Monday, 25 July 2011

Know Your Right

You have the right not to be killed. Most people agree on that. Who doesn't? Those who value other things more highly than individual lives – personal aggrandisement, or political ideology. Often the two go together, and nowhere are they more comfortable bedfellows than on the far right.

When the attacks in Norway took place, many politicians and media contributors immediately leapt to the conclusion that they must be the work of Islamic terrorists. So did many ordinary people, with the result that there was an immediate rise in the number of Islamophobic threats reported across Europe. Individuals were threatened or told to “go home” (despite the fact many were born in Europe), whilst mosques and madrassas came under attack.

The horror of this is pretty obvious. What may be less obvious is just how ridiculous it is. When you look at the statistics you'll see that the percentage of terror attacks in Europe committed by Islamist groups is very small. The reason they seem more commonplace is entirely down to the way they are treated by politicians and the media. In other words, there is an agenda here. That agenda has two aspects.

For politicians, encouraging a fear of Islamic terrorism is useful. Scapegoats and distractions are always handy in tough economic times. It also helps to justify wars in countries with large Muslim populations when local populations are unwilling to accept other reasons. For newspapers, it's even simpler: fear sells. The papers have always played this game. From anarchists threatening terror to black men endangering white women and gay men endangering children, it's the same thing recycled, generation by generation, finding a convenient monster. The important thing is that the monster has to be demonstrably Other. It can't come from the bedrock of readers or voters. It has to be excluded from the assumed Us.

All this makes it rather embarrassing that the Norwegian attacker turned out to be white, educated, middle class – in all respects the sort of person we Europeans are supposed to think of as one of us. A lot of desperate flailing has followed, from unsubstantiated claims he was inspired by Islamist violence to the bizarre ramblings of Glenn Beck, who, with his usual political incoherence, compared the Utøya victims to the Hitler Youth. A strange apologism for the far right has since developed in parts (thankfully not all) of the press. Perhaps it's fitting. After all, the killer, Anders Behring Breivik, quoted extensively from certainly popular press pundits – most notably Melanie Phillipps – in the manifesto in which he endeavoured to justify his violence. He recognised the right wing press as his allies, and they have been notably slow to disavow his agenda.

Is it fair to blame the wider right for actions like this? Of course the vast majority of them would never condone violence (and many, of course, are economically right wing without sharing this sort of social agenda at all). Any hesitation in so doing must, however, be weighed against that same old eagerness to let all Muslims take the blame for Islamist terrorist attacks.

Perhaps most telling has been the reaction of the English Defence League, which Breivik cited as one of his inspirations. Of course they wouldn't condone the attacker's actions, they insist, but they share his agenda. They have taken advantage of this raising of their profile to argue, as he did, that this centres on the need to remove all Muslims from Europe in order to protect its indigenous people (whoever they are). Breivik felt that sending a message about this made the killings even he called 'atrocious' worthwhile. His logic in this regard is somewhat unclear. Even if one wee to accept his ill-justified contention that Muslims are a threat, how exactly is he protecting people by, um, killing them?

You have the right to free speech, argue the EDL. If we shut down their democratic right to express their objection to our Muslim citizens' presence here, something not unlike the Norwegian attacks could take place in the UK. Worryingly, there are already hints of support for this kind of thinking coming from the mainstream. These Islamophobes are unpleasant, it's said, but we must placate them a little – make immigration laws a bit tougher, allow fewer new mosques to be built – or there could be trouble. This is nothing short of capitulation to blackmail. Why should ordinary Muslims suffer when they are not the ones making threats?

The rhetoric we hear in this situation asserts that it is liberalism that has allowed these problems to develop. Liberals, it is said, are so busy standing up for people's rights that they don't realise Muslims wouldn't grant them the same courtesy.

This is not only a misunderstanding of Islam – it is missing the point. Human rights are just that – part of being human – and they do not depend on one's affiliations or behaviour. What's more, this isn't about liberals versus the rest of the world. It's about everybody who wants to live in a peaceful civilisation versus the right wing extremists who don't.

Ultimately, those extremists vary very little in their aims, no matter which ideological tokens they cling to. Those advocating violence on the far right and those doing so in the name of Islam are much the same. They are all attacking the diversity, equality, and respect for human life that are the cornerstones of our civilisation. They are attacking the true Us. We are the ones who stand together, as the diverse peoples of Norway stood together in their grief, and say that we will not be bullied and threatened into giving up the civilisation we have worked so hard to build. We will not be turned against one another by those who can offer only destruction.

The far right has no place in our society and we must be neither bullied nor embarrassed into giving it one. It is time for right wingers who do not share that agenda to clearly differentiate themselves. That means an end to the use of Islamophobic articles to sell newspapers. It means an end to moronic statements about the 'failure' of multiculturalism from political leaders who should know better. It is time to stop feeding hate and to assert clearly that those who wish to label themselves European must show respect for all of the rest of us, no matter our religion, if they wish to be respected in return.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Education, Education, Education

Should Rupert Murdoch be in command of multiple media outlets? Despite public passivity on this matter that has lasted for decades, most people would now say no. The scandal that began at The News Of The World has changed the game. Now it is beginning to expand to other titles, with tabloid newspapers unconnected to Murdoch also the subject of suspicion. But there's another issue here that isn't getting nearly enough coverage, and that relates to Murdoch's wider interests – most significantly, his interest in education.

Aside from the media, education is Murdoch's great passion. He is a man who has always understood that power resides in control of information, and education is as important in this regard as newspapers and Fox News. Specifically, his interest over recent years has been in the Free School movement, whose development in the United States he provided with crucial support. That interest has extended to the UK, and the revelation that Michael Gove was paid £1,250 a week for one hour's work for News International, whilst serving as Shadow Education Secretary, is rightly raising eyebrows. [Update: he is still being paid this amount for a Times column.]

The Free Schools movement provides a vital opportunity for entrepreneurs of Murdoch's type. Because of the freedom it offers from the usual restrictions of the National Curriculum it makes controlling the information children receive – and don't receive – much easier. As such it has natural appeal to any number of fringe political movements and ambitious individuals. There's a financial interest for Murdoch too. He is committed to the notion that learning through computers is the way of the future, and just happens to own ninety percent of educational technology business Wireless Generation, which is already snapping up lucrative contracts in the 'States.

In the UK, Free Schools have got off to a less successful start, with the number of initial applications dramatically lower than Gove, as Minister of Education, predicted, and with considerable opposition from the public and teachers' groups. The government's health, justice and now even welfare policies have been compromised in face of difficulties like this, so why has it pressed ahead so hard with its educational strategy despite them? Is this simply about sticking to principle or is it about pleasing a third party whose influence when it comes to winning elections could be more important than policies themselves?

It's worth remembering that Gove started out as a journalist, working for The Times (as his wife still does) – which may itself place him in a vulnerable position as the News Corp scandal unravels further. He has enjoyed a close personal friendship with Rebekah Brooks and it is difficult to imagine that, even in the absence of direct pressure, his approach to policy has not been influenced by his social circle. Further to this, he has among his advisers former New York Chancellor for Education Joel Klein, who closely supported Murdoch's projects. For a man who has been described as a potential future Prime Minister, he would be well advised to tread carefully over the next few weeks. The News Corp contagion could well spread beyond the media.

If this sounds paranoid, consider what Murdoch himself has said on the subject of education in a series of speeches and articles that represent teachers and school governors as conspiring the benefit financially from the current system at the expense of their pupils. We would be better off, he told the New York Times, if schools were more like American Idol. But win or lose, all children grow up to be potential voters. This is why it is vital that we keep our educational system as politically neutral as possible, and to do so we must ensure that it is managed in accordance with choices made at the ballot box, not influence purchased by those who stand to gain.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Damage Done

As a journalist, I'm as sorry as anyone to see good people lose their jobs as a result of the closure of the News of the World. But I'm not sorry to see the paper itself go. I hope to see Rebekah Brooks and the Murdochs properly taken to task for what they've done. I hope to see a future which has more room for decent publications that respect their staff and readers alike.

In the meantime, having written about the political implications of the scandal, I feel it's important to address an area that has received too little attention in all of this: the human cost of tabloid journalism.

By 'tabloid journalism' I don't mean everything ever written for a tabloid newspaper. There are good people at most of them, many trying to please their readers whilst pursuing a socially responsible agenda. But we all know that there's another sort of journalist - and editor, and owner - involved in the business too. These are the ones I encounter day to day through my work at Trans Media Watch. They are the ones whose victims come looking for help, with nowhere else to turn. Rarely celebrities. Generally just ordinary people whose private lives have been splashed across the pages in lurid detail, along with photos (often their own, used without permission) to identify them to the neighbours. Often they are subject to outright slander but they lack the financial means to challenge it. Their stories are heartbreaking. Some lose jobs. Some lose their families. Some are assaulted in the street. They are the ones paying the price for the "much loved family newspaper".

I'm lucky. I've never been the victim of a direct attack by a tabloid myself. But then again, I find myself thinking, hasn't their presence indirectly affected my life to a considerable degree?

Let me explain.

I've been passionate about politics from a very early age. At fifteen I was a member of the Labour Party; by seventeen I was on its local housing committee, working to ensure social provision for those facing a financial squeeze under Thatcherism. There wasn't much new blood in the party at that time and I was treated as something of a rising star. I was asked if I would consider getting involved at conference, perhaps addressing the whole party. A promising career beckoned.

I walked away from it for two reasons. The first was the Kinnock purges, which, though I didn't altogether disagree with his intent to reshape the party, created an internal atmosphere in which neighbour spied on neighbour; it was deeply unpleasant to be around. But the second, more pertinent today, was that I'm queer.

I realised that, at that time, it would simply be impossible for me to take on any senior political role without being torn to pieces the moment a tabloid found it convenient to attack my sexuality or gender. This was the 1980s, and I inhabited a landscape full of screaming headlines whipping up panic about how homosexuals might harm our children. They were the same reason I daren't hold a girlfriend's hand in public; the reason I would walk around the block twice to be sure no-one was following me before I entered my favourite bar. The thing was, even if I hadn't been afraid of such an attack on a personal level it would still have ruined me politically; it made the whole thing seem pointless. It was broadly agreed that, for all the gradual legal progress that might be made by gay rights campaigners, nobody would ever accept a queer in office.

I'm not so vain as to expect you to reel in horror at the thought of my lost opportunity (I'm not unhappy with the way things worked out for me in the longer term anyway). What I do want to make clear is the far reaching effect that kind of tabloid intimidation had. It curtailed the ambitions of individuals who weren't even on the papers' radar. How much talent did our country lose access to as a result? How many brilliant people - potential sports stars and entertainers as well as politicians - gave up and chose to live quiet lives underneath the radar, wasting their talent, because of what they very reasonably feared would happen to them otherwise?

That's all in the past, you might say. It's better now. But if you spend as much time watching the tabloids as I do you'll soon see that it's not. The campaigns against gay people are less overtly vicious now and are couched in different terms, but they're still there. Attacks on transsexual people are frequent and often try to paint them as paedophiles or other kinds of sex attacker. There may no longer be ugly headlines about black people but we see plenty about Muslims, Poles and Roma people, often followed by stories which rely heavily on fabrication. Disabled people are frequently portrayed as workshy scroungers regardless of whether they're really incapable of working or, in some cases, they actually are in work. And the attacks on people who simply have the misfortune to grow up poor are horrific. This is an industry built on hate.

Sometimes the tabloids get it wrong, misjudging how much hate their readers will tolerate. Attacking the victims of the Hillsborough Football Stadium disaster went too far and cost The Sun the support of a whole city. Jan Moir's Daily Mail piece about Stephen Gately provoked outrage that went far beyond the gay community. Yet day to day, the attacks continue. A Monday afternoon's titillating scandal can ruin the life of a hapless individual who happened to draw the wrong kind of attention. And those who have already been the victims of crimes know that tabloid attention can make it worse, whether they're the targets of phone hacking or rape victims whose experiences have been salaciously detailed opposite page three.

For anybody who has failed to sit up and take notice of this, the way in which the News of the World was willing to treat the families of Milly Dowler, Jessica Chapman and so forth must make a difference now. It must show the contempt in which these newspapers hold those whom they claim to serve. It must, because as a society we simply cannot go on like this. Former News of the World journalists seeking redemption have already discussed several suicides which they believe their stories contributed to. The human cost of this kind of journalism is too high. It is time to stand up, all together, and say that we will not tolerate it any more.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Why Press?

Every now and again a news story breaks whose connotations are so obvious to those working in the media that we forget our duty to explain them to other people. The News International scandal, which today saw the demise of 168 year old newspaper The News Of The World, is such a story. It has flooded television news and slowed down the internet, bewildering those who think of it, ultimately, as just an unfortunate tale of privacy intrusion.

I have talked with a number of people who have been upset that this story is getting so much coverage when other important matters aren't. I quite agree with them that issues such as the mass rapes and murders in Sudan, the catastrophic violence against women in Nicaragua and the pogroms against LGBT people in Iraq are more shocking, more disturbing. I agree that such matters deserve extensive coverage. But that is precisely why I consider it vital that the News International story stay in the headlines now.

As this scandal has encouraged opportunistic politicians to talk about state regulation of the press (as if regulation by a neutral independent body were not even a possibility), it has set up the false dichotomy of a state controlled press (certainly an unpleasant prospect) versus a 'free press'. The truth is that there can be no such thing as a free press if our major newspapers and broadcasting companies are owned by a tiny handful of people. Corporate influence is no more bound to be politically neutral than government influence. The vast majority of journalists (assuming they want to be paid) don't get to write about what they want. Even section editors have limited control where powerful editors-in-chief and owners are involved. They are told what to cover. They are told what constitutes the news.

This situation no longer represents the fait accompli that it once did. The internet means that people now have access to many more sources of news. Yet the fact is that only a small proportion of them actually take advantage of this. Many millions more still depend on red top newspapers as one of their principal sources of news. Research suggests that they are increasingly cynical about this news , yet it still shapes their world view - and, perhaps most importantly of all, it delineates what they are unaware of.

Without a balanced picture of what is going on around the world, it is difficult for people to understand major political issues like how we get involved in wars, why terrorist threats occur (and how seriously we should take them), and why people seek asylum here. But it's not only in their filtering of world news that the red tops routinely distort the political landscape. Heavily biased social and sometimes party political agendas distort their coverage of what goes on in the UK. They can bring down governments - witness their unrelenting attacks on Gordon Brown - or they can connive with governments they like to keep challenging ideas off the agenda.

Why would they do this? There are two reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, they have a self-perpetuating agenda. In order to get away with behaviour like that we have seen from the news of the World, they have to minimise government interference. In order to maximise profits, they have to keep their tax situations comfortable. And so forth. When a political party depends on you to stay in power, this is relatively easy to arrange. Secondly, there is power for its own sake. Many people crave it. When they have it, they want to use it, to shape society as they see fit. See, for example, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who has a moral agenda that includes the denigration of LGBT people. This is the reason why we saw yesterday's peculiar attack on soap operas by Brian Sewell, clearly out of step with how the majority of the paper's readers actually feel.

Of course, we all like to feel that we are not influenced by this sort of thing. If we are good liberal types we may like to believe that other people are more sophisticated that we give them credit for, too. That's fair enough, but there are complicating factors. Most people outside media related professions don't really have much time to consult a variety of news sources, nor even to research particular stories they distrust. Furthermore, people are influenced in all sorts of subtle ways by the views of those around them, and if those views have been shaped by politically biased newspapers, those papers will still be able to advance their agenda.

If you ask people who actually work in journalism, you'll find that most - including those who work for red tops - agree that there are really important stories that don't get the coverage they deserve. Many will also agree that those stories can be written so as to interest the public, even if they are about places that are far away or with which those readers have no personal connection. Part of the art of writing news, after all, is to make readers feel they have a personal connection. So it would be perfectly possible to run a news organisation that carried stories like this. The reason it doesn't happen is that it simply doesn't interest those with established financial and political power bases.

To change the media is to change society. There is no more profound cultural influence, and cultural change lies at the base of every major political and economic change. The media, more than anything else, is where power lies in the modern world. This is why we cannot tolerate corruption and abuse within it; why we cannot risk letting monopolies form; why we must promote the representation of a diverse range of viewpoints. This is why the battle for justice at News International must go on. If we fail, most of us will never hear about the other things that matter in the first place.