No shame in the circle jerk
The link between appalling coverage of Nicola Bulley's disappearance and cheers for a Telegraph hack heading to GB News? An industrial absence of embarrassment.
In a statement given during a police press conference last night, the family of Nicola Bulley— who was found in the river Wyre on Sunday, three weeks after she went missing — said:
… it saddens us to think that one day we will have to explain to [Nicola’s children] that the press and members of the public accused their dad of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family. This is absolutely appalling, they have to be held accountable this cannot happen to another family. We tried last night to take in what we had been told in the day, only to have Sky News and ITV making contact with us directly when we expressly asked for privacy. They again, have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles. It is shameful they have acted in this way. Leave us alone now. Do the press and other media channels and so-called professionals not know when to stop? These are our lives and our children’s lives.
Nicola Bulley appeared on every national newspaper front page today but her family’s words were missing from all but those from the i paper and The Guardian. Even then there was spin; the i’s headline reads…
Nicola Bulley’s family accuse ‘shameful’ TV crews and social media
… removing any reference to the newspapers. Though the phrase “the press” appears several times in the i’s story, it omits the section of the statement that specifically accuses the newspapers of “[running[ stories… to sell papers and increase their own profiles”. Likewise, The Guardian’s report talks in broad terms about the press and media but omits the quote about newspapers in particular.
In last night’s bulletins, ITV News and Sky News broadcast the statement including the line about the behaviour of their correspondents and journalists. Yesterday morning, Kay Burley presented her show from a graveyard in the village where Nicola disappeared, having previously traced the route of her final walk live on TV with the channel’s North of England correspondent Inzamam Rashid; a breathless dissection of the minutiae of the morning she went missing as if an improv troop was presenting a true crime podcast in real-time.
Monetisation is switched on for the clip on YouTube so at the moment the pair discussed “an earlier visit due to police concerns,” I got a chirpy ad for Uber Eats. Later in the footage, a dog walker tries to pass Rashid and half-jokingly says, “do you live here?” before being buttonholed for a vox pop on live television. He keeps trying to walk away as Burley and Rashid question him. At no point do they mention that he is LIVE on Sky News.
On Sunday, when Nicola’s body had been found but had not yet been identified, quotes from her partner, Paul Ansell, were carried across the media. They were attributed to Sky News and a text message quoted by Rashid, who a Sky News report said: “[Had] been in contact with the family throughout the three-week search.” A standard note at the top of that story reads “why you can trust Sky News” and links to the channel’s policies and standards document.
A story by Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford includes the following:
Press Gazette understands that ITV News contacted Bulley’s family on Monday morning, after the quote to Sky News had been broadcast and led them to believe the family was willing to speak. The family declined to say anything further and ITV News journalists have not contacted them again since.
The code phrase “[insert publication] understands…” tends to be a signal that a journalist has received information “on deep background”, an agreement that the source cannot be named or directly quoted. You can usually spot when someone has given information on deep background because it appears to have simply floated into the reporter’s ‘understanding’ of its own accord.
I put my assumption to Dominic Ponsford and asked about Press Gazette’s policy on quoting “on background” and he pointed me to the publication’s style guide which reads:
OFF THE RECORD Often sources want to speak to us on an “off the record basis”. Before publishing any information based on such interviews, clarify exactly what the terms are under which that information can be used. ie Is it shared on a confidential basis? If so then we are agreeing to keep it secret until such time that the source agrees to go public. If it is shared on a background basis, that means we can use the information but without any quotes or attribution (something we should only do if we are certain it is correct). It may be that we can quote the source, but without naming them – if so clarify exactly how they are comfortable to be described: “a company source”, “a well-placed source”, “a source close to”…etc.
He told me that I was wrong to assume that he had spoken to someone at ITV News on deep background and rightly stated that he would not comment on sources (just as I wouldn’t and won’t).
In his introduction to Press Gazette’s daily newsletter, Ponsford says he has commissioned the excellent media writer Liz Gerard to “write a proper review of the media coverage” but that “[his] own impression is that coverage has been extensive but fair”. Suffice it to say that my view is very different.
Yesterday, I was given an email by a source that showed execs at Newsquest — a subsidiary of US media conglomerate Gannet and owner of 165 newspaper and 40 magazine titles in the UK — had instructed publications and individual journalists to use a police press conference about the Nicola Bulley case to promote the company’s True Crime YouTube channel. Sent to “All_Editorial” and cc’d to Newsquest’s Editorial Director, Toby Granville, the message read:
Hi all, There is a press conference today on the Nicola Bulley case at 5.30 pm. An article will soon be shared to your sites from the SEO Team so please share this on social also. It’s important once again that we direct our audience to watch this via True Crime Newsquest on our YouTube Channel…
Instructions on what to share on Twitter and Facebook followed, as well as an “example social sell” (a line to push the link with). The channel has hosted 7 live streams on the Nicola Bulley case at the time of writing, all illustrated with lurid thumbnails using photos of Nicola.
The channel description reads:
Newsquest Media Group's new YouTube channel with a thrilling short-documentary series looking back at the most shocking cases across Britain. Mark Williams-Thomas and Jody Doherty-Cove investigate some of the UK's biggest crimes.
It could not be more obvious that Newsquest is using Nicola’s tragic case and her family’s suffering for cheap entertainment.
The Lancashire Telegraph, one of the closest local Newsquest titles to Nicola’s home in St Michael’s on Wyre, has published numerous pieces on the case. Like the national papers, its report on the family’s statement omits the line that focused on the newspapers. The journalist tasked with writing up that news has produced no less than 10 stories in the last 24 hours.
Joshi Herrmann, the founder of the independent Manchester Mill, wrote on Twitter yesterday that Newsquest’s major rival Reachhas been pumping out clickbait about Nicola’s case:
Reach’s big sites — MEN [Manchester Evening News], Echo etc — have stories about a ‘statement’ from Peter Faulding (the Echo tweeted it 6x). But there’s no statement — it’s a single line on social media. Pure clickbait trash, exploiting public interest in a woman’s disappearance to drive traffic.
Reach told the BBC recently that it doesn’t publish clickbait. The Echo’s editor said the same to a Commons inquiry. Stories like this are the definition of clickbait — they’re purely about tricking readers. Reach staff who keep defending this company are beclowning themselves.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a report on The Manchester Mill on January 23 2023 which included the line that the MEN is “just rammed with clickbait and sensationalism and just kind of about celebrities to be honest”. On February 2 2023, the BBC published an apology for having failed to give Reach a right to reply and included the following statement from the company:
Reach has also told us The Manchester Evening News online never writes clickbait – stories which mislead in the headline to get people on site – and that TV and celebrity content on the website make up less than 5% of the articles published.
After Herrmann’s criticism yesterday, Prolific North got a further statement from Reach which said:
Our coverage of the search for Nicola Bulley has been extensive and involved the deployment of reporters on the ground in the area to provide reliable, accurate information of the search by the police. It has also included documenting the comments and search activities of Specialist Group International throughout. We along with other local titles in the area have reported and will continue to report on newsworthy information — whether shared on social media or through other channels — with our audience, especially when it comes from experts involved in the case.
As Herrmann noted on Twitter, Reach absolutely failed to “address the fact that they’ve been dishonestly scamming traffic across multiple sites to eke out a bit more profit from a woman’s death”. Here are some examples of Manchester Evening News headlines on the Nicola Bulley case:
Pale-faced man's first words to police after discovering body in search for Nicola Bulley
Exhausted and in the eye of a storm, St Michael's on Wyre waits after the news no one wanted
In pictures: Scene in St Michael's on Wyre after body found in search for Nicola Bulley
Ex-detective from Channel 4 show Hunted labels Nicola Bulley police 'utterly ludicrous'
Seven key bombshells from Nicola Bulley's partner Paul Ansell as he speaks out on missing mum
I normally link stories but I’m fucked if I’m going to send the MEN any traffic.
Other newspapers have rolled out a series of retired cops to pontificate and prognosticate on the case for a fee.
Ex-Met Police commander John O’Connor — a regular rent-a-quote for national newspapers — told The Sun:
These search teams couldn’t find a currant in a rice pudding. I find it pathetic that a body has been found a mile from where she went missing.
O’Connor, who once wrote for The Guardian about the “cosy relationship” between the Met and Rupert Murdoch, is now quoted by News UK titles with remarkable regularity. The Sun and Times have also given significant space to the claims of a man they both describe as “a psychic” (he calls himself “a spiritual medium”) who was one of the two people who discovered Nicola’s body.
Inevitably, the Daily Mail got in on the “psychic” story and shaped its coverage of the family’s statement to absolve itself of any blame:
Nicola Bulley's relatives fire broadside at sections of the media and people speculating on social media
The paper’s story — including the version that was published in print — did not originally include reference to the media in general and newspapers in particular. It implied that the family had only criticised “TV journalists” from ITV News and Sky News and edited the statement to read…
They again, have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to increase their own profiles.
… rather than:
They again, have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles.
Online, the story now carries a correction that says:
Following publication this story has been updated to correct an omission in the quote from the family’s statement which should have read: ‘They again, have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles.’ The story also included an edited version of the video of the family’s statement. It has now been updated with the full video including criticism of the media.
Readers of the print edition will not see this update and any print correction will be minuscule and buried far deeper in the paper than today’s page 7 report.
This weekend, The Mail On Sunday ran a spread headlined:
Nikki is NOT an unfit mum
Why was the question even being debated and splashed across the pages of a Sunday newspaper? Misogyny is the short answer. Misogyny and prurient entertainment value is the slightly longer one.
In The Times, another former Met officer, Simon Harding, who also wrote a piece for The Sun, played Monday morning quarterback under the headline:
The three scenarios Nicola Bulley police need to consider now, by top detective
Newsquest was most blatant — using Nicola’s disappearance as a launch gimmick for its True Crime YouTube channel — but every single one of the major newspaper groups and broadcasters exploited interest in the story for cheap clicks. And all of them have tried to argue their spinning of a missing person’s case into a MYSTERY is spiritually, morally, and practically different from how social media ‘influencers’ have behaved in St Michael’s on Wyre. It is not.
Of course, the Bulley case was news as was/is the apparent mishandling of the case by Lancashire Police and the way — provoked in large part by traditional media coverage — it was seized upon by self-appointed social media sleuths, most particularly on TikTok.
Ofcom has now written to Sky News and ITV News. The media regulator’s statement says:
We are extremely concerned to hear the comments made by the family of Nicola Bulley about two broadcast licensees. We have written to ITV and Sky to ask them to explain their actions. We will then assess whether any further action is required.
Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the (self) regulator of most of the British press— a Potemkin village ruled over by Murdoch, Rothermere, Barclay and the rest — has said nothing and will say nothing. It is entirely reactive and, even if it were to be deluged with complaints, would find a way to weasel out of causing its backers more than superficial trouble.
Those people working for national newspapers and broadcasters that do offer any criticism of the coverage of the Nicola Bulley case will generally do so in narrow, specific, and career-protecting ways. It’s much easier to lunge for the independent gawkers of social media than it is to admit that your own industry is fundamentally complicit.
The announcement by Christopher ‘Chopper’ Hope — who has frequently appeared in this newsletter — that he is leaving The Daily Telegraph after 20 years to join GB News as its Head of Politics has provided another example of media class solidarity.
In the circle jerk beneath his “personal news” Twitter announcement, those congratulating him for joining a channel that has recently broadcast antisemitic conspiracy theories include the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (!), Karen Pollock, and the journalist who reported for The Guardian on the antisemitism accusations, Peter Walker, who’s one of the paper’s political correspondents.
Hurray! What a coup for GBN — you will be brilliant.
Challenged about the disconnect between his reporting on the channel (Jewish group and MPs urge GB News to stop indulging in conspiracy theories) he replied that:
It’s a fair point. My worries about a few of GBN’s pundits have always been balanced by a belief that their politics / news coverage can be fair and interesting. Like The Guardian, it’s not a monolith. Chris is an excellent reporter, so I’m assuming he will be in the latter camp.
That’s the same Christopher Hope who has frequently written ludicrous stories about his desire for a new royal yacht, was the chummy interviewer when Suella Braverman said that deportation flights were “[her] dream and [her] obsession”, and pumped out numerous propaganda pieces for his future GB News colleague ‘laughing’ Laurence Fox.
Challenged further, Walker wrote:
… I fully get the fact that Westminster journalists all work down the same corridor and thus know each other can seem — and is — very cosy.
Other journalists offering congratulations under Hope’s tweet include:
Tom Newton-Dunn, the presenter of a statistically unwatched show on TalkTV, who famously put a story sourced to the neo-fascist group Aryan Unity on the front page of The Sun.
Pippa Crerar, the political editor of The Guardian
Ayesha Hazarika, columnist at The Evening Standard and the i paper, and a presenter at Times Radio / expert on ‘hipster analysis’
Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff
UK editor of ITV News, Paul Brand
Channel 4 News anchor, Krishnan Guru-Murthy (whose tweet had a mildly raised eyebrow but was nonetheless congratulatory: “What an intriguing move — congratulations”)
Mikey Smith, the Whitehall Correspondent for The Daily Mirror
Matt ‘chortling’ Chorley, Times Radio presenter
Beth Rigby, Sky News political editor
Today programme presenter Justin Webb
Jane Bruton of Tortoise, the tedious ‘slow news’ startup
Lucy Fisher, Chief Political Commentator at Times Radio
Isabel Hardman of The Spectator
BBC Political Editor, Chris Mason
Dawn Neesom of The Daily Star
Benjamin Butterworth of the i paper / an obscure Roald Dahl character
John Stevens, The Daily Mirror political editor
Rachel Wearmouth, deputy political editor of The New Statesman
… and Kate Day, the deputy editor-in-chief of Politico Europe.
That’s not a complete list and I’ve missed out the Telegraph and GB News contributors because, of course, they would be in there.
“It’s a big club and you’re not in it” is a commonly dropped phrase but it’s worth repeating. The people sending ‘Chopper’ congratulations didn’t need to do it in public; they could have emailed him or said it in person. They didn’t because none of them sees anything wrong with this cosiness, despite Walker pretending that they do, and media class solidarity easily trumps shame.
By coincidence, today is the 175th publication anniversary of The Communist Manifesto and this quote seems worth pulling:
In place of the old society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
We are far from free of class antagonisms and every time a prominent hack changes jobs, that fact is shoved in our faces.
The general style in the press is to use a person’s surname after the first mention. I have decided as I did in the edition about Brianna Ghey and the coverage of her death to refer to Nicola Bulley as Nicola throughout this newsletter. To use her surname alone seems needlessly cold and cruel.
Here’s a useful piece on levels of quote attribution.
It is the owner of 130 national and local media brands (it claims 70% of the UK population comes to it “specifically for their local news)
The Financial Times, The Independent and The Guardian are not regulated by IPSO — they have their own ‘systems’ of regulation — and there is also a rival regulator called Impress, which regulates independent, local, and special interest publications.
An aside, but I am impressed by the word used by Joshi Herrmann of the excellent The Mill - “beclowning”.
You’d hope the way this tragedy has been presented to the public would be used to teach how not to do so in future.
It won’t, of course.
The release of the details of her personal life seemed to be to stop stories being sold to the tabloids to cause further misery to her family - so when the police did so, they were attacked by the same papers seeking to use that information for an exclusive.