Mountains out of Maude-hills

Phil Sheppard is a third-year lawyer at Corpus 27 April 2012

Only recently, Francis Maude MP was berated for advising motorists to stockpile fuel, a move condemned by the Fire Brigades Union as irresponsible. There have been calls – by Karl Turner MP, John Mann MP, and Lord Tony Harris – for Mr Maude’s resignation, and he has been blamed personally for the injuries sustained by Diane Hill, who suffered 40% burns decanting petrol near a lit oven. The media was awash with it: the image portrayed was of a government that had lost control of the situation. And this, perhaps, is the real problem. The true instigators are neither the government, nor the Unions, but the media.

Mr Maude’s statements were taken from an interview with Sky News, which lasted for the better part of nine minutes. During that time, he was asked no fewer than eight times for advice: on each occasion, he refused to provide it. He instead stressed fifteen times that it was the government’s duty to provide information rather than advice; that the public should make its own decisions according to circumstance (seven times); that there was no desperate hurry (four times); and that any strike would come with at least seven days’ notice (six times). Only once did Mr Maude suggest that a jerry can of fuel might be prudent, which he later refused to support as universal advice. This was his only deviation.

Instead of suggesting an air of calm, Mr Maude’s statement was deliberately truncated by the press in order to instil yet more panic. As the news spread, papers appeared to engage in a game to see who could cite the smallest section of the interview to the greatest effect.

The Daily Mail chose the words ‘hoard’ and ‘stockpile’, at times carefully omitting the words ‘a bit of extra ‘; thereby grossly misrepresenting the level of fuel motorists could keep. It also excised the phrase ‘s and when, when it makes sense’, and instead used ‘urged’, changing his words into an apparently universal command. The Sun was no better; its interpretation read: “Minister Francis Maude tells drivers to hoard petrol in jerry cans.” And, where the Daily Mail simply failed to include the words ‘in the garage’; The Sun decided that ‘at home’ was a suitably accurate synonym. Mock them though we might, the Daily Mail and The Sun have estimated readerships of 4,371,000 and 7,186,000 respectively, and rank as the top two most read newspapers in the UK.

Not all media outlets were as deliberately disingenuous, and many managed to include the full quotation. Nevertheless, all stressed that this was Mr Maude’s advice, an approach which does not do true justice to the context of the interview, especially in light of his repeated pleas that the government was not issuing advice. Matters were not helped by abundant use of the word ‘panic’ in headlines.

So why did journalists take Mr Maude’s flippant remark so badly out of context? The most likely answer is this: without doing so, the headline fuel crisis was at risk of becoming a stagnant story. Mr Maude’s calm reassurance risked obviating the problem, and with it, the news. Instead, it was necessary to fashion perfectly reasonable guidance into a new problem. This the media then did.

By chance for the papers, the second wave of panic gave way to a new story: Ms Hill’s tragic accident. The media no longer had to propagate a long-dead item: instead, it could publicly condemn as responsible the man whose words it had so badly misconstrued.

We should not give the media its scapegoat so easily, as we have done so frequently before. Whether right or wrong, the media has shown itself willing to favour a sensationalist approach, and gentle rummaging should remind us that this is not new.

Most people remember the furore surrounding Jeremy Clarkson’s comments about striking workers on the BBC’s ‘The One Show’ last year. In May 2011 we saw Ken Clarke and Lewis Hamilton strung up for questionably interpreted quotes. Slightly fewer might remember the comments about religiosity by Trevor Phillips in February, or by Dominic Grieve way back in 2008. There are no doubt others.

In each of these situations, the media has taken one interpretation, howsoever controversial or unwarranted, and created a maelstrom of negativity in order to sell the news. I do not criticise the press for having an opinion: the criticisms levelled against the speakers above may well have been legitimate (and it is far from me to say who is right). The real problem is the media’s propensity to fit the facts to the interpretation it favours. This seriously distorts a reader’s ability to judge the situation for himself.

Mr Maude therefore represents just one part of a symbiotic relationship. The media needs prominent figures around which to hang the fantastic stories it sells; those figures need the media for exposure; and we, as consumers, need the media to give it to us. There is no simple way to untangle this web, but there is an alternative.

The next time you read a quote too incredible, outrageous or ridiculous to be true, invest a little time to find the full interview, and decide for yourself what was really said. Only then should you judge its author on the merits.

Phil Sheppard is a third-year lawyer at Corpus