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Tabloid watch: Keeping an eye on the red tops

On 31st March 2011, the Daily Express front page headline claimed 'Salt Banned in Chip Shops'. The truth was rather more mundane - a scheme called ASK had been set-up in Stockport to put salt behind the counter of food outlets so customers would have to ask if they wanted it. Five places had voluntarily signed up. Nothing was 'banned'. No one was 'forced' to do anything. There were no 'diktats' enforced by 'health police'. Never mind events in Libya, Japan or the Ivory Coast - the most important news for the Express that day was about a ban on salt that wasn't a ban at all. And it seems clear the headline and framing of the story was no accident. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead. Tabloid Watch, my blog about bad journalism, covered the Express' story as soon as it appeared on their website on Wednesday night. By the time the paper hit shelves the following day, my blog post proving it wasn't true was available to anyone searching the internet for more info about this 'ban'. I started writing Tabloid Watch just over two years ago. I was increasingly frustrated that poor journalism was going unquestioned and unpunished. Day after day I could see stories in the press, particularly the tabloid press, that were highly problematic or extremely partial, if not completely untrue, and often twisted to fit a particular agenda. And it seemed as if nothing was being done - or could be done - about it. The 'salt banned' story is at the more frivolous end, but fits into the genre of political correctness gone mad/health and safety tales that are rarely as clear cut as the papers make out. But when the targets are minority groups, it's a more serious problem. On 19th September 2010, the same publication ran a front page headline announcing 'Muslim Plot To Kill Pope'. Six men had indeed been arrested but most of the media coverage was very muted. Not from the Express, which proclaimed 'Islamic terrorists disguised as street cleaners allegedly hatched an audacious plot to blow up the Pope.' Note the language - they were already 'Islamic terrorists' but were only 'allegedly' involved in this plot. Two days later, in one sentence buried at the end of another article on page nine, the paper made clear the men had all been released without charge. There was, of course, no apology for labelling them terrorists plotting to kill the Pope a few days before. It was as far removed from the front page screamer as possible. Muslims, like immigrants and Gypsies, are on the receiving end of an incredible amount of negative media coverage. Certain tabloids fill their pages with exaggerated, inflammatory and often incorrect stories attacking minorities, which in turn seep into the public consciousness. They get repeated on other websites, especially websites of the far right, and become accepted as true. Nonsensical claims about illegal immigrants getting free cars (Carole Malone, News of the World) or being saved from deportation for having a cat get repeated as fact in readers' letters and newspaper website comments, long after the original article appears. It was notable that when journalist Rich Peppiatt resigned from the Daily Star, the points he made about the Star's made-up celebrity stories and anti-Muslim agenda were arguments blogs such as mine have been making for years. So who holds the media to account? It should be the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), but this pitiful regulator has proved time and time again that it is completely unable and unwilling to do it. The Editor's Code of Practice is actually fairly comprehensive, but the PCC fails to uphold it in letter or spirit. Earlier this year, the owners of the Daily and Sunday versions of the Express and Star stopped paying the fee that helps fund the PCC and which shows a news organisation is signed up to the system of self-regulation. Four of the worst offending newspapers simply opted out of the regulatory system and the PCC was powerless to do anything about it. Not that the PCC does much to newspapers within its remit anyway. One problem is that its powers to punish newspapers are so feeble. Editors will come up with all manner of excuses against fines, but if Ofcom can impose them on broadcasters that break the rules - the BBC was fined £150,000 over 'Sachsgate' and ITV paid £5.675m for running misleading phone-in competitions - why is it inappropriate for the newspapers? The PCC and most newspaper editors will say that a negative adjudication from the PCC is penalty enough. In reality, it means very little. In September 2010, the PCC ruled against the Star's 'Muslim-Only Public Loos' story on the basis that they weren't Muslim-only and they weren't publicly-funded. It expressed concern about the Star's 'lack of care' in the presentation of the story. Yet a few weeks later, a Star front page carried two headlines that were blatantly untrue. 'Cowell: My feud with Cheryl' included the quote "No. Cheryl and I haven't had a fight, yet!" while the story under 'Love-rift Kara quits Strictly' provided no evidence she'd done any such thing and, indeed, Ms Tointon went on to win the show. Clearly, the PCC's adjudication had no effect on the Star's behaviour at all. When the Sunday Express in Scotland published an appalling front page story that intruded into the lives of the teenagers who had survived the Dunblane massacre, the PCC ruled: 'Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.' What did the PCC make the paper do? Publish the PCC's lengthy adjudication against it, four months after the event. Does the PCC really think that remedies it? In May 2010 a poll published by Ofcom showed only 34% of people said they trusted what they read in newspapers, compared with 66% who trusted radio news and 54% TV news. A YouGov poll from September 2010 revealed only 41% of respondents had 'total trust' in up-market newspapers, 21% in mid-market papers and only 10% in the tabloids. 83% had little or no trust in the red-tops. Of the 25 professions listed, tabloid journalists came last behind estate agents and, amusingly, EU officials. Perhaps if there was an effective regulator holding them to account, making them correct and apologise for untrue stories and fining them for serious breaches of the Code, then levels of trust would not be so low. There are few outlets for criticising and debunking stories. Media Monkey and Roy Greenslade do it occasionally for MediaGuardian, and Private Eye's Street of Shame highlights hypocrisy and poor practice but being a fortnightly publication it has issues of topicality. Does my blog and others like it make any difference? Probably not. Compared to the readership of the newspapers I write about, my readership is small (around 1,500-2,000 visits per day). It's a one-person, part-time effort (although could easily be a full-time one) and I am under no illusion that hardcore Mail readers are going to read my blog and change their mind, if they even read my blog at all. I don't doubt that there is an element of preaching to the converted - that my blog's readers and my 7,200 followers on Twitter are sympathetic to my views - but at least it means that an alternative view is out there. And in doing a job that neither the PCC or other media seem keen to do, blogs such as Tabloid Watch, Angry Mob, Enemies of Reason and Minority Thought are definitely needed. )

Next article in issue 38

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