Sunday, June 11, 2006

The tabloids: Britain's poison press

Caught lying yet again: story
Would that it were a one-off, but the tabloid press has a long history of inventing stories to please their proprietors including the 'loony left' council scandals that regularly erupted during the Thatcher period. Most notorious of all, the supposed EU directive regarding the curvature of bananas - not only did it not exist, but the nearest thing to it was a British Board of Trade draft from 1962 iirc.
Other than pure invention there's the trick of conflating phrases to build a non-existent linkage. Choose any tabloid story about asylum seekers and you'll find the term 'illegal immigrant' is used interchangeably, and vice-versa. This is a superbly crafted trick, and clearly shows none of this is the result of sloppy journalism, rather than the calculated slyness of highly-educated, experienced writers.
One guy I used to work with, a committed Labour supporter, told me of how when stuck on a train journey once he got talking with the bloke opposite him. The bloke was coming out with some very right-wing opinions, and my workmate pretended to agree with him to lead him on. Eventually the bloke turned out to be a Sun journo and was actually proud of his work to 'keep the working-class in their place'.

Outside the political arena, it also extends to science and medicine. A personal favourite read is Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. The main villain amongst the tabloids in this case is the Daily Mail, the mainstay of the permanently-outraged middle class curtain twitchers, a true champion of ridiculous health scares, quack medicine and pseudo-mystical gibberish. Remember the Bible Codes, supported by the Daily Mail long after its originator, a Professor Eli Rips, had himself dismissed it?

While there's virtually no chance of the mega-rich owners of the poison press being called to account (is there any more ridiculous body than the Press Complaints Commission?), the internet does go some way to undermining their stranglehold on debate. It rather transforms the flock of geese following a leader to a leaderless buffalo herd, it decentralises it. It does not however stop the unsubstantiated rumour mill. By way of example, a distant relative was discovered to have been murdered this year, Charlene Downes. Her body hasn't been found; given that the accused is a foreigner that owned a kebab shop, it didn't take long for the extreme right to invent a story that her flesh had been served up in kebabs and her bones used to make grout. The story's repeated, parrot-fashion, all over their sites and is easy enough to find. What you won't find is a shred of evidence to support it. This includes the supposedly respectable BNP. Even more bizarrely, some are hailing her as a martyred race-warrior (whatever the f**k that means).

As the information producers can't be absolutely trusted (and in some cases not even slightly), the only way forward, really, is for the consumers to become more sceptical. But, particularly given the current celeb-fetish, I cant see it happening soon.


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