Today
Sun 5 December 2021

As Prince Harry calls out the British press for its cultures of attack, Dr Bethany Usher explores the history of journalism targeting specific individuals and how we might spot and counter it

We have all watched a press attack. Suddenly, an individual – usually a celebrity – is vilified. Visibility is strategically and noticeably increased, but aimed at firmly casting the person from ‘respectable’ social spheres.

Willingly or unwittingly, we may have joined in by clicking on content, comments and subtweets, shares and likes. In stat-driven newsrooms, popularity means that more of the same is produced and other publications follow suit. Few industries have a pack mentality like journalism and want audiences click on now holds a significant place in their decision-making.

In recent weeks, Prince Harry has outlined how cultures of attack between the British press and social media trolls are increasingly intertwined. He has highlighted how certain headlines – including the ‘Megxit’ slur used in reference to his and Meghan Markle’s decision to step down as senior royals and move to the US – originated with misogynistic and racist trolls on Twitter and was then shared by some journalists before making the front pages.

“This problem did not originate on social media,” he said. “I learned from a very early age that the incentives of publishing are not necessarily aligned with the incentives of truth. The British press have successfully turned fact-based news into opinion based gossip with devastating consequences for the country.”

While this is undoubtedly true, there is a risk in thinking that something has changed in the British news media. In fact, the notion of attack was built into the very DNA of the British press as it developed.


Toothless Recourse

Since the origin in the 18th Century of British newspapers, there have been many different purposes and consequences of attack journalism.

On one hand, the moderation of public persona links into ideologies of journalism as a watchdog of democracy and ensuring integrity and honesty of those in positions of public power. On the other, it is a useful channel for controlling debate through mixing the personal with the professional and political. At worst, persistent publication becomes harassment and can have far-reaching individual and social costs.

Victims of attack who turn to press regulators often find no recourse. Codes of practice do not offer specific guidance on personalised attacks and persistent publication and complaints are often simply rejected. In the seven years since it was set up, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has never fined a member organisation for a culture of attack – despite numerous complaints from members of the public, celebrities and politicians alike.

As the Online Harms Bill moves through Parliament – which recommends legislation to tackle toxic social media discourse including trolling or ‘instigating pile-ons’ – change is now pressing. But there is little chance of stemming abuse without also tackling it in the mainstream press – not least because news content there often leads the charge.

And, without clarity of what constitutes an attack and why, legislation could easily become a means to curb legitimate discussion rather than to clean-up public discourse.

As one of the longest standing discourses of mass media, and a key means by which it exerts and maintains cultural and political power, we should all look to how we might spot and counter the attacks. 


Spotting Attacks

Attack journalism has an identifiable methodology. It is sustained, usually across multiple publications and now social media platforms. It often refers to characteristics of difference such as class, race, gender or sex or religion. It challenges the meaning of the ‘public interest’, and often creates false narratives or ‘fake news’. Individuals are offered little or no space for a right to reply, are personally vilified, and there is little regard for their wellbeing.

The oldest example in newspaper archives was by The Times but quickly escalated across multiple publications. It focused on the journalist, celebrity and political revolutionary Thomas Paine. When, more than 300 years later, then Labour Leader Ed Miliband was attacked during the 2015 General Election campaign, there were startling similarities in tone, language and purpose – particularly in the Murdoch press.

The reason for each attack were simple enough. Both Paine and Miliband threatened the power of the established press and the political order.

Paine radically disrupted models of print production by offering pamphlets that could be read, understood and afforded by ordinary people and argued for wide-scale political and social change, including votes for the working class. Miliband criticised the ethics of tabloid media and monopolies, suggested Rebekah Brooks should resign and that Rupert Murdoch’s empire be dismantled. As a News Corporation executive allegedly threatened, this meant that they were “going to make it personal”.

The language was remarkably similar too. Miliband was rather unimaginatively labelled ‘Red Ed’ and Paine ‘Mad Tommy’. Both were falsely accused of criminality with suggestions that Miliband used “slave labour” and that Paine was a thief. They were both portrayed as stupid and bent on class division – in Miliband’s case a “grisly mix of left and lefter” and in Paine’s a “public pest” who was “envious” of the wealthy because he was working class and uneducated.

There were references to them being “barmy” or to their “lunacy” and suggestions that each of them would ‘defile’ the political and social order. Perhaps the most curious similarity was that the masculinity of each was questioned specifically in relation to their trousers. Miliband would “not wear the trousers”, while Paine’s “breeches” were found in the “water closet”. 

Other instances of attack may be less overtly political.

The earliest archived example focusing on gender to diminish political voice was against Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who became the first celebrity and woman to campaign for a political party. The Conservative press declared her a whore, although the Whigs countered that she was a “celestial” goddess.

For women who challenge the norms of ‘acceptable femininity’, there are often references to their sex lives. In recent years, we all sadly saw the horrendous consequences of such rhetoric for TV presenter Caroline Flack. In the early 1970s, misogynistic language was turned to men who challenged gender norms such as David Bowie who in the Daily Mirror was continually labelled “bizarre” and even described as “like a Soho stripper” who “bumps and grinds” and “waggles his hips”. 

Misogyny is now targeted at people from LGBTQ+ communities. For young black men who challenge racist rhetoric, attacks bring race, class and national identity together. The England footballer Raheem Sterling, for instance, has been portrayed by the tabloids as both a traitor and as personally scandalous. 

Tracking attack journalism offers tantalising glimpses into how media cultures travel across time and space – in this case through word of mouth in newsrooms and the power of journalism’s linguistic constructions. But, by understanding how to spot and counter it, we have the means to separate what is legitimate debate from what is not.


Countering Attacks

In an ideal world, Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry – which was supposed to investigate the relationship between news organisations, journalists and the police – would have occurred and resulted in a focused independent press regulator with teeth. But the windows for reform are now narrow.

If we can get codes of conduct right and better promote them to journalists through professional bodies, institutes of training, unions and legal and staff handbooks, we could look to collective cultural change.

The key areas for British news media regarding the IPSO code is “harassment” and for Ofcom “fairness”. At present, both of these bodies address persistent pursuit as harassment or “unfair” newsgathering practices. Neither directly address abuse through persistent publication. 

As all codes of practice have a ‘public interest’ get-out clause for invasion of privacy or harassment, there needs to greater discussion of the constant conflation with this and what is simply interesting to members of the public. Regulatory codes define the public interest in substance, but this also needs to be clarified in opposition to examples that are not. For celebrity journalism in particular, attack is powerful click-bait and the ‘public interest’ justification for breaches of the code often seems to be popularity. Too often, amplifications of falsehood or rumour are justified by journalists because the information is already in the public domain. Both journalists and online users alike need to consider whether rumour or conjecture are fuelling content. 

Importantly, mindful conversations are needed in newsrooms. It was ordinary people and independent-minded journalists after all who rehabilitated Thomas Paine and celebrated his activism instead of following the pack. We have much to learn from how they did so.

Dr Bethany Usher is deputy head of media, culture and heritage at Newcastle University, and the author of ‘Journalism and Celebrity‘. She is also a former tabloid journalist who quit and spoke out about cultures of attack in newsrooms

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