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Media Analysis, the Butterfly Effect and how Rebekah Brooks hair is forced to eat humble pie

I’ve been trying to find an interesting “angle” on the Murdoch Parliamentary hearings that took place two days ago. An angle, you know, something interesting to say. Mostly I’ve been waiting for transcripts to emerge so that I could base my opinions on more than my memory of what transpired and/ or third party accounts. Alas, so far, I haven’t been able to find any. The reason I haven’t been able to write about the hearings is because I have “feelings!”; actually, LOTS OF FEELINGS about this. And I really do not like to write from a place of emotional responses, I prefer to dissect events when I am guided by sharpness, not by raw reactions that amount to the reporting equivalent of shouting at a screen. I lose focus when that happens and in a case as serious as the Murdoch inquiries, one should remained focused, because a lot is at stake.

I am particularly interested in the transcripts because I thought I spotted a contradiction (that might be minor but, if true, could cast doubt about the veracity of the whole affair) between something Rupert Murdoch said and how later on Brooks responded to the same question. Namely, if I recall correctly, Murdoch claimed he only spoke with the editor of News of the World sporadically, maybe once a week to check what was going on. Later on, Brooks claimed they spoke as often as every other day (and she had to be pressured to provide an answer about the frequency of their talks). I have googled more than once in the hopes that this discrepancy was spotted by someone else (or perhaps I misheard?), but to not results so far.

But, while we are on the subject of focus and interesting angles, I’d like to bring this article from The Daily Beast, by Robin Givhan to your attention. The opening blurb to the article, Rebekah Brooks ‘Distracting’ Do, already gives us a taste of what’s to follow:

The ex-CEO’s wild red mane at a Parliament hearing on Murdoch’s phone-hacking scandal was ballsy—and unwise—for someone under fire for allegedly defying laws, says Robin Givhan.

and then, the same old appearance policing:

Brooks’ hair was a distraction because it was a ballsy rebuke of our expectations governing how people on the defensive are supposed to tread. There was no suggestion of humility, timidity, or caution. There was no attempt to disappear into doleful anonymity.

That was look-at-me hair—stare at me, remember me. Me, me, me.

The reactions to Givhan piece have been mostly negative. Adam Clark Estes at The Atlantic Wire put together a useful compilation of the many ways in which Brooks hair has been referenced and he poignantly reminds us that the jabs amount to attempts to dismiss her by reducing her to ambitious woman cliches.

Eh, what can I say? As someone in possession of an unruly mane as Brooks’, I immediately get on the defensive. First of all, the sexist ideas, pushed once again, about women’s looks and expectations. I am immediately reminded of certain rhetoric that we have all heard before: “but she doesn’t look like a victim!”. And certainly, Brooks is not a victim in this scandal, but to base the presumption of innocence or culpability on her unruly hair is all too familiar and plays on the prevalent misogyny and sexism that dominate the discourse about every woman in the public eye.

So, while I was looking for the “angle” that I mentioned in the preface, I saw that Jessica Reed, editor of The Guardian’s CiF, was being interrogated on the current focus of media on the Murdoch scandal in detriment of Somalia’s hunger crisis. She rightfully pointed out that both issues were equally important and deserved widespread attention. Today, Paddy Ashdown even wrote a piece for CiF about the public’s lack of interest in the humanitarian crisis while children are dying of starvation.

And then it occurred to me, how have the opinion makers of English speaking media been portraying Somalia? What have we been told about Somalia and the people living there lately? How much empathy has media helped create for the country and its inhabitants? Why should we love Somalians as a people deserving of compassion, help and international assistance in this time of terrible need? So I ran a search for headlines on Fox News (the most ubiquitous of Murdoch owned English speaking media), and this is what I found:

  • Report: U.S. Drones Target Al Qaeda Militants in Somalia
  • Somalia Jails Westerners for Bringing in Millions
  • Bin Laden Directed Al-Qaeda Attacks in Somalia and Yemen
  • Suicide Attack on Peacekeeping Base in Somalia
  • Somalia’s Top Pirate Catchers Need Boats
  • U.S. Africa Embassy Bombing Suspect Killed in Somalia
  • 2 African Union peacekeepers killed in Somalia
  • Sweden’s security service on Tuesday arrested a man suspected of plotting a terrorist attack in Somalia
  • Denmark navy helicopter foils pirates off the coast of Somalia
  • Millions in cash payments missing in Somalia

And then I thought, fair enough, Ashdown’s piece focuses on the British public, so I ran a similar search on another outlet under the influence of Murdoch’s editorial ideology, Sky News:

  • Chandlers Freed By Somalia Pirates
  • Somalia: Kidnapped Couple Paul And Rachel Chandler Appeal
  • Al Qaeda’s East Africa Chief Killed In Somalia
  • Somalia: Fierce Fighting Leaves Dozens Dead In Capital Mogadishu
  • Somalia: Civilian Slaughter As Islamist Rebels Clash With Troops

Not a single headline in the first one hundred results of either search that portrayed the country as anything but a place filled with murderers, terrorists, pirates and corruption. Let me repeat that: not one single headline.

And maybe that’s the “angle” I was looking for: how media influences the way we see the world, how we care (or don’t) for those in need, how our responses to humanitarian crisis are shaped by the stories we are told. And since we are on the subject: how Murdoch owned media has contributed to our apathy responding to these times of need for Somalia. The Butterfly Effect applied to media analysis, because I strongly believe there is a connection between these two seemingly disparate facts. Just like there is a connection between our focus on Brooks hair and the expectations of women’s behavior, rape culture and victim blaming. In these times of a pervasive media presence, I cannot help but see how all of these are interconnected and dependent of one another. But maybe that’s just because I was looking for an “angle”.


  1. Aaron wrote:

    If you want to colonize Somalia, why not just say so? Quit trying to pretend you give a damn about a bunch of people you’ve never met and can’t imagine sitting down with over coffee, and just admit the imperialist impulse. You’re not fooling anyone, and you’ll be amazed how good it feels to quit lying to yourself.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  2. What?! Sorry, I cannot make sense of your comment, Aaron. Are you being sarcastic?

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  3. Hannah wrote:

    Folks sure are obsessed with Ms Brooks’ hair, aren’t they? Jon Stewart spent a good long while giggling while he compared her to Mrs Weasley and Mick Hucknall..

    Ace post. As usual. Have I been slavishly fannish at you recently? Just in case I haven’t: You are the awesome!

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  4. Aaron wrote:

    Cynicism, not sarcasm. There always seems to end up being a massive and permanent military presence in those nations so unfortunate as to be on the receiving end of US/NATO “assistance”, doesn’t there?

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  5. I am happy to hear it was cynicism, Aaron because I know you as a regular commenter here and I wondered. Because I’ll tell you the first rule of being me: ALWAYS DOUBT YOURSELF! So I apologize for not detecting the intention (I am terrible at doing that on written material). My first thought was “OMG did I just write something unintentionally advocating intervention?! Which, you know, it’s pretty much the opposite of what I believe in.

    So, since we are on the subject of Murdoch blaming, I can say Fox News turned me into someone who would even take an Onion headline seriously.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  6. Aaron wrote:

    Isn’t intervention exactly what you are advocating? From the post:

    “…Somalians as a people deserving of compassion, help and international assistance in this time of terrible need…”

    Compassion I’ll grant you, because that’s never out of line. But I don’t see how it is possible to advocate for “international assistance” without advocating intervention, because the one never seems to happen except it turns into the other, and usually sooner rather than later.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  7. Actually, no. When the earthquake hit Chile, every country in South America sent help. It was a swift operation that included mobile hospitals, food, tents, etc, etc. As soon as the state of emergency was over, everyone involved retreated back to their own countries. There is another model for assistance that doesn’t involve intervention in the way that NATO/ EU/ US does it. The problem is that we rarely see such models in action. The same can be said about international assistance during the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan. That didn’t involve a military/ interventionist model, did it?

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  8. samanthab wrote:

    Right, well as someone with wavy hair who really has no fucking idea how to get it to be anything other than unruly, I find the suggestion that news just sort of “is,” and that it’s not relentlessly impacted by the lens under which it’s presented, but curly hair on the other hand? You have made the ballsy “choice” to have hair that happens to not be straight. There’s a pretty distorted sense of what is and isn’t organic here.

    As far as the issue of how often Murdoch and Brooks did/did not speak, Murdoch’s testimony is in pretty violent contradiction with what Sarah Ellison had to say on Wednesday’s “Democracy Now:”

    “I’ve spoken to a number of his editors who have worked for him over the years. He is on the phone with those editors on a daily basis, trading gossip. He wants to hear what the big stories are.”
    It’s hard to imagine that he had *less* contact with an editor whom he repeatedly promoted and is by all accounts said to have a very close relationship. However, from the transcripts I’ve read, Brooks did not directly contradict Murdoch on the issue of how often they used to speak. Brooks testified that they currently speak “on average every other day,” and that they have spoken more since she became chief executive. Murdoch only testified as to how often he speaks to his editors. So there’s an out there- probably one that should have been better interrogated- but an out nonetheless.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  9. Matarij wrote:

    All the Murdoch hearings are here if you can access video outside UK:

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Beth wrote:

    I noticed the same discrepancy from reading the Guardian’s live blog of the event (no streaming at work!) It’s spread out over two pages, but both statements were mentioned.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Hazel wrote:

    Transcripts of all British parliamentary proceedings are available very quickly. For the Culture Select Committee go here:

    Friday, July 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  12. f. wrote:

    Yep… the stuff about her hair just drove me crazy. Not only because I’m a redhead, but because the whole thing reminds me so much of attacks on women of color whose hair has a different texture than “straight and limp”.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink
  13. KittyWrangler wrote:

    The article on Brooks’ hair reminded me of the part in Jane Eyre when the tyrannical headmaster of Jane’s repressive Christian school for girls sees one child’s red curly hair and claims that it means she naturally is vain and sinful so he makes her shave it off. It was written to be a grotesque display of bigoted unfairness that roused the reader to compassion. But if he’d been trying to sound hip he could have written the Daily Beast article verbatim.

    As far as coverage of Somalia I wish there were more profiles or stories of individual Somalians in mainstream media, where their personality is depicted. While hard to watch those stories have always humanized tragedies that are just too massive to take in and could be really effective on the public at large.

    Saturday, July 30, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink