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Relentless Schofield coverage is a distraction from more serious scandals

Relentless Schofield coverage is a distraction

Tabloid values have creeped into the rest of British media, with the latest over-focus on Schofield an example of deflecting audiences from more important stories.

The most extraordinary, nay, scandalous thing about the This Morning affair is not what happened on the sofa or even behind it, but the overblown, exaggerated, relentless, never-ending coverage that stretched out longer than that devoted to the Coronation.

Page after goddamn page of it day after day over something not terribly important about the autocue readers on a fluffy TV programme with around 700,000 viewers a day.

It is worth pausing to remember for a moment what the epoch-ending controversy was all about: a man of a certain age who hid his true sexuality from his wife and children for years and had a relationship – consensual and legal – with a much younger man in a relatively lowly position on the programme with the status of a runner.

For the uninitiated, “runners” are often people who fetch and carry on a programme in the hope of progressing in television. I had the embarrassment once of having a young runner with a Cambridge first in mathematics.

The protagonists on This Morning ultimately got themselves in trouble by lying about their relationship. At the same time there may or may not have been a toxic atmosphere behind the scenes on the programme.

A bit rich coming from the tabloids

And that is the story that engaged not just the tabloid press but almost all the British media for day after day.

Even yesterday, the Daily Mirror, which should have known better, was leading with Holly Willoughby’s return to the This Morning sofa by saying she was “shaken, troubled, let down and worried” by all these terrible events.

The only real controversy in the coverage was whether Holly had been near to tears or had brazenly refused to cry at all.

The Mail on Sunday tried to elevate the coverage beyond the psychodrama of Phillip Schofield, his young man and Holly Willoughby by exploring the atmosphere in the production team. There was the ex-producer who claimed he had been undermined because he came from the north, the former team member who says she still breaks out in a sweat when she hears the programme’s signature tune and a backroom woman who said he had been the victim of sexist jibes.

It is entirely proper that ITV should ask someone independent to investigate all of the above, and mores have changed on what is acceptable and what is not. However it would be interesting to see how well some of the newspapers which have been hounding Schofield almost to the edge, would come out of an independent inquiry into their internal cultures.

Have there never been sexist jibes or worse on the Daily Mail? Such things are hardly unknown elsewhere in the media, particularly on live, high pressure daily programmes where large egos confront each other.

Hypocrisy is everywhere. A senior commercial television executive was asked to write a piece on the Schofield affair for The Spectator. He made his excuses and left, mindful of the fact that once upon a time an older Speccie editor, Boris Johnson, had been deeply entangled with his much younger deputy in the shape of Petronella Wyatt.

As many, not least Peter Tatchell, have pointed out, there is more than a whiff of homophobia about the downfall of Phillip Schofield. How many times in media organisations have older men, editors even, been in illicit liaisons with much younger, less powerful female colleagues and barely an eye was blinked?

A distinguished editor of the Financial Times, for instance, had a long, well-known relationship with a female colleague and not a word was said. Both alas are no longer with us.

Deflection and distraction

Indeed it has long been rumoured that many people knew all along what had been brewing on This Morning and that it was the tabloid press that stirred the pot to the point of public combustion.

In such circumstances it seems strange that the Media and Culture Select Committee would want to examine such an exaggerated and relatively inconsequential story in the greater scheme of things.

There are so many things more deserving of their attention, including the decision by Ofcom to relax advertising rules to allow an average of 12 minutes an hour on public service broadcasting channels. Not only is this likely to push down the overall price of such advertising but, it is claimed, it could mean ITV and Channel 4 losing 28 minutes of news every weekday.

Now that sounds like a potential scandal really worthy of investigation.

The really interesting question is why the tabloids in particular, but the media in general, should have devoted so much space and time to such relatively unimportant events on a minor soft-focus television show?

The conspiracy theory, which would particularly fit the right-wing tabloids, is distraction or deflection. While the pack hunts down Schofield they can get away with ignoring the really serious liars, such as former Prime Minister Johnson, or Ministers who casually mislead the House of Commons such as Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Even if deflection or distraction is not their deliberate purpose it still has that effect – really serious scandals, such as the daily evidence of the growing disaster that is Brexit, can go unaddressed.

It was rather telling that the Daily Mail that lashed itself into an apoplectic frenzy of indignation over senior civil servant Sue Gray planning to work for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer failed to find room for the outcome of the matter. The official vetting board in effect cleared Gray of any wrong-doing and recommended only six months gardening leave before she can join Sir Keir in the autumn.

‘At rock bottom’

The other, only slightly more respectable explanation for the vast overkill of the This Morning coverage is the current state of tabloid values. Schofield and Willoughby are celebrities and with celebrities anything goes. There is also evidence of the creep of tabloid values to infect almost all of the media, including the BBC.

Meanwhile Prince Harry is not a man known for saying wise or carefully considered things. But in his witness statement for his High Court case he manages just such a rare achievement.

“Our country is judged globally by the state of the press and our Government – both of which are at rock bottom.  Democracy fails when your press fails to scrutinise and hold the Government to account,” said the Spare to the Throne.

He could have also noted that the press is also hardly able to scrutinise itself.

All of this means that the dogs chasing Phillip Schofield will now be called off and re-directed to a new target: Prince Harry, and his wife the Duchess of Sussex, too, if she also can be implicated in the next great explosion of tabloid outrage.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

Rockera80, Education , University , on 10 Jun 2023
“Finally a sensitive and substantial article about the Schofield issue.”

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