I’m loath to write about this, as I’m effectively jumping on the same bandwagon I’m about to deride. But given the intense level of media attention “handwritingate” has received over the past three days, it seems it may be impossible to ignore.
I first realized I was eventually going to have to write about this nonsense on Monday, as I was watching a live announcement on SkyNews from UK environment minister Ed Miliband (David’s brother) on a planning approval overhaul that will make it easier for the UK to build nuclear and coal plants. As the speech ended, the 24-hour British news network (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) carried about three minutes of the ensuing parliamentary debate, then cut back to the studio. Ah good, I thought, now we’ll hear some analysis of what this announcement means. But no analysis came, in fact there was no mention of the speech we had just seen at all. Instead, the station delved into hour 13 of its non-stop coverage of the fact that UK prime minister Gordon Brown has bad handwriting.
Basically the story goes like this: there have been an extraordinary number of British casualties in Afghanistan over the past few months, attracting increasing public discussion about whether the UK should still be involved in the fight there and whether the troops are properly resourced. Apparently, possibly out of political calculation but more likely out of genuine concern, Gordon Brown has started writing personal handwritten letters to the families of the fallen soldiers. Seems like a nice gesture right? Only problem is the prime minister has horrible handwriting, owing to the fact that he is blind in one eye.
One mother named Jacqui Janes received such a letter from Mr Brown offering condolences for the loss of her son and found it sloppy and riddled with what are either spelling mistakes or illegibilities, depending on your perspective. She was most offended by the fact that the prime minister had appeared to spell her name with an ‘m’ instead of an ‘n’, addressing the letter to “Mrs. James”.
Janes rung up The Sun newspaper, which recently publicly switched its support from New Labour to the Conservatives, and the paper ran with it, making it a lead story two days in a row. The rest of the British media have followed suit, even the venerated BBC. The furore forced the prime minister to personally call the woman to apologise. Janes proceeded to emotionally berate Brown, tape recording the phone conversation and giving (some have speculated selling) it to the Sun, which then released it. Here is the audio below, though I warn it feels like something you shouldn't listening to. (Incidentally, and as awkward as it is to point out, a lack of equipment most likely had nothing to do with her son's death). Brown has since had to address the issue publicly twice in news conferences.
Of course the Sun is also owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, so it is under the same umbrella as another news organisation famous for this kind of thing across the pond – Fox News. The formula works like this: the media outlet picks up a fairly trivial but emotionally charged story, runs it relentlessly as a campaign against the government, and encourages reader/viewer outrage on the subject. It then reports on the viewer outrage, continuing coverage for several more days. Other media outlets worry that they are missing a major story (after all it must be a major story if the Sun/Fox are devoting so much time to it) so they run it as well. Pretty soon the issue is dominating all the front pages, be it manufactured outrage over bad handwriting or created controversy over a presidential address to school students.
However here in Britain there are already signs of pushback against this tried-and-true Newscorp strategy. Much of the readers’ comments under the web version of the original story were defending Brown, perhaps prompting the Sun to block commenting on their subsequent story.
Other papers have begun to note that the Sun risks overplaying its hand in its vigorous crusade against Gordon Brown, which is being fought with all the intensity the newly-converted usually display. The Standard, The Guardian and The Mirror have all been pointing out that much of the public has been disgusted with the Sun’s naked (and rather clumsy) attempt to exploit a grieving mother for its own ideological gain. Even many who dislike Brown are defending him from this rather crude attack.
Given his incredibly low approval rating, the Sun surely sees Gordon Brown as an easy target. And it is a reflection of Brown’s weak position that the paper could so easily bring him to his knees and force three separate grovelling apologies in just three days. However they may have underestimated the British public’s tolerance for cheap shots or blatant manipulation on this occasion. This kind of thing may work across the pond, but in Britain News Corp should perhaps tread a bit more carefully with these kinds of tactics.
After all, as evidenced in the screengrab to the right, perhaps people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones!