Just a few years ago privacy intrusion was vital to the business model of the corporate national press. Kiss-and-tell, fake-sheikh stings, surveillance, data theft and, yes, phone hacking provided a stream of front-page stories for them.
Today the big papers find it harder to get away with that. It too easily puts them on the wrong side of the law – ask Mazher Mahmood – and besides, readers often find the public monstering of innocent individuals distasteful. Though the practice has not stopped, it is rarer.
A replacement had to be found, and what they have chosen is the persecution of minorities.
It turns out to be easy as pie. The Sun freely employs the language of Hitler and Goebbels when talking about Muslims. It seems that the Mail struggles to resist any chance to denigrate and vilify anybody on the long list of those who do not fit its 1950s idea of Englishness. The Express, which led the way down this road, barely bothers to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists.
And it doesn’t stop there. The editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Times also appear to believe that gratuitous fear-mongering is just right for their front pages.
The Telegraph’s story claiming ‘Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors’ was less a matter of dog-whistle than of trumpeting alarm about apparently uppity black people. And it was also wrong. The Times’s ‘Muslim foster care’ story in August was equally obviously alarmist and hostile in presentation and in its obvious editorial intent. There too, problems arose in getting the facts straight.
From the point of view of the corporate papers there seems to be little or no downside to attacking vulnerable minorities. The suffering and resentment of victims appear to be matters of complete indifference to editors. Indeed any reaction can amount to encouragement. ‘Look,‘ they say in the newsrooms, ‘we’re getting clicks. Let’s wind them up some more.’
Nor do victims have redress. The libel laws don’t protect groups of people and any individual with a libel case soon discovers that the civil courts are, with few exceptions, for the rich. (Thanks to Theresa May’s government the option of Leveson-style cheap arbitration is not available.)
As for complaining to IPSO, the so-called regulator for these papers, it is a waste of time. IPSO is their puppet, so if it deigns to look at a complaint at all it will be happy to deploy the most fatuous excuse for rejection, and if by some miracle it finds against a paper the correction is normally buried and nothing changes.
All this is no accident. The powerful press bosses, helped by willing Conservative ministers, have designed this world where editors are unaccountable for their peddling of prejudice.
And should anyone dare accuse a paper of incitement to religious or racial hatred the editor will instantly throw reason to the winds, wrap himself in the flag of liberty and demand that all journalists and right-thinking people rally to his support. As if being a national newspaper journalist gave you a special right to incite hatred when you wish.
There has always been racism in the national press. What is new in recent years is that the persecution of minorities has become a core activity rather than an occasional one – the assaults come daily – and that it is done without the slightest embarrassment.
In recent times only the gross anti-Semitism of Kevin Myers in the Sunday Times has caused an editor to blush, and even then we were given no explanation of how it came to be published. How long will it be before those same vile opinions are defended as free speech in action?
* The image is a detail from a cartoon by Mac for the Daily Mail in 2015, apparently likening refugees to rats.