News Of The Skews
SQUALL’S regular look at national media skew-whiffery
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 20-21.
This issue’s prime skew-whiff comes twisting in from an article appearing in the Independent (5/9/95), written by the newspaper’s own staff journo Esther Oxford. Esther doesn’t have a good reputation for accurate investigation, her article cobbled together about the bender-dwellers of Tinker’s Bubble, and appearing in the Independent’s second section, only provided more evidence to support her critics.
Entitled “Not so hippy, not so happy”, the article pays lip service to up to date reporting, not least via her use of cut and paste quotes from previous newspaper articles, some of which were 18 months old.
As you can read on page 24 of this issue, the residents of Tinker’s Bubble have been on the brunt end of Environment Secretary John Gummer’s decision to evict their site within six months.
According to the article, intrepid investigative reporter Esther Oxford risks the “eerie rustle of pine needles” and the “worry of seeing something we are not supposed to see” and ventures daringly into the Tinker’s Bubble settlement. Despite being the owners of the woods which they inhabit, the Bubblers do not fence off their land, allowing ramblers to walk through the settlement if they so wish. As it happens, Oxford found no-one at home on the day she arrived unannounced and so proceeded to postulate what it could all mean: “Perhaps they’ve given up the project? Perhaps they’ve been swept away by the bailiffs.”
Oxford then gives a run down of what she describes as the “intellectual Bubblers”.
“Six adults, four children and half a dozen weekenders (city people wanting a quick romp in the countryside),” she writes with a sneer. Oxford hadn’t made an appointment to meet the residents of the Bubble but with a couple of thousand words to write she had to come up with something and so wanders into the local village and speaks with what the Bubblers describe as “one of the most vitriolic” of local residents. Five hundreds words later, and the Independent’s readers are left in no doubt that the residents of the Bubble are “grubby-looking paupers” who have “scared the deer off’. And as if that isn’t enough, they have also ruined the local housing market because “buyers are reluctant to purchase a home knowing that hippies live in the back yard”.
In fact three house sales have been successfully completed in the tiny village of Norton Sub Hamden whilst the Tinker’s Bubble project has been running. Not bad in a housing market slump but obviously not good copy for the Independent.
“The journalist made all sorts of extraordinary assumptions.... We made her a cup of tea and spoke with her for a long time. Some of the quotes are completely out of context and some were made up completely.”
Esther Oxford then pays a visit to some other locals, descendants of the well known British countryside artist, John Constable. They have only good words to say about the Bubblers but aren’t given enough credence in the article to come anywhere near re-balancing Oxford’s slow build-up trashing of the project.
With the scene well and falsely set, Esther Oxford then revisits the Bubble where she meets Albert and where Albert refers to her as a “middle- class bastard”. In the light of the article, Albert’s observation does seem remarkably accurate for a first appraisal but needless to say it doesn’t go down too well with Esther. She quotes Albert some more: “Look at you trapped in this eight-hour day, work hard ethic. What is the point of working hard and paying taxes? You’re just caught in the system. You don’t have a soul.” These comments could have been lifted straight out of a Jeffrey Archer screenplay, with Albert as the classic drop out hippy. You can just imagine the Independent readers, many of whom do work eight-hour days and pay taxes, rising to Esther’s bait with a seething hatred for the residents of Tinker’s Bubble. And that’s the funny thing, because Albert is not a resident of Tinker’s Bubble and never has been, he actually lives locally. But, with a couple of thousand words, a deadline and a story to be made up, he’ll do. Albert you see had wandered into the settlement precisely because the Bubblers do not erect fences and everyone is free to walk in. Did Esther know this? We shall never know - but by this stage, ignorant or malicious, her damage is done. But not yet content, she goes on to quote the landlord of the Lord Nelson, a local pub: “Some of their women [female residents of Tinker’s bubble!] were sneaking in the back door, using the pub loos. If they want to live like pigs, they can, but don’t use my facilities.” Nice one Esther, except she didn’t speak to the landlord herself as she implies in her article, she lifted the quote directly from a newspaper article published 18 months previously. She also quotes a man called Michael, another person she found at Tinker’s Bubble in the absence of the residents. Michael tells her that the residents are “elsewhere” today.
From this information she concludes: “Some settlers had left because they found girlfriends ‘who wouldn’t dream of living here’. Others [such as Michael] had flats or other homes elsewhere. After a while it becomes clear that the ‘lost community’ we’d been searching for that morning was not at a protest, or working the fields. It has simply dispersed.”
Unfortunately for the cause of truthful journalism, investigative reporter Esther Oxford’s conclusions were completely wrong. The day before her arrival had been what the Bubblers call a ‘work day’. Occurring once a week, the work day sees all the Tinker’s Bubble residents gathering together to develop or repair parts of the site. The day following ‘work day’ is usually spent going off site and conducting personal business. Two residents were in fact up in London on the day Esther arrived unannounced, selling organic apples grown in the Tinker’s Bubble orchard. Another resident was in Yeovil talking to local planning officers about the site.
Contrary to Esther Oxford’s uninvestigated assumptions, the residents of Tinker’s Bubble had not dispersed from the site at all, having every intention to continue the development of the site and appealing against John Gummer’s decision.
Perhaps the most sickening falsity in Oxford’s article is an assumption she makes about an absent Bubble resident called Louise and the words she attributes to Michael, the only resident of the Bubble she bothered to meet before writing her article.
“In the village, the locals already knew that Louise was looking for an escape route - a council house, to be precise. Michael knew, too. ‘We’ll miss her,’ he says sadly. ‘But it was all too deep for her. She liked the novelty of living in the woods but wasn’t cut out to cope with the reality.’”
“The journalist made all sorts of extraordinary assumptions,” Michael told SQUALL. “We made her a cup of tea and spoke with her for a long time. Some of the quotes are completely out of context and some were made up completely.”
Louise is a mother of four children and a long standing resident at the Bubble. She had previously been living with her partner in a three bedroomed council house right next door to the Westland Helicopter Factory in Yeovil. “The noise was terrible,” she recalls. Louise moved to Tinker’s Bubble in Feb 1994, one month after the project started and has lived there ever since. In fact, contrary to Esther Oxford’s assumptions, she still lives there with her four children. Any Independent journalist who can suggest that Louise doesn’t know anything about reality, needs a serious dose of it themselves. Yes Louise has made enquiries to South Somerset District Council about housing but with John Gummer’s ideas for imminent eviction she would be less than a mother if she didn’t make sure her kids, who all attend the local school in Norton Sub Hamden, are alright. “The children are number one,” she told SQUALL. “But if we are allowed to live on here we will.”
It took just one phone call to Tinker’s Bubble to investigate Esther Oxford’s journo tripe. Esther Oxford on the other hand had one week and all the financial resources of the Independent newspaper to look into the story.
As far as “weekenders and city people wanting a quick romp in the countryside” goes, Esther Oxford has proved herself top of the league. Whilst the residents of Tinker’s Bubble face the complete annihilation of two years of unwaged hard work - courtesy of Environment Secretary John Gummer - investigative reporter Esther Oxford is now safely back in Canary Wharf, working on her next well-paid invention.
More news management for the masses came skewering in from the Daily Mail in September. “Euro Court’s Gipsy Shock” ran the right wing tabloid on its front cover (22/9/95). According to the first line of the article: “A shock European ruling threatens to throw Britain’s planning laws into chaos”. New shock news? Hardly.
Look through the article and you’ll find no mention of when the ruling was actually made. The reason? Despite being trumpeted as the front page latest, the story was in fact a topical nine months old!
Last January, lawyer Luke Clements took a case to the European Court of Human Rights. He was attempting to reverse an enforcement order of eviction placed on June Buckley, a 31-year-old gypsy single mother, camped on her own land in Cambridgeshire (“only 15 miles from John Major’s house” snorts the Mail). The European Court ruled that the enforcement notice violated June Buckley’s human rights and that she should be allowed to stay.
So why do we have the Daily Mail plucking this one out of their dusty in-tray?
In the agenda-manipulation business this is what they call news-fortification; first the plant - then the fortification - all with no real news story.
Well you see, we have the Tory Party Conference and as both a single parent and a gypsy, June Buckley was prime fodder for the conference build up. “More and more travellers want to stay in one place but they don’t build nice sites for us,” says the disgustingly welfare-dependant June Buckley, proving what we’ve always been told about gypsies and scrounging single parents. The story also provided an opportunity for a good dose of pre-conference anti-Europe rhetoric, courtesy of dial-a-right-wing commentator Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee: “I am one of a growing number of people who are getting fed up with being told what to do by Europeans who do not share our history, our culture, our traditions or the good sense of our courts.” Quite so Sir Lawrence, Knight of the Square Table, but…. oh, he hasn’t finished: “Interference in our sovereign democratic nation - which has led the world in human rights - is becoming tedious.”
And lo and behold if the Daily Telegraph don’t run a follow up to the Daily Mail story just three days later, with “Tory Euro-rebels plan assault on party conference” on page 2 and a “Soaring Cost of judgements in Strasbourg - Major weighs case for leaving Euro-court” (3/4 page spread) on Page 4. In the agenda-manipulation business this is what they call news-fortification; first the plant - then the fortification - all with no real news story. Of course, just four days after the Daily Mail plant, and two days after Telegraph fortification, the Government received a public reprimand from the European Court of Human Rights for gunning down three unarmed IRA suspects in Gibraltar. The knowledge that such a reprimand was on the horizon might have had more than a little baring on the media steer of public sentiment don’t you think?
Interference in our democracy is indeed getting tedious.
There was a media chuckle all round when both the BBC and Channel Four stood up at Edinburgh’s National Television Festival to say how Greenpeace’s media machine had seduced them into forsaking their journalistic impartiality.
For as every editor, journalist and proliferating PR company knows, impartiality is a mask worn by a thousand pre-agendas. There is not one single national media organisation untied from at least several truth-compromising criteria. Whether it be the convenience of the Government press release - in excess of 10,000 a year - or a manufactured photo-opportunity from Cheshire cat Blair’s media over-timers.
Are the 150 farmers trained up in the National Farmers Union’s media school, here to talk about the changing seasons or are they here to push a landowner’s political agenda?
How many publications will vote truth when truth affects their advertising revenue?
There was none so blatant an example as the recent Microsoft version of The Times. The once renowned newspaper reduced to being bought out for the day by a computer software company. Not for the first time though. Media observers may remember with yet more chuckling, the laughable edition of The Times printed on September 22nd 1994 (see page 47). This is no photoshopped mast-head. This eight page bulletin appeared in the newspaper, not headed by the word ‘advertisement’ but packed with sycophantic pseudo-feature articles about the incredibly interesting McDonald’s burger story.
The day The Times publishes an eight page feature pull-out on the good work Greenpeace is doing, is a day that we might dare suggest that some balance is emerging from the dim light of media manipulation. It looks increasingly unlikely however.
So in the meantime, what exactly constitutes vital worthy news? Is it a group of people prepared to risk their lives in a James Bond-style environmental protest in order to save the planet, or is it some double chinned corporate executives with a slop bucket full of burger sound bites and the money to buy into our airtime?
If we’re going to get worried about who’s manipulating the media, let’s get our priorities straight. Greenpeace are in the fourth division as far as the league table of divisive media manipulators goes.
If you have not read “To rave or riot?”! in this issue of SQUALL then check it out because certain parties would rather you didn’t. An edited version of the article appeared in the September edition of Red Pepper magazine. Lo and behold if The Sunday Times Colour Magazine - once an ‘insight’ful read, but now a Murdoch Tory news-management organ - did print a four page article that reads like a carefully calculated refutation of the “To Rave or Riot?” article.
The Sunday Times’ version of the Marsh Farm riots was written by staffer Peter Millar and contained more factual inaccuracies than there were rioters on the Luton Estate. The article places the blame for the entire fracas firmly on the shoulders of a juvenile criminal, nicknamed Billy by the newspaper so they could use “Billy the Kid” as a headline. According to the article, Billy - juvenile delinquent and son of a single parent - took drugs and was a one-boy crime wave who caused the riots. According to Peter Millar, or indeed whoever was advising him, the riots were halted by appropriate police tactics. The Sunday Times then spends almost an entire page on the Exodus Collective, for no apparent reason other than to say they couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with halting the riot. Somethin’ gwon in the world of national media, something to do with who whispers in whose ear to get whose point of view across. If journalism is supposed to be the ‘first draft of history’ - then realise that someone is tampering with the archaeological record at source.
I think we should be told, but I don’t think we will be - I think we’ll have to find out for ourselves.
News Of The Skews - The Times, The Telegraph and Daily Mail champion the squatters! Squall 10 - Summer 1995