If ever there was an indication of the gulf that can exist between the tabloid press and real news it’s today’s front page of The Sun.
While rolling news pictures switch between the extraordinary and alarming concurrence of violent international crises - in Gaza, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq - Britain’s biggest-selling daily focused its attention elsewhere.
A four-year-old boy in Market Drayton, Shropshire, had a (barely-discernible) mark on his chest. It was, said the splash story, the “Mark of the Devil”. In a further page of coverage on page 5, accompanied by a picture of the child with his mother and an accompanying image of a red-faced man with horns and a goatee beard, the paper mentioned that the mark had faded away on 16 June.
It also suggested an alternative theory: “branding from an alien abduction”.
Such outlandish stuff is the sort of thing we used to expect from the Sunday Sport with its tales of bomber aircraft being found on the moon. The Daily Star still occasionally dabbles in this territory with stories about rampaging giant Huntsman spiders taking over the universe. But The Sun still breaks real stories. Its popular journalism is, at least, journalism.
Aside from the eccentricity of leading on this implausible yarn (many observers have pointed out that the mark has the appearance of a hairdryer burn), there are serious concerns. This is a paper which prides itself on its concerns for child safety yet the potential for bullying caused by a headline which dubs the four-year-old as “Boyelzebub” is obvious. As New Statesman noted, Satanism was a feature of the Victoria Climbie case and is hardly a subject for whimsy. Sarah Wollaston MP was one of the paper’s first critics on social media today. “He does not carry ‘mark of devil’ he is a real child”, she said, calling for the story to be pulled from the paper’s website.
Why would The Sun make such a story its splash? Its leader column prioritised other tales about the obesity epidemic and the legal aid support given to the killers of soldier Lee Rigby, both popular subjects that could have held their own as the lead story.
UsVsTh3m, a website owned by the rival Trinity Mirror group, argued that the story selection was a sign of the summer “silly season” when the news cycle grinds to a halt. My view is that the silly season ceased to exist a long time ago. In the information age there is never a shortage of news. Least of all now, as the world is transfixed by the horrific events in Gaza.
In a statement, The Sun said its intention had been a “light-hearted” treatment of a subject which the boy’s parents had raised on social media. “This was a story provided by the parents, who had already publicised the pictures and story on Facebook. We sought to treat it in a lighthearted fashion, highlighting the apparently fanciful link to the occult,” it said. “We are conscious of the code and guidance around paying parents. We did not encourage the parents to embellish or expand the story; it came to us, and had already been the subject of discussion (raised by the parents) on social media.”