Nick Jones

While the Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre continues to lick his wounds after a mauling at the hands of what he derides as the “Twitter mob”, his headline writers have had no alternative but to accept the power of social media.

Britain’s national newspapers are finding that the tone and direction of their news content is being influenced increasingly by online insurgencies which instantly reveal a level of public reaction which cannot be ignored.

When defending the Mail’s now infamous headline, “The man who hated Britain” in the row over the attack on the politics of Ed Miliband’s father, Dacre raged against what he said was “the phoney world of Twitter.”

In his opinion the hysteria that had been generated against the Mail’s commentary showed how any newspaper which dared to “take on the left in the interests of its readers risks being howled down by the Twitter mob, which the BBC absurdly thinks represents the views of real Britain.”

But within days of the editor’s denunciation of the power and influence of the Twitterati the Daily Mail was trumpeting the “Twitter firestorm” which had subjected British Gas to “an hour of non-stop abuse” for having imposed a 9.3 per cent increase in gas and electricity prices. 

 

Bert Pijls, customer services director for British Gas, opened a question and answer session on Twitter in an ill-fated attempt to head off criticism of the price hike but vitriolic comments rained down on his desperate attempt to ease public anger over the new tariffs.

 

The previous month the Mail had headlines denouncing Ed Miliband’s call for a freeze on energy prices as “pure economic vandalism” but three weeks later the paper jumped at the chance to side with the public in condemning British Gas.

 

Half a page was given over to the best of the 16,000 Twitter comments which gave the British Gas boss “a real roasting.”

 

Twitter’s role in holding the energy companies to account was headline news in other national newspapers.  The Metro said Bert Piljs was left with nowhere to turn as messages poured in after he launched his #Ask-BG initiative; The Guardian described how online anger turned a consumer and political backlash into a public relations disaster for British Gas.

 

An online petition was launched by the Sun inviting readers to sign up to a campaign to urge the Prime Minister to “act now to slash green subsidies and bring down energy bills.”

 

Working hand in hand with social media has become an economic imperative for Britain’s national, regional and local newspapers. They now deploy every tactic they can to increase traffic to their websites; likewise they are doing all they can to step up their delivery of news to mobile phones, tablets and other online devices.

 

Not surprisingly if the newspapers are seeking to use Twitter and other online outlets to drive up traffic to their news content – and hopefully boost advertising revenue in the process – then their news coverage cannot turn a blind eye to what is being said on social media.

 

Newspaper websites tend to be less inflammatory than the printed versions and political bias is also less pronounced. Online news providers know that their content is being read throughout the day, often at work or where families and people are meeting together. If their news coverage is to stand any chance of securing the widest audience it has to be inclusive rather than too aggressive or opinionated.

Perhaps the most significant example in recent months of the burgeoning power of online insurgencies was the speed with which anti-war sentiment was mobilised after David Cameron indicated his immediate support for President Obama’s call for a military response to the chemical gas attack in Syria last August.

 

Tabloid newspapers were eager collaborators in spinning the near certainty that Britain would join the USA in a rush to war. “Missile strikes on Syria ‘in days’” declared the Daily Mail’s front page after Obama’s weekend call to Cameron. On inside pages, maps and diagrams were used to illustrate the likely British contribution under the headline, “How the West could smash Assad’s arsenal.”

 

But gung-ho headline writers and armchair generals had been caught off guard by the storm of protest on Twitter and the online opposition which MPs were experiencing in the run up to the emergency debate and the coalition government’s surprise defeat.

 

“The humbling of Cameron” was the splash headline next morning on the front page of the Daily Mail which, as with other newspapers, had not expected that even the Prime Minister’s holding position of promising a second parliamentary debate would be outvoted.

 

An eve of vote opinion poll in the Sun showed public opinion was two to one against a military attack on Syria but this was not considered headline lines and was reported on an inside page.

 

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs who voted against the coalition cited the strength of opposition on Twitter and in emails as having been a critical factor in withdrawing their support. They said that the pro-war spin in the newspapers had resembled a re-run of the build-up to the Iraq War in 2003 and had contributed to the tide of public anger.

Cameron had suffered the worst foreign policy setback inflicted on a British Prime Minister in modern times.  Was the defeat in Parliament another first for the internet?

 

While the jury might be out on the question as to whether the response on social media was a decisive factor, the online campaign demonstrated that the power to go to war could be frustrated, if not ultimately thwarted, even when the Prime Minister of the day is backed by a supportive press campaign.

Illustrations: Daily Mail 18.10.2013; Daily Mail, 26.8.2013: Daily Mail, 30.8.2013.

 

 

 

Pro-war spin backfires: speedy mobilisation of public anger outmanoeuvred arm-chair generals and gung-ho tabloid press.  In a presentation at Cardiff University School of Journalism on November 12, 2013, Nicholas Jones examines the influence which online insurgencies are having on mainstream news reporting.