Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Shooting fish in a barrel

Sometimes I feel as if the Daily Mail exists solely to try and agitate me. Given that it was founded in May 1896, over ninety years before I was born, this seems unlikely, but it's little consolation. The editorial policy is to seemingly promote an era of Britishness and old-fashioned standards that, as far as I can work out, never actually existed in the first place. There's also a mean undercurrent to many of the articles, purporting to be concerned for your welfare yet peddling the unsubstantiated myth that everyone different to you is to be feared. If the Daily Mail is to be taken at face value then disabled, homosexual immigrants are set to take your jobs, give you cancer and - most distressingly of all - cause house prices to rise.

This kind of criticism of the Daily Mail isn't particularly original - in fact, it appears to constitute roughly 65% of Russell Howard's stand-up act. I suspect the editors actually get some kind of perverse pleasure in winding-up well-meaning and easily outraged liberals. The thing is, this kind of propaganda wouldn't be so worrying if it weren't so widely read (and, one would have to assume as a corollary, believed); the physical newspaper has a circulation of over two million and close to three million visit Mail Online every day.

Despite all this, I'm usually pretty good at ignoring its presence. However, today was not one of those days.

Over the Easter weekend, 15-year-old Isobel Reilly tragically died in a West London house party. At the time of writing, the cause of death is believed to be a drug overdose. Despite the case being anything but finalised, The Mail saw fit to publish this article about the teenager this morning. Aside from the headline calling Isobel, "ecstasy death girl," a claim which - as far as I'm aware at this point - is nothing but guesswork, the article itself follows a bizarre line of effectively blaming celebrities and the internet for the event.

Despite no proof (or, at least, no proof referenced in the article), journalists Arthur Martin and Tamara Cohen claim Isobel "had become sucked in by the the drug-taking exploits of the celebrities she idolised." There is no suggestion anywhere that Isobel had taken banned drugs before; in fact, the only previous illegal activities alluded to are pictures of her on social networking sites "smoking a cigarette and drinking from a can of Strongbow cider." Of course, pastimes that no other 15-year-olds have partaken in before.

In the absence of refutable evidence, the subtext of the Mail article seems fairly stark in my eyes: blame celebrities and blame the internet.

Isobel is described in the article as a user of "at least seven social networking sites" and "a huge fan of controversial rappers 50 Cent and Kanye West" who once had a picture taken with "self-confessed former drug addict" Russell Brand. It's been the best part of a decade since I was 15, but I'd be prepared to wager that is fairly typical behaviour for a girl of that age. The rise of Facebook and its ilk has made reporting less of a chore for lazy hacks, and it's now all too easy for a journalist to cherry pick quotes from a prolific social network user to fit their desired storyline.

To me, the message here is pretty clear: careful, England, this could have been your daughter. The internet is confusing, which means it's dangerous and celebrities are drug-taking hedonists who are a bad influence.

Not all celebrities, however...

You may want to take a look at the sidebar to the right of the story, where several celebrity-themed stories are linked. A quick peek reveals Kelly Osbourne "hits back" at critics who have claimed she's fat, Kim Kardashian and Jessie J have had some photos taken while wearing not much, and a "tired and emotional" Rihanna - OMG! - went outside without wearing make-up. Of course, I've cherry-picked here too, but I'd also argue that reporting like this is more of a long-term risk to body-conscious teenage girls in Great Britain than the combined exploits of Russell Brand, 50 Cent and Kanye West. Actually, in anti-Daily Mail style, I'm going to give them helpful descriptions to impose some sort of spin on their characters and make you come round to my agenda. So, that's "newly settled-down" Russell Brand, "self-made entrepreneur" 50 Cent and "internationally successful performing artist" Kanye West. See, what nice chaps they all seem like now.

And what of the man arrested as part of the police enquiry? You might think the Mail would be more wary when reporting on someone yet to be convicted of any crime seeing as they're currently being sued for libel by Jo Yeates' landlord Christopher Jefferies, but no. Their article finishes with a picture and profile of the lecturer in question, describing him as "liberal" three times in a short piece and positing he "may have first-hand experience of families blighted by substance abuse" because he used to be a social worker. Lest we forget, this man's daughter is currently in hospital recovering from a suspected drug overdose after attending the same party, God forbid we give the guy some privacy, eh?

I can happily accept the Daily Mail don't share my political views and it doesn't bother me they sometimes print things I vehemently disagree with; it'd be a pretty boring world if everyone agreed with each other all the time. However, I find this kind of sensationalist, knee-jerk reporting offensive and objectionable. I don't know enough about publishing or libel law to know if this article is directly in breach of the Editors' Code of Practice as published by the Press Complaints Commission, but I certainly don't think speculative articles of this nature are doing anyone a favour.

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