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Moment that mattered: Keys and Gray discuss assistant referee Sian Massey off air

In this photo taken Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011, assistant referee Sian Massey is seen during an English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux, Wolverhampton, England. Two of Britain's leading soccer commentators were reprimanded by their TV network and taken off the air Monday Jan. 24, 2011 after making sexist remarks about two female game officials and a team executive. Andy Gray and Richard Keys were disciplined Monday for derogatory comments about Massey's suitability as a lineswoman for a Premier League game the commentators were working Saturday for Sky Sports channel. Gray and Keys have been respected voices in soccer for the past 20 years. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) NO INTERNET/MOBILE USAGE WITHOUT FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION PREMIER LEAGUE (FAPL) LICENCE. CALL +44 (0) 20 7864 9121 or EMAIL FOR DETAILS

When I first heard about Andy Gray’s and Richard Keys’s leaked comments about Sian Massey, I knew the tabloids would run with outraged headlines, primarily because they can never resist a scalp. At the same time I thought there would also be plenty of room for columnists to worry about whether this wasn’t just another example of political correctness gone mad: another irresistible topic.

Much of the outrage was tinged with double standards.The Sun thought the best way to cover the issue of sexism was to run a front page picture of Massey dancing in a short skirt and strappy top accompanied by the headline “Get ’em off”. It supposedly referred to Gray and Keys but the double meaning was hardly subtle.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail, which in October had declared that the new workplace “PC equality law” would spell the “death of the office joke”, decided that sexism, as exhibited by Gray (dubbed “the soccer sexist”) and Keys was a bad thing, but that it was perfectly acceptable to label Massey a “party girl” and to accompany their coverage with personal holiday pictures taken from her MySpace page.

The media plugged away at the story because it provided easy copy as further recordings and video clips of Gray and Keys engaging in similar behaviour were released. Outrage followed the leaking of a video in which Gray asked fellow Sky Sports News presenter Charlotte Jackson if she could tuck his microphone pack down his trousers for him. Is this not the kind of “office joke” whose death the Daily Mail had mourned?

“The tabloids position themselves as our moral arbitrator. Yet their own behaviour can make Gray and Keys appear almost angelic”

After building public pressure – fuelled by the “outrage” of a deeply misogynistic tabloid press – Gray was sacked by Sky Sports “in response to new evidence of unacceptable and offensive behaviour”; while Keys resigned two days later, stating that his comments had been “unacceptable” and adding, “I’ve reached the decision it’s time to move on.”

The tabloids position themselves as our moral arbitrator, sitting in perpetual judgement of everyone and everything. Yet their own behaviour can make Gray and Keys appear almost angelic. Let’s not forget that at the start of January many of them went after the innocent-until-proven-guilty Chris Jefferies (Joanna Yeates’s landlord), who was pictured on the front page of 11 national newspapers. In one Sun article alone he was described as “weird”, “lewd”, “strange”, “creepy”, “angry”, “odd”, “disturbing”, “eccentric”, “a loner” and “unusual”. The Daily Mail’s headline read “Murder police quiz ‘nutty professor’ with a blue rinse”. Meanwhile the Daily Mirror decided to picture him with the headline: “Jo suspect is peeping Tom”.

The media are just as happy to smear those not charged with any crime as those who could be said to have brought it upon themselves and are therefore fair game. Such coverage deeply affected those involved, leading Jo Yeates’s grieving boyfriend Greg Reardon to criticise the press coverage in a statement that should have just been about Jo:

“Jo’s life was cut short tragically but the finger-pointing and character assassination by social and news media of as-yet innocent men has been shameful… It has made me lose a lot of faith in the morality of the British press.”

The media exonerated themselves of any blame, safe in the knowledge that they will never need to hold themselves to the same high moral standards they expect from everyone else.

This is another reason why the culture of outrage moves at a relentless pace: so that a newspaper’s own behaviour is buried under the weight of the next big story. The print media have made it difficult for their readers to reflect upon their treatment of Jefferies because he was old news by the time he was released without charge: the press had moved on to new targets in an industry in which each new outrage is immediately usurped by the next. From January to March this year tabloids covered the following outrages without any form of resolution: swine flu, normal flu, class war, paternity leave, petrol prices, contraceptive implants, bank bonuses, asylum seekers, painkillers, age bias at the BBC, house prices, lightbulbs, migrants, refuse collections, the long-term sick, pensions, speed cameras, the police, care homes, the EU and food bills.

This is what the modern tabloid media is about: moving from one outraged position to the next, never stopping for reflection or concerned with consistency, just as long as the white space is filled and someone somewhere is being pilloried.

A substantial section of our print media has become a meaningless collection of headlines that are simply designed to appeal to the basest instincts of their readers. Very often the headlines are not justified by the content of the articles, but that doesn’t matter because the Press Complaints Commission considers that headlines are “comment” and they are not therefore covered by the accuracy clause of the Editors’ Code of Practice. Because they never pause for breath, their readers can never pause for reflection and the chance for any improvement in our collective press is denied.

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