Truth and the scattergun

I know someone who once got involved with a married woman. Very little happened, and she was separated at the time, but still, there was a point where it looked as though she'd be divorcing her husband for him. She'd moved out, she was planning to share a flat with a friend and she had told my mate that they could start properly seeing each other once that happened. There were lots and lots of times where she complained about her husband, talked about how she could never trust him again, could never go back to him, had no feelings for him. You know the drill. So my friend was quite shocked one day to discover she'd been going to counselling sessions with her husband without letting him know, and was about to move back in with the guy she'd said she would never trust again and could never go back to, also without letting him know. In fact, he found out from someone else.

As you can imagine, my mate felt a bit let down and said so. At this, the married woman got angry and said she couldn't believe he would think she would leave her husband because she'd told my mate she wouldn't. Apparently, she had. Once, right at the beginning, before she moved out, before she told him everything about not ever being able to go back to the guy and all that fun stuff. Of course, my mate thought everything that came later was important because she'd said it after, she'd said it more often, and because her actions - moving out, carrying on with my mate and so on - contradicted that statement. But she thought the one statement she made at first was the most important - that saying that one thing once invalidated all the times she said something contradictory. Like firing a sawn-off shotgun and then claiming you only wanted one or two pellets to hit the target.

"So," you might ask, "what's this got to do with the tabloids? I want more jokes about doing a poo in someone's pocket." Well, I'll tell you. This is exactly how the tabloids operate. In 'Withdrawn!' I talk about one aspect of this. There'll be an article that says contradictory things, some relatively accurate and some rubbish, and if anyone complains the paper will argue that we're supposed to take the more or less accurate statement away with us rather than the misleading stuff it's buried in. The PCC will back this up if you complain. Of course, anyone with vaguely average intelligence can tell that this is dishonest bollocks. If a paper like the Express leads with a headline that says, 'Bombers are all spongeing asylum seekers', that's because it wants people who see it to believe that the bombers are all sponging asylum seekers - not because it wants people to think that none of them are. Doesn't take Stephen effing Hawking to work that out.

But the Daily Mail (other papers too, but especially the Mail) uses this tactic on a much wider scale, to defend its own general approach. Just try saying that the Mail produces racist articles to a committed reader. They'll fire right back about the paper's support for Stephen Lawrence and the paper's attacks against his alleged killers (one of the incredibly few times it has ever done anything approaching admirable). Leaving aside the point that it's perfectly possible to be racist without wanting anyone murdered - we're supposed to ignore all the other times the paper has exaggerated immigration statistics, attacked minority groups (like it has recently with Muslims and the Polish), misled its readers about asylum seekers and so on; focus on the times the paper has done things that could be construed as non or even possibly anti racist, and take these as characterising the paper. Whether or not the paper could be considered racist overall, which might be debatable, it's true that it has produced racist articles and attacked anti-racist politics and continues to do so. As the paper fires its scattergun, these things get shot out too. The spray will do more damage than one or two pellets.

Related to this is the Mail's approach to the BNP. I wrote about this at length early on in this blog's life, but I've removed those posts because I want to work on them to produce a better piece to add here later. The jist of those posts were that the Mail claims to be anti-BNP because it calls them nasty names, but actually spends a lot of time, sometimes even in the same articles as the name calling, defending their policies or ideas. Also, their editorial stance is not a million miles from what the BNP themselves actually say.

The best example of this can be seen in two articles published on the same day about Nick Griffin walking free from court earlier this year. One, 'Free speech and the collision of cultures' says:
In Leeds, two members of the odious British National Party walk free from court, even though they had been filmed making remarks about Muslims that the great majority of Britons would regard as deeply offensive
The other, 'Cheers as BNP leader walks free' is downright celebratory. I challenge you to find anything negative at all in this article.

Of course, we're supposed to take the namecalling in the first article as characteristic of the Mail's approach to the party. Not the entire second article, and not the parts of the first where it effectively says , "and anyway, what about the Muslims and the Danish cartoons - there's a collision of cultures - and what the BNP said wasn't as bad as the Jerry Springer opera". Definitely not the fact that in all the Mail's coverage of the trial, not one word of the prosecution was reported while the defence got an article all to itself, and the more extreme things Griffin and Collett said were left out. The bits where the Mail calls the BNP 'vile' are supposed to trump all that (not to mention the paper's own anti-Muslim, anti-asylum, anti-immigration rhetoric). BOOM! goes the scattergun.

Gary Younge of the Guardian gave a presentation to the Runnymede Trust Conference on Developing Community Cohesion back in 2002. The whole thing's worth a read, but particuarly important to the scattergun approach to the truth is the opening:
I was reading Media Guardian a few weeks ago, on a Monday morning, and Paul Dacre says:
The old Daily Mail, I will be the first to admit, was slightly racist, but we are not now, and Stephen Lawrence was a turning point on that. It was a pivotal moment and, not that we did it for those reasons, we now have a lot more Black and Asian readers, and by God, I would like more of them. Racism appals me, and I wish I could get more Black and Asian reporters working for us but they don’t come into journalism….
The same day Paul Dacre, who is the Head of both the Mail and the Evening Standard, fired three Black and Asian reporters from the Evening Standard. All of which is to say there is a lot of nonsense and hypocrisy, and obfuscation that surrounds discussions of race in the media
See, there are two relevant facts here. Dacre says he wants more Black and Asian reporters to work for him, and on the same day he fires three. We're clearly supposed to take one of these two things to be indicative of his policy - and it's clearly what he says rather than the actions he takes that contradict it. BOOM!

This approach to the truth links in nicely with the confirmation bias of a paper's readership. As I said in 'Withdrawn!', if a reader already believes there's an immigration crisis, they're going to believe exaggerated stats over buried bits of accuracy. If a reader already thinks political correctness has gone mad, they're more likely to believe a council is banning something now rather than believe that a council advised against it at some point in the past. Especially if the fucking headline tells them that.

In a similar way, if a person believes themselves not to be racist, they'll likely nod along with the namecalling aimed at the BNP as well as nodding along with the paper's reports that mirror the party's policies, without ever connecting the two.

So, when this paper (and other tabloids) says or does something anti-racist, or anti-homophobic, or vaguely sensible, remember that the other things the paper does are just as important, if not more so. It's the cumulative effect of all of them together that are important, not just one or two pellets.


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