Using tabloid tactics to slay the tabloids

The Guardian's retraction of the Charlotte Church story brings to 40 the number of anti-Murdoch articles it has had to correct.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The singer Charlotte Church caused waves when she told the Leveson Inquiry in November about the Sun’s ‘countdown clock’ to her sixteenth birthday and her reaching of the age of sexual consent. The clock, which apparently appeared on the Sun’s website in late 2001, when Church was 15 years old, was ‘disgusting’, she said, and made her feel ‘uncomfortable’. She said she had been ‘totally appalled’ by this tabloid device ticking down to the moment when it would be lawful to have sex with her.

Respectable journalists were also appalled. For the past six weeks the ‘countdown clock’ has been held up as evidence of just how depraved the Murdoch tabloids had become. A New Statesman writer said Church’s evidence made ‘a little bile rise in [my] chest’. This week, a writer for the Guardian reported as fact (and in colourful language) the idea that ‘Church was 15 years old when Britain’s best-read daily newspaper began a public countdown to the day on which she could be legally fucked’. Photos of Church with her head in her hands at Leveson now frequently accompany broadsheet reports about the evil Murdoch press.

But did the Sun really put a Charlotte Church countdown clock on its website in 2001? There’s no evidence that it did. News International denies that it ever did. A look back at newspapers from 2001 and early 2002 (Church turned 16 on 21 February 2002) suggests that a ‘Charlotte Church countdown clock’ did exist, but it had nothing to do with the Sun. On 13 December 2001, the Daily Mirror (Welsh edition) reported, under the headline ‘Charlotte in sick internet countdown’, that a ‘twisted new website is counting down the hours and minutes until Charlotte Church is old enough to have sex’ – but it made no mention of the Sun being involved, far less that it hosted the thing (1).

On 2 January 2002, the Glasgow Daily Record also reported that Church was being ‘targeted by web perverts’, who had ‘set up a website counting down the seconds until she is old enough to have sex’, but again no mention of the Sun was made (2). Far from the Sun, or any other tabloid, being involved in counting down the moments to Church’s sexual maturation, it seems the redtop press campaigned against the ‘sick, twisted’ website heralding Church’s sixteenth birthday. In January 2002, Web User magazine reported that, under pressure from Sony, which managed Church’s career, the website had successfully been shut down, and it gave the URL of the website as: enchantedgeneration/charlottechurch.html (3). So not a Sun initiative at all, but something set up anonymously through Geocities (a website-building device people used pre-Blogger). That is, it seems it wasn’t a tabloid invention, but one of those typically sad websites set up by loner pranksters.

What’s more, it seems Church found the whole thing quite amusing back in 2002, when she turned 16. At Leveson in November she said the clock had made her feel ‘horrible’ and ‘really uncomfortable’. Yet when she was asked by Heat magazine in February 2002 how she felt about the clock, she said ‘I laughed my socks off’ (4). (Again, neither Heat magazine nor Church made any mention of the Sun being involved when they discussed the clock in 2002 – probably because it wasn’t.)

How did a daft age-of-consent website set up by losers and laughed off by an admirably robust 16-year-old Charlotte Church become so mythologised, now re-fantasised as a wicked device invented by the evil Sun to humiliate a teenage girl? How is it that where the 16-year-old Church laughed off this mysterious, long shut-down clock, today a 25-year-old Charlotte buries her head in her hands as she says the clock made her feel ‘horrible’ while decent journalists say the idea of it makes them feel like vomiting?

This is all further evidence of the hysterical, fact-lite climate that now surrounds the tabloids, where any accusation, however flimsy and unfounded, can be hurled at the low-rent press and quickly become accepted as fact. In the febrile atmosphere created by the phone-hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World, and stoked by that showtrial disguised as an inquiry, Leveson, it seems unsubstantiated claims have taken the place of cool-headed investigation as everyone rushes to denounce the ‘evil’ emanating from the tabloid underworld.

The Guardian has now added a correction to the piece it published this week, in which it was baldly stated that ‘Church was 15 years old when Britain’s best-read daily newspaper began a public countdown to the day on which she could be legally fucked’. That claim has been removed because News International denies it, says the Guardian. This brings to 40 – 40 – the number of articles about the Murdoch tabloids over the past year the Guardian has either had to correct, retract or apologise for, including all the articles stating that News of the World hacks deleted key messages from Milly Dowler’s mobile phone (this now seems to be incorrect), an article claiming the Sun was planning to doorstep a junior counsel at the Leveson Inquiry (this was not true), and the claim that Murdoch papers hacked Gordon Brown’s family medical records (again, not true). How many more BS stories are going to be written by journalists who claim, in the irony to end all ironies, simply to be ‘cleaning up the press’? Leveson and its cheerleaders are starting to look about as reliable as the Sunday Sport.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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