Chris pointed out that his talk could probably be summed up by one story that was doing the rounds that day – that of Brian Cox supposedly slamming the BBC for not letting them listen for alien transmissions live on air, lest it conflict with editorial guidelines…
But moving on to the talk for real, we started with documentaries. What is their purpose? They should communicate truths to the audience. Chris cited 3 of his favourites as Fog of War, Man on Wire, and Inside Job. However, he likes to do the opposite; tell the story through lies in order to expose people.
So how is the media involved in manipulation? Starting with Hillsborough, the Sun printed the headline on 19th April 1989: “THE TRUTH”. We now know that none of it was in fact true, it was a smear campaign by South Yorkshire police.
“Lies can be made simple and exciting… they make newspaper owners more money”
Tabloid behaviour was satirised but never exposed. So Chris wondered how these wider issues could be exposed? Start with the truth!
Setting up for Starsuckers
They tried talking to editors; asking for interviews and if they could film behind the newspaper scenes. They got a resounding “no” from all quarters for that one.
They also spoke to journalists off-record, who freely admitted “we make things up and steal personal information” but no one would say any of this in public, it would lose them their job! So it was a media secret, kept from customers.
This went on for about a year, until they wondered – what would happen if we called the tip lines and lied? Would people print this stuff? Starting with some ground rules: don’t be too mean to the celebrity in question, you want them to be on-side. Also make it absurd, so that the newspaper takes all the blame.
Success! The Mirror printed their made-up story about Amy Winehouse setting her beehive on fire at a party. So did the Star… who actually added their own details! But that was only the beginning; it ended up on international news websites, which had simply cut and pasted from the ‘original’ story, including the Times of India.
Then there was the Guy Ritchie juggling cutlery in a restaurant and stabbing himself in the face with a fork, which circulated similarly. It seemed they couldn’t make up a story ridiculous enough, and while ethically they couldn’t accept money for doing it as part of the project, the papers do pay people for tips usually.
For example, they planted a story about ‘moving men’ finding physics books in Sarah Harding’s house. The Sun went with “Sarah’s a real boffin” and it ended up on about 30 websites.
About 3 years before the hacking scandal really kicked off, it was noted that papers would break the law to get information and stories. Working undercover, Chris found that £350 could get you someone’s full medical history from the NHS, if you knew who to ask. £500 cash got screenshots of someone’s bank statements from their bank. You could also get mobile phone usage histories and all sorts. There was a private data trade that was well-known and accepted in the media but not really talked about.
Ironically, inspired by the News of the World (NotW), they decided to do a “sting” operation to expose the practices. In Starsuckers Chris posed as someone offering plastic surgery records of celebrities.
Surprisingly, the Express said no because it would be “unethical”! NotW were cautious, asking how this could be “in the public interest”? However, the Mirror were instantly offering tens of thousands of pounds. The Sunday People also offered money and when Chris asked “could we get in trouble for this?” the response was (accompanied by lots of laughing):
“well the PCC [Press Complaints Commission]… is there but don’t worry, we’ll just have to print a small apology somewhere in the paper… it’s a slap on the wrist… the PCC is run by the newspaper editors“
Next problem: how to get publicity for a film which is kicking all the papers in the balls? (Chris’ words there). Go to the Guardian! So they printed the stories; see Paul Lewis’ article for a summary of their success.
Tabloid journalists started turning up at Chris’ house. He was threatened with libel by the NotW, who said they’d had their “privacy invaded”! Even using no-win-no-fee lawyers. That went on for a couple of weeks before they caved, and the film went out.
Starsuckers was aired on TV and then e-mails started coming in from students asking if they could make money this way; some were selling their stories then telling Chris about it, some planning to fund the entirety of their university fees this way! Perhaps the best example of the Big Society in action, Chris thought.
Other papers involved simply went with “no comment”.
The Guardian broke the Dowler phone hacking story, arrests were made, papers closed, inquiries started.
Chris’ film was referenced during the Leveson inquiry, which was quite surreal. It was used as a stick to beat editors.
Gordon Smart: “I would disagree that [the stories] weren’t true” – but Chris made it up! So apparently the Sun creates facts by printing things. They even cited the internet as proof it was true!! For example re: the Sarah Harding articles. Even the Guardian fell for that argument at one point, showing that people are still misunderstanding how the internet actually works.
The focus then became PR. There are now more people in PR than there are journalists. The news has financial issues, and people are going to PR instead; a >£10bn industry? Indeed, Michael Marshall does a lot of work on ‘Bad News’; click for his talk How PR Came to Rule Modern Journalism.
There are press officers everywhere, and they control what’s printed. People leave journalism, go into PR, and take their contacts with them. From press releases, newspapers get stories, cut-and-paste them and present them as fact.
Nick Davies showed that >50% of articles are in some part from PR in his book Flat Earth News. The Today Programme being one of the worst offenders in this regard.
Chris wondered, could we show how PR becomes news? The Media Standards Trust had a great tool, churnalism.com, which shows which parts of a press release/original text have been cut and pasted unaltered as well as how exactly the whole article matches to the original, giving a “% churn” output.
So, how to press release a piece that’s entirely PR? First, send fake press releases to news desks and analyse the “churn” that comes out.
They decided to work with Valentine’s day, one of the busiest times for PR, when far more than 50% of stories use it; most articles that cite “a study by…” are not about study at all, it is just PR.
Initial attempts weren’t weird enough, for example they tried a law firm showing that Valentine’s was the number 1 day for divorce. But newsdesks get about 300 press releases per day; they sift through them looking for what’s funniest and most interesting.
They did succeed with a story about the “chastity garter“, an accessory that supposedly sent a text from your wife/girlfriend’s thigh to tell you if she was doing stuff she shouldn’t. In fact it was just a plain ribbon garter from ASDA with a digital watched stapled to it.
They send the press release to the Daily Star and they refused to run it, describing it as “disgusting” – from a paper that supports the EDL!!
So instead they looked up local News Agencies, in this case one in Birmingham called Caters. Agencies put the releases on a newswire; their garter story then ended up in The Daily Star, on page 5, chunks of it verbatim! It was very much “churned”, with 39% cut from the press release. It then ended up in the Mail and in global news and even on television. See here for the story.
Downing Street Cat
Getting stories out tends to involve latching on to pre-existing narratives. Facebook is used as a news source now; quotes, photos and videos are taken from people’s pages.
For example, the Sun rips videos from YouTube, puts an ad at the front, embeds it on their website and makes plenty of money from it.
Chris and his colleagues set up a Facebook group about the cat that was supposedly missing from Downing Street, saying that it wasn’t Cameron’s, Larry’s ours! The cat was originally from Battersea so it was possible… the page was entitled “Free ‘Jo’ the cat from Downing Street!” and about an hour later, the Daily Mail messaged them saying “we are intending to take… comments, pictures…” – not asking them, but informing them of their intention to use material from the page in their story.
All in all Chris very effectively summed up the mechanisms that get lies into the media and back out into public opinion. Even if the videos weren’t behaving on the night…
- If we know most of the media is bullshit, what can we do about it??
A) Leveson seems to be helping? It’s on the agenda now, and is a political concern. Murdoch ‘cast a spell over British politics’ – it was a ‘cancer’. The spell might be broken now? MPs came forward to say how much they hated his empire, and MPs should be scared of us.
Chris recalled tweeting the NotW newsdesk number with “please don’t call this number and call them c*nts” – so many people did that the switchboard shut it down!
Mumsnet started the sponsor boycott to hit the papers where it hurt (their wallets).
What can we do? Write to people; MPs, the press, etc.
There should be regulations on the press but they do still need to hold politicians to account. Maybe if there’s no shit to write they’ll start writing about things that are actually important instead..?
- Do you consider yourself a journalist?
A) I’m a filmmaker and I do journalism… I have been, but it’s not my job.
- How in the future can you survive financially?
A) I’m dancing on my own grave! The TV can laugh at print media, which is buggered… people are finding ways. The Evening Standard is in profit! Maybe making money trough advertising online and page views…
- Given the reach of Leveson, how would you address the relationship between news/media and politics?
A) Symbiotic? There’s a book: Where Power Lies. It’s about prime ministers and what happened to them in terms of how much they ignored or obsessed over the press.
For the former, they were more successful politicians. The papers went to them. Compared to, say, Blair who very much did the latter and created policies to fit headlines. It worked in the Sun but… a vicious cycle of authoritarianism.
Politicians should be themselves but think they need the coverage. It’s about the skill of the media over politics now – which is destructive. There are still some genuine politicians though. (Read the book!).
- Why are the small lies of any consequence? Like the Winehouse thing. Did it really affect anyone??
A) The point is the path of journalists from the bizarre columns/gossip desks/diaries. People start there.
Tabloids use celeb stories more, because they’re more successful! Budding journos get their headlines on the front page and their name in the bylines.
For example, Gordon Smart… Andy Coulson! Piers Morgan… Dominic Mohan.
It starts here. 20 stories/day, no fact-checking time.
If you can be a bad journalist, you can move up the ladder fast. Piers Morgan edited the NotW at 28 years old. He was at the Mirror for 10 years. His work endangered soldiers’ lives.
Running newspapers means deciding elections. The ‘small lies’ are the start of the rot.
[It's a slippery slope].
- Did you not target the Guardian?
A) They don’t pay for stories! We wanted to expose how the payments influenced. More lies à more ££. They were exempt really, they didn’t have a tip-line.
Regarding the Urban Fox Hunting hoax, in 24 hours it went viral, and they started getting death threats. All the papers ran it, including the Guardian. But they asked them to do the reveal to avoid the threats, which they did.
- First, congratulations,… re: the bizarre column. Papers also employ very few people for the number of pages they have to put out. There are too few journalists to print the “proper stories”. What are papers to do when there’s no one to fact-check?
A) Don’t know! In 5yrs will we buy papers?
Straw poll of the room: who’s bought a paper in the week? About 30%.
Print ads earn far more money than online/digital ads. Celeb stories get the most clicks. You know online who’s reading what – it’s very depressing to see what the public is interested in (except us in this room of course…) – it herds journalists.
comment! Print commitment lends more authority to the story?
- Do journalists care about this?
A) It’s kind of like the tabloids. Not all bad. E.g. Morgan was against the Iraq war, the Sun’s cot death research campaign… the Mail printing the Lawrence killers on the front page got them sent down.
Sometimes they do good things. The Mail on Sunday has great investigative journalism. We want tabloids to survive and do what they do well!
There is some nuance in the media beyond good/bad.
- The US has a fact-check culture; it’s very laborious and expensive, do we want it here?
A) International (European) papers changed their editorial policy because of our work. In the US, it is good. It’s healthy! It’s a pain and yes, expensive, also delays stories… but…
e.g. the Daily Star, 3 people with hangovers on a Sunday doing a whole paper from wikipedia! Their 8 page pull-out of Michael Jackson was entirely wikipedia.
The audio from the talk will also be available via PodDelusion.co.uk soon!