"Who will bully the bullies?"

In a disturbing account of an angry incident in London, Boris Johnson's old friend fights back against his detractors in the press.

The Spectator recently published an article in which I argued that the BBC journalist Eddie Mair, as a member of the British media, was in no position to point his finger at my old friend Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and call him “a nasty piece of work”. While many understood the point, the reaction on the part of a press which has taken umbrage at my consistent refusal to recognise a moral authority that I do not accept it possesses was less favourable.

One journalist in particular took it upon himself to resort to insult. He had approached me by email with a list of questions that seemed serious enough but which I sensed could be bait to occasion a meeting and thereby instil credibility to a subsequent character assassination, a favourite ploy of British journalists. I declined his invitation in the politest terms and with tedious predictability an article about me soon appeared in a prominent newspaper, its bad faith outmatched only by its incompetence.

In particular, it was the journalist’s insulting of my wife which proved that he had not conducted even an iota’s actual study. Had he done so, he would have realised that his calumny would trigger only one response.

That response came early one recent morning when, having discovered his address and flown into London from South Africa where I live, I waited for him to emerge from his house, chased him, and then, having knocked him to the ground, emptied over his head a sack of horse manure rendered slurry by the addition of bottled water – a concoction made possible courtesy of Hyde Park Riding School and the springs of Evian. The aim had been not to hurt him but to humiliate him as he had sought to humiliate my wife. And humiliate him is exactly what I did, in front of his neighbours who had poured out on to the street at the sound of his screams.

A click of the mouse is all that separates the journalist’s embarrassment from worldwide dissemination because I had brought along two accomplices, who did not touch him, and whose role it was to film the events as they unfolded. But here is the difference. That click of the mouse did not occur – precisely because I saw no point in causing additional hurt to the journalist’s family.

Did such considerations inform the News of the World when it published its video of Max Mosley’s recreation with a group of ladies liberal with their affections? Did the News of the World ask itself: “How will this impact on Mr Mosley’s family? What pos - sible good will come of publishing these tapes? Will society become a better place as a consequence? Or will it become a darker one by pandering to the basest voyeuristic instincts in us all?”

Did it, or any of Britain’s other newspapers, wrestle with similar questions on countless equivalent occasions?

Instead, the News of the World invoked a “public interest” defence – Fleet Street’s favourite – the gist being that the wearing of supposedly Nazi-like apparel had justified Mr Mosley’s exposure, an argument dismissed as patent sophistry by Mr Justice Eady in a high court judgment that is a masterpiece of prose and reasoning.

And when the wife of the journalist at the centre of this story emerged from her home to see me standing over her husband warning him never to repeat his mistake, did I bring her into it? Did I pour manure over her and attempt to humiliate her as her spouse had done my wife? No.

The sad truth is that, bar the odd exception, the most ruthless armed robbers I met in jail had more honour and more sense of code than the British media.

In fact, the real reason for some editors’ desire to degrade is money, coupled with a psychological need to bring the rest of the population down to their own level. The response by the publicity-sensitive Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, to Justice Eady’s judgment could hardly be more revealing:

. . . if mass-circulation newspapers . . . don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations . . . If the News of the World can’t carry such stories as the Mosley orgy, then it, and its political reportage and analysis [sic], will eventually probably die.

It is an argument that could be relied upon by the drug dealer: “I only give the people what they want. Were there no demand for my product, there’d be no market. I’m just a disciple of Adam Smith.”

However, for me, the person who spreads the disease is in fact far more blameworthy than the one in whom the disease originates. And that is exactly how the media make money – just as Mr Dacre states – not by upholding “democracy”, but by spreading sickness: an orgy here, a topless celebrity there, a beheading of a soldier somewhere else; all for our simple, pay-per-view, pay-as-youread entertainment.

Britain is a vulgar and aggressive country. Step off the plane and it hits you in the face. Now travel back in time, perhaps only 50 years, to a pre-Murdochian age. Watch some television or listen to the radio or open a newspaper and compare. How sad. The truth is that the media know all of this yet bemoan Britain’s moral decline, blind to just how implicated they are in that decline.

Lord Leveson asked the question: “Who guards the guardians?”

I beg your pardon? Murdoch, Dacre, Lebedev, Desmond et al – “guardians”?!

That surely is a term which implies leadership of some kind: a sense of moral authority and of trust; a notion of lifting the people, not degrading them.

The better question, it seems to me, would have been: “Who will bully the bullies?”

Leveson also quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

But there are huge assumptions here – the first being that the media are indeed “free”. They are not. The British press is controlled by a handful of corporations in turn owned by a handful of rather unpleasant individuals, all with virtually identical agendas. The result is that consent is not reached through rational dialogue between the media and their audience, but instead is manufactured. One comes across very little that is genuinely novel or enlightening in Britain’s media; the newspapers and television stations all essentially accept the same liberal, free-market line. The resulting uniformity is herd-like and dangerous, and the consequence is that we no longer have an intelligentsia to speak of. Whereas in countries such as France, where privacy laws are stronger, debate is in fact, counter-intuitively, far broader: from Marxist analysis to Marine Le Pen – a real difference; from the Guardian to the Telegraph– no real difference.

But what about instances such as the uncovering of the phone-hacking scandal? Surely a clear example of why our media should remain unfettered?

In fact, as anyone who had even the remotest knowledge of the workings of the British press could have told you decades before the arrest of the News of the World’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman, newspapers in this country – and not just those belonging to News International – were involved in all manner of illegal trespass on people’s privacy, by no means limited to phone-hacking, and enjoyed corrupt relationships with the police. Why should it be that the establishment wakes up only when the victims of such trespass are the royal family?

The truth is that the British media are seldom ahead of the curve instead of behind it. An example: the press’s catastrophic failure even to hint at impending financial meltdown. Or how about its analysis of Islam and politics in the Middle East? Embarrassing. The second, implied assumption in Jefferson’s remark is that the media must be free to tell the truth. If we reach the point when the man on the street, while being entertained by what he reads or watches, believes not a word of it, then what is the point of a “free” press?

And the third assumption is that the average man will, upon receipt of truthful information, exercise his reason to arrive at rational decisions, in the process becoming a valuable contributor to a free society. It is here that Leveson’s reference to “guardians” has meaning – because the media as prime purveyors of information have an educative function: to lead people out of the darkness and into the light.

Our politicians are complicit in what has been a long process of decadence, claiming that they defend a “free” press because of its emancipatory power, while in truth they care only for its manipulative power, believing in their Diana-like delusion that they can manipulate the journalists to their own ends more than the journalists will manipulate them.

For those of us with a less bleak view of humanity, let us hope that once the cycle’s nadir is reached things will improve, and that a space will open up for a media that we can trust again. What form this eventuality might take I can only guess at but this I know: the least of its priorities will be profit. Perhaps, reminiscent of the 18th-century-type merchant who, his fortune made, rejects the Harvard Business School manual and puts his money into unprofitable land for honour rather than the bottom line, we will rediscover individuals ready to lose their shirt for love of their trade.

Cynicism yielding once more to ideals? I see Messrs Murdoch and Dacre entertained by my naivety and doubtless the usual barbs will follow from underlings who resent those who are not frightened of them. In the meantime, I will hope to bump into such people when they are separated from their laptops and cappuccinos.

The dogs bark but the caravan moves on and the reader will be heartened by confirmation that, unlike prime ministers and other timid souls, this particular caravan will never be deflected from its course by a few mongrels yapping in Wapping.

Darius Guppy is an Anglo-Iranian businessman and essayist and lives in Cape Town, South Africa

Darius Guppy. Image: Dan Murrell

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.