Friday, 5 April 2013

The day the 'Daily Mail' jumped the shark


The Daily Mail's Wednesday headline - about the horrible case of Mick Philpott and the six children he has been sentenced to life for burning to death, and blaming the welfare state for his sins - was the moment that newspaper finally jumped the shark, accelerating a long, slow circulation decline into obscurity. I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to reproduce the actual front page that they inflicted on us, but the above will have to do. You get the idea.

It was nasty. It was cheap. And it didn't even make any sense.

This column is not much for jumping all over every mistake or evasion the press make or engage in. Nor does it really think that new legislation or harsher regulation will make much difference - except making news editors think twice about publishing truly invasive pictures and stories.

But this error was of a different order of magnitude. They've gone too far on this one, and the Mail's subsequent calls for 'a debate', though disingenuous, show that there's been at least a partial rethink in Dacre Towers. Paul Dacre's august journal - the one that brought you Jan Moir's slurs on the memory of Stephen Gately, let's remember - is supposed to stand for personal responsibility, justice, vengeance and punishment - of individuals who have choices, know what it before them, and choose to go down the wrong path. Hey, it's not a massively convincing moral code, but it's a start. And at least it makes sense ideologically, along the lines of C.S. Lewis' memorable attack on 'The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment'.

But here the Mail has gone for a sociological approach, a kind of cod-Marxism that explains why Melanie Phillips, ex- of The Guardian of course, finds the paper such a congenial home. It's all to do with incentives, apparently. Blame it all on the state, the paper's 'writers' say, attacking welfare payments that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Philpott's twisted and hateful decision to risk the lives of his own children in a botched plot to frame his wife. I'm sorry, but haven't you been reading your own jibes and barbs for the past twenty years? I thought we all had to stand up and take responsibility for ourselves, and that the warp and weave of our society had nothing to do with explaining our actions?

What a mess. For a historian, it's an incident that reveals even more deeply-ingrained attitudes for what they are. For this is one of those incidents in which the self-interested and the comfortable use the harsh world out there to grub out a bit of power and influence for themselves: using Philpott's case as an example of why welfare should be cut, and drawing unwise, foolhardy politicians into the 'debate' as well, is just a case in point. Saying that the poor are ignorant, degenerate, ungrateful and unworthy of support goes back centuries, and one could pretty much cut and paste the Mail's coverage of this case into the yellow press of the 1890s. It wouldn't look out of place.

Have we moved on? Not really. Which is more than a pity: it's a shame.

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