We need a definition here, so let’s hear it from one who was there:
A monstering from Murdoch’s droogs is a terrible experience. If the damage they did were physical — visible — courts could jail them for years. As it is, they inflict grievous emotional harm, the kind of injury from which some victims simply never recover. Indeed, there are some who have been left suicidal by the experience. It can come out of nowhere, picking on some off-the-cuff statement or some tiny detail which has caught nobody else’s eye, least of all the victim’s, and suddenly the violence begins. It can be completely arbitrary in its choice of target. If Miss Muffet abandons her tuffet because of the approaching spider, the droogs can choose to attack her for cowardice; or to attack the spider for indecency and threatening behaviour.
Once it starts, the monstering cannot be stopped by the victim. If the spider says he meant no harm, he was simply looking for somewhere to sit, then ‘an unrepentant spider last night threatened to spread his regime of fear’. Apologising will not work — ‘a humiliating climbdown’. Nor will refusing to apologise — ‘an increasingly isolated spider’. There is no end to the potential angles. The droogs will call everybody who ever sat next to the spider until they find somebody else who didn’t like him. They will comb through arachnophobes everywhere, in search of alarmist quotes and calls for action. They can keep it going for days. A little distortion here, some fabrication there. The fact of the focus is itself a distortion: the relentless return to the same victim, the desire to destroy that corrupts normal editorial judgement. Often, other newspapers and broadcast bulletins will join in, so that simple commercial competition encourages the hunt for a new angle. The spider is helpless — if he speaks out, he fuels the story; if he stays quiet, the story tramples him.
Eventually, the monstering stops, usually because some new target has arrived; or because the target has been destroyed. Sometimes, even destruction is not enough. In his diary, Alastair Campbell recalls the ferocious monstering which was given to the then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, in the spring of 2002, which continued even after he had resigned: ‘It’s like they get a corpse but then are disappointed there is nothing left to try and kill, so they kill the dead body too.’
And the fear of this monstering generates power far beyond the relatively small number of victims who are attacked. All those in the power elite are prone to fear Murdoch because none can be sure that they will not be next to be kicked by the tabloid boot. They all saw what happened to the former Labour minister Clare Short. Several times she criticised the Sun‘s use of topless women to sell the paper and found herself denounced to millions as ‘killjoy Clare. . . fat .. . jealous .. . ugly … Short on looks … Short on brains’. At various points, the paper offered readers free car stickers (‘Stop Crazy Clare’); sent half-naked women to her home; and ran a beauty contest to ask their readers whether they would prefer to see her face or the back of a bus. Separately, the News of the World ran two bogus stories suggesting she was involved with pornography; tried to buy old photographs of her as a twenty-year-old in a nightdress; and published a smear story which attempted to link her to a West Indian gangster.
Pages 172-173 of Nick Davies’ Hack Attack, which has been my bedside, and gruesome, reading these last couple of evenings.
On to Monstering 2