40 Features

Fear and loathing of Los Santos: Why do newspapers attack video games?

By Rob Crossley on Tuesday 14th May 2013 at 3:19 PM UTC

When the former Daily Star journalist, Richard Peppiatt, was asked under oath to give three examples of false or misleading articles published by his old employer, he replied with nine.

One was the front page headline 'Jade's Back in Big Brother' - an implication that Jade Goody had returned to the reality TV show despite being dead.

Another story, one of the first to make Peppiatt consider his position at the paper, claimed that managers at a shopping centre in Rochdale were plotting to build public toilets exclusively for Muslims.

(Because the Islamist loo conspiracy never existed in the first place, the next day Peppiatt was commissioned to write an article declaring victory for the newspaper after apparently pressuring Rochdale Council to yield.)

Speaking at London's Royal Courts of Justice in November 2011, Peppiatt was offering the examples as part of his testimony to the Leveson Inquiry - a sprawling judicial investigation into media ethics that for nine months had heard the most damaging and preposterous insider stories from 337 witnesses.

Peppiatt quit the Daily Star in 2011

As Peppiatt continued, he cited an article now commonly known as "Grand Theft Auto Rothbury", which claimed that GTA custodian Rockstar was developing a game that plays out the final days of the Raoul Moat manhunt. That piece, published in July 2010, prompted Rockstar's legal team to sue for libel and, just four months later, resulted in a "substantial" pay-out and written apology.

But like with all of Peppiatt's nine examples of shameless and disturbed journalism, such articles are not exactly the rarest commodity within the chaotic and unruly newspaper industry.

In the UK, negative articles about video games are as regular as front page headlines on heatwaves and "Arctic" storms. All the foreseeable angles have been covered: Games give you rickets, games give you cancer, games cause massacres, games make you angrier. These stories will almost certainly carry the telltale signs of falsehood and distortion that usually can be exposed with a single phone call.

Take for instance the most recent Daily Mail attack, published on May 3, which writes: "video games have been accused of fuelling youth violence after a 13 year-old boy slashed a friend's throat following an online row".

The individual who "accused" video games was not named, though was identified as a reporting officer for Strathclyde Police. Yet CVG was told by a police force spokesperson that the same individual "does not want to give the impression that they are blaming games or the games industry".

It was the view of officer that games were one of numerous possible determining factors, the representative said, adding: "It's also worth pointing out that when police officers give evidence in court they are sometimes asked directly whether this or that was a cause for a crime, and in many cases police officers cannot explicitly say 'no' unless they can completely rule it out. So for video games they might say 'it is possible' but are not specifically blaming them."

Dismantling a newspaper's scare-mongering games story is an undemanding job, but the impulse to do so within the games press has become jaded over the years. These attack stories are tutted at but rarely discussed in depth (there are usually more interesting things going on). Some industry professionals see nasty coverage as a by-product of how games are progressing and expanding into mainstream culture.

Instead it is incensed gamers who will take the fight to newspapers and news programmes, but not often in the most ambassadorial manner. Daily Star chief crime reporter, Jerry Lawton, says the backlash from his erroneous GTA Rothbury article was more poisonous than anything else he's experienced at the paper.

"There were a lot of gamers who contacted me with pretty abusive messages," he tells CVG. "Someone even sent me a bullet with my name on it."

"In radio phone-in parlance we call them trick cyclists. These are your sort of experts who you ring up and ask if they will fill in the gaps on a story you've already decided to write"

When Lawton agreed to discuss his article and its ramifications, he was open that his intentions were to bury the hatchet with that famously pugnacious gamer audience, as well as insist he was not the sole guilty party.

He offers a crowd-pleaser too: "Personally I have no problem with video games. I play Call of Duty and FIFA and my daughter plays games too. I personally don't think there's a problem with them.

"I have covered crime stories at the Daily Star for 18 years. I've reported from court countless times. I can't remember one single instance of a crime being inspired by a video game. If video games inspire young people to cause crime, then wouldn't we have a massive surge in murders? I can't even think of a single crime associated with them."

Lawton goes on to claim that the angle for his original Rothbury article was the glorification of Raoul Moat. He insists that, due to issues of space and time, his "legitimate" story was chopped and distorted into something less nuanced and balanced.

"The thing about newspaper articles is that they change like the wind," he says.

"By the morning you could have this major assignment and by the afternoon it could be reduced to a much smaller piece. That's essentially what happened with my article. It was this major piece about Raoul Moat and how people glorify him, and the story wasn't just cropped, it was butchered.

Jerry Lawton wrote "Grand Theft Rothbury" for the Star

"In all honesty, this just was a cock-up. It wasn't politically driven. The process of getting a story into the paper is a massive team undertaking, so sometimes mistakes are made but only one person has their name on the byline."

Lawton said he was unsure if anyone at the paper had been dismissed for their part in the Rothbury article, despite the "substantial" damages paid to Rockstar. He said his only involvement in the lawsuit was an email to his managers explaining what had happened.

Peppiatt, who worked at the Star when Lawton wrote Rothbury, says his former colleague shouldn't be completely absolved from guilt.

"It's true this is a collaborative process, and just because there's one byline above a story doesn't mean it's fair to put full responsibility on the writer. And it's true that a lot of a reporter's copy is spun out of control and done out of their hands. Lawton always complained his GTA story was a production error, but still I think he's probably being a bit disingenuous. The story was obviously fake and he's tried his luck a bit."

Like with most UK newspapers, headlines at the Star are usually written by a senior member of the team, be it a sub-editor, a page editor, an experienced reporter or the editor of the day.

Peppiatt, and many other journalists CVG spoke to, say it is this collective of senior staff who are pulling the strings at newspapers, and thus, form the voice of it.

Helen Lewis, a former sub-editor at the Daily Mail and now the deputy editor of the New Statesman, describes newspaper decision-makers as "not typically the people who had grown up with video games as a part of their natural everyday life. These are typically men in their fifties".

"I've covered crime at the Daily Star for 18 years... I can't think of a single case associated with games"

When it comes to attack articles, she says, the issue is a generational one, with those that distrust games usually working at senior level, and younger people who enjoy them usually working in less influential positions. For now at least.

"You now see this weird divide of coverage. The Telegraph website, for example, writes some really good stuff on games, but then you will still see these thunderous denunciations that games are turning all children into psychotic murderers. I think that essentially reflects the different kinds of people who work there."

Helen Lewis began her professional career at the Mail

Peppiatt agrees the problem comes from a generation gap, but adds that the Rothbury piece is nevertheless symptomatic of how an editorial team is collectively responsible for a poor story.

"That article shows how things get over-spun. Usually the reporter will see the kernel of the story and will think, hey, if I spin that I've got half a story.

"Then once the writer has filed the spun copy, then sub-editors or the back bench will take a look at the story and maybe think about spinning it again to make it a bit stronger, and by the time that's done this blown-up story has little truth to it.

"The problem is that no one wants to claim responsibility because everyone is involved. Think about it as a machine: Information comes in one end and goes out the other, but at various points along the way it's treated by others."

There's another relevant point to consider, he adds, with regards to the overwhelming commercial pressures placed on newspaper owners and how that informs editorial.

"The thing is, if you've got a major story like Raoul Moat and there's a lot of interest, there's huge pressure on journalists to come up with the next angle on that major story. And if there's not a lot going on, sometimes reporters try and make the most out of pretty tangential stuff, if only to keep that narrative going."

This, goes the theory, is why games are blamed for gun massacres only a few days after a crime, when all the other genuine and important angles have been exhausted.

(Given that Peppiatt famously published his Daily Star resignation letter in the Guardian, before going on to write a satire play called One Rogue Reporter, it's worth remembering his view on tabloid journalism is the mightiest kind of disillusionment which other experts may not agree with in its totality.)

"You have to remember these newspapers' target reader tends to be middle-aged parents," he concludes, "and what tends to be in their sphere of concern is computer games and other things they don't understand.

"It's not like the newspaper itself gives a fuck. It's just that they think this is the kind of story that will sell."

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