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Jan Moir, Stephen Gately and the real debate

October 20, 2009

POSTED BY PADDY
IN a story which saw a newspaper columnist commit the greatest professional sin of going after the softest possible target – a dead man – Jan Moir’s salacious, wrong headed and prejudiced take on death of Stephen Gately could just become a landmark in journalism regulation.
An avalanche of complaints to the PCC orchestrated first on Twitter has seen where online social media provides publics with a chance not only to have their say on what is written by news organisations, but challenge it.
Here I post some of my posts to The Word magazine blog on Friday evening about the matter.
I first anticipated that it would re-open the issue of statutory regulation of the press and the beginning of the end of self-regulation. I am also adding now the allegation that the Mail has been attacking the BBC due to its own commercial interests and that this has to be a dimension of the regulation argument.

“I shudder to go back on previously strongly-held beliefs, but, surely in an age where commercial media companies with large newspaper interests are invidiously calling for greater regulation of the BBC, then the incidents this week make a fine counter case for statutory regulation of newspapers. Tired arguments for the market regulating itself don’t play any more. Is it time to save newspapers from themselves in the long term?”

After this I took issue with the nature of the column which is a horrible example of taking a shot at a) someone who couldn’t have right of reply and, b) flew in the face of the facts of the case anyway. I was responding to accusations I was merely a right-on, left Guardian reader, or a tofu munching sandal wearer.

“Surely it isn’t right on to object to gleefully and maliciously dancing on the grave of a poor fella before he is in the sod and to attack his grieving mother.
If so, then hand me my dungarees, Greenham Common t-shirt and the keys to the Steven Biko one-legged whale/lesbian drop in centre circa 1981. I’ll be the chairperson sisters and brothers.”

One poster then claimed ‘It’s not the job of newspapers to reflect the moral code we think readers should have.’ My response:

“Which is why the Mail does it tediously and in a method middle England fashion every day: working mothers, feckless scroungers, immigrants, women who wear the veil, gays, thieving politicians* ad nauseum, declining standards blah-de-feckin-tosspot-blah.
* actually I’ll concede that one.”

Again the idea of the most mythical of powerful blocs in British society, a liberal Liberal establishment, reared its head. The PC brigade who somehow censor right thinking (racist/ homophobic?) discourse.

“Who are the liberal establishment?
No-one has ever been able to tell me this.
And, if they are so powerful, why have they achieved so little that Jan Moir can still spout this cack in the second biggest-selling national daily?
Who are the right on brigade? Have they got a uniform and regimental hat? Are they forgotten Spanish Civil War veterans?
Where do they parade? I bet you’ll say Hackney.
Yawnsome.”

Again posters claimed it was a Guardian orchestrated campaign of right-on politics and that the Guardian didn’t have to do this kind of populist journalism because of its trust status. And that us sandal wearers should just not read it. My contestation to this is that in civil society we have a right and an obligation to protest against this kind of journalism as it is offensive and divisive. At heart mine is a Habermasian and/ or Gramscian argument, that through engagement in protest (praxis) we change society and its shifting morals of what is acceptable in public discourse.

“The Guardian’s organisation has nothing to do with this and is merely a squirrel in this debate.
It’s not moral superiority, just a democratic protest we are allowed to indulge in in civil society against a piece of terrible, flimsy, mean spirited, vindictive and homophobic journalism.
Freedom of speech for journalists is not a carte blanche to produce this kind comment. It breaches both our codes of conduct/ practice, it causes outrage which reflects badly on a profession suffering both a massive crisis of self-identity and of public confidence.
And the argument that we didn’t have to read it doesn’t wash – when someone produces this kind of offensive rubbish it’s not sufficient just to say ‘Hey, don’t read it’ – any more so than we would with a piece of religiously offensive rubbish.
I’m afraid in this case there is no devil’s advocate standpoint – it was wrong headed journalism on a number of levels.
It’s not about ‘rightness’

and,

“I didn’t say I was right, I said I was right to protest against this kind of wrong headed, negative journalism which serves no purpose other than pure outrage. It was puerile in the truest sense of the word. (It also smacks of being written too closely to deadline for comfort.)
It does nothing for the profession and does little to advance the cause of deliberative democracy or the role of journalism in it.
And, it is within my rights to say so and try and take action against it.
I don’t take offence lightly, I’m not even slightly right on (in fact I’m quite portly). It’s not simply the homophobia I object to – jaysus we’d never be off our HHs if we complained against that – it’s the mean spiritedness towards someone whose family hadn’t even buried him yet.”

The great thing about the Word Magazine is that no-one fell out and that those on the Mail’s unfashionable (and wrong) side of the debate put their heads articulately above he parapet.

The most articulate post came from a gay man who responded vigorously and eloquently. Fairplay to MarkieChops. Read his reply and the the full debate here.

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