How can media academics fight the rise of the right?

Menow2 @bethanyusher

AT the international Celebrity Studies Journal conference in Amsterdam Brexit dominated  conversations with British colleagues as we struggled to come to terms with the rise and increased visibility of the far-right at home.

Most delegates were shocked. “No one on my Facebook on Twitter timeline was voting out”, they said, “I never see any of the stuff about immigration. I honestly vote it would be a Remain landslide.”

The insinuation was clear. The people who voted out are simply not who we, in the Ivory Towers of academia, would associate.

This has been very different to my own experience over the past few years, where I’ve watched far-right rhetoric about immigrants increase on the Facebook pages of people I know.

Shortly after Brexit I wrote about the rise of the right in my hometown Sunderland – the first place to announce for Brexit.

I argued that when Labour stopped speaking for the people of the post-industrial North and seized the neo-liberal middle ground, they left a vacuum into which stepped first the BNP and later UKIP.

They poured poison into a people who felt abandoned and were looking for someone to blame for social and economic insecurity.

As I was due to present an analysis of party leader’s social network accounts during 2015 GE election campaign, I decided to refocus the work to try and make some sense of the Brexit vote, with particular focus on Farage’s successful use of Facebook.

My research explores how the conventions of the news industry – alongside the techniques of online ‘micro celebrities’ and celebrity marketing – have influenced digital electioneering.

Farage and the UKIP team were particularly adept at adapting familiar cultural discourses and images for their own ends, such as this play on the famous ‘Labour Isn’t working’ poster.



On Facebook, Farage won the day, with more people ‘talking about him’ and ‘liking’ his page than Labour, The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and The Green Party combined.

His church, like Facebook users, was broad.  Young and old, from the Northern unemployed to Middle Englanders, shared his messages about the dangers of immigration and the abandonment of ordinary people by the establishment.

Many of their methods, for any one who studies journalism, are all too familiar. In the late 1970s, Stuart Hall discussed attacks on young black Britons by the National Front in 1975 as a direct result of tabloid newspaper’s portrayal of them as muggers and benefit “scroungers”. He concluded that behind the attacks were white fears about the decline of Britain as an economic power and the ‘othering’ of groups by the press.

The similarities between this kind of news discourse and the way Farage and other right-wing groups such as Britain First construct their own content are clear. But rather than it being engaged with once and then cast aside, like a newspaper, it has tentacles which grow as it is shared again and again.

Often framed as a conversation between ‘Me’ and”You’ against the dangerous ‘them’, content created for social media can suddenly reappear after several weeks or months, finding new currency on new timelines.

And the popularity of the far-right on the site can not be ignored. Britain First, Farage and the UKIP’s Facebook pages boast a combined total of more than 2.7 million ‘likes’ – a million more than Cameron and the Conservatives. Farage’s post-brexit video alone racked up 1.45m views in three weeks.

So, the question becomes, what is our role, as educators and researchers, in challenging this rhetoric?

I’d argue that it is a significant –  and it is time for us to focus.

First, we need to understand it better and to do so we must emerge from our social media echo chambers and actively engage with people whose views we might find unpalatable. The limited audience and lofty language of media research means that those who it could benefit most, rarely engage with it.

Secondly, and for post 1992 institutions particularly, we must do more to ensure that young working class people are both politicised and educated during their time with us.

The Miners’ Halls and picket lines of my childhood – where I was politically educated – are gone. Surely we are better placed than the far-right to try and fill these kinds of spaces? I am often surprised that there is so little political debate or demonstration on our campus and know I should do more to help instigate it.

Our students need to understand how both neo-liberal and far right ideologies are constructed, maintained and impact on them. When they do it can be a fulfilling experience for them. On the morning after Brexit I watched with pride as one graduate picked apart Nigel Farage’s statement using ideas discussed in seminars.

She also told a friend who complained that her Facebook was “too political” “that she should “look up Habermas so they could understand was social media was really all about.”

These kinds of discussions on social networks are important because they too can be shared, giving our teaching extended life.

Across England, voting Brexit meant many working class people felt they have a voice and their anger has been focused directly on people they perceive as different.

It’s up to professions like ours to convince them there is another way for them to feel politically empowered. Surely we are capable of being better communicators than the likes of Nigel Farage and Britain First? We have the skills to unpick this rhetoric and we must work harder to do so.

The right are on the rise and we have an important role in the fight back.




After the sentence…..

IN mitigation before today’s sentencing, Andy Coulson, former Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck and their colleagues James Weatherup and Greg Miskew publicly admitted phone hacking for the first time.

They said they did it simply because they thought it was allowed.

This was understandable because it was in The Press Complaints Commission code of conduct which – incredibly – still says there is a public interest defence for intercepting telecommunications.

It was repeated in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and the News of the World staff handbook which made adhering to the Code of Practice a professional responsibility. Thurlbeck, while claiming there was a public interest defence for the hacking he commissioned, submitted the handbook as mitigation.

They were also told it was okay by media lawyers, who use the public interest as a defence for all kinds of crimes committed by journalists as part of their work. It’s for that reason that buying a stolen disc containing expense details of politicians, for example, did not lead to prosecution.

Of course there really is no public interest defence for the routine hacking of celebrities’ phone messages. What should have been used rarely for stories of significance became a fishing exercise. Their mitigation doesn’t stand up when considering the speculative hacking of Glenn Mulcaire.

Equally, there can be no excuse for listening to the voicemail of someone who has died or their family, although it could be argued attempting to find a missing child is in the public interest.

Given one news editor would regularly demand the numbers of my own contacts – some of whom had also lost loved ones – I find the hacking of the phones of murder victims and their families particularly troubling.

But, while I was never in a position where I would have considered it, I wonder whether for all journalists there should be times when listening to phone messages would be a justified breach of the law?

If a reporter had finally been able to stand up the endless accusations about Jimmy Savile, or evidence of a paedophile ring at the heart of Government, would the public see it as in their interest? What about if it could prove a Prime Minister had knowingly employed a criminal or had lied about reasons for entering a war? Would it be justified then?

Perhaps this police investigation and public inquiry has irrevocably changed the industry and popular support for journalists and so the answer is a resounding “No”. And maybe some of that is for the good. But I do wonder whether how many reporters are now unwilling to take any risks in case they end up in The Clink.

I also wonder whether, if it happened during this current chilly climate, the stolen Expenses’ disc would result in the arrests of both the journalists who bought it and the public officials who sold it.

Before the hacking scandal, when I told people I’d worked at the News of the World they often asked how many stories were made up. I said, to the best of my knowledge, none. Lawyers demanded the highest levels of proof from their reporters.

I was arrested because I’d transcribed a voicemail given to me by a source to stand up a story he was selling. It took just ten days for the police to verify I’d been given it legitimately rather than obtaining it through hacking, helped by the fact I’d taped our conversation, as was demanded by the NotW legal team.

During police questioning I was asked how well I knew the men sentenced today. Having spent most of my time on the road in the North, I’d only met most of them less than a handful of times. I’ve seen Neville Thurlbeck once more since.

He gave an insightful lecture about what makes a good Fleet Street journalist and changes to press freedom to my students shortly after his guilty plea late last year. Eloquent as ever – but also humble and contrite – it was a fascinating session.

Afterwards some students said they hoped he didn’t go to jail as he was “too nice”, seduced by the notorious charm which helped him keep many a source on side.

I said they were underestimating him and that I was sure he was tough enough to survive relatively unscathed. As he faces his first night behind bars, I do hope I’m right.

When asked whether he’d known about Rebekah Brooks and Coulson’s relationship, Neville said no one in the newsroom had a clue. They’d managed to keep it quiet right under the noses of some of the most experienced muckrakers in the industry.

“They were close colleagues for a long period of time and I feel for them and their families,” he added. “I know this makes me a terrible hypocrite.”

Chatting afterwards Neville told me that after long discussions with the police and prosecution, he couldn’t bring himself to give evidence against those former colleagues, despite the chance it could have reduced his sentence.

Judge Saunders said this week he was disappointed that “very successful, investigative, capable journalists” were not prepared to “come clean” until mitigation.

Now the gloves are well and truly off and these once lauded multi-award winning journalists are threatened and ridiculed. I have a little experience of how they may feel. During the 10 days before I was cleared, I was bombarded with abuse on email and social media.

Much of that was as a result of the timing of my arrest which was the first during the Leveson Inquiry and as such there was heightened interest. Despite being unimportant both at the News of the World and in terms of the investigation, my picture was splashed across the national news.

Like many comments directed at Rebekah Brooks, criticism was often highly gendered. There were suggestions about how I’d managed to get to Fleet Street at a young age and how I’d found some of my best stories. There were comments about my physical appearance and my sexual history. Some questioned my ability to ‘hack’ being a journalist, given I’d left the industry before I was 30.

I made the decision to move into academia because, while I hadn’t been asked to do anything illegal, I was often asked to do things I couldn’t square with my own conscience.

This included having to feed an incessant hunger for celebrity stories which was the number one priority under the editorship of Coulson, a former showbiz columnist for The Sun.

Perhaps naively, I’d become a journalist because I wanted, if not to change the world, then to at least try to make it better for people in communities like mine.

It’s the reason I chose tabloid journalism. No one I knew read the broadsheets. They simply did not speak to or for the mining and shipbuilding town where I was raised.

But by the time I got there the agenda of those papers seemed less concerned about fighting for the rights of working class people and more about keeping them distracted with meaningless fluff. And I certainly did not intend to spend my entire working life writing about the likes of Kerry Katona.

Indeed the place where I felt my work really mattered to ordinary people was not at the nationals but when working as a regional reporter.

Unfortunately, despite no accusations of a local newspaper being involved in phone hacking or bribing public officials, they are paying a heavy price for this scandal.

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

Throughout all of this, my old pal Pat Lavelle has popped into my mind time and again. He was my first News Ed having given me a job following after work experience.

I last saw him a few weeks before his death in March 2010 when he took me out for lunch. He died of the disease of the hack; too much coffee and too many fags.

If it hadn’t been for the relationship Pat built with detectives at West Yorkshire Police and his continuous pressure on them to DNA test the letters sent by Wearside Jack – the Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer – John Humble would not have been found.

He was a brilliant local news hound who spent hours immersed in investigations, working his contacts in both the police and the criminal underworld. And in that he was one of the last of his kind.

Locals once depended on their relationships with public officials. Reporters began every morning doing “a round of calls” – ringing every duty inspector and fire station in their area – and going through the overnight logs. That’s how they got stories from their patch long before the nationals and the television. And that’s one of the reasons people bought them.

Now they are reliant on press officers who often think their job is to stop reporters finding out what is happening and feed them yarns about cleaning up graffiti and lower crime stats.

It also makes it more difficult for a young reporter from the regions to pique the interest of Fleet Street by getting a good line on a news story that’s made the nationals, like I did a decade ago.

And these foot soldiers didn’t even get a say in all this. Leveson wheeled out a selection of London’s great and good while in places like Ipswich and Liverpool and Glasgow and Country Durham reporters plodded on, trying to make a difference in an increasingly impossible climate, without even the ability to speak to their local cops.

The most damaging consequence of phone hacking and the way it has been used to curb press freedom is that it has succeeded in stopping any reporter speaking to any public official without the nod from the Great Press God in HQ.

In this they’ve ensured there will be no more Pat Lavelles. No more local newspaper hacks who use their contacts in public office to build brilliant investigations which matter to local people.

And that – for ordinary people all over this country- is perhaps the greatest travesty resulting from phone hacking, accusations of bribing public officials and subsequent changes to press freedom.

The Sun and other national papers will continue on, with the lawyers and the money to fight their corner. Local newspapers may not have that chance.


A Child of Thatcher

IT has taken me a while to solidify and articulate my feelings about Margaret Thatcher and her death.

I’ve read a range of personal accounts which are always more about the writer and I didn’t want to be self-indulgent or worse whiney.

But as her funeral approaches – self-indulgent or not – I’ve decided it’s important to me to write down the thoughts swimming around my head; not least because five months ago I became a mother and I would like my little girl to understand how different her childhood is to my own.


THATCHER: ever dignified in victory.

My childhood was not unhappy but nor was it easy. I was born in 1980 in Sunderland and thus spent the first ten-and-a-half years of my life as a Child of Thatcher.

For much of that time it felt like we were living under siege as one-by-one the walls which protected us from poverty were pulled down.

As the bricks tumbled, my Mum took me on marches to hear the wisdom of Uncle Arthur, Uncle Neil and the leaders of ‘our side’ of the battle who seemed to be the only people trying to protect us from the rape and  pillage of our home town.

My childhood is littered with sad memories. Watching debt collectors going into the homes of my friends on our street; marches which occasionally turned into pitch battles; a schoolmate writing in their news book about the suicide of a family member who couldn’t cope with the shame of being unable to provide for his family.

But I also have memories of the kindness of people around me. The comradeship on picket lines and even though we had little ourselves, my Mam collecting tins and dried foods for miner’s families.

As interest rates soared and wages froze we couldn’t manage anymore and lost our home. We spent the next eight years moving from rented flat to rented flat while on the never-ending council waiting list, lengthened massively by the sell off of social housing.

For many, milk being taken from children was meaningless. At my school we were given the option of taking the milk home “if it would help”. It did help and then it was gone.

I remember watching  Thatcher on the news speaking about family values and single parents. Which made me realise to her my single parent family had no value.

Even as a child I had a tendency to internalise and I came up with a plan to write to her and ask whether if I said sorry she would forgive us all.


ALL THATCHER’S FAULT: sad face little me.

I couldn’t understand what we’d done wrong and why she hated us so much. Now I know she didn’t. It was worse than hate – we were meaningless.  Just specks of dust caught in the wake of her storm; irrelevant and insignificant.

When it was over there was deafening silence. The noise of industry – a lullaby at bedtime in our little house just five minutes walk from the Wear- was suddenly gone.

Also gone was the sound of political activism and rhetoric which had been provided by the unions. It left a void of apathy now being filled by the Far Right. Where once miners stood with banners in Sunderland Market Square now stand the BNP and EDL, pouring poison into the ears of young people disenfranchised by lack of opportunity and work.

When I went to university I mixed with people for the first time who grew up under a different Thatcher. They went to private schools in the South and their Dads had ‘struggled’ under the 90 per cent tax rate for high earners in the 1970s.

My best Uni mate and I laughed the other day when we remembered a conversation we’d had shortly after we met. When Thatcher resigned her teacher insisted on a minute’s silence. We got out early and my Mam cooked our ‘special tea’.

And as these memories have flooded back, I’ve asked myself one important question; what was Thatcher’s legacy over my own life?

Well she made me realise that in the eyes of those in power if you are poor you are dirt, and there is nothing worse than being dirt poor.

Which is why I’ve always  been a saver. This enabled my Mam and me to finally buy her a pretty cottage six months ago and hand back the keys to the little council house which became a sanctuary to us and now I hope to another family in need.

I’d like to say the fact she was a woman made me feel like anything was possible for a girl. Certainly my Mam tells a funny tale about me asking whether a man was allowed to be Prime Minister.

But that legacy is firmly my mother’s who prized hard work and education above all and who made be believe I could do and be anything I wanted if I was willing to put the graft in.

Thatcher actually taught me more about the kind of woman I don’t want to be. And while she may have taken so much from my family, we have come out the other side – and with our humanity intact.

And it is that humanity – so lacking in her –  which has led me to a decision. I’ve decided to forgive her.

There will be no parties in our home; no downloading of silly songs and we won’t travel to her funeral to wave banners or turn our backs. Because once you forgive someone you don’t want to celebrate their death.

Instead I’m going to take my Mam out for a nice lunch and toast to us and how far we’ve come. And try to convince her to forgive her too.

I’m not holding my breath.

A tale of two cities….

In pubs across Tyne and Wear today men and butch-for-the-day women in their husband’s strips will be screaming at big screens, holding their heads in their hands and shouting expletives at their rivals.

But for those outside the region it can be difficult to understand the intense rivalry between the two cities and their football teams. Why do they hate each other so much?

Here’s my (with help from my lad) quick guide to the history of  why Mackems and Geordies hate each other for all those living South of the Tees.

It began with the Games of Thrones

Geordieland boomed in the 1600s when ill-fated Charles I granted rights to export coal to Newcastle, strangling their neighbour’s ability to trade.


Wronged Wearsiders took up arms and backed Parliament while Newcastle battled for the Royalists in the English civil war. The factions met in battle on Boldon Hills and Sunderland won, capturing their rival’s command and helping win the war.

Once Charles II  was restored to the throne he wasn’t too fond of the traitors of the North who’d helped Parliament chop off his Dad’s head, so again granted licenses to Tyneside.

Later, Sunderland backed the Scots and Newcastle the Germans in the Jacobite Rebellion. This time the Mackems were on the losing side.

Thus, the Derby game is really a historical re-enaction of past military battles. Sometimes, if you squint hard at the telly on match day, you can see someone sporting an elaborate curly wig or metal bowl on their heads in homage.

It’s Hitler’s Fault

Sunderland was once the greatest ship building town in the World.  It’s from there the nickname Mackem comes from. Once a derogatory term for the way Wearsiders speak (We Mack the boats….we Mack em…”), it was adopted and became a way to distinguish themselves from their Geordie neighbours.

Unfortunately the shipyards were close to the town centre and when the Luftwaffe bombed much of the impressive Victorian architecture was destroyed. What Hitler started was finished off by the council who thought it a good idea to knock down buildings like this…


and replace them with buildings like this…


Meanwhile Newcastle didn’t suffer the same wartime damage and is still a beauty to behold. This irks most Mackems every time they step off the Metro at Monument.

The Tyne and Wear Development Corporation always pays its debts (as long as you’re a Geordie)

While we’re on the subject of the Metro it took TWENTY TWO YEARS for it to finally reach Sunderland after it ran out of cash once the Newcastle bit was finished.

One of the main principles of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation was to develop the riverside’s of both Sunderland and Newcastle.

Now, Newcastle’s Quayside looks like this…


And Sunderland’s like this….vaux

Are people from Sunderland bitter because Newcastle is better..?

Why yes, yes they are. And many would say understandably so. Sunderland is actually a bigger city with a larger population, but it languishes far behind its neighbour in terms of investment.

It really is a tale of two same but different cities.

Newcastle city centre is lovely and pockets of the outside are nice too. However, much of it is a Tyneside flat ridden wasteland where tramps in tracksuit bottoms shuffle in their slippers to the corner shop to buy Special Brew and Lambert and Butler.

Much of Sunderland’s suburbs are positively lovely, with tree-lined terraces, award-winning parks and two stunning beaches.

However, the city centre is a Pound shop ridden wasteland where tramps in tracksuit bottoms shuffle in their slippers to buy Gregg’s sausage rolls and browse the shelves of the three floor Primark.

My lad is fond of saying if you could combine the two – Sunderland’s coastline and suburbs with Newcastle’s majestic city centre – you would have one of the best cities in the World.

But we can’t. So we’ll kick each other’s heads in instead. And both send our young to join the cast of Geordie Shore in the hopes it will bring some form of alcohol fuelled unity.

Come on Gaz and Charlotte. Our fractious peace relies on you.

BATTLE: A Mackem lashing out after being shafted by a Geordie

BATTLE: A Mackem lashing out after being shafted by a Geordie

Savile, moral panics and me

Around five years ago I interviewed Jimmy Savile about his visits to the Haut de la Garenne care home in Jersey during a time children were being raped and tortured by a range of respected pillars of the community.

At first he said he’d never been there. When I showed him a picture of him outside with some of the children, he said he may have visited once, but couldn’t be expected to remember ever children’s home he’d visited over the last 50 years.

When prompted further he did remember judging a fete in  Jersey several times in the ’70s.  As there was a picture of him there – shirtless and surrounded by kids – as a coaster on his coffee table, I was glad remembered that at least.

Afterwards he spent an hour preaching to me about the morality of the press and what he’d learned as a columnist for the Sunday People. He also recounted the story of a newspaper reporter who’d quit because his editor had made him write nasty things about him.

I didn’t quit. Not then anyway. Instead, I went home, filed the story and pictures and waited for it to be spiked.

Inevitably it was, because the lawyers said by claiming he visited while kids were being abused we were inferring he was a paedophile. Which of course we were, but couldn’t prove.

Now Jimmy Savile is dead no one has to worry about proof anymore. The story has since appeared in the Daily Mail and the picture cropped up in The Sun around the same time as my interview –  both without any comment from him.

All allegations against him are treated as fact. In this picture it looks like he is making a grab for my boobs. He didn’t, but I could insist he did and put a claim in against his estate.

SAVILE AND ME: Wish I wasn't smiling

SAVILE AND ME: Wish I wasn’t smiling

Yesterday morning I was invited by BBC Radio Tees to talk about whether “post Jimmy”, we are in the midst of a moral panic in which no man in the media is safe from being accused of being a sexual predator.

The term moral panic was used by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in reference to media coverage and public reaction to The Mods and Rockers in the ’60s. He  described how certain groups of people are made ‘Folk Devils’ by the media and used as the embodiment of something which challenges society’s values.

Sometimes moral panics can have very horrific consequences  such as  in Germany in the 1930s. My students find it hard to believe that as recently as 1988 the Daily Star called for AIDs victims to be segregated from the rest of society.

Jimmy Savile  is the latest face in a moral panic around paedophilia which has simmered for the last 13 years since Rebekah Brook’s (then Wade)  infamous name and shame campaign.

But in the wake of this unfettered reporting – enabled by the fact he’s dead and can’t sue – a lot of men in the public are being accused of being like him and that accusation is enough for the public to associate them with the worst of Savile’s actions.

To apply Cohen’s argument, men in the public eye are becoming  Folk Devils for paedophilia, and once an accusation is made they are condemned long before it reaches trial.

During the BBC interview I was also asked whether I feel I’m the victim of a moral panic following my arrested and quick exoneration as part of Operation Weeting.

While it was a pretty awful experience, I don’t feel I can whine too much about it. The irony of a bunch of tabloid hacks being caught up in a moral panic isn’t lost on me.

But although the News of the World has become shorthand for the worst of press behaviour, thinking every reporter who worked on it acted illegally is as ludicrous as thinking every BBC radio DJ or TV presenter is a paedophile.

The shame is that despite having a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end, the tabloid press don’t seem to have changed their behaviour at all.

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