A few days away in the glorious Arctic – with a two hour long view of the Northern Lights in their full splendour (see pics, included here as light relief because the rest of this piece is about filthy slimeballs rather than beautiful scenery) – were rather ruined by picking up a free copy of the Daily Mail in Oslo airport on the way home. A mistake – even at free, the Mail is overpriced.
More fool me for reading it. There were two highly contrasting stories: an attack on Hilary Mantel for criticising the Duchess of Cambridge, who, according to the paper, has suffered terrible invasions of her privacy. And a big splash on Heather Frost, 36, who lives with her 11 children in two houses that have been knocked together and who will be moving into a new home shortly. Ms Frost also became a major feature story in the Sun, who appeared to have exactly the same information as the Mail, and dubbed her ‘the dole queen’. Her life and family were then splashed across virtually all the media.
Two points arise about this coverage. First, there were no limits on what the papers thought they could reveal about Ms Frost. We were given details of her childhood, her relationships, her health issues, and the names and ages – and pictures – of all the children, including 7 under the age of 16. We were treated to the strong opinions of ‘neighbours’, one of whom was quoted as saying: ‘It’s a disgrace. She treats her womb like a clown car’. (In fact it appears she is recovering from cervical cancer). Well I’m glad I don’t live next to her neighbours, but I wonder how long it took a journalist to get such a juicy quote?
Second, much of the information was later shown to be wrong or is hotly disputed by the victim. Her back story was very different from that presented by the rags. Her local authority seemed to be rather decent and restrained in face of the media barrage, with the lead member at Tewkesbury Borough Council telling the Today programme that the only true part of this story is that that Heather Frost has 11 children that have to be found accommodation by the council under the law of the land. Bravely facing a TV studio interview on ITV’s breakfast show, Heather categorically denied the newspapers’ accusation that she had said that if she doesn’t like the new house she has been offered she’ll just tell the council to ‘build her another one’.
To present the Duchess of Cambridge as a victim of intrusion at the same moment in time as they were ‘exposing’ Heather Frost is the height of hypocrisy. Heather Frost’s children have been exposed to ridicule and hatred and heaven-knows-what else. This story demonstrates the nasty politics that both papers – and plenty of others in the media – play with the lives of real people, whether you like them or approve of them or not. Surprise, surprise, the right wing so-called Taxpayers Alliance also had plenty to say in condemnation (of Heather, that is, not Kate). And guess which story David Cameron condemned? At the very least it can be said that Heather Frost showed more dignity and a bit more class than the newspapers.
This all made me wonder where Lord Justice Leveson is at the moment. I was often concerned that the emphasis of his inquiry was on media intrusion into the lives of celebrities and politicians when a glance at any of our great tabloid newspapers shows gross intrusion almost every day in to the lives of very poor people who then have the weight of moral indignation thrown at them: people who do not have fancy lawyers and security guards to protect them or their children.
So what are these so-called ‘newspapers’ really up to? On Red Brick we have covered the demonisation of the poor as a deliberate political strategy on many occasions, and yesterday there was also an excellent piece on the same theme by Hayley Meachin, the press officer of the British Association of Social Workers, on Huffington Post.
As Hayley says: ‘Make no mistake, it is no coincidence that as the government seeks to make cuts to benefits, we have seen a deluge of negative stories about claimants over the past year.’