe fact.

The second theme (a bit of a hobby horse) is about how editorial like the Mail's really muddies the waters around 'fake news'. The conventional view is that "fake news" is made-up headlines and fictitious stories ripe for sharing among gullible consumers. "Real news", in contrast, is truthful analysis of the facts, presented in an informative and intelligent way; if you find it in a newspaper, it's real news (if you find it on Facebook, it's probably fake news). The problem is that, as you correctly point out, “the Daily Mail scatters its own brand of malevolent fairy dust over the facts to create a largely false impression which is then amplified by a misleading, combative headline" – and in so doing, entirely breaks this simplified view of real vs fake news. Newspaper proponents can’t credibly point to stories found online saying “that’s fake news! Read newspapers instead!”, because newspapers themselves do a very good line in peddling what is, by most definitions, fake news.”