Whatever happened to 'SACK THEM!'?

"SACK THEM!" screamed the Daily Mail around a year ago, on the fourth consecutive front page to feature news of a now infamous prank call. This was the point that the paper went beyond reporting the 'outrage' and started demanding drastic action from its commercial rival, disguising its calls as reportage of others' demands. The action just so happened to include sacking two of its biggest stars and audience-pullers, which was a nice coincidence.

The front pages continued for days, reporting how even the Prime Minister had been co-opted into commenting over the confected outrage, and culminated with a front page celebrating the resignation of a radio 2 producer and the announcement of the introduction of a new BBC code with the headline 'THE BBC WAKES UP TO DECENCY'. In the event, three people resigned, one was suspended and the BBC had to pay a £150,000 fine. The Mail pushed the attack with a front page a coupe of days after the fine (and five months after the original offending broadcast) featuring a 'Ross defiant over BBC fine' headline, which seems to have been included as an excuse to print a picture of Ross's wife as much as anything else. The paper has campaigned against Ross ever since.

A year later, and the Mail is itself the subject of a record number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission about a nasty article by Jan Moir. Of course, the Mail hasn't sacked Moir or the person responsible for the article being published, and neither has the paper issued an apology or removed the article from its website. The paper has printed a couple of critical articles (one of which didn't even name Moir), and one article 'Stephen Gately debate dominates internet' that is unintentionlly hilarious for its lack of 'fury' or 'outrage' and cynical downplaying of the number of complaints received by the PCC. None of that is a surprise though. The Mail constantly does things it lambasts others for. In the aftermath of the Ross/Brand debacle, the paper pressed another of its commercial rival's top draws by trying to whip up outrage about Jeremy Clarkson murdering prostitutes, forgetting that its own readers quite like Clarkson, and that its very own Richard 'Smellyface' Littlejohn said far worse things in all seriousness about murdered prostitutes. Despite the appearance it tries to project, the paper is far more concerned with economics than morality.

What is really interesting is how newspapers' previous virtual monopoly on the mechanisms of spreading information and calling to action is being lost, which can only have a knock-on effect for the PCC and self regulation. Previously, newspapers like the Mail exploited the power offered them by the ability to distribute information to a wide audience to whip up outrage, usually at commercial rivals like the BBC. This way, millions of people who may never heard of outrages like the Ross/Brand prank call could not only be informed that they had taken place, but encouraged to complain and make demands that might hurt those rivals. As well as the failed attempt to target Jeremy Clarkson, the Mail drew readers' attention to something they can never have actually seen, because it was impossible. In 'After Sachs, the BBC promised to clean up its act. So why was Dr Who star John Barrowman encouraged to expose himself live on air?' the Mail was outraged. The headline doesn't tell you that Barrowman exposed himself on the radio, where the audience could not possibly have seen. Who could have been moved to complain about hearing the sound of someone's willy?

What has happened in this case, and in the earlier case with the Scottish Sunday Express attacking teenage Dunblane survivors (which was ironic in itself since the paper whipped up a different outrage to the one it intended) is that other people who have means of reaching a wide audience - Graham Linehan, Stephen Fry, Derren Brown and Charlie Brooker among others - circulated news of these two nasty articles to a much wider audience than would have seen them in earlier years.

Before the free online publication of newpapers, not only would there have been no means to reach such a wide audience (Brooker's excellent article appeared in the online version of the Guardian first), but it's unlikely that very many of the 21,000 people who have complained, including the celebrities who disseminated the information would have seen the article at all.

M&S and Neslte have had their advertising removed from pages around the Moir article on the Mail website, hurting the paper financially to some degree.  These companies ar no doubt aware that when it comes to online advertising, the Mail reaches more than the audience it targets.  Corporations like these will be conscious of that fact now, knowing that it's not just disgisting homophobes who will see articles like Moir', but people disgusted by homophobia too.  When Nestle is worried that its brand image will be tainted by the Mail, you know the paper is doing something wrong.

As Sarah Ditum reports, this means the PCC has had to suspend its policy of not replying to third party complaints in this case. It might have to get used to that. It may even have to start actually dealing with complaints too, since the current set up is unlikely to impress anyone who hs never encountered the PCC before. If I'm right about the PCC's policy of counting complaints, this one will end up being counted at the end of the year as one upheld/not upheld complaint rather than 21,000. When information like that reaches the 21,000 or so people who complained, not even the figleaf of an investigaton will hide the PCC's willy. I can already hear it from here.


Ernie Goggins said...

The sound of a willie is just the thin end of the wedge.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Wasn't that one of the songs in 'The Wizard of Oz?'

Matthew Smith said...

The problem with Ross & Grant was that there are rules about what kind of language callers to phone-ins can use, even after the watershed which doesn't exist on radio. If you swear, you get cut off; with F or C words it's no ifs or buts, you're gone, and with lesser swear words, some hosts might cut you off and others won't. I once heard Eddie Nestor (then on Sunday morning) cut a woman off who said she was dying of cancer; she had been a cannabis smoker for years and said that she would get to work and say "f*** this".

The Radio 2 sequence included the use of the F word at prime time, with no such excuse as an emotional situation or anger. It was pre-recorded as well. Jan Moir's article was bigoted and unpleasant and published at the worst possible time, but it was not obscene. I take the point, though, that the Daily Wail spends much time orchestrating mass complaints and now gets more complaints in a weekend than the PCC has had in five years.

Mephitis said...

I think it's a delicious delicious irony that the Daily Mail & Moir are getting some of that "heavily orchestrated campaign"ing. I only hope you're right that it'll mean changes for the PCC.