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It’s time for a boycott of cruelty in the media

Too often the media is used to inflict cruelty on our fellow human beings. It’s time consumers acted

By on Monday, 26 November 2012

Christopher Jefferies was wrongly accused of murder in the press (PA)

Christopher Jefferies was wrongly accused of murder in the press (PA)

What is the worst sin you can commit?

The usual candidate for worst sin is pride. It was pride that caused Satan to fall, as it was pride that made him say “I will not serve.”

Much bad behaviour these days still comes from an overweening idea of one’s own importance. The refusal to serve others, and the stubborn belief that they are in fact there to serve you, is the cause of much suffering in the world.

But most of us understand this. We are all, unless we are saints, to some extent self-obsessed. We all have an over inflated idea of our own importance, but most of us do our best to rein it in. Social mores help us in this. Most obsessives are terrible bores, and we do not want to seem boring.

But if pride is a more or less universal human failing, cruelty is not. Most of us are revolted by cruelty. It seems unnecessary, capricious and arbitrary. We all condemn cruelty to animals. Remember the lady who put the cat in the bin? She was the subject of universal condemnation. Ironically, she was in the end the object of much cruelty herself.

Cruelty seems to be in the rise in our society. We pride ourselves on being humane to cats, but we are most cruel to our own kind.

Consider these recent cases.

An elderly retired teacher, Christopher Jefferies, was viciously persecuted by several national newspapers, who insinuated he was a murderer. His hair, his love of poetry, his harmless lifestyle, all were portrayed in a lurid light. The seriousness of this ‘monstering’ was reflected in the compensation he was awarded by the courts for this shocking defamation of character. But one assumes that the people who read about him in the papers enjoyed doing so, and the people who wrote and published these defamatory articles realised they had an audience for them.

Again we have the case of Lord McAlpine, a blameless man, whose supposed unmasking as a criminal was greeted with howls of glee from the twittermob.

This sort of behaviour is simply cruel. It is cruel to want to see people punished, even if those people are guilty, and even more so if they are innocent. The last public execution in England took place in 1868, though hanging, drawing and quartering were not officially abolished until a little time later. Such practices were recognised as cruel and unnecessary, and if anyone were to advocate them today, then they would surely be looked on as very strange indeed. Yet it is commonplace for us, if not to hang people in public in front of jeering mobs, then at least to witness jeering mobs conduct virtual lynchings online.

Even if someone were guilty of murder or paedophilia, surely they would still be guaranteed a minimum of decent treatment? And yet, at the height of the Twitter persecution, not a shred of decency was afforded Lord McAlpine. The people who sneered at him, and who sneered at Christopher Jefferies, need not just to pay compensation (though that too), they need to repent. And yet Mr Jefferies says that he has had no apology. That is a very sad.

In neither case above was the holding up of a person to public ridicule and contempt in any way in the public interest. Nor were the attacks on Mr Jefferies or Lord McAlpine worthy uses of free speech. Free speech is important, and it is sometimes important too to speak truth to power, but that is no defence in these cases. It is hard to detect in what way Mr Jefferies was a public figure, and Lord McAlpine has lived in retirement for many years. Rather, one suspects, both affairs were sensationalist journalism at its worst, and reflect badly on the British public, who love to see innocent people monstered in this way. We need to be kinder, and we need to repent.

One practical way forward to a better moral future is to stop buying tabloid newspapers, and stop watching the sort of television programmes that promote cruelty. Moreover we need to boycott the work of journalists and broadcasters who promote hatred and contempt for their fellow human beings, even the guilty.

  • Kevin

    This is an “old school” sermon. Well written.

  • NewMeena

    I don’t know if this is an “old school” sermon or not, but I agree with almost all of the views expressed.

    “But if pride is a more or less universal human failing, cruelty is not.”
    I agree the remark about pride, and know full-well that I often get puffed-up and above myself. But cruelty too seems a very common human trait, as well as a very bad one. Bullying in schools (pupil to pupil) is universal – presumably for the satisfaction or pleasure it gives (I bullied teachers at school, but not other children). I think kindness has to be learnt.  Personally, I still suffer from ridiculous pride, but I have learnt to be quite kind.

    “It is cruel to want to see people punished, even if those people are guilty, and even more so if they are innocent.”

    I agree, and some zealous believers might wish to keep this in mind as they drool over the fate of atheists, agnostics or, say, lapsed Catholics.

  • scary goat

    Yes, indeed.  Cruelty abounds these days and is fashionable in the media.  Spitefulness is considered funny and clever.  And life copies art…..our children take on board all they see on tv etc. It is not a good trend and I have been boycotting it for years.  I don’t even watch tv.  I don’t like it.

  • Mark

    If you watch more than 7 hours a week of television you are diminishing your intelligence; the more television you watch the more of  a zombie you become. Turn the tube off and read, think, and reflect.

  • The Man Like

    People now seek approval by being funny like Frankie Boyle assuming that being outrageous makes them brave and amusing and at the other end of the spectrum the sterner less comedic types assume the role of Simon Cowell and believe that harsh criticism is the mark of taste, wealth and power. Even those who don’t naturally display the traits above make statements like “I don’t care – I say what I think” as if it is dignified to do so. Sadly, it then follows that to be socially successful these days both in and out of the public eye one needs to be cruel to some degree. I realise that I am being cruel myself by writing this but I do feel it is true: I find it a shame that those people who are decent and wise enough to boycott cruelty and reject the adoption of role models like those mentioned above will often become the victims of those who lack the intelligence to see that it would be better to be stopped rather than let it spiral. The media, and the government through their negligence and relaxing of standards, have resurrected an old and ugly side of humanity by giving back to the “The Plebeians” the gladiatorial games and public punishments through media and making it popular culture.   People are proud to be fashionable and it’s currently fashionable to be cruel. People are therefore proud to be cruel.  Let’s hope this fashion passes.

  • Peter

    The greatest cruelty, apart from abortion, is the systematic sexual abuse of children in care for decades, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in North Wales. 
    If it happen there, why not in every children’s home up and down the country?And if it has been covered up there, can we not assume that it is covered up elsewhere?Who are these clandestine fraternities which inhabit the uppermost strata of our society and who consider themselves to be above the law by exercising their power to block its progress when it threatens them?  Who cries for the multitude of vulnerable children who had no-one to protect them while vile monsters abused them with impunity?

  • Claire

    On the dreaded Twitter, I follow a young man with learning difficulties who tweeted to say that he was approached by Channel 4 to be on their programme The Undateables. He declined.

    I cannot see that this sort of programme is any more than a cynical freakshow aimed at making money by exploiting the participants and the viewers. 

    Thank you for a good and honest artcile, Father.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    You bullied teachers but not other children?

    You are a BULLY nonetheless!

  • NewMeena

    I certainly WAS.
    Just the point I was making: cruelty is common.  But we, mostly, mellow over time.

  • Petertheroman

    Thank you Fr for a very good article. Yes pride is the worse type of sin. And i agree totally to all of the comments so far. Child abuse is rife in this country and I assume there are many more cases to come. But i would also say neglect is also an abuse. Especially they way our faith is expressed in Catholic schools in this country, which bows to liberalism and the Government agenda. One other point i would like to add is the loss of young adults after confirmation. Why dont those in authority take time to listen why they go astray. Neglecting the needs of our young is a serious abuse. I hope and pray that this is seriously looked at in this country, before it gets any worse.

  • Claire

    And today’s public scandal is the planned BBC3 ‘comedy’ about assisted dying.