Alex Wickham (‘top tabloid journo’) vs. John Cleese, Hacked Off and the facts

This entry was posted on
Thursday, February 26th, 2015
3:45 pm and is filed
under Old Media, Rupert ‘The Evil One’ Murdoch.

Yesterday I attended a rally for Hacked Off. While there, I observed Alex Wickham enter the room and take a front-row seat in the press box before thumbing away at his handheld device.

Wickham and his cohorts like to downplay typical everyday victims of tabloid excess, and instead press a narrative about a small gang of celebrities trying to restrict free speech so they can keep their dirty little secrets. Knowing Wickham to be a deeply tribal and unapologetic tabloid ‘journalist’ who had previously taken every opportunity to demonise Hacked Off and their supporters, I was curious to see how he was reporting this event.

I accessed the Twitter feeds of the two main accounts he uses, and observed him in action.

First, he took this photo of Hugh Grant and (using the same device) live-tweeted it to the @MediaGuido account (12:56pm):

Then, he manually retweeted himself using the @WikiGuido account (12:57pm)

I was not at all surprised to see Wickham pressing the celebrity angle, or to see him using mutliple Twitter accounts in this way. I was even less surprised when he escalated to more overt attempts to reject one argument and instead press his own false prospectus (1:06pm):

(Note : the above was also RTed to his @WikiGuido account a moment later.)

I did not think it was fair on the audience, and this tweet helped me make up my mind to report the matter to the Chair (1:08pm):

The above was a gross and deeply offensive mischaracterisation of what was being said to the audience, and how they were reacting to it. Brian Cathcart compared a range of media owners/editors to the man behind the green curtain in The Wizard of Oz (his exact words: “the squeaky little figure, or the squeaky little line-up of figures…”, and later “tear away the curtain and we see the squeaky little figure of Paul Dacre; let’s keep it that way, let’s keep them out in the open”).

The “rapturous applause” Wickham describes in response to some crass personal assault on Paul Dacre is pure invention (if not a gross distortion of the end-of-speech applause that everybody has received at the end of every speech at every political rally since the dawn of democracy). The Orwellian reference to the “obedient audience” is entirely over the top, and typically so.

Further, Wickham was totally engrossed in this task and typing his distortions while John Cleese was speaking about a long list of everyday victims of tabloid abuse and intrusion. The only report of any of this from Wickham was Cleese’s opening mention of the role played by celebrities in this debate (1:10pm), followed by the moment that Mr Cleese became momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the inhumanity he was reading aloud, with the clear suggestion being that his was an entirely emotional and therefore flawed argument (1:11pm).

You are invited to listen to the actual event rather than a cherry-picked moment of it written by a man so crassly preoccupied with his task of distortion that he didn’t even look up and acknowledge that any of this was being read out at the time:

Note that the above two tweets neatly bracket a long list of victims that Wickham is determined to gloss over, and that the second tweet throws two words together and attributes them as a description of the press in general. Here’s the text of what Cleese actually said after reading a long list of examples of specific and undeniably monstrous, sociopathic acts:

“So what do we say about this monstrous behaviour? And what is (so) monstrous about it for me is the almost complete lack of contrition on behalf of people who do these dreadful, sociopathic things.” – John Cleese

If responsibility for this behaviour was laid at anyone’s feet, it was at Rupert Murdoch’s, but given how closely Wickham is associated with The Sun on Sunday, it is unlikely that this is a point/debate that he would wish to address on anything but his own twisted terms.

Getting back to those terms, later in the piece, Cleese compared the field of journalism to other fields that would like to regulate themselves (builders, accountants) and to those that used to regulate themselves, but no longer do (lawyers, doctors). To illustrate his point he made a joke that murderers would probably like to regulate themselves too. That murder is not an acknowledged profession or field (in this country) should be clue enough to most people that a joke was in progress, but Wickham was quick to seize on it and present it as a standalone comparison (1:13pm):

Wickham then retweeted himself using his other account (1:14pm)…

… before repeating his assertion once more at @MediaGuido for good measure (1:15pm)

Now have a listen and decide for yourself what was actually said. Also note that John Cleese wraps up this point with talk of the people who lie about Hacked Off seeking to muzzle the press (trust me: we’ll get to this soon enough):

Here’s a transcript of the relevant section of the audio for those of you in the cheap seats:

“Of course they want to regulate themselves. We’d all like to regulate ourselves, wouldn’t we? But it would mean without appropriate oversight, builders, accountants, murderers; they’d all like to regulate themselves. And murderers would make a good case! They’d say ‘We’ve murdered a lot of people, we know people who’ve murdered people. We are best qualified to regulate (murder)’…”

“Yes, they want to go on [laughs] regulating themselves. Oh dear. The press editors simply want the freedom of the press – to be free to do what they damn well like, without independent oversight. Of course, things used to be different. Remember the lawyers, they used to have the Law Society to regulate themselves? Doctors used to have the General Medical Council. That’s all done. The only group that now regulates itself without independent oversight is [laughs] is the press. And why? because the politicians are more frightened of them than they are of anyone else, right? [sounds of agreement, then applause] But, you see, a lot of us don’t trust the press to regulate themselves without oversight any more than we don’t trust the murderers.” – John Cleese

Some other people spoke, Wickham’s distortions continued, and then the Chair (Evan Harris) spoke to the audience about one of the tweets by Wickham that I had brought to his attention:

Wickham is audibly mumbling when first challenged, but he clearly says it was “a direct quote” twice before not only being invited to speak but being urged to speak up by the Chair, when he finally says something the whole room can (almost) hear:

“I don’t understand the problem. It’s a direct quote. It was exactly what he said.” – Alex Wickham

This earned an immediate and vociferous response from one audience member concluding that he was a “cretin”, but this was putting it rather generously as it assumes that Wickham misquoted John Cleese out of ignorance alone before falsely stating when challenged that he had quoted him verbatim.

But it is clear from the audio that not only did Wickham misrepresent what John Cleese had said, he also made a false claim about having quoted him word-for-word when he had done no such thing. Wickham even challenged the Chair when his actions were described as presenting words out of context. Once again, he got to have his say, and this is what he said:

“How can it be out of context? It’s a direct quote.” Alex Wickham

So that’s twice that Wickham has been permitted to speak his mind, and twice he has refused to vary from an entirely false assertion that he had quoted John Cleese verbatim.

Listening to the audio, you will also hear a very strident Australian (*cough*) pointing out exactly how he had presented words out of context, even if one were to accept his argument that he had quoted John Cleese verbatim (which he had not done). At the very end you will hear the Chair once again invite him to identify himself, and you can also hear that by now the crowd are keen for him to do this, too. The specific calls for him to stand are for him to stand and identify himself. When he refuses to do this, at the very end of the audio, you will hear this moment, which also appears int he 15-second snippet of video that Wickham is now using to ‘prove’ that he was denied the right to free speech:

But Wickham was not refused his say; far from it. Neither was he robbed of his right to free speech. Wickham was not gagged or manhandled out of the room for daring to speak his mind; he was merely challenged, identified, then politely invited to leave, or sit and listen from that point on (i.e. after squandering multiple opportunities to explain himself). Wickham chose to sulk and portray himself as a victim on Twitter, starting with this (1:53pm)

The audio I have published here covers the entire exchange, as opposed to the 15 seconds of it that Wickham and the Guido Fawkes team seek to legitimise by citing the Press Association as the source of the clip (‘never mind the quality… feel the width!’). At no stage does Evan Harris shout at him. At no stage does John Cleese shout at him. This did not happen, before, during or after the event. But Wickham is banking so much on his assertion that it did happen that he has pinned this tweet on his profile.

(‘Look at me, everyone! John Cleese shouted at ME!’… and obviously I’m paraphrasing for effect here, so no letters, please.)

This didn’t happen either (1:57pm):

The audio makes it clear that Alex Wickham was repeatedly invited to stand to identify himself, something that he repeatedly refused to do. This is quite apart from the fact that he took any further opportunity to speak to again repeat the false assertion that he had quoted John Cleese “directly”, when he had not.

Wickham then when on to falsely assert that John Cleese had called him a liar:

John Cleese would not have been wrong or unfair to describe Wickham as a liar – because this tabloid tea-boy is a shameless and unapologetic liar – but what Cleese did was jokingly invite him to tell lies about him (“You’re absolutely free to tell any lies you want about me.”). So, Wickham lied about John Cleese calling him a liar!

Wickham then went back to his oh-so-crucial narrative about Hacked Off being an enemy of free speech, again giving a wholly misleading account of the event and what was actually happening when he was asked to stand and identify himself (2:00pm):

And it was at this point that Alex Wickham appeared to tweet about himself in third person using the @MediaGuido account (2:00pm), describing himself as a ‘top tabloid journalist’ and likening the audience to a gang of children descending into savagery:

It was after this flurry of tweeting that he skulked out of the room of his own volition.

Within 20 minutes, the main @GuidoFawkes account was used to post a picture of Alex Wickham the “hero” being gagged (2:22pm):

Within another 20 minutes, Harry Cole (also of the Guido Fawkes website) was characterising the Chair’s intervention as a “meltdown” (2:39pm):

And before an hour had passed, the main Guido Fawkes Twitter account and website had been deployed to describe the lobbying event as a “show trial for journalists” (2:58pm):

Wickham has since asserted that both Dr Evan Harris and John Cleese have accepted his version of events as accurate, but this assertion is based on further distortion and invention.

Alex Wickham was allowed to attend, but it was a trust he abused. He was allowed to report, but he gave a wholly distorted account of events. This was not “a direct quote” as Wickham repeatedly stated. At no time did John Cleese utter these words in this order:

Further, after the kind of behaviour that would earn one immediate ejection at most events, Wickham was challenged and invited to explain himself, but chose to give a false account of what he had done, and then give a false account about being denied the opportunity to speak.

(Surely, Alex, you remember speaking. You must have sensed your lips flapping, the sound waves leaving your body and the bullshit dripping off your chin.)

I will add to this that if you dare voice any dissent in the comments at the ‘Guido Fawkes’ website, you are shouted down by a series of anonymous comments before being invited to go and complain on your own blog. It turns out that Alex Wickham can’t even hack being asked nicely to leave and do the same. So he’s a hypocrite as well as a liar.

Alex Wickham, Harry Cole and site proprietor Paul Staines owe John Cleese a full retraction and an apology for giving a distorted account of what he said and how he responded when this came to light. They also owe Evan Harris, the speakers and the entire audience a retraction and an apology not only for the initial distortions, but for later giving a distorted account of what Wickham did, what he said, and how those gathered reacted to his audacity.

However, I am guessing that the only response we will see to this article is the usual round of tabloid obfuscation and intimidation designed to shut me/others up and discourage the one thing these people fear most: attention to detail, and timely and irrefutable deconstruction of their hastily-woven fictions.

[drops mic]

UPDATE (27 Feb) – At one stage, someone tried to explain that the ‘stand up, sit down’ event did not happen as Wickham described (and it didn’t). Of course, what Alex Wickham seized upon was any suggestion that ‘stand up, sit down’ did not happen at all (when he did actually stand up and sit down), so on this basis – brace yourselves – Alex Wickham is claiming that the audio I have published here proves his version of events, and further asserts that this is the “end of the matter”. No, I am not kidding. Here’s a direct quote, complete with context, and you can click through for more if you have any doubts:

Some might also note that Wickham doesn’t actually link to the audio that ‘proves his version of events’, or even hint where it might be found. This demonstrates his attitude towards accuracy… and his audience.


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