In response to Samantha Brick’s controversial – at best – recent articles for the Daily Mail, freelance Siobhan O’Neill argues that some commissions are just not good for us. This articles appears in the June 2012 issue of Writing Magazine
When freelancer Samantha Brick wrote a feature for the Daily Mail (‘There are downsides to looking this pretty’ – Why women hate me for being beautiful), she would have had some inkling of the kind of comments she was likely to receive from their vociferous online readership, if not quite the extent of the interest nor the subsequent media furore.
Samantha is an old hand at these kinds of features oft-beloved of the Mail, and she is not alone. Week in week out the paper’s FeMail pages are filled with first person pieces by women journalists aiming to raise people’s hackles and get them commenting online.
But this particular feature sparked so much attention that it spawned not only follow up articles from Sam herself, but numerous features in rival papers and comment pieces from bloggers. She trended for several days on Twitter and won the extraordinary ‘honour’ of having spoof accounts set up in her name.
Millions of global hits were poured onto the Mail website. International television programmes further advertised the content and invited Sam on to discuss her feature. Though she seems mercifully thick-skinned enough to have survived the often mean-spirited and personal comments she received, Sam noted how cruel they were, and how many people had tracked her down to fire comments at her both on Twitter and via personal email.
Though the endless attention all added up to a massive win for the Mail, and overnight fame for Brick, I’m sure she felt the sting of some of those comments. Although I didn’t contribute mean things about her – kudos I say, she played the game perfectly and came out on top – I did debate the feature online with fellow hacks, but refused to type her name, that of the Mail or to repeat the link because, whilst interested in the opinions it elicited, I couldn’t bear to add to the incessant promotion of a paper whose politics I dislike intensely. And that’s why I will never write for them.
Integrity and principles of journalism
There are many journalists who, whilst on the one hand are happy to tear strips off another Mail outrage column, will also jump at the chance to write for them. ‘You would too if you knew what they pay’ they say. Well, I do have some idea of what they’re happy to fork out – even for the numerous pieces they spike – and I’m happy to say that my integrity is worth more than that.
My decision not to write for the Mail isn’t for fear of opening myself up to the kinds of comments that Brick received, although I’m not sure I’d be as adept as she appears to be at shrugging them off. And it’s not that I don’t have a story they would like. Everyone has a story the Mail would love to get their readers salivating over, you just have to get yourself in the mindset.
And that’s the thing I’m not prepared to do. For years now we’ve participated in their game of pointing and ridiculing whichever celebrity – always female – that isn’t matching up to the paper’s apparently exacting standards of what a famous woman should look like.
‘Urgh!’ they scream, ‘look at Victoria Beckham, SHE’S GOT SPOTS!’ and all of us women with less than blemish free faces feel a little worse about ourselves. ‘Look at this Hollywood star who’s too skinny, she must have an EATING DISORDER!’; ‘look at this TV actress who’s had a baby, she’s SO FAT and her son is already six months old! She’s really let herself go,’; ‘look at this gorgeous celebrity CAVORTING with no clothes on!’ And on and on listing all the clothes, body shapes and behaviours it’s unacceptable for women to portray.
Now maybe it’s easy to believe that these women in the public eye are fair game and it doesn’t matter if we join in this vile game of constantly criticising everything about them, but the Mail has subsequently encouraged us to turn our critical attention to the everyday, regular women who clutter its pages as well – women like Sam, who until her feature broke was just another jobbing freelancer like many of us. Or the mums and wives and regular women who fill their first person and case study led features.
Mail vs female
In a recent feature for Huffington Post, author and journalist Anna Blundy wrote, ‘The Daily Mail woman is always in the male gaze. Insidiously, but hugely successfully, the newspaper sells itself to the demographic it despises most – women. Its misogyny is in no way hidden.’
She continues, ‘The other given about women, as far as the Mail is concerned, is that they hate and envy each other. The paper likes nothing better than what it calls a “cat fight.” It is not difficult to hear the male-gaze titillation in the vocabulary.’
And she asks, ‘I don’t believe the women writing for the Mail hate other women, and I certainly don’t believe that the women who read the Mail hate other women. So why do we put up with this lurid misogyny?’
Misogyny is a strong word. I never want to believe that anyone actually hates women just for being female, but it is true that men are rarely the subject of these scornful features. Male journalists are not writing – or being asked to write – the kinds of confessionals that demand we judge their authors so severely. Without even realising it we have all begun to think it’s acceptable to participate in this despicable activity, and as women are the main consumers of the Mail, how does this make us feel about ourselves?
Many women have begun to realise they aren’t comfortable being a part of this game, yet infuriatingly thousands of very sensible people who appeared to be up in arms about yet another typical Mail feature, were suckered precisely into doing just that. In the end, Mail editor Paul Dacre doesn’t care if you love or loathe his paper, as long as you’re talking about it, raising its international profile and encouraging millions more to buy it or click on its website. Okay, I guess I’m doing that in this feature, but it’s another reason why you won’t ever see me in its pages.
Anna has previously written how she, like many journalists, has been happy to accept the Mail’s decent paycheque for her confessional features. She wrote on her blog, about the editing process her features underwent to change them into something more resembling the Mail’s distinctive – and endlessly critical – style. At the end of her exposé she concluded, ‘I am acutely aware that I will no longer be on the receiving end of that few hundred Associated Press quid and very welcome book publicity, but I have started to think that we shouldn’t do it and we shouldn’t keep quiet about it.’
Doubtless in these exceedingly tough times there will never be a shortage of women journalists who are happy to write these features, and that’s fair enough because we know what we’re letting ourselves in for. Anna tells me: ‘I don’t think women not writing the drivel would necessarily help (though it would obviously help the self-esteem of the writer). The problem is more the first person rewrites, the insidious editorial questions and the fact that so many millions of women read the stuff.
‘Far worse things are, of course, written and said about women in all kinds of media, especially porn, but ordinary women like us don’t tend to consume it. What is so vile about the Mail is that it is successfully pitched at the demographic it most denigrates – women.’
It’s for this reason that I wish women journalists in particular would avoid writing what’s routinely called ‘fodder’ for the Mail, though it’s unrealistic to expect a kind of sisterhood to prevail. Journalism is, after all, a competitive industry and if one journalist is not prepared to do it, there will be three dozen who are happy to pose for those duplicate photos in the carbon copy dresses. But fodder is food for the animals, and surely we’re better than that?
Nevertheless, as hacks we know what we’re letting ourselves in for. What’s more distressing are the numerous reports of novice writers and case study subjects being severely misrepresented by the Mail. It’s important to note that when it comes to real life journalism the Mail is absolutely not alone in shifting the tone of a feature to better fit with its house style. If you pick up Take a Break or That’s Life or any of the weekly real life magazines you will note that all the features have a similar voice that mimic each magazine’s character. Anyone writing for them will be asked to insert certain details or will have their copy altered to better reflect the other content.
Additionally, if you’re writing about a serious issue – perhaps a health concern – there can be no better outlet for raising awareness amongst a huge readership. Many PRs and journos alike revere the Mail as the pinnacle of achievement for placing a feature that sets a subject matter before the widest possible audience.
However, there is a difference between changing the tone of a piece and completely fabricating information. Juliet Shaw is a copywriter who agreed to be a case study in a Mail feature and ended up pursuing them through the courts when she felt she’d been grossly misrepresented in the final article. In a guest post on the No Sleep Til Brooklands blog she detailed her two year attempt and eventual vindication when a judge ruled she had leave to proceed with a case of defamation against the Mail. They settled out of court. But rather than seeing a turnaround in the way the Mail presents its features, Juliet feels that since she won her case, a growth in internet traffic has seen things get worse, with few in her position ever having recourse to the law to save their reputations.
Change for the worse
Cat Hughes is a writer with a long term illness who, when she was first starting out, pitched a piece to the Mail about being able to drop her state benefits, and how doing so had helped improve her self esteem. In a post-Brick feature in the Guardian, journalist Hadley Freeman highlighted how the feature had been altered to point the finger at Hughes as ‘lazy and a scrounger’ with a headline that read ‘Middle class and hooked on benefits’. Naturally the Mail’s chattering classes came out in their droves to slate Cat, who was devastated by the response and suffered a severe setback in her health.
She says, ‘The most shocking thing about the way I was treated was that the Mail editor knew how ill I was and knew how distressed I was likely to be by the feature that was published and by the title and photo captioning that it was given. The “middle class” bit particularly sucked, as my husband is a plumber and I am from a working class background too.
‘The Mail missed out crucial information of what I’d been through – three major surgeries, chronic pain, unexplained but catastrophic symptoms – and gave readers the impression that I was depressed and hypothyroid (true but hardly the whole picture). What the readers saw (there was a ghastly picture of me in too much makeup) was a fat, lazy scrounger who, although she’d pulled herself together (as every depressed person should!), was now looking to blame someone else for her misuse of taxpayers’ money.
‘I still kick myself for thinking they wouldn’t be able to change the facts of my piece. I was so naïve. But I was also very ill, and desperate to earn money. What they paid me was a dream come true given my circumstances. I had my doubts but friends and family kept saying ‘think of the money’ and I pushed my doubts aside in favour of desperation. I learned that day how titles and photo captions can screw a piece completely. There was just enough truth in the article that even people who knew me were inclined to take it as read. It was horrendous.’
And so I leave you to draw your own conclusions. I know I’ll never write for the Mail. Whether you choose to is of course up to you, but those that do should be aware that it can come with a price tag – of a very different kind to the one we writers like – and at best it should come with a health warning: ‘Publication may bring overnight fame, or it could lead to utter despair’.
• What do you think? Should our personal opinions be reflected in our professional lives, or does the paycheque beat the principle? Have your say in the Comments