The strange story of the Daily Mail and Jack Whitehall
As media-watchers will be aware, the Daily Mail sees itself as the guardian of British morality. Any perceived slump in ethical standards triggers extraordinary degrees of teeth gnashing. That paper was, famously, the prime mover in transforming Jonathan Ross and …
As media-watchers will be aware, the Daily Mail sees itself as the guardian of British morality. Any perceived slump in ethical standards triggers extraordinary degrees of teeth gnashing. That paper was, famously, the prime mover in transforming Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s tasteless Andrew Sachs prank into an overblown scandal that ultimately drowned the BBC (the Daily Mail’s least favourite institution) in a tidal wave of unnecessary “compliance”. Last summer, they made a fairly pathetic attempt to accuse the Corporation’s sports reporters of being (depending on which day you were reading) too huggy towards Olympics athletes or too pushy when encountering those sports people.
Few DM campaigns have, however, been quite so bizarre as the current assault on well-spoken comic Jack Whitehall. Last weekend, Whitehall was one of six guests on the annual comedy almanac that is Channel 4′s Big Fat Quiz of the Year. I watched it. It was passably diverting. James Corden was a bit too pleased with himself. The decision to include only one woman — the well-informed Gabby Logan — on the panel was mildly disgraceful. Otherwise, the show seemed pretty unremarkable.
The Mail has not shut up about it since. You know how these things go. An opening sentence claims that viewers were outraged. The subsequent text then fails to locate any significant public fury to speak of, but does manage to confirm that the journalists themselves are (or are pretending to be) overcome with moral distress. The piece correctly noted that Corden and Whitehall drank a bottle of wine during the show. It mentioned various obscene jokes about President Obama, the Duke of Edinburgh and Susan Boyle. Big deal, right?
A witch hunt, yesterday.
A piece in the Independent later confirmed that Offcom, the UK broadcasting regulator, received a less-than-tumultuous 10 complaints in the 24 hours after broadcast. A subsequent 80 complaints arrived, but Offcom confirmed that “the vast majority were made in response to the negative media coverage.” That’s to say most complainants were reacting to the Daily Mail report rather than to the show itself. The Independent also questioned the Mail’s claim that — following the non-furore — the producers of the National Television Awards were thinking of cancelling a planned appearance by Whitehall.
Today, in a weirdly lengthy, unbelievably spiteful piece, the paper played the class card (ah, England!). On the one hand, Whitehall is taunted for failing to succeed when auditioning for Harry Potter, despite having various entertainment connections. On the other, the article attributes his later success to those same associations in show business. “Who says it doesn’t help to have friends in the business?” Ms Natalie Clarke (no relation) thunders.
Now, the standard response might be: good for Jack. The publicity will do him no great harm. Nobody paid much attention to the Big Fat Quiz of the Year until the Mail began ranting about it. He can surf on the controversy and land on shore as a controversial comedian who offends all the right people.
Well, maybe. But there is, buried in today’s article, a truly troubling bit of behind-the-hand, nudge-nudge mischief making. Beneath a photo of Jack surrounded by school children — taken from his TV series Bad Education — the following sentence appears: “The star of Bad Education is said to enjoy the attention of young female fans.” There is no obvious libel here. He is entitled to enjoy the attention of fans from any generation. But, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile story, it hardly needs to be said that the caption invites certain deeply unsavoury connotations. One feels slightly grubby even referring to this particular piece of near-sophistry.
The most peculiar aspect of all this is that visitors to the Daily Mail site don’t seem to like the scandal mongering very much. The online responses “below the line” are overwhelmingly negative. Click on “best rated” and you will find a stream of comments urging the DM to pull itself together and stop seeking outrage where none exists. Then again, maybe the online Mail — unlike its print version — drags in thousands of hostile visitors who enjoy getting themselves in a disgusted tizzy at the reactionary puffing. I shall be honest. That’s why I go there. Maybe, the intention is to annoy liberals and trigger counter-revolutionary responses such as this “blog” post. No! Maybe they have won after all.
None of this matters very much. It is, however, a very strange business. It is neither here nor there whether you enjoy Whitehall or not. The story is not a story. Oh well. At least they’re leaving the BBC alone for a day or so.