The reaction to Jan Moir’s article about the death of Stephen Gately has been widespread and swift. Fuelled primarily by Twitter and Facebook, complaints about homophobia flooded in on the Daily Mail, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the firms who were unlucky enough to have their adverts appearing on the page. The headline was changed, the PCC’s website crashed, the adverts were pulled and many members of the public got a taste of how effective a simple tweet, email or phone call can be.
The big dilemma now is for the Press Complaints Commission because, although many of the messages urging people to complain to the PCC were helpfully specific about which clauses of its code should be referenced, the real issue for the PCC to decide is not in the code itself.
The issue is about its remit:
We normally accept complaints only from those who are directly affected by the matters about which they are complaining.
This point doesn’t appear in the PCC’s code itself, which is why I think it has been missed by many of those urging complaints. It means to be effective a complaint has to address why Jan Moir’s article is not a case of normal circumstances. Hence my complaint includes:
I would submit that this is not a “normal” case, because:
(a) The widespread public reaction to the publication of the piece, resulting in the crashing of your website, a special page being added and your staff going on the record that they have received a near record number of complaints. That by itself is not a “normal” case.
(b) When someone’s relative has died there are all sorts of reasons as to why they may not wish to take up any regulatory actions. People may wish to grieve in private. They may have bureaucratic complications to deal with. They may wish to think about the media coverage of their personal tragedy as little as possible. Whatever the reason, these are precisely the sort of circumstances in which normal rules about requiring them personally to complain should not automatically apply.
(c) The nature of the complaints about the article, particular on the grounds of discrimination, is one that affects the wider population. For example, if a newspaper piece was to incite racial hatred, that could have an impact on people other than those named in the piece.
(d) Your remit explicitly provides for considering complaints from people other than those directly affected – hence the use of “normally”. If this is not such a case, what is?
(If you’ve not yet lodged a complaint, or have made one but didn’t address the remit question, you can use the special PCC form for this case at http://pcc.codecircus.co.uk/pcc/ [now defunct]).
The PCC has traditionally interpreted “normally” as meaning “pretty darn near all the time”, which is why this case will present them with a major dilemma. If they concede it isn’t normal, will that lead to their code being forced in to use much more widely in future as people can complain about poor and shoddy journalism even though it doesn’t name themselves? If they insist this is just another normal case, will the PCC’s reputation survive?
The Press Complaints Commission does not have the best of reputations to begin with, and the media itself has a major crisis of trust with its readers. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, the debate about charging for online news is too much about business models and technicalities and not enough about the underlying problem of trust. The latest MORI trust barometer puts journalists as the second-least trusted profession, only just beating politicians. With the widespread availability of free news sources, why pay for something you don’t really trust in the first place?
For the PCC to turn its back on the public and say, “Sorry, if you’re not named in a story, we don’t care how good a case you can make that our rules have been broken” wouldn’t just damage the PCC, it would further damage the media’s financial prospects. It would also open the door for any politician who wants to see more press regulation. Normally a politician wanting to regulate the media is, rightly, on the back foot given that democracy benefits from a media which leaves politicians uncomfortable. This though would offer a completely different set of circumstances.
The PCC isn’t the only body that should be thinking carefully about the impact of the last two days. Despite the Mail’s complaints about an “orchestrated” campaign, in reality this was anything but. There were multiple different sources of complaints, all brought together not by organisation but by a common revulsion at the original piece and in particular its original headline: “Why there was nothing natural about Stephen Gately’s death”.
Questions of discrimination and media standards are covered by a host of campaigning organisations and pressure groups but they too were largely caught flat footed by the speed of events. Unless they can find a role for themselves in a world where public opinion can be mobilised so quickly and effectively without needing an organisation, they will struggle. There are plenty of possible roles – including being the source of authoritative research or being the catalyst for long-term campaigns – but it is easy to see a bleak future for those smaller groups whose existence has primarily been as the source of a quote for the media with an organisation name attached to give it some apparent weight.
The Daily Mail too will be pondering the lessons too. It is rather ironic that having frequently dismissed social media and Twitter as faddish trivia for celebrities and their hangers-on (even having another dig today) it has now been on the receiving end of a very clear demonstration of how misplaced that view is. Perhaps that’s why Daily Mail and Jan Moir both missed the point so badly when talking about an “orchestrated” campaign.
The previous displays of Twitter’s reach to encourage voting in ludicrous polls in the Mail’s site was no more than a minor inconvenience which, by strenghtening the Mail’s image as being a paper with a very particular editorial line, even had a silver lining for the paper. An online campaign that results in adverts being pulled is another matter altogether.
And as for everyone who has complained? There are two lessons. First, the power of individual action. Having had the taste of putting the Daily Mail on the backfoot on this issue, will it be but the first of many such incidents? Second, the impact of the phone calls made to the firms whose adverts appeared next to the article is a reminder that the most effective forms of online protest normally marry online with offline activity.