An anatomy of a prison smear, or never, ever trust a journalist… Or the news.

Think you can trust the media? Watch The Fourth Estate, the radical documentary investigating the British media and journalism in the UK.

The wonderful Marcus makes an anchoring point in the film Injustice. “You don’t know until it happens to you”. Indeed, prison is bad enough but as becomes clear in Injustice, life after prison can be just as hard.

One of the key issues facing convicts has to do with work – all too often they leave prison with no job (and often no home) to go to. Even those who don’t go in are likely to lose their jobs as the decent, amiable human being that was known is replaced by a demonic monster produced by the courts and the leeches in the media.

Public and media prejudice

There are a number of organisations that work hard to get prisoners into work, but they struggle against searing prejudice. It seems too obvious to have to state that ex-prisoners and other convicted people are quite as capable as anyone else to work well. Yet it seems many employers are put off by a perceived risk, a risk rather amplified by news media.

The mass media role is known to those who know, to whom it has happened, as much as it is invisible to those who proclaim to disbelieve the media.

Indeed not so long ago a bloke in a pub told me about his struggles against the media as he’d attempted to provide hope to the downtrodden. He’d set up a company that used to employ ex-prisoners, and other generally “shady” characters. Actually, let me rephrase that. He used to employ ordinary people to whom bad things had happened.

The company’s workers made their money knocking on people’s doors. Yet the very notion of people who haven’t got much making an effort to get on their feet was of course too good a scandal for British “journalists” to miss.

So naturally, a national paper sent a “journalist” to the company to listen to ordinary people talking about ordinary things, waiting on edge for something that could be scandalised. And sure enough, 20-odd year old men got to talking about what 20-odd year old men talk about: women, drugs and money.

Fleet Street’s bread and butter

Now in case this doesn’t make sense yet, perhaps try something. Go to a City bar in London, and get talking to some traders. Befriend them. Eventually you’ll hear about “that bloke I knocked out”, or “all that coke we got” and even “that prossie we f*cked”. You can do the same with journalists, teachers, social workers, nurses, bankers, or even the police if you like too.

There is simply no scandal about ordinary people talking about the ordinary things they do, especially when it’s in a sales environment. Yet the papers being the papers seem to have expected sales, like journalism, to be a bastion of innocent purity which the lads were clearly corrupting.

The architecture of the story is pretty clear. One expects it went something like this:

Editorial pitch, 9am.

Editor “right, ideas, gimme some ideas”.

Ten minutes of weak pitches and venomous responses come back.

Hungover journo “I’ve got it, how about those bloody companies that get money for X. Do-gooders, let’s do one of them”

Ed “Great, bloody ponces. Got ideas which?”

Journo: “yeah, I saw one in Y that’s got loads of losers working for it”

Ed: “done, but I want drama and full-scale scandal!”.

Journo: “On it” as he walks away with a warm feeling akin to an angry father finally calming down to say “I love you”.

And so the “journalist” goes off, gets a job in the company, videos conversations, photographs workers and, well, there’s not really very much to report beyond what young men in sales jobs get up to. However, this one said he broke a bloke’s jaw in a fight, that one smoked a joint, the other said he was a drug dealer.

Discursive constructions and smear

The banter that is pretty innocuous in the real world is transformed into bait, words dangling like maggots in front of ravenous fish. People become “thugs”, “ex-prisoners”, “convicted drug dealers” and so on. Photos adorn the article and the scandal grows. There’s a photo of a black man – always more threatening – with a bandana around his face showing off. Black, masked, arms out, and worst of all, trying to hold down a normal legitimate sales job. Scum. Black scum. Black prison thug scum.

The next stage is the request for comment. It is a classic trick of vile “journalists” and works as a mechanism to avoid legal action – of course that action wouldn’t come from the workers, but might come from the business owners if rich enough to privately sue.

A kind of precedent was set by the “Reynolds Judgement”, which, to cut a long story short, suggests that a news report can be wrong without the organisation facing legal trouble, but only if journalists take steps to offer comment to the subject of the story.

Of course, journalists being what they are, this then becomes an excuse to fabricate stories in two senses. First, they don’t need to deliver the whole story when asking for comment, but offer only certain aspects – and that’s when the story is finished. The “right of reply” usually appears as “Joe Bloggs denies this”, right at the end.

Now, of course no “journalist” is sincere about a right of reply, lest it disrupt the scandal constructed in the story. Moreover, whatever replies one will become evidence that will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

“It didn’t happen” = he’s in denial; “They’re lying” = he’s victim-blaming; “I’m sorry” = slimy; “It’s capitalism, stupid” = communist, and so on.

What sells ?

So once there’s an effective admission of guilt by the subject of the story, its next stop is with associates: in this story, the clients of the company. And so the clients are approached for comment, and there can only be one outcome.

“Your company is employing another company that is using black and foreign-sounding drug dealers and thugs who boast about abusing old grannies. Do you have anything to say?”

And so the nonsense from the “journalist” is confirmed by the company’s apology and then amplified and confirmed by organisations that know nothing other than what they’ve been told by a “journalist”.

The consequence was catastrophic. The newspaper got its scandal, the journalist got his career-boosting byline and, one expects reason to celebrate with a bottle of champagne, a gram of coke and perhaps even a strip club.

The company owners went bankrupt, and their workers….I’ll leave that for you to guess.

Coming out broken

One is left wondering how many of those who proclaim not to believe the papers were left indignant. How many of them raged against their distorted mirror-images, unable to recognise the evidence of fabrication?

I wonder where the “and then what?”, let alone the “did they really?” line was. So the papers decide that people with convictions shouldn’t be allowed to work, yet equally shouldn’t be allowed to do crime to survive. As for social security, absolutely not – then they become scrounging wasters.

The only other place I can imagine such scum might feel at home would be among journalists themselves, but given the class constitution of journalism, I’ll not hold my breath waiting for the job offers to role in.

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