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.


  1. Well said, Jenny.

    You set out the same reasons that I walked away from opportunities to have a political career. They are the same reasons that I police who can get close to me on any level.

    Whilst I've never been a tabloid target (and they've mostly declined to run more positive news about my work) their influence on the decisions I make is omnipresent.


  2. It's something that factors into the failure of trans people to achieve as much as we might. When I was one of the Deputy Chairs of Liberty and stood for the Chair - which was elected by the Executive Commitee in those days rather than by the membership (who would quite possibly have elected me) - the argument made in favour of John Lyons, the Treasurer, by the then Director John Wadham and the outgoing Chair, Fi McTaggart was that the Daily Mail would never let my gender and sexual history rest, and that my life would be made a misery if I were appointed. My attitude was that I was prepared to put up with this and expected that the organization give me its full support if this happened, on solid civil liberties grounds.

    John Lyons was of course the husband of Sally Morgan, Blair's adviser, and Fi and John Wadham both had good reason to cultivate their New Labour credentials. Pandering to tabloid transphobia was probably not even the greater part of why they wanted Lyons rather than me. I am aware that I am something of a loose cannon and we were building up to the 97 election. Nonetheless, the combination of fear of tabloids and New Labour oppurtunism was a toxic one.

  3. Good post. Yet, the existence of those tabloids is also a commentary on human nature. Readers of the The News of the World will merely go find their fare elsewhere.

  4. I think a lot of people who read newspapers like these do so because they want to read sports newsand celebrity news. There is quite a bit of the latter than can be obtained in a non-abusive way and isn't intrusive. It would be quite possible to appeal to that market without the concomitant politics of hate.