Monday 20 July 2015

Fighting bad reporting with worse reporting; Why I'm growing hacked off with supposed press reform campaigners

Generally speaking, I try to rise above things like Twitter spats. On various occasions over the years I have been attacked by trolls over things I've said or written - although more often over things I haven't - and mostly I have refrained from publicly commenting, beyond firing back a couple of rebuttal tweets. 

However, this weekend I have been the subject of a prolonged campaign of bullying and harassment by a group of individuals who present themselves as press reform campaigners. Although it seems insane even as I write it, I am sad to report that the reason they have bombarded me with this abuse is simply because I voiced my support for the most fundamental tenet of our justice system; that all people are innocent until proven guilty and convicted. My crime? I dared to suggest this principle should extend to journalists. The ferocity of the ensuing campaign - which has reached such childish extremes as the sabotaging of my Wikipedia entry - has alarmed and disturbed me to the extent that I feel compelled to respond at length. 

This bullying campaign has been especially upsetting to me because of my long history of challenging shoddy reporting. While I often disagree with press reform campaigners about the ways in which change should be affected, I agree with them that change is needed. 

But because I dared to speak briefly in favour of an innocent journalist who was being relentlessly and rudely interrogated on social media, I have this week been branded by Twitter trolls as a liar and a 'far right' activist. Not content with publishing such baseless defamations, they have also encouraged one another to file vexatious complaints about my Wikipedia entry in an effort to have it shut down. This juvenile behaviour amounts to nothing more than common trolling. It is ugly and despicable.

I became a persona non grata to many so-called press reform campaigners around a year ago, the first time I dared to suggest that journalists - like all other British citizens - were entitled to the presumption of innocence. I made myself a target when I informed some campaigners that they were committing defamation. 

The individuals concerned had described a journalist, in a blog and on social media, as a 'serial perjurer'. This journalist had never been charged with a single count of perjury, let alone convicted. It was a clear defamation and could have landed them in a lot of legal trouble, had the journalist somehow conjured the resources to fund a court action. I thought I was doing them a favour; giving them a chance to rewrite their careless commentary. No big deal. After all, I spotted the defamation because I was following them, and I was following them because of my own belief in the need for press reform.

However, instead of thanking me and rewording their comments, they insisted that describing somebody as a serial criminal when they had never been convicted was in fact not a defamation. They proceeded to tell me that I clearly knew nothing about journalism or about media law, and then bombarded me, en mass, with patronising abuse. 

I say 'patronising' because their chief complaint at that stage was my age. Despite having a degree in journalism and being a full-time newspaper journalist, they condescendingly insisted I was too young to understand the law and clearly had no idea what I was talking about.  

After abusing me for not being middle-aged, they ransacked my online profiles for other biographical details to grizzle about. First they discovered that I had written articles criticising poor media reporting on the Michael Jackson trial - something you'd think they would be sympathetic to, given their status as supposed media reform campaigners. Alas, no. Professional reporting should not have been extended to Michael Jackson, they informed me, because he was 'a paedo'. 

After they were done explaining why exemplary reporting should be applied to everybody in the world except journalists and Michael Jackson, they bizarrely claimed that because I had sold stories in the past to The Sun - among many other newspapers and magazines of diverse ownership and political leanings - I had obviously been hired by Rupert Murdoch specifically to criticise press reform campaigners on Twitter. 

I tried defending myself against this nutty gibberish for a day or so but quickly saw that these campaigners appeared to exist in a sycophantic echo chamber, in which they all brainlessly parroted and retweeted each other's rants and conspiracy theories, regardless of how harebrained or factually inaccurate they might be; so I just stopped responding and they soon found some other poor soul at whom to direct their ludicrous histrionics.

The argument briefly reignited once or twice in the ensuing months, but until this week there had been no further exchanges since New Year. Then, a few days ago, I noticed that the journalist Neil Wallis - recently vindicated by a jury after being wrongly accused of complicity in phone-hacking - was doing battle with some of the same supposed press reform campaigners, alongside some new ones. 

The tweeters were heavily implying, by constantly pestering him with snide, leading, public questions, that despite his complete acquittal he may still have been complicit in phone hacking.  He voiced his opinion that this amounted to defamation and I sent him a few supportive tweets, explaining that I had been subject to similar harassment and cluelessness over defamation by the so-called campaigners last year. Mr Wallis retweeted my comments and I found myself on the receiving end of the campaigners' tedious drivel all over again - which, with hindsight, I should have antcipated. Soon, though, the trolling had been ramped up to a frankly extreme and disturbing level, far beyond anything I'd seen from them before.

It all started harmlessly enough, with more of their silly conspiracy theories - this time that my CV had been bolstered by what they claimed were several dubious awards.  I have, since 2012, taken home two commendations and one trophy at the EDF Regional Media Awards. In 2012 I received a 'highly commended' award in the 'Newcomer of the Year' category. In 2014 I was named Weekly Print Journalist of the Year and that same year a campaign I ran received a 'highly commended' award in the 'Community Campaign of the Year' category. 

The ceremony in question is well-established, well-respected and is run by a journalism organisation called HoldTheFrontPage. The entries are judged by a large panel of experienced journalists and editors and to be commended by them is considered within the industry to be a real honour. It is one of the only journalism awards ceremonies where you don't have to pay to enter, so a rare prize you can't be accused of buying a nomination for. 

However, the so-called press reform campaigners started sending me peculiar tweets suggesting that because the ceremonies were sponsored by energy company EDF, they were somehow suspicious or bogus. This logic, I'm afraid, remains as baffling to me several days later as it did at the time. The Olivier Awards are sponsored by Mastercard. The BAFTAs are sponsored by EE. The Oscars are sponsored by several major companies. Since when does having a corporate sponsor for an expensive awards ceremony mean that the nominations and prizes - awarded by a panel of industry experts - are of no value? 

I thought the latest bout of objection had been confined to this sort of numbskullery until I logged into Twitter today and discovered things had taken an altogether more sinister turn, which involved interference with a Wikipedia page about my career, and the publication of lies about its content. 

A blogger called Tim Fenton had branded me a 'wannabe' (a 'wannabe' what; I don't know) and accused me of 'misusing' Wikipedia as a marketing tool. He published allegations I had created and edited the entry, then proudly tweeted them to me, copying in a number of his supporters and, for reasons I can't even begin to fathom, Graham Linehan - the genius writer of classic British comedies such as Father Ted, Black Books and the IT Crowd - who soon complained about having been copied into the diatribe and asked to be untagged. 

In the blog, Fenton implied the Wikipedia entry was in some way fabricated, describing it as a piece of 'creative writing'. At the end he incited people to complain to Wikipedia and ask for the entry to be removed. 

During the rant, in which he spelled my name at least two different ways, he said somebody had already complained the entry was too long and that it had now been edited. I visited the page after reading his blog and observed that lots of factual, sourced information had indeed been removed - including the three awards his cronies had earlier questioned on Twitter. 

Fenton was at pains to insist he had not personally complained about the page. However, his followers had tweeted the Wiki link during their bizarre whining fit about the apparent impropriety of an awards ceremony having a sponsor - so it was clear the complaint had emanated from that particular group of trolls.

Fenton's initial blog entry was fundamentally inaccurate - ironic, seeing as it was penned by a supposed campaigner for quality journalism. To my best recollection, that Wikipedia page was created in 2011. It was created by a Michael Jackson fan and centered almost exclusively on my articles about Michael Jackson. While I provided the creator with sources, on request, for certain pieces of information stated on my website, I did not create the page and I have never edited the page in the roughly four years since it was uploaded. In the intermittent years it had been updated - but never by me. 

While I have never edited any Wikipedia page, I do of course try to keep an eye on what is being written about me on Wikipedia. I can therefore attest to the fact that everything on the page last time I saw it, which was when the alleged press reformers started tweeting it a few days ago, was factually accurate. 

However, as a direct result of the interference by the campaigners, a significant amount of that factual information is now gone, leaving some sections incomplete and misleading; so hardly a victory for responsible reporting. Why would these supposed campaigners for honest, accurate journalism celebrate the removal of factual information from a public platform? 

After I forcefully denied Fenton's claim that I had ever created or edited any Wikipedia page, he removed it from his blog. Childishly, however, he replaced it with a new line describing me as a 'Walter Mitty'. Walter Mitty is a fictional character  known for inventing fantastical stories about his life. Thus, Fenton was calling me a liar - a clear defamation, especially when coupled with the continued description of the Wikipedia bio as a piece of 'creative writing'.

I publicly questioned him about his claim I was a 'Walter Mitty', asking him to provide a specific example of something from the Wikipedia page which he felt had been untrue. Thus far, he has ignored this question and continued to frequently tweet out the blog link with the comment still on display. As ever, the supposed press reformers have dutifully retweeted it again and again, apparently uninterested in whether there is any factual basis for his defamation. 

Just to reiterate; these people claim to be campaigning on all of our behalf for greater accuracy and accountability in the media. 

You couldn't make it up.

A cowardly, anonymous supporter wrote underneath Fenton's blog that I was a 'far right' activist. Fenton, as the publisher responsible for approving comments before they can be displayed, did not challenge or delete this blatant defamation. I posted a comment under the blog asking for some evidence of my alleged 'far right' leanings. Neither Fenton nor the anonymous coward has yet provided any such proof. But Fenton and his disciples have repeatedly tweeted a link to the comments section of the blog, claiming that my asking the question is evidence of 'terminal stupidity'.


My complaint is not really about the editing of the Wikipedia page, which I did not control and whose editing I probably wouldn't have noticed for weeks had Fenton not crowed about the sabotage and copied me (and Graham Linehan?) in on it. Naturally, it is a bit irritating to have three quarters of one's awards mantelpiece wiped out on the whim of some whingers who are offended by the suggestion that journalists should be innocent until proven guilty like everybody else. But what is disturbing to me is the fact that these people, who claim to be campaigning for all of us for greater accountability and accuracy in media, are so quick to abandon their supposed principles and engage in the very behaviour they purport to oppose.

Like some less savoury sections of the media, these trolls do not think twice about ganging up on and harassing people; bombarding them with abuse and mockery, snide questions and outright lies. With no evidence whatsoever, one of their number will happily accuse me of creating and editing a Wikipedia page I've never touched, and the rest of them will happily retweet it all over the place with not a care for the responsible and accurate reporting they supposedly crave. Even when one defamation is removed, it is replaced with another one - this time juvenile, personal name-calling and an overt insinuation that I am a liar. 

These are the very worst aspects of the very poorest sort of tabloid journalism, exhibited by the very campaigners who say they seek to stamp them out. 

Imagine a group of anti-death penalty campaigners announcing that they will murder an innocent hostage every hour until the law is repealed; the hypocrisy of it. But these supposed press reform campaigners are no less hypocritical - claiming to represent the public appetite for more honesty and more accountability, but fighting their campaign on the principle of carelessly defaming people without any evidence; publicly suggesting that journalists, proven innocent in court, are criminals; and setting online lynch mobs on their critics, bullying and trolling them for days, smearing their characters with baseless insults and accusations. 

If anything, they are more dangerous and unaccountable than the people they seek to regulate.

If you are defamed by a newspaper or a magazine, you can complain to IPSO, which will then investigate your case and represent your interests for free. The internet, by comparison, is like the Wild West. Fenton repeatedly defamed me on a free blogging account, and he and his cronies did the same on Twitter. If I wanted those baseless comments removed, it would be a near impossibility unless I had vast reserves of disposable income to splash out on hours and hours worth of solicitor fees. An online defamation is infinitely easier for a reader to stumble across and infinitely harder the victim to challenge. To moan about the press while engaging in the sort of behaviour these so-called campaigners have displayed in the last few days is a ludicrous hypocrisy.

As I mentioned earlier, in one of my first interactions with some supposed press reform campaigners I was bizarrely told that poor reporting on Michael Jackson was fine because he was 'a paedo'. It was a pathetic comment which provided a window on the infantile reality that lurked behind the big words and elitist mockery which characterised those particular campaigners' online personas. But if press reform campaigners want to retain any sort of credibility going forward, they would do well to heed the singer's words and start by looking at the man in the mirror. 

People in glass houses, and all that.