The judgement of Johann: a reflection, and a bit of a rant

A note on epistemology

Though there is incontrovertible evidence that Tony Blair and his colleagues regularly distort, manipulate, mislead and even invent the truth on a massive scale, they regard any attack on their personal integrity as an outrageous calumny… Blair himself has consistently referred to his own integrity in terms which, coming from anyone else, might well be criticised as boastful or vainglorious. Even when he or colleagues are caught red-handed telling fibs, New Labour tends to respond that all concerned acted “in good faith”, a key phrase frequently uttered in defence of mendacious ministers. In New Labour’s view, the truthfulness of a statement matters much less than whether it was inspired by a virtuous motive…

It is not unreasonable to speculate that the prime minister has a strong tendency to fall victim to a common conceptual muddle: the failure to understand the distinction between truth versus falsehood and truth versus error. Tony Blair, and many colleagues, consistently seem to feel that they are lucky enough to have been granted a privileged access to the moral truth. This state of grace produces two marvellous consequences. It means that whatever New Labour ministers say or write, however misleading or inaccurate, is in a larger sense true. Likewise whatever their opponents say or write, whether or not strictly speaking accurate, is in the most profound sense false.

Peter Oborne, The Rise of Political Lying

The downward spiral

I didn’t particularly want to write again about Johann Hari, and it’s quite difficult for me to do so. It’s very hard to be dispassionate about him, though I’m going to try. Let me say at the outset that, though he’s never given me any great reason to be fond of him, I don’t want to see his life destroyed. I’m fully aware that this must be an absolutely horrible time for him, and I know his many friends are seriously worried about his mental state. I’ll have cause to criticise his employers pretty harshly later on, but I do hope they’ve arranged for him to get whatever help is necessary.


Why, you may ask, should we bother with a man whose career is over? My immediate answer to which is, who says it’s over? Hari has plenty of supporters, some of them prominent in the media, who insist that he’s done nothing really wrong, just made a teensy weensy mistake for which he’s apologised, and he’ll be back again before you know it. No, this will not do. It’s necessary, given the way so many people have taken Hari’s articles as gospel truth, that there be some sort of open accounting. It’s necessary that a light be shone on Simon Kelner and the Independent, who will weasel out of this situation if they’re given a chance. I also don’t believe that the bluster and denial coming from Hari partisans actually helps their friend. It just postpones the inevitable.

To summarise, what Johann Hari has admitted to, and apologised for, is that in a handful of his long-form interviews, he’s occasionally used a quote from the subject’s written work where this was more cogent than what the subject said in the interview; and that he failed to properly acknowledge the source. This is true, as far as it goes. But, as has been shown all over the intertubes, this is just the tip of the can of worms. To summarise, without going into excruciating detail, we’re talking about:

  • A somewhat unorthodox interviewing technique that includes not only unattributed lifting from the subjects’ own written work, but also the unattributed lifting of quotes from other journalists’ interviews with the subjects, explicitly framed as if these words were being spoken to Hari himself. It may be understandable that few interviewees complained when the end result showed them being fantastically articulate, but on the occasions when Hari has done hostile interviews he’s had no qualms about portraying his antagonist as inarticulate.
  • A strong suspicion, at the very least, that some of his vox-pop quotes (as opposed to those from named interviewees) have been made up.
  • A reportorial style that tends to be careless of the facts, straying easily into exaggeration and embellishment, sometimes into outright invention.
  • Strong circumstantial evidence, though it would be hard to prove or disprove definitively, that either Hari or someone very close to him was engaged in extensive Wikipedia sockpuppetry, including the posting of allegations about critics of Hari that were flagrantly libellous. (I don’t care what you think about Cristina Odone, she is not anti-Semitic by any stretch of the imagination.)

We’re talking, in short, about a massive failure in professional standards over a period of years, which rather prompts questions about editorial standards at the Independent. We’ll get onto the paper presently, but as for Hari himself I’m much more interested in understanding than condemning. The psychology is fascinating, and I really hope he writes a serious and honest explanation at the end of this – it could be the most compelling thing he’s ever written.

Hari is certainly an interesting character, someone you could write a novel about. As I say, he has many friends – we have a few mutual friends, believe it or not – and they’ll freely talk about what a lovely guy he is, how warm and funny and brilliant and charming and sensitive he is. I have no reason to doubt that – he’s certainly got some charisma, and inspires intense loyalty. I also know from other sources that he can be unbelievably nasty, spiteful and vindictive if you cross him, which is why I have no problem believing the sockpuppetry allegations. His mood swings and occasional prima donna behaviour are the stuff of legend, and even his closest friends – perhaps especially his closest friends – can testify to his volcanic hissy fits. Extremes of light and shade; I know the type.

I said before about Hari that I didn’t think he was a cynical liar out for the main chance, but a well-intentioned bullshitter. That’s why I quoted Peter Oborne, whose book is excellent on the subject of Good Cause Corruption, with particular reference to the career of Mr Tony Blair. If you have moral right and a good cause on your side, then surely inconvenient facts are just a distraction. Accuracy is pedantry. This is positively dangerous from politicians, with dodgy dossiers and the like potentially leading to lots of people getting killed. Which is why you need a press that’s honest, accurate, even pedantic. When journalism falls prey to Good Cause Corruption, it just becomes propaganda. Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in, which might indicate some of the issues behind his journalism.

But I can well understand how he got himself in this position. Formidably bright and articulate, a writer of some talent, he goes straight from Cambridge to the national press, first at the New Statesman and then at the Independent. He never learned the basics of the trade – possibly he was arrogant enough to think he didn’t need to learn anything (he always refused to join the NUJ, which may be significant), and his editors, first Wilby and then Kelner, were prepared to indulge him. Not only that, but Hari, who could have just been a provocative opinion columnist, was rewarded with prominent journalistic assignments that he evidently wasn’t prepared for, with the possibility of failing in a very public way. And, having got in over his head, he tried to get out of this situation by means of (in Duncan Hallas’ immortal phrase) “bluff, bluster and bullshit”.

And not only did he get away with fabulism, he prospered, getting promoted to bigger columns, more high-profile assignments, celebrity interviews, being showered with journalism awards. Perhaps he felt, like a shop assistant nicking twenty quid from the till, that he was being clever in getting away with something. Perhaps he really did think that this was standard journalistic practice. At this point, the thought process is difficult to figure out. Some of the fakery was so stupidly high-risk that you would nearly think he wanted to get caught. The most damaging, for my money, was the interview with gay rugby player Gareth Thomas, who gave a lovely quote about hiding his sexuality and visualising it in terms of being in control of the ball. Trouble was, this quote was taken from a previous interview Thomas had given to Attitude magazine. Gareth Thomas wouldn’t have complained, as he’s a nice guy and Hari had written a sensitive article, but when you think of it – the gay community is Hari’s core audience, Hari writes a column for Attitude, in fact Hari sits on the bloody editorial board of Attitude – either we’ve got a very smart person being incredibly stupid, or unconsciously self-destructive behaviour. From what he’s written in the past about his mental health episodes, I can easily believe the latter. That’s why I hope he’s getting appropriate help.

The reactions

Much of the reaction to the Hari affair has been along the lines of “Yeah, he obviously made a few mistakes but (cough, cough, mumble) look over there, Rebekah Brooks! Also, Andy Coulson!” This does not impress me, and should not impress anyone else with the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

The most important point is that, while you could make a political criticism of Hari, and many people have done so, over the years, what’s done for him is professional criticism. Namely, not his opinions but his basic journalistic standards. In fact, more so as the criticism has centred on the technical journalistic side. Tim Worstall has been saying for ages that Hari’s economic writing was wrong not just ideologically but in terms of basic facts, but that was easily dismissed on the grounds that Tim is one of these mad free marketeers and he would say that, wouldn’t he? My own criticisms of Hari have been dismissed on the grounds that I was just sore at him for saying nasty things about the Pope. (Incidentally, one or two people owe me an apology, though I’m not holding my breath.) What has made the difference is people like Brian Whelan or Guy Walters, who don’t have pre-existing beefs with Hari, concentrating on the journalistic basics.

This is also important because one of the reasons he got away with it so long is that, with the notable exception of Biased BBC, most of the small army of media-monitoring blogs out there come from a left-of-centre perspective and concentrate on attacking the Mail or Sun. The smart guys who write them were too heavily involved with fact-checking Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn to notice there might be a problem with a broadsheet columnist who argued the same sort of politics they believed in.

A few observations:

  • Criticism of Hari cannot simply be put down to left and right. Yes, the Telegraph has gone after him hard, but so has the New Statesman. Many of Hari’s critics have been from the left; after all, it was the late Paul Foot who christened him “Johann Hari Potter”.
  • This is not a gay thing. Some of Hari’s sharpest critics are gay themselves; other gay journalists haven’t had these criticisms levelled at them; and insinuations that this is a homophobic smear campaign frankly don’t hold water – indeed, I’d say it was insulting to gay journalists to think they should be held to a lesser standard, akin to saying Jayson Blair was victimised for being black. If activists turn this into a gay thing, they’ll find it’s a self-defeating strategy.
  • Hari’s most prominent media defenders have been opinion writers, activists and social media entrepreneurs. Actual journalists with backgrounds in news reporting have been a lot harsher.

On the other hand, he’s had no shortage of defenders, though they’ve been getting quieter as more details have come out. These come in a number of categories – personal friends, of whom he has many (and it’s quite touching in a way); activists who appreciate how he’s bigged up their causes over the years (and don’t quite realise his downfall may discredit those causes); tribal leftists or gayists who think it’s their duty to defend one of their own no matter what he’s done; and those writers who might be feeling a bit nervous about their own writing, particularly if they’ve relied a lot on Hari in the past. For instance, there is one young writer whose recently-published book’s index reveals no less than thirteen citations from Hari. Some of these people risk making themselves look very silly, and no more so than two or three self-proclaimed scourges of bad journalism who’ve proved to be enormous hypocrites when their mate is put under the microscope. (You know who you are.)

I don’t think, frankly, that loud proclamations to the effect that Hari hasn’t done anything wrong and he still has a bright career ahead of him actually help the guy. Keeping his spirits up is one thing; but the best thing of all would be a resolution. Which neatly brings me to the guilty parties.

The paper and the trade

Let’s be honest, Johann Hari’s career, at least as it’s hitherto existed, is over. It’s a desperately sad outcome for somebody who loved his job so much, who at a relatively young age had been living the dream of having a platform for his beloved good causes, being celebrated in his chosen profession, winning awards, appearing on TV, and of course having a legion of devoted fans. (Young people don’t read newspapers as a rule, but the two writers you very commonly see shared and retweeted are Hari and Charlie Brooker.) But this would be hard to recover from for any journalist, let alone one whose stock in trade was banging on and on about his own integrity, other journalists’ lack of integrity, and how he was the man who was telling you the truth. Now, he’ll never be able to speak in a debate again without this being thrown in his face, and while there are lots of people who’ll never believe anything bad about him, that sort of denial isn’t sustainable for any media outlet that might employ him.

In my view, the best outcome would be this: Hari writes a full and frank account of what he did and why he did it; the Independent runs an analysis of how this was allowed to happen, as the New York Times did in the Jayson Blair case; Simon Kelner gives a personal account of his role in the affair; and then Hari can go off and rebuild his life. If he insists on working in journalism, he’ll have to do what he never did in the first place and work his way up from the bottom; on the other hand, he could turn out to be a great novelist, or an amazing charity campaigner, or any number of other things. He’s a bright man and still young.

But the current ass-covering at the Independent does nobody any favours. You know, when Boris Johnson was caught making up a quote, the Times didn’t fart about with two-month suspensions; Boris was summarily sacked, had to go and work on the Wolverhampton Express & Star, and didn’t get back into Fleet Street until he’d learned his lesson. My instinct is that this drawn-out process is all about editorial saving of face.

Make no mistake, this is a personal tragedy for Johann Hari, but it’s a farce for the Indy’s pretentions of holding higher standards than the rest of the press. Some of this, to be fair, has to do with endemic problems in the newspaper trade. Formal training for journalists is more or less a thing of the past. The local papers, where young hacks got valuable on-the-job training in the basics, are rapidly going bust. Subbing is a dying art.

Moreover, with the Mail and the Sun being the only national papers to regularly turn a healthy profit, there’s less scope for maintaining a large and experienced workforce of journalists. That means, very often, young, inexperienced (and cheap) hacks being overpromoted. More and more this is through headhunting from the student press, the music press, or more recently the blogosphere. The practice is to take some inexperienced kid and throw them in the deep end, with results that aren’t always for the best. (This is why I worry about Laurie Penny, whom I like a good deal more than I do Johann Hari, and whose undoubted talent I’d hate to see wasted.)

Another problem is the growth of celebrity columnists – whether comedians, TV critics or activists – at the expense of trained journalists, in contrast to the old days when hacks would be given columns when they were getting old and not as mobile as they used to be. The Indy (it’s a viewspaper, remember) is a particularly bad example, but some other papers are catching up. Yet another issue is the practice of journalists failing to maintain some distance from their story. I blame Hunter Thompson for this – he was brilliant enough to get away with it, but the price of that is a slew of bad imitations of Hunter Thompson. The Saturday edition of the Guardian is full of them.

But let’s specifically talk about the Indy. Simon Kelner’s assertion that, in ten years, nobody had ever complained about the Hari column is a black lie. I know that personally. Nor does it speak well of Kelner’s judgement that his first reaction to the Hari scandal was not to examine the evidence but to attempt to brazen it out, even sneaking the Hari column back into the paper (with Disqus comments disabled) when everybody else was preoccupied with Murdoch. And maybe he could have brazened it out – after all, the Guardian still employs Emma Brockes – had it not been for the sheer mountain of evidence. And then, of course, Kelner being kicked upstairs to editor-in-chief.

Face-saving is an issue because (and this is also true, mutatis mutandis, of the phone-hacking scandal) we can believe that a journalist was guilty of malpractice once or twice, but if he was consistently guilty for ten years, we have to ask where the editor was all this time. If we’re talking about that severed heads story from the Central African Republic, the thing I find hard to believe is not that Hari would embellish a story like that, but that the Indy backroom didn’t call him and say “Seriously, Johann, wtf? Are you saying that really happened?” Then again, while I say subbing is a dying art, the Indy was opposed to having subs at its inception…

Again and again, we come back to Kelner. He hired a raw young star about whom doubts had already been expressed at the New Statesman, and relentlessly promoted and protected him. Hari didn’t get the firm editorial hand a young journalist needs; his columns don’t seem to have been subjected to fact-checking or serious editing (comparing Hari’s columns on the Indy site with his own site, one sees that Indy editorial broke up his long paragraphs and corrected a few obvious howlers, but little else); he clearly was never given the training or mentoring he needed (and if Hari thought he didn’t need training, Kelner should have insisted). Hari was given plenty of resources – one hears stories of Indy interns doing mountains of photocopying that would then be couriered over to the great man (couriered, I ask you, as if he was Peter fucking Mandelson) – but didn’t give him what he really needed, a guiding hand. More experienced hacks who had concerns about the infant prodigy’s work soon learned that the editor didn’t want to hear these criticisms.

Which, in the end, only ensured a greater debacle when it all eventually came unstuck. And the two-month suspension plus internal inquiry just reeks of a spin exercise. Not that I don’t expect Andreas Whittam Smith to conduct the inquiry with integrity, but there is already enough prima facie evidence to sack him several times over. There is the Indy forbidding Hari from speaking publicly; there is the Indy persuading the council of the Orwell Prize to delay its announcement on Hari’s 2008 award. A charitable view would be that the Indy doesn’t want to get scooped on its own scandal; a cynical view would be that Indy editorial are trying to puzzle out a way to spin themselves out of this with minimum loss of face. Someone should tell Chris Blackhurst that sometimes, fronting up is the best PR strategy.

You know, when you see headlines about the death of Amy Winehouse, or about Charlie Sheen’s latest escapades, it’s worth remembering that celebrities don’t go off the rails alone; they have a posse of enablers who have too much invested in the celeb’s lifestyle to try and straighten them out. For Johann Hari, though I’m not a fan of his, I have some sympathy; for Simon Kelner, none at all. Hari himself is a young, intelligent, idealistic guy who wanted above all else to be a Great Journalist, and thought (or was led to believe) he was so brilliant he could do it without putting in the effort. As for his enabler… Ann Leslie said we shouldn’t be too harsh on young Johann because he’d never been a real journalist. Maybe Simon Kelner was never a real editor.

Porcus ex grege diaboli

Those who know me will be aware that I’ve been banging on for some considerable time about the likelihood of British journalism throwing up a Jayson Blair scandal. Moreover, I’ve always been clear about which hack in particular was the most likely candidate for the Blair role. Do I feel schadenfreude at Johann Hari’s sudden fall from grace? Very well then, I feel schadenfreude. Couldn’t happen to a nicer chap. But, as ever, there’s more to it than that.

For those of you catching up, the basic story is this. Johann Hari, star columnist on the Independent, frequently does big set-piece interviews with divers newsworthy people. Well, the intrepid Brian Whelan noticed that at least some of the pithy quotes in Hari interviews seemed oddly familiar. In fact, the interviewees had said the things they’d said, just not to Hari. They’d appeared elsewhere first – in books or press releases or other interviews. Which is not to say (and I’m trying to be scrupulously fair here) that Toni Negri or Malalai Joya might not have said something to Hari similar to what he quoted – he’d simply lifted his quotes from elsewhere because they evidently read better than what he had on tape. Which, as it happens, is the explanation given by Hari himself in his remarkably pompous blog post (“intellectual portraiture”, forsooth) owning up to this sharp practice.

Jamie has an interesting take on whether or not this technically counts as plagiarism – Hari isn’t, after all, claiming the thoughts of Toni Negri as his own. But he is claiming, without attribution, somebody else’s work as his own – and not only that, but dramatising the quotes with schlocky “X leans in over his coffee and says to me…” introductions, so as to further underscore that this is what was said to Hari. If I had given an interview to, let’s say, Gary Younge a year ago, and the exact same words turned up in a Hari interview this morning, I think both I and Gary (or whoever the other interviewer might be) would be fully entitled to be quite pissed off about the whole thing. What is more, part of Hari’s job description (and part of the justification for his very generous salary) is that he’s supposed to be a great interviewer who’s really skilled at coaxing killer quotes from his subjects.

What’s clear is that, whatever Johann and his mates might say, this is not normal journalistic practice. Oh, that isn’t to say that hacks don’t polish a quote here or there. It’s quite a while since I had to do an interview in the course of work, but I have on occasion had to straighten out an interviewee’s grammar or cut down the number of cuss words in a quote. But every journalist knows that you have to be bloody careful with people’s quotes, and putting words into an interviewee’s mouth is just not on. Toadmeister has a good take on just what a serious breach of the trade’s ethics this is; indeed, I seem to remember Boris Johnson once getting fired for this sort of thing. If Naomi Klein thinks the serial plagiarising of quotes is just an “attribution problem”, then frankly, that affects how seriously I’ll take anything she writes in the future.

Let me expand on this a little. Many of you will know of Richard Peppiatt, the Daily Star hack who resigned from the paper a few months back, naughtily leaking his resignation letter in which he cheerfully admitted to having made up dozens of stories. But I like Rich Peppiatt, and journos have hailed him as a whistleblower who exposed massive journalistic malpractice in Richard Desmond’s media empire. And this is precisely because he blew the whistle on a culture where low-paid, overworked hacks would be under instructions to produce a front-page on Jordan (or these days it may be Ryan Giggs) whether or not there was a story there. Although I take Foxy’s point about how hard it can be to get outright invention into a paper, it can happen if you’ve got a rogue proprietor who more or less insists on made-up stories.

Yet, that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Anyone who reads the Daily Star does so in the full knowledge that a lot of what’s in the paper is just bollocks. The Independent, on the other hand, has always been terribly snooty about journalistic ethics. And it’s made doubly delicious by the fact that this is Johann Hari, someone who’s prone to throwing the most spectacular hissy fits when anyone questions his integrity, or even politely asks him to substantiate an allegation.

In some ways it’s a problem of overpromotion. Your jobbing hack will spend years at the unglamorous end of the business, learning how to nail down facts, how to evidence your claims and, above all, how you need to be incredibly careful with quotes. Here’s a guy, though, who graduates from Cambridge and walks straight into a column on a national newspaper. Very early on he earns a reputation for – let’s be charitable – embellishment and exaggeration, but instead of learning from his very public mistakes he just becomes more and more self-righteous on the subject of his own integrity.

I don’t, as it happens, think that Hari is a liar, in the cynical sense. I’m quite prepared to believe he isn’t knowingly dishonest. But I do think he’s a world champion bullshitter, in the philosophical sense described by Harry Frankfurt:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So, like I say, I don’t believe Hari is a cynical liar. I’m often driven to ponder whether he even understands the basic categories of truth or falsehood. After all, the examples of his tortured relationship to reality are well known. And, you know, this is not a question of me disagreeing with what he says. I disagree with, to take an example at random, David Aaronovitch on almost everything, but I can still enjoy reading him, because we’re at least in the same empirical universe. I long ago tired of Hari’s column because reading him just became a tedious exercise in fact-checking. Even when you agree with him, you can count on him to produce at least one misstatement or terminological inexactitude or mangled statistic. And after a certain period of time… well, as a blogosphere sage once said, “I wouldn’t believe Hari if he told me he was gay.”

I will allow him this, though, that he’s extremely skilled at telling his audience what they want to hear, and like-minded audiences are willing to forgive a lot from a writer who’s articulating their own worldview. Today there have been some pretty prominent figures willing to defend Hari on the basis that, well, he’s a leftie so what he’s done can’t be so bad. If that’s your view, fair enough, but I don’t ever want to hear you moan about Richard Littlejohn again.

I think Hari will be all right in the end. Were he an actual jobbing hack this might kill off his career, but he’s high enough up the food chain to survive. He’ll go to ground for a while, perhaps claiming the criticism is all motivated by homophobia (thanks to Laurie Penny for rolling out that alibi early), then resurface with a tearful interview on Women’s Hour about how sorry he is, but now he’s learned from his mistakes and won’t ever do it again, honest guv. He certainly has a tribe of devoted fans who’ll forgive him anything, and will probably keep some kind of writing gig; but he’ll never live this down. Private Eye will be repeating the story for the rest of his natural life.

No, the real question has to be asked of Simon Kelner. The Independent – a paper that really can’t afford to lose any more readers – has employed Hari for the last decade, and editorial staff can’t have been unaware that there were (cough) certain issues around his factuality. But they’ve stuck with him through thick and thin because – why? He gets the paper talked about? He generates web traffic? So does Bob Fisk, but even people who don’t like Bob wouldn’t see him as a laughing stock, which I’m afraid is what Johann has now become. If you just want a columnist to produce liberal-left chest-beating twice a week, hiring Sunny Hundal would be a much cheaper option.

And finally, yes, I do agree with Guido – and isn’t it telling that Guido can take the moral high ground here? – that Hari should really hand back his Orwell Prize. Dear old GO’s memory deserves better than this farce.

It really is appalling

Via the invaluable FleetStreetBlues, we bring you this quite magnificent strop from the pen of Simon Heffer, who is exercised by the thought that Telegraph journalists’ grasp of the language is not what it used to be. Enjoy.

From: Simon Heffer
Date: 3 August 2010 12:50
Subject: Style Notes No. 31

Dear Colleagues

We must make sure we stick to the rules on how to describe people, because to stray from consistency causes confusion. The suspect in the Wikileaks case is an American soldier called Private Brad Manning. He is also known as Specialist Brad Manning. We should stick to the familiar, and refer to him at all times (until he is convicted of anything) as Pte Manning. We have started to call him Mr Manning; which, as he is not a civilian, is just plain wrong. The only exception is with officers (usually of the rank of Lt-General or above) who have also been knighted; in which case they should be called (for example) General Sir David Richards at first mention, and then may be either Gen Richards or Sir David. Many of our readers are or have been in the services and have great attention to detail on matters of rank. Since they know at once when we get it wrong, we need to have that attention to detail too.

If you find yourself using a word of whose meaning you are unsure, do look it up in the dictionary. When we get a word wrong it is embarrassing. It demeans us as professional writers and shakes our readers’ confidence in us. In recent weeks we have confused endocrinology – the study of the body’s endocrine system – with dendrochronology, which is the study of dating trees. More embarrassing still, we accused the eminent broadcaster Sir David Attenborough of being a naturist – someone who chooses not to wear clothes – when in fact he is a naturalist; and during a story about a coach crash in Paris the nationality of the driver changed from Austrian to Australian. Homogenous and homogeneous are not interchangeable and their respective meanings should be studied in the dictionary. Like embodied and embedded, which we also confused, effecting and affecting and eligibility and legibility, these pairs of words almost come under the heading of homophones, as do prostate and prostrate. We must take more care and ensure we are using the right word.

Homophones remain abundant and show up the writer and the newspaper or website. We are quality media, and quality media do not make mistakes such as these: “the luck of the drawer”, “through the kitchen sink”, “through up” “dragging their heals” and “slammed on the breaks”, all of which are clichés that might not be worthy of a piece of elegant writing even if spelt correctly. We have also confused Briton and Britain, hanger and hangar, hordes and hoards, peeled and pealed, lightening and lightning, stationery and stationary, principal and principle, peninsula and peninsular, licence and license and, in something of a pile-up, born, borne and bourn. If you are unsure of the meanings of any of these words, look them up before proceeding further.

Many of these mistakes are caused by carelessness and not properly reading back what one has written. We have had an increasing number of literals in recent weeks, both online and in the paper, which suggests the problem is getting worse rather than better. Heads of department have a particular responsibility to ensure that their staff perform to the best professional standards in this respect. We managed to perpetrate one of the worst literals of all recently – pubic for public- which may seem a laughing matter, but is not.

Some Americanisms keep slipping in, usually when we are given agency copy to re-write and do an inadequate job on it. There is no such verb as “impacted”, and other American-style usages of nouns as verbs should be avoided (authored, gifted etc). Maneuver is not spelt that way in Britain. We do not have lawmakers: we might just about have legislators, but better still we have parliament. People do not live in their hometown; they live in their home town, or even better the place where they were born.

Sometimes we do not properly think of the sense of what we are writing. There is a marked difference between the meanings of convince and persuade that is not recognised by some of you. If you are unsure of the distinction, look the words up. We wrote that “too many bomb disposal experts” had died in Afghanistan, which prompted an angry reader to ask what an acceptable number of dead experts would have been. We wrote of “an extraordinary killing spree” and were asked, in similar fashion, what would have constituted an ordinary one. We wrote about someone’s youngest child being her first, which was obviously not the case. Be careful too of the distinction between renting a property and letting it. And readers also asked us how there could, as we reported, be an 18-month long investigation into a crime that was committed only 14 months ago. We need to ensure that our facts, like our arithmetic, add up.

There have also been some grammatical difficulties. The style book (which, in case you have lost your copy, is also online) specifies the distinction between “compared with” and “compared to”, and it may be worth examining. One of our writers began a sentence with the phrase “us single ladies” which suggests we need to brush up on our pronouns. We should always write one in four is, not one in four are, since one is inevitably singular. Bacteria is plural. Put adverbs in a sentence where they make the most logical sense, if you have to use them at all. This will never be by splitting the infinitive, but to write “to go speedily to town” will always be preferable to “to go to town speedily”, or any other such variant. It is different from, not different to. Under age, like under way, should be written as two words.

Finally, may I mention some factual matters? Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Air Chief Marshal is spelt thus; and Mark Antony thus.

With best wishes

Simon Heffer
Associate Editor
The Daily Telegraph

The vaulting ambition of Vincent Browne

The latest Phoenix [subs required] turns once again to its bête noire Vincent Browne, apropos of his involvement in discussions to lash together a far-left electoral slate for the next southern elections. Some of us may point out that these discussions have been happening periodically for a dozen or more years with underwhelming results, but evidently Vinnie is a desperate man. Take it away, Goldhawk:

The born again Blueshirt/Trotskyist developed cold feet at the slight whiff of sulphur arising from that “Right to Work” kerfuffle outside the Dáil (elevated to the status of riot by some media) in May [this was some excitable SWP types deciding to “do a Greece” and storm parliament, only to be anticlimactically turned back by ten unarmed guards] and his enthusiasm for the new Bolshevik Party waned simultaneously. Browne had been approached by various media friends who advised him that he was damaging his profile (specifically, that he looked a little foolish rather than dangerous) by associating with Trots and other malcontents…

Browne has now used the inability of the NGO community types to relate to the more hardline SWP Trotskyists such as Kieran Allen and Richard Boyd Barrett as an excuse to bow out from the putative new movement. All of which means that Browne’s long time ambition to make it into the Dáil – with any party, be it Blueshirt, Trotskyist or the Monster Raving Loony Party – has once again been thwarted.

I would only add that those Vinnie has left in the lurch may like to ponder the predilection of Swiss Toni and his acolytes for celebrity politics, especially when the celeb is as politically promiscuous as Vincent Browne. This may be a point worth addressing before you find Gráinne Seoige or Eamon Dunphy being unveiled as People Before Profit candidates on the principle that you can’t beat the marquee factor.

Getting your point across

Something that’s come to mind in respect of the Israeli state’s Pirates of the Mediterranean performance this last week has been the issue of media. Liam has a pithy take on Israel’s hasbara maestro Mark Regev, the cause of many a broken TV screen, not least in the early hours of Monday’s news from the Freedom Flotilla as BBC News 24 seemed to have Regev and other Israeli spokespeople on a permanent loop and facing softball questioning – it took quite a while for countervailing voices to appear, and initially they were from Hamas, with everything that implies.

The other piece that caught my eye was Andy’s one on whether the BBC is institutionally biased on the Israel-Palestine question. It’s an important discussion to have, because it raises the question of how activists can use the media. This was the subject of a long ongoing conversation that both Andy and myself amongst others have been having with Madam Miaow, whose views on this issue I would give quite a lot of weight to given her chops earned by her brilliant press work for Stop the War. I take her points on board, and there are plenty of activists who could benefit from paying attention to her insights. (Especially in a situation like this, where there’s someone who has a proven ability, who has been doing work behind the scenes, and whose skills the left resolutely refuses to use.)

The reflections that follow, though, are my own responsibility though very much informed by what Anna has been saying to me. Further disclaimer: I’m not in the loop as regards Viva Palestina and don’t have inside knowledge of the media work that was actually done. Rather than casting about for blame in this instance – those who do have the inside knowledge are best placed to make any criticisms – I’m interested in what can positively be done to sharpen up our act.

Firstly: being quick off the mark. Obviously, since the Israelis attacked the flotilla, they were prepared in advance. So what? There are these wonderful things called contingency plans. So, if you know it’s possible that there might be a violent confrontation – and you can never rule out violence on the part of the IDF – you prepare for the eventuality. One thing that struck me for much of Monday was that neither the British government nor the media seemed to be aware that there were Brits on board – William Hague was talking about “if” there were Brits on board. In fact there were around thirty British citizens and another ten or so British residents, but it took a while for this to filter out.

Now, as I say, I’m not in the loop, and hadn’t been following the flotilla particularly closely, but even I knew that Kevin Ovenden was on board. (And I’m very glad he’s all right.) But this took quite some time to get into the public domain, thanks to his name being circulated on Twitter and then being picked up by the Guardian‘s live blog at 3.32pm. (Anna to the rescue again. Given the resources the organised left should have been able to bring to bear, that it should be up to an individual working on her own, without any acknowledgment from the left I should say, is outrageous.) Had I been involved, it would have seemed natural to have a list of the Brits on board, together with potted biographies and photos – just in case anything happened. It’s also good PR, because the media will always be interested in Brits in peril.

This is quite elementary. It’s understandable that TV in particular will want images – and the Israelis played up to that by videoing the assault while confiscating phones and cameras from their prisoners. You need to be able to offer the media something in return, and raising the question of “what’s happening to the Brits?” is a good one.

This leads me on to Andy’s point about BBC bias. It’s true that in certain circumstances, usually when there’s a crisis, the Beeb can be susceptible to Israeli pressure. But this isn’t constant – for instance, Jeremy Bowen’s reporting is usually very good, and the BBC does take a lot of flak from Israel and its British supporters over his work. More important, I think, is that the macro-level decisions like Mark Thompson blocking the screening of the charity appeal for Gaza are not necessarily reflected in hour-to-hour coverage, especially on an outlet like News 24 where there is an awful lot of airtime to fill. Most journalists are not all that ideological – they take news as being product – and BBC journalists in particular are hardwired to look for the other side of the argument. We’re not talking here in terms of “they have Melanie Phillips and we have Seumas Milne”, but of the jobbing journos – not the op-ed writers – whose brief is to cover the story. If you get in there quickly as representing the other side of the argument, you can make some impact.

We learned this from the experience of Stop the War, which not only had a great press officer who was damn good at spotting cracks in the system to take advantage of but managed to do what it did due to breaking with the old attitudes of the left. It’s worth remarking of StW that, despite its recent rewriting of its history, it was not founded in 2001. It was founded in the late 1990s by Paul Foot and made no impact whatsoever in the media – it was just another one of the SWP’s off-the-shelf campaigns. What changed between 2001 and 2003 was not only a heightening of the political atmosphere around Afghanistan and Iraq, but also a complete change in attitude that led to StW getting out there and becoming a live part of public debate – directly because of that sharp press work. That meant, in the first instance, an end to the defeatism that said that, since the media were biased, there was no point in even trying.

What was proved in that instance was that, if you’ve got something to say and you’re willing to put the work in, they won’t necessarily ignore you. To be honest, the impact made then put to shame all the NUJ members who are hanging around the left and who had failed to make that impact in previous years. And, and this is important, it wasn’t just a question of flair and imagination – it was a matter of doing the basics in a field that isn’t rocket science. Getting professionally composed press releases out, building up relationships with journalists and editors who’ll then know where to go for an opinion, having your list of people who can do media appearances, spotting an opportunity to grab a headline – none of this is particularly baffling, and even I can spot on these occasions what needs to be done even if I don’t have the skill set to do it myself.

So, when the flotilla was ambushed on Monday morning, it should have been clear what needed to be done. A lot of people were very angry, of course. There were the impromptu demonstrations, which were great, and lots of people were blogging and tweeting throughout the day. What I didn’t get any sense of was any coordinated media effort from our side. Not just that there was nobody appearing in the studios for interviews, but that there didn’t seem to be a concerted push to get the right talking points out. The “where’s Kevin?” line would have been a good one to take, not only because we didn’t know for some considerable time whether he was alive or dead, but also because, as I’ve said, Brits in peril abroad go to the top of the bulletin, and being at the top of the bulletin was the safest place for Kevin and the other hostages to be.

Observing from the outside, I got a strong sense of a vacuum, and a vacuum is something that can’t be afforded. You see, those of us who have some involvement in pro-Palestine activity work on the assumption that Mark Regev is telling outrageous lies, but he can be quite charming and fluent, especially if the interviewer isn’t well briefed, and is helped along by Israeli control of the footage coming from the flotilla. When you think about what the punter in the street will make of the news coverage, bear in mind that a vacuum is dangerous because bullshit will expand to fill the space available. You need people on there from the PSC or Stop the War or Viva Palestina who are briefed in advance, who can hold up under questioning and who can put the other side of the argument convincingly. Because even if the propaganda battle is unequal, you can’t use that as an excuse for not taking part in the battle. Think of the way the Tory press monstered Neil Kinnock in the 1980s – at one point Kinnock had had enough and decided to just not talk to the papers any more. Understandable on a human level, but much good did it do him.

There has to be a break from the bad old ways when things are this important – and, if comrades are going to put themselves in harm’s way, it doesn’t get much more important. The left does have a horrible track record of not only being awful in how it approaches the media; there’s also the aspect of how this fits in to bad habits in left organising. I know for certain of people who were assets to our side who were deliberately undermined for reasons of organisational rivalry or simply crabby egos; and of talented people being moved out of vital positions while being replaced by people who were blatantly unsuited for the job but had the right connections. I could go on at length, and sometimes do. If this is how the left acts internally, no wonder its external work too often looks like amateur hour.

Listen, I don’t want to be unremittingly negative about this. I think, for instance, that Viva Palestina is a brilliant initiative, and wish more people knew about it. The left is still very good at organising demos. What we need is to brush up on trying to frame the public debate – starting with disadvantages, sure, but there’s certainly plenty of talent knocking around the left if it can be properly utilised. That means two things. It means setting the egos and rivalries aside when there are important issues at stake. Regular readers will know that I’m far from uncritical of John Rees, but if John is appearing on Newsnight to discuss Gaza then I really want him to do well.

It also means building up a cadre of people who know how the media work, who can do press and who can coordinate amongst themselves. The idea of a united left press centre is far too grandiose, but certainly there should be a pool of good people doing this work, they should be expanding the pool and they should have enough lines of communication open to make sure that whoever is taking the lead (it may be, for instance, PSC or StW on something like this) takes the lead and gets backed up. Crucial to this is spreading the knowledge, which is something recognised on one level as so many left conferences have media workshops.

The late Tony Cliff used to talk about Socialist Worker being a paper with three thousand reporters. For various reasons too boring to go into, that never really transpired. But the democratisation of the media through cheap technology and the internet mean there are greater opportunities now than ever before for activism to enter into public debate. The missing link is a smart approach to the mass media, which is where most people will get their news. Is there the will, or the nous, to do something about this?

Many thanks again to Anna for her insights on this issue, as someone who can see with absolute clarity what needs to be done. The interpretation and any mistakes are of course my own.

Casting a jaundiced eye

Tim has his own entirely justified beef – for which he’s not likely to get the apology he wants – Jamie has given up too, and D2 has a sharp point about the decline into farthood. To be honest, the main thing that keeps me reading Private Eye is sheer inertia – if I had to actively go out and buy a copy, rather than having a sub, I’d probably have given up on it a few years back.

I’ve wondered whether me not laughing at the jokes any more was just a function of age. I’d heard the same thing from other people, but none of us are getting younger. Not, though, that there’s nothing there worth reading. The back pages still have useful material, though a bit lacking in focus since Paul Foot died. Bookworm is often good, and Remote Controller usually very good. But I do kind of agree with Jamie that the in-jokes and private vendettas… well, they were always there, but there was more to it as well. You used to read Street of Shame to find out Robert Maxwell’s latest enormity; these days, what you’re likely to get is an off-colour crack about Bryony Gordon’s tits, and shit, I can do that stuff. Do it funnier, too.

Add to that the comedy sections suffering from a complaint that Alice Cooper often talks about, how he felt under such an obligation to roll out the greatest hits that there was no space in his shows for any new material. Yup, it’s yet another Rocky Horror order of service…

I was thinking of Ingrams there. Ingrams used to tell a story, which was a classic Ingrams story in that it may well have been made up but still illustrated a point. The starting point of this was an ashen-faced Paul Foot arriving in the office after interviewing Enoch Powell. “My God,” gasped Paul, “I liked the bastard!” (I can sympathise with Paul on this score, having once had a similar experience with Horst Mahler.) This led Ingrams, once he had a few quid, to move to the country and only come to London for work purposes, the theory being that his scalpel would be blunted if he had to mix socially with his targets. This, together with Ingrams having been a notably authoritarian editor, helped give the Eye its edge. The old man also had the sense to get out before he’d outstayed his welcome, though not before he’d sacked most of the old gang and lined up a young sycophant to replace him.

And so here we are. The old gang are either dead or chuntering away into elderly crankiness, Hislop and Wheen have been in situ since the 1980s (and are of an age where they could conceivably carry on for another 20 years), and there’s a notable lack of new inspiration. As D2 says, the sycophants of yesterday are the old farts of today, who beget sycophants of their own. The viciousness of old is blunted by the farts being part of the media-luvvie circuit themselves. The vendettas are there yet, but transparently based on little more than personal grudges. The gossip bits are now covered by Guido and his ilk, who can do it all online with much more immediacy than a fortnightly mag can muster. And if I have to read another “Ratbiter” column bigging up Douglas Murray and David Toube as experts on Islam, I’ll be not inconsiderably annoyed. Oh yes.

On reflection, perhaps D2 is a bit harsh in saying that the Eye has transmogrified into Punch. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was a decompression chamber for Oldie readers looking for something a bit more sedate.

Area man wins court case, leaves chiropractors bent out of shape

Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m extremely pleased at Simon Singh’s victory in the Court of Appeal. Dr Singh is an all-round good bloke who had right (and science) on his side, and has been through quite an ordeal; Jack of Kent is another all-round good bloke; the British Chiropractic Association has brought upon itself the biggest own goal in the libel courts since David Irving, and deservedly so; a legal outcome that could have been seriously chilling, both in terms of scientific discussion and of this reprehensible trend of suing individuals rather than media organisations, has been staved off; it’s a good result. It’s such an obviously good result that today I am feeling more charitably disposed than usual towards Dr Death Evan Harris and those horrible bastards from Sense About Science, thanks to their work in holding Simon’s coat; I will even forgive the judges for quoting Areopagitica.

What this leads us on to is the libel reform campaign, which is something I have more mixed feelings about, and I’ll try to explain why. The complex network of statutes, precedents and common law that makes up the law of defamation in the English system is pretty hard to unpick – as ever, the I Am Not A Lawyer caveat must be entered here – and, while it’s clear that some things are badly wrong with the system and I’m sympathetic to the principle of reform (it’s always hard to argue against “reform” or “modernisation”), I’m sceptical that a legislative magic bullet can be devised to set everything right. As ever, we must note the law of unintended consequences – if you do A, then problems B and C might be ameliorated, but D and E made worse. This especially applies when governments allow themselves to get bounced into wide-ranging but hastily drafted legislation.

The tone of the argument has been set by journalists, which is not necessarily illuminating. I make no criticism of Dr Singh, in his remarks yesterday, for talking about the legal problems facing the writer; he is a writer who’s just faced some pretty serious legal problems. Nor do I criticise journalists for reporting the issue from the journalist’s perspective. The issue here is one of Sectionalism on the one hand, and the Common Good on the other. By Sectionalism I mean a body of people aggressively fighting their corner, which is entirely justified from their point of view; by the Common Good I mean the need in framing legislation to take a holistic view of society’s needs.

Some time ago, I was watching a TV discussion between then home secretary Jacqui Smith and her then Tory shadow David Davis, who I was pleased to see was on hand at the Court of Appeal yesterday. This was on one of New Labour’s bits of dopey authoritarianism – probably detention without trial, although I don’t really remember. What I do remember is Wacky Jacqui saying that of course this new power was necessary, because she’d asked ACPO if they wanted the additional power and they said Yes please. This did not impress our old friend DD For Freedom, who pointed out the basic fallacy involved – namely, that any time you ask the plod if they want extra powers, they will always say Yes please. Asking the police whether or not they want extra powers is, well, a bit like asking journalists if they want less restrictive defamation laws.

Another fallacy is the belief, commonly expressed on phone-ins, that the law exists to protect good people and punish bad people. Well, the criminal law up to a point (although it strictly punishes bad actions), but civil litigation is a different case. Anyway, a legal system can’t function on the basis of identifying “goodies” and “baddies”. I mention this because Nick Cohen has done some admirable heavy lifting on behalf of Simon Singh, but I suspect this is due more to his personal (and understandable) sympathy for Dr Singh than it is for the legal principle involved. I suspect this because I remember Nick’s reaction to George Galloway successfully suing the Daily Telegraph and Christian Science Monitor, which was (and I paraphrase) that since Gallows is a reprehensible man with reprehensible opinions, the media should have a legally protected right to say anything they liked about him. As it happens, the law doesn’t work like that, as illustrated by the saying that hard cases make bad law. Legislation has to be framed with a basic principle in mind, and then a process has to be set out that is fair to both sides. It has to be fair to both sides because you never know who’s going to win: Simon Singh could easily have lost on the law, or David Irving could have won on the law, and who you sympathise with is neither here nor there legally.

Having said all that, there are some legal things around defamation and (more pertinently) privacy that need looking at again. In this, I was particularly interested in the Select Committee hearings on the issue last year, which took some very good evidence from Alan Rusbridger and Ian Hislop. This evidence pointed out some obvious problems, without taking us into the apocalyptic “ZOMG! Journalism is being killed by a zillion writs before our very eyes!” view you get from reading Private Eye.

The main issue, according to Hislop, was not libel as such – the last reform of the libel laws seems to have improved things quite a bit, or at least the Eye doesn’t get sued as often – but privacy. The right to privacy is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, but Britain has no French-style privacy law, so you end up with judges creating one by the back door via precedent. Since very few judges specialise in media law, more often than not this means the journalist’s bête noire Sir David Eady. (The Eye in particular likes to portray Eady as a judicial rogue elephant who loves nothing more than to crush valiant hacks. But, while some of his decisions have been questionable – notably in BCA v. Singh – he isn’t in the habit of making legally perverse judgements. The legislative framework is the issue.) Therefore, the legal issues around privacy are largely undefined by primary legislation, and Eady J’s judgement in the Max Mosley case (worth reading for comedy value alone) is probably the most important bit of case law. That, of course, leads you on to a very wide-ranging debate about whether there should be a privacy law and, if so, what it should say.

There’s also the issue of libel tourism, which is something that is being dumped into the mix here by the reform campaign. There is an impression going about, assiduously fostered by the press, that the London libel courts are full of corrupt Russian oligarchs and Saudi sheikhs getting injunctions to silence their critics. We don’t know whether or not this is a statistically significant phenomenon, or whether the numbers are going up or down, because the Ministry of Justice hasn’t released any relevant figures (the figures they do release suggest the number of libel writs and of cases tried is fairly stable year-on-year, but you can’t tell the nationality of the parties). All I know is that Private Eye, despite devoting endless column inches to the subject over several years, is still banging on about the same three or four cases. Likewise, we don’t know the scale of the problem with superinjunctions. There is empirical work needs to be done on this for a serious discussion to be had.

There are, at the heart of this whole argument, two main issues. The first is the issue of access to the law. It used to be that you could only afford to sue for libel if you were extremely rich or (perversely) extremely poor and with nothing to lose. By contrast, most people who could claim are ordinary punters who can’t afford to take on media corporations. There’s a basic issue of unequal distribution of resources. (That’s why the trend of suing individuals instead of – rather than in addition to – the publisher is worrying. The publisher – in the Singh case, that would have been the Guardian – is usually the party that can afford to fight a case.) Short of very serious changes in the order of society, unequal distribution of resources for civil litigation is not something that can be got rid of. At most you can ameliorate it by looking again at legal aid and the fees regime, which is what Jack Straw has been talking about lately.

The second issue is the burden of proof. As is well known, the law of libel is heavily weighted in favour of the plaintiff. All the plaintiff has to do is demonstrate that the words were said by the defendant, that they referred to the plaintiff and that they were defamatory. Then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant, who will probably go for an out-of-court settlement (which is what happens in about 95% of libel cases) but, assuming it goes to court, has various defences he can rely on. These include the defence that the words spoken do not have the defamatory meaning complained of; the defence of fair comment, which is the operative one in BCA v. Singh; and the defence of justification, where you admit that the words were defamatory but justify this on the grounds that they were true (as in Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd and Lipstadt). This is just by way of a very simple overview.

So, this is the system that has grown up over centuries. If you want to change that, in terms of shifting the burden of proof or making it harder to issue a writ, then other things have to follow to balance that out. It might mean an enormously beefed-up right of reply – that is, with genuine balance, not a tiny apology tucked away on page 28 in respect of an outrageous lie that appeared on the front page. This raises the possibility of some media outlets having to give over quite substantial space to rights of reply.

And so we come back to the question of the Common Good, and the question of whether a debate framed in terms of “making it easier for the media” actually serves that. The preferred narrative on libel reform is that there are all these conscientious investigative journalists with thousands of Trafigura-type exposés all ready to go, but for the onerous libel laws. It’s a narrative that’s flattering to journos’ self-image, and it’s not entirely wrong, but nor is it entirely right.

Because, as well as the many good and conscientious journalists (and ingenious ones can find ways around injunctions), there are also plenty of dishonest and lazy journalists who either can’t be bothered to check their facts or just don’t care. (I can think immediately of three or four noisy enthusiasts for libel reform with very extensive records of telling porky pies in print. You would almost think they had a vested interest in gutting the libel laws.) And there are unscrupulous media corporations who don’t care about the truth as long as the bottom line is healthy. You might think, for example, of those papers that went around insinuating that Kate and Gerry McCann had murdered their daughter – they had to pay out substantial libel damages, but they also got a circulation boost that probably left them ahead of the game. Given that the media not infrequently makes shit up – and that ordinary punters monstered by the tabloids can have their lives ruined – and the vast success of the PCC as a regulatory body… well, I suggest thinking very hard before changing the law so that journalists have even less of an incentive to check their facts, or media corporations an even more consequence-free environment.

I have no firm proposals on this, as it happens. I just throw these issues out for discussion. But a good result yesterday at the Court of Appeal, and good luck to Dave with his own situation. And further thoughts along these lines from Gavin Phillipson.

Newspaper astounded to discover that area woman has tits

With a general election coming up and 650 constituencies to choose from, why is the Mail on Sunday particularly preoccupied with the race in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield? I ask merely for information.

To be more precise, the Mail isn’t obsessed with the Ashfield constituency as such. It is obsessed with the candidate chosen by the Labour Party to succeed the retiring Geoff “Buff” Hoon. This is Bradford native Gloria de Piero, a party member since her teens, former party press officer, journalist and well-connected networker. There may be a little celebrity frisson here, as Gloria is coming off a stint as political editor of GMTV, which means that if you used to get up at six in the morning you could see her standing outside the Palace of Westminster in her duffel coat – in the dark, when nobody else was there – to do a “going live” piece to camera. But as celebrity goes… well, we’re not in Simon Cowell territory here.

I have to declare an interest as I knew Gloria slightly back in her days as a NOLS activist. What do I remember about her? She was bright, articulate and energetic; she was down to earth; and she came across as nice, which was memorable as NOLS at the time was defined by Jim Murphy, a man who will never run a charm school. Oh yes, and she had a couple of other outstanding attributes. Even from the other side of a conference hall, you couldn’t miss them.

As I mention, the Mail has had an interest in Gloria for a while, invariably stressing her glamorous image. (Well, relatively glamorous. Vide that duffel coat from the GMTV News Hour; and if she wants to be a Labour MP she’ll have to start dressing like an Avis Rent-a-Car girl. It’s the law.) But now, the Mail has got down to brass tacks. Yes, it’s run a front-page splash on a parliamentary candidate having big tits.


Brown star was a Page 3 girl aged 15: Yesterday she posed with PM, but 20 years ago she was topless model

That was the front-page headline, not of the Sunday Sport, but of the Mail on Sunday. Jesus wept.

Labour’s attempts to add glamour to their Election launch came under fire last night when it emerged that the candidate placed near Gordon Brown in a promotional photo posed topless when she was 15 years old.

The revelation reignites the row over the use of all-women shortlists, when carefully chosen, often glamorous, candidates are parachuted in to safe seats ahead of more qualified local activists.

The second paragraph is what’s technically known as “throat-clearing”, that is a transparent attempt to make it look like a real political story. But back to Gloria’s tits:

The Page Three-style pictures of television presenter Gloria De Piero were taken by a photographic agency in her native Bradford without her parents’ knowledge. Friends say Ms De Piero was seeking to earn some extra money when she posed for the photographs, thought to have been taken in 1988, before her 16th birthday.

So, Page Three “style” pictures. So, she wasn’t actually a Page Three girl then – we’re talking about a young woman who briefly considers modelling as a way of earning money, and poses for a few portfolio photos, one or two of which might have been a bit saucy. It happens all the time.

Such photographs would have been illegal, as she had not yet turned 16.

This may be true, and the age limit for glamour photography has since been raised to 18. But back in the 1980s the boundaries weren’t quite as stringently policed, and a lot of the Page Three phenomenon, then at its height, traded on a “barely legal” aesthetic. Samantha Fox, the biggest name in the business, started topless modelling at 16; one recalls Debee Ashby being expelled from school and unable to do her A-levels after appearing on Page Three.

But party officials deny former GMTV political correspondent Ms De Piero was picked for her looks.

‘Gloria has been a committed Labour supporter for many years,’ said one. ‘The idea that she needed help to become a candidate is nonsense. She is highly intelligent and commands great respect from colleagues in journalism as well as politics. What she did as a teenager is irrelevant. So what if she posed for a few risqué photos?’

Yes, and these photos – assuming they exist, because they haven’t surfaced yet – date from 22 years ago. There is, I’ll grant you, something of an argument about the parachuting of photogenic candidates into safe seats, something that was a huge issue in Labour around 1997 and is a huge issue for “Dave” Cameron’s New Tories today. But the Mail seems more interested in the tits angle:

The revelation will also be an embarrassment to staunch feminist Ms Harman, who has championed all-women shortlists as well as trying to ban semi-naked Page Three girls from newspapers.

Well, one assumes Harriet Harman is a woman of the world. And what of Glenda Jackson’s parliamentary record – she’s not beyond criticism to be sure, but the voters of Hampstead never seemed too perturbed by her having stripped off in Ken Russell films twenty years earlier.

A source close to Ms De Piero confirmed yesterday that she had posed for the topless pictures without her parents’ knowledge when she was 15 years old. The source said: ‘She just decided to do it to earn a bit of money. It was a photographic agency and she knew that the topless pictures could be put out to newspapers.’

Maybe I’m being cynical, but there may just possibly be a bit of damage limitation from Gloria’s side to pre-empt the possibility of those photos suddenly surfacing during the campaign. Certainly, the latter third of the article is complimentary towards her, and could almost come from her own campaign leaflets.

But at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a national newspaper running a front-page splash – with two more pages inside – on “parliamentary candidate has big tits”. One expects this sort of thing on a satirical blog. One even expects it on the Daily Mail website, with its endless stories about top-heavy American celebutante Kim Kardashian – someone virtually unheard of in Britain, but who would generate lots of web traffic from the States – going shopping, eating a salad etc. The 200-plus comments on the Mail website, many of them variations on “phwoar”, would indicate something similar. But all the same, this is a pretty blatant example of Googlejuice churnalism seeping through into the print edition.

And can someone remind me why enormous numbers of women read the Mail? Is it some kind of a masochism kick?

The Hitch talks about his book

It’s the good Hitchens brother, as my old mucker Peter talks about his spanking new book, The Rage Against God. I’m halfway through it at the moment, very enjoyable it is too, and there will be a review to follow. Anyway, give this a watch. Peter’s engaging as ever here, and gives a few fascinating insights into his background and thinking. Very nice pictures of the author as a young boy, alongside the future drink-soaked popinjay.

Newspaperman shocked at existence of lesbians

I’ve been asked what I make of BBC newsreader Jane Hill coming out as gay. On one level, not very much. As long as she does her job well, I really don’t care about her sexuality. But how the story has broken in the media does have points of interest, and is worth a brief deconstruction.

Let us pass over the knuckle-dragging Sun with nary a glance – the story was aired in the national press in the first instance via Richard Kay’s gossip page in the Daily Mail. Mr Kay, in turn, picked it up by the intrepid journalistic ploy of reading the Beeb’s in-house magazine Ariel. The mag regularly runs those “personal appearance” profiles beloved of in-house mags everywhere, wherein the interviewee talks about her interests, hobbies, pets and domestic situation – partner, kids, what have you. In the normal run of things this is a hetero partner, and hence piques no interest. Jane mentioning her same-sex partner, on the other hand, is apparently newsworthy.

To tell you the truth, it’s not really a surprise. Jane’s sexuality is not exactly a state secret, and has been widely rumoured for years.[1] I do like the matter-of-factness of it, not least because it gives the lie to those who take the attitude that straight people discussing their partners is innocuous, while gay people doing the same is somehow ramming their sexuality down people’s throats. Male journalists, it seems, are making a much bigger deal of the gay woman’s sexuality than the gay woman herself. That she seems to have done this in a casual reference rather than the demonstrative coming-out that celebrities went in for twenty years ago probably demonstrates that attitudes are changing for the better.

But let us ponder awhile on Richard Kay. Any hardcore feminists reading his article will probably not be amused by his references to the “comely” Jane, who is living in “non-marital bliss” after “discovering Sapphic contentment”. I don’t take this very seriously – that cod-louche style is very much par for the course for Richard Kay. No, I was thinking there of the way he frames the opening, in terms of Jane’s many male admirers being disappointed. Now, nobody with a bit of sense really thinks there is a lesbian conspiracy to convert all the fit women – I don’t believe for a moment that Kay thinks that – but he’s touched on a point worth considering, albeit that he may not realise it.

Let’s depart from journalism for a second. In the acting profession, which is known for its advanced metrosexual attitudes, out gay men are so common as to be totally unremarkable, whilst I find it hard to think of more than a handful of out lesbians who enjoy professional success. It’s a double standard, of course, and my theory is that it has something to do with women being cast in roles on the basis of their attractiveness, and a possible prejudice that women who are known to be gay will thereby be rendered less attractive. It can’t really be a gay woman’s inability to play straight parts – think how brilliant Ian McKellen has been in innumerable heterosexual roles – and it would mesh with the old Hollywood practice of inventing rampantly heterosexual tabloid personas for male stars who in their private lives were as gay as a goose.

TV journalism is obviously not the same as acting, but it isn’t entirely different in how it selects its female stars. On his recent retirement, Peter Sissons was giving off about the “autocuties” who were achieving prominence on the news as a result of their attractiveness rather than their journalistic ability. Sissons overstated his case – there are plenty of young, telegenic presenters who are actually quite good, and for really serious stories like wars the crusty old men are still preferred – and this made him sound a bit like Ron Burgundy, but he was onto something.

There’s definitely a trend, pioneered I think by CNN in the States, to push relatively young and attractive people into prominent positions. News 24 definitely has that aspect, and a notable bias towards the blonde and skinny, with gleaming white teeth. We’re not talking here merely about the need for people working in front of a camera to be presentable – at times, and especially for women, it goes well beyond that. Take GMTV political correspondent Gloria de Piero. Gloria isn’t a joke journalist – if you’re not up at six in the morning, you can occasionally read articles by her in the New Statesman – but I was struck that GMTV proudly put a notice on their website about her being featured in the FHM Hundred Sexiest Women list. It isn’t quite Gloria’s employers issuing a press release saying “Never mind her journalistic qualifications, look at the size of those norks!”, but it’s not a million miles away.

So, in a business where the fanciability of the female anchor counts for nearly as much as her ability to read the autocue, it makes a sort of sense that the story of Jane Hill’s sexuality might be couched in the terms that Richard Kay uses. But disappointment from male admirers? Let’s try a thought experiment. I don’t often see Jane Hill on the news due to work patterns – if I switch on News 24, it tends to be late at night, when it’s often presented by the very beautiful Martine Croxall. Since Martine is married with kids, it’s a fair assumption that she’s probably straight. But if you were a gay woman who had been captivated by those big blue eyes, would knowing that make you find Martine less sexy? Not if you know the difference between reality and dreams.

To put it another way, Will Young or John Barrowman being gay didn’t stop them becoming pinups for straight women, nor has Hugh Jackman’s straightness stopped gay men fancying him. I can see where an illusion of availability or unavailabity might have some marginal significance, but we’re talking about a construct of the imagination (the person we see on our screens) as against the flesh-and-blood individual (in their real life off the screen). Unless you are a) a personal acquaintance, or b) a scary delusional stalker person, you are not really going to be thinking in terms of getting your leg over with that person off the TV. The point is that what you fancy is an idealised simulacrum. To that extent, the celebrity’s real life isn’t all that relevant, and girls with posters of Will Young on their walls are unconsciously vindicating Baudrillard.

To return, finally, to the matter-of-factness of the “outing”. I do think this shows a change in our general social mores. Think what it was like in the 1970s, when popular culture would retail us comedy poofs like Mr Humphrys but open homosexuals in public life were virtually unheard of, despite years of legalisation. That’s the context in which you have to see the sometimes melodramatic comings out in the 1980s. It was incredibly important, for instance, to have Kenny Everett be open about his struggle with Aids, because Kenny’s openness, and the love the public had for him, helped massively in breaking down taboos around Aids, as much in my opinion as public information campaigns.

I was just talking above about the increased visibility of gay men in the culture, and the relative invisibility of lesbians. I don’t want to heap any expectation on Jane Hill, and am a bit sceptical about the concept of role models, but I will say this. While it’s great to have an activist like Martina Navrátilová or Ellen DeGeneres, there is absolutely no requirement for any gay person in the public eye to be an activist. If we’re talking about what would help young gay women, an increased number of prominent and professionally successful women who just happen to be gay would be of value in itself.

[1] More precisely, it was rumoured that she was bisexual, which may or may not be true. But it scarcely matters, because to the heterosexist mindset There Are No Bisexuals – you’re one thing or the other.

« Older entries