In its diatribe against Common Purpose, the Mail notes that the organisation ‘has attracted the obsessive attention of the more outré internet conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, as well as bloggers on the far Right. This has provided a convenient smokescreen against a more rational investigation’.
However, any idea that this repellent farrago of innuendo and smear represents anything remotely ‘rational’ will rapidly be exploded by anybody who bothers to wade through even a small part of this join-the-dots, two-plus-two equals forty journalism, an especially egregious example of a form which is a particular specialism of the Mail.
An editorial pompously intones that ‘newspapers have a duty to ask embarrassing questions about the powerful and the self-important people who know best’, which indeed they do (as well as admitting that, when it comes to power and self-importance, papers like the Mail are at the top of the heap), but they also have a duty to provide convincing and truthful answers to those questions, backed up by evidence. That the Mail has conspicuously failed to do so in this case is shown by Roy Greenslade, the New Statesman and on an earlier Inforrm post.
The Mail’s so-called investigation is drenched in the language of conspiracy. Common Purpose is compared to a giant octopus and a matrix (significantly one of Icke’s novels is entitled Children of the Matrix). The ‘Bell-Middleton network’ has apparently subjected the Leveson Inquiry (which is, of course, the Mail’s real target here) to a process of ‘infiltration’, and the paper pulls together a truly amazing cast of characters in order to try to persuade its readers of ‘the incestuous relationships that intertwine throughout this Inquiry’, and that what we have here is an example of the process of ‘entryism’ by which this apparently thoroughly sinister grouping has allegedly taken over much of the British establishment.
As the increasingly obsessive and labyrinthine narrative winds ever onwards, one expects the Masons, the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati and the Babylonian Brotherhood, at the very least, to put in an appearance at any moment. Were this kind of approach to be taken by a left-wing newspaper to, say, the Bilderberg Group or the International Monetary Fund (both of which feature strongly in Icke’s demonology) it would either be laughed out of court or simply ignored. But this paranoid nonsense has, of course, immediately been taken up in all seriousness by the Sun, the Telegraph and The Sunday Times as part of their own campaigns against the hated Leveson.
What, however, is singularly fascinating about the Mail’s onslaught against Common Purpose is that the methods which it criticises that organisation for employing are actually very close to its own. So, for example, it quotes a passage from Julia Middleton’s book Beyond Authority, which is central to its demonology, which explains how to place issues onto the Westminster agenda, a process which requires, according to Middleton, ‘a small committed and co-ordinated group of people producing pressure from the outside. Two or three determined fifth columnists on the inside. And the stamina from both groups to keep on and on putting them on the agenda until they eventually had to be discussed’.
But this is the Mail to a T, especially on law-and-order issues, and the ‘fifth columnist’ in this particular case is the Tory MP Philip Davies, who obligingly provides a useful quote to the effect that:
‘This is about a lot of people of dubious intentions setting up organisations to push their own opinions and inveigle their way into positions of influence. They are simply promoting their own ideological agenda in a surreptitious manner. It makes you wonder, if we had statutory regulation of the press, just who would be sitting on such a body’.
The Mail also quotes a Doug Miller, who is cited in Beyond Authority on the subject of how best to win people over to an idea; if this fails, according to Miller, ‘you might have to run them over, undermine them, go around them or discredit them. As a last resort you can consider bullying them’. Ring any bells? Similarly, when the paper quotes Common Purpose to the effect that its programmes ‘produce people who lead beyond their authority and can produce change beyond their direct circle of control’, this is a perfect description of none other than Paul Dacre, whose political power, along with that of Murdoch, had such a powerful spotlight thrown upon it by the final module of the Leveson Inquiry – something for which it has clearly not been forgiven. As Nick Davies observed in Flat Earth News, the Mail’s journalism ‘frequently goes beyond mere reporting, taking on the shape of a punitive campaign against anybody who says or does anything which challenges [its] values’.
Hypocrisy and the display of double standards infuse this whole squalid enterprise. The Labour government is described as ‘notorious for spin’, and lobbyists as ‘practitioners of such “dark arts” as secretive lobbying and spin’. As it happens, both of these are true, but the very last thing we need is a critique of spin from a newspaper which, in the words of Nick Davies, ‘more than any other newspaper in Britain … deals with falsehood and distortion’. The Guardian and the BBC are described as having an ‘ideological and commercial antipathy towards both the Conservative Party and the Murdoch empire’, both of which assertions are in fact actually highly questionable, unlike, of course, the Mail’s all-too-clear antipathy towards the BBC and the Labour Party.
The paper argues that Bell’s various links raise concerns about the ‘objectivity and neutrality’ of the Leveson Inquiry, but the Mail’s ideological and political commitment, which infuses every page of the paper, means that these are qualities which are almost entirely absent from most of its own journalism. Indeed, the Mail resembles nothing so much as an ideological sausage machine in which the meat of hard fact is fed in at one end and emerges at the other as a product perfectly shaped and flavoured to satisfy the tastes of its intended consumers.
But what exactly is the ideology which animates the Mail? It is all too easy and obvious to label the paper as biased, or rather more specifically as right-wing or Conservative-supporting. But what really distinguishes the paper is its strident populism and its thoroughgoing illiberalism (which means, for example, that a liberal Tory such as Kenneth Clarke is as much a Mail hate figure as a socialist like Ken Livingstone). And it is liberals who are the real target of the Mail’s campaign here, variously described as ‘a small, intertwined nexus of Left-of-centre individuals’, ‘elitist liberals’, ‘a new elite’, and, no less than three times, ‘Britain’s liberal Establishment’. The founders of the Media Standards Trust are described as having ‘leftish political leanings’, the New Statesman as ‘left-of-centre’, the former Independent columnist Johann Hari as a ‘Left-wing polemicist’, and former Times columnist and assistant editor Mary-Ann Sieghart as a ‘self-regarding liberal commentator’.
But all this is simply ideological sleight of hand – many people with liberal values, including many of those picked on by the Mail’s campaign, are most emphatically not on the Left as it is generally understood. However by lumping together a considerable number of people who, in reality, have very different political affiliations and ideological viewpoints, the Mail is able to make it appear as if they are all part of some vast conspiracy, and most of their readers will not be in any position to know otherwise.
Furthermore, a perfectly justifiable reaction to all this obsessive labelling is: so what? Not only are the views and affiliations of those picked on by the Mail’s campaign a matter of public record, should anyone want to bother to find out, but, so breathless and outraged is the tone of the paper’s ‘revelations’ that one keeps on having to remind oneself that it is not actually illegal to hold liberal or left-wing views. This isn’t a matter of reds under the bed, but rather of bright yellows and pale pinks in plain sight. If the Mail believes that such views are in some way illegitimate or improper, then that can only be a function of its own ideological position. Liberal and left-wing views are entirely legitimate constituents of the political spectrum right across the European Union (another Mail hate object, of course), and witch-hunting liberals is what one associates with Fox News, Senator Joe McCarthy, and the National Socialist party of which the Mail was such an ardent admirer right up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
It may also be that the Mail is worried that its own ability to influence the agenda is slipping away because of what it sees (quite wrongly, in my view) as the liberal ascendancy, which is perhaps why the articles which make up this unpleasant concoction have such a thoroughly aggrieved tone to them – one is strongly reminded of Neal Ascherson’s wonderful remark, on the occasion of an outbreak of liberal-baiting in the Murdoch press in the 1980s, about such sentiments being ‘nourished on the porridge of resentful prejudice’. But this paranoid fantasy of powerlessness, if that is what it is, is manifestly quite absurd, as absolutely everybody who is involved in the campaign to ensure that Leveson’s proposals are seriously considered by the government is desperately concerned at the pressure which is being constantly exerted behind the scenes on politicians and civil servants by the owners and editors of the newspapers of which they take the greatest account – chief of which is the Mail.
Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University, Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. He has written widely on the press.