#Milifandom or how the press found out if a 17 year old scares easily

“The News of the World” scandal explodes at UK press. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the UK General Election campaign of 2015, a 17 year old learned about the UK media’s unpleasant behavior as guardian of the public domain. The 17 year old helped to start the Twitter trend called #Milifandom, to counter the negative stories about Ed Miliband. She did what many fans do for their favorite celebrities and sports stars, except this time it was for a politician. As this challenged the tabloid’s stories directly, they become interested. They quickly identified her and sought an interview. [1] Even though some people were surprised at how quickly the press identified her, it is not surprising.[2] The media are trained in tools and techniques to find people on social media.[3]

What price do we pay to be a citizen?

What this episode teaches us is that there is a price to participate in the public domain. Once you enter the public domain, politicians, press, and commentators will consider you a legitimate target. Although most public figures accept this as part of the business, those who are inexperienced in these matters will find this a high price. By contrast, politicians understand that this is the nature of politics, a public activity, not a private activity. They know and expect public scrutiny and media scrutiny. However, there is more to this than someone being introduced to the rough side of politics. The deeper and darker element to this story is the abuse of the public interest.

The press patrol the public domain with the power of the public interest

The public give the press great powers to publish information that they need to know to make informed decisions. The press act as a proxy for the public to hold the politicians and the powerful to account. They act in the public interest when they perform this role. However, this great power when abused can create a fear that chills democracy. They can act as an undemocratic body patrolling the public domain punishing those who might dare to challenge the status quo or the establishment. As gatekeepers for the public domain, they can decide who is in the public domain and who is to be pursued with the power of the public interest.[4] When they pursue someone, though, it keeps others from getting involved in the public domain and ordinary individuals stay away from it. As a result, democracy suffers. The press and not the public rule the public domain. The only people who participate in the public domain either have power to protect themselves or make a deal with the press to be protected. If you cannot make a deal with the press, you have three defenses that remain.

You only have three defenses against the power of the public interest.

Your first defense is the basic cost-benefit calculation. The cost of a story about you against the benefi for a newspaper and the opportunity cost against another story.  If you are not considered newsworthy, as a story that will sell newspapers, you will not be of interest to the press.[5] If you do enter the public domain, it is best to remain ordinary. In particular, you need to avoid anything that would attract the press.

The Court will protect you if you can afford it.

Your second defense is the court. If the press harass you or print defamatory articles, you can take them to court. However, it costs money to launch a legal case. The press do not want to lose defamation cases so they have extensive legal budgets to defend their stories. Against this financial and legal power, most people will simply suffer in silence. Even if you get to court, the court will defer to the editor’s public interest judgement in the first instance. The press can publish defamatory statements if they are in the public interest.[6]

Don’t speak up and you will not be monstered? The UK’s 21st century democracy?

Your third defense is that you are an ordinary person. Even though the courts may not want to decide the public interest, they are its final arbiter. They do not want to regulate the press and they explained in In Flood v. Times, that editor is best placed to decide the public interest in the first instance. However, the Court stressed that they believed that “ordinary individuals” would not be targeted by a trial by press.[7] However, like the public interest, the court did not define an “ordinary” individual. In some cases, press interest will be enough to create the public interest to turn an ordinary individual into a public figure. One way to do that is to offer them an interview or write a story about them.

What is democracy when the media decide who can enter the public domain?

What the 17 year old learned was that the press can decide who is a public figure to be investigated. In the UK, the media have a role to protect the establishment and maintain the public order in the public domain. If the press do not like your behavior, as many took exception to the #milifandom success, they will investigate and publicize their findings all in the name of the public interest. The incident reminds us that the tabloid press patrol the public domain armed with the public interest. They can seek out dissent from their editorial line and punish it. If you are their target, you might be lucky enough to suffer some bad publicity. If you have cause to upset the editor or their proprietor[8], you can be monstered.[9] Anyone targeted by the media have to live under the threat that they and their family will be investigated by legal or illegal means. In this situation, the press will go through the 17 year old’s life because she has dared to enter the public domain. This is what they do. They destroy lives for pleasure and profit.[10] As Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World, said, “MPs do not scare easily.”[11] It turns out that the press are quite willing to find out if a 17 year old will scare easily.  This power, and the fear it creates, keeps people from speaking in the public domain.[12]

If MPs don’t scare easily then why try it on 17 year olds?

A citizen is someone who participates fully in politics or the public domain. By contrast, a private person does not enter the public domain. They have to be represented by someone and they become second-class citizens. In the UK, the media patrol the public domain and that inhibits people from attempting to become a full citizen. In a monarchical system, like the UK, which is based on patronage, privilege, and position, the establishment will guard its territory, the public domain jealously. To do this effectively, though, they need a proxy. The media become their proxy in exchange for access to, and favors from, the establishment. For anyone who might challenge that relationship, the price can be high. If the price is too high, is a healthy democracy possible?

[1] http://www.buzzfeed.com/hannahjewell/teenage-milifan-abby-is-angry-at-the-sun?bffb&utm_term=4ldqphz#4ldqphz (accessed 4 May 2015)

[2] It appears she was identified from the electoral roll where 16 and 17 year olds used to be referenced in the electoral roll registration even though they are not registered to vote. They are called “attainers” as they are going to be eligible to vote eventually. For a useful reference on the electoral roll consider http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/87111/The-completeness-and-accuracy-of-electoral-registers-in-Great-Britain.pdf (accessed 4 May 2015)

[3] See for example the BBC’s Academy http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/skills/investigative-journalism/article/art20140204150039056 (Accessed 4 May 2015) and http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/entries/23c67009-6a1a-394d-ae46-759fa7af1e30 (accessed 4 May 2015).  See also http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/entries/6c483e23-884e-3206-a412-7af6e17b06dd (accessed 4 May 2015)  some of the other sites for finding someone or something are the following https://www.journalism.co.uk/news/20-search-tips-and-tools-for-journalists/s2/a553736/ (accessed 4 May 2015) The moral of the story is never assume you are anonymous online.

[4] The press went after the people who organized Thatcher death parties and the response on social media. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2306620/Thatcher-death-party-Young-union-firebrand-Bryan-Simpson-middle-aged-anarchist-Ian-Bone-parties-hatred.html (accessed 4 May 2015)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2307040/Margaret-Thatcher-dead-Teachers-hatred-helped-organise-Maggie-death-parties.html (accessed 4 May 2015)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/9986361/Parents-and-staff-disgusted-by-Thatcher-death-party-teacher.html (accessed 4 May 2015)


By contrast, most people on social media opposed the print media’s articles and their approach to the issue. What it demonstrated was the extent to which the media defend the establishment line on the issue. http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/thatcher-death-social-reaction_b39533 (accessed 4 May 2015)

[5] For tabloids, this is a low bar as they will throw money at stories to find what they want to sell. http://leveson.sayit.mysociety.org/hearing-29-november-2011/mr-paul-mcmullan#s8693

[6] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/26/section/4/enacted (accessed 8 May 2015)

[7] “I would accept that the danger of trial by press without proper safeguards will often weigh heavily against the publication of the details of an accusation against an *ordinary individual*. But where the accusation is of crime or professional misconduct by a person in his performance of a public function, I do not think that the danger of trial by press without proper safeguards weighs heavily, still less conclusively, against publication.” [emphasis added] Paragraph 195 in http://www.5rb.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/FloodKSC_2010_0166_Judgment.pdf (accessed 4 May 2015)

[8] See    http://leveson.sayit.mysociety.org/speech/23034 (accessed 9 May 2015) See Anne Diamond’s testimony to Leveson. http://leveson.sayit.mysociety.org/speech/7776

[9] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/media/murdochs-scandal/what-its-like-to-get-monstered-by-a-murdoch-tabloid/ (accessed 4 May 2015)

[10] If you doubt that this occurs, I ask you to read this http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmcumeds/458/458w126.htm (accessed 4 May 2015) Then ask if this was a story in the public interest. A further question to ask is where was the editor? Who behaves in this way?

[11] http://leveson.sayit.mysociety.org/speech/71515 (accessed 9 May 2015)

[12] One only need to note the attacks on Russell Brand for his vocal stand against the establishment.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to #Milifandom or how the press found out if a 17 year old scares easily

  1. peterjukes says:

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