Ripe for censure: The media can latch on to an idea of what is a ‘trend’ based on little evidence beyond a need to tell a compelling story

Is practical shooting rogue or vogue? Caroline Roddis takes on the tabloids to find out.

I recently attended a lecture by George Osborne on his editorship of the Evening Standard. You’d be entirely right to question why I didn’t have anything better to do with my time, but in my defence I’d been told there was wine afterwards.

(This turned about to be something of a false rumour – we were literally allowed one glass, and as soon as the assembled journalists realised this, the exodus was faster than a party of guns moving towards the wagons at elevenses.) 

Our boy Gideon didn’t, unsurprisingly, have anything particularly controversial to say and was superb at deflecting the difficult questions afterwards in the way that only a politician can be.

The one thing that did strike me, however – apart from his attempt to describe himself as middle class, which proved that he does at least have some sense of humour – was how completely he had adopted the journalistic persona.

The audience were all colleagues, the newsroom was his home, politicians were adversaries and, of course, there were people within the industry whose actions were damaging to his livelihood. 

Okay, maybe livelihood is the wrong word – it’s hardly his only gig and, compared to the £650,000 a year he declared he was getting for four days a month at Black Rock, his salary from the paper is really just a delightful little extra that ensures the caviar drawer is always full.

But anyway, despite having not been in the journalism game that long, Osborne has a clear idea of who is legitimate and who is not.  Broadcast journalists, for example, are viewed as inferior to print journalists because they hardly ever conduct investigations, instead merely copying whatever their print colleagues uncover.

(He did also mention that parliamentarians who stay in Theresa May’s government are unprincipled charlatans who can’t get anything done – because of course moaning from the sidelines is the brave thing to do…)  

In my entirely too-sober state, it occurred to me once again how important the idea of legitimacy is within any group. Every industry, every sport, every takeaway food chain has its own idea of legitimacy, and all who fall beyond their definition are ripe for censure – or at least the competitive threat of an unbeatable meal deal. 

Sometimes, in our own industry, this idea is used to great effect. Take BASC’s swift reaction to the study, which used RSPB and Natural England data to show that four tagged hen harriers had without doubt been killed illegally, along with a further 38 whose fate was suspected to have been the same.

As the Daily Express article entitled ‘OUTRAGE from UK’s top shooters after ROGUE gunmen kill one of England’s rarest birds’ said: “The findings prompted a stern response from BASC.”

Caroline Bedell, BASC’s executive director of conservation, believes raptor persecution is risking ‘terminal damage’ to shooting. She said: ‘As an association, we condemn all wildlife crime and we can be no clearer than to say the few criminals among us risk wrecking shooting for the majority.’”

Here, BASC has painted a clear picture of the difference between legitimate and illegitimate shooters, allowing them to condemn the killings and impress upon the easily-confused public that most are innocent. That said, whether or not Caroline Bedell’s carefully-crafted words are as effective as the ridiculously capitalised word ‘ROGUE’ in the headline is probably not worth thinking about. 

The problem is, as we all know, that sometimes it’s not as straightforward as being able to call out genuine criminals, and sometimes we’re not the ones who get to determine who is defined as legitimate.

As we’ve seen countless times, the press loves pitting shooting disciplines against each other to create their own definitions of legitimacy – despite not having the knowledge to back it up. It’s fine to be a clay shooter on weekends, but you’re a stupid psychopathic toff if you go game shooting.

George Osborne has adopted a journalistic persona since leaving the government (Photo By Andrew Parsons)

It’s fine to shoot air rifles but not pistols – unless you’re an Olympic athlete who doesn’t mind travelling overseas to train, and even then don’t expect much support while you’re competing for your country. 

After the tragic shooting in Christchurch, the Times – who’ve developed something of a passion for anti-shooting articles lately – decided to zero in on those with access to similar weaponry in the UK – presumably just to grab readers’ attention with some unnecessary panic. Their target? Practical shooters. 

I mean no disrespect to our practical shooting colleagues, but the headline for the article genuinely made me laugh out loud. ‘Trendy shooting clubs drive demand for assault weapons’. Did I miss a memo? Is practical shooting now trendy? Is it all people with topknots and designer beards sipping matcha chai lattes while they shoot targets shaped like avocados and quinoa?  

Misnomer aside, and whatever you think about practical shooting and its associated firearms, the article was frustrating because it sought to paint all practical shooters as potential mass murderers without delving deep enough into the issues.

There were no interviews with any of the 1,000 practical shooters registered with the UKPSA (such a large number, it really must be trendy…) about why they do what they do, no words stressing the differences in firearms licensing between New Zealand and the UK, and no link whatsoever between the possession of military-style firearms and a desire to shoot large numbers of people because you don’t agree with their religion. 

There was, however, a large amount of implication that just because a firearm looks more scary it’s automatically (no pun intended) more dangerous, which is mildly irresponsible given that the general public has zero understanding of the different types of gun in the first place.

(Why anyone would choose a military-style gun over something stunning and classic, particularly from one of our English gunmakers, is a separate issue – reckon I could pitch the topic to the Sunday Times style section?) 

This paragraph in particular gives the unassailable impression that fully automatic rifles are being used, particularly because the quote comes from a professor of criminology – never a profession that’s called upon to discuss anything safe and fluffy.

“Peter Squires, a professor of criminology at Brighton University, said that practical shooting was a contrived sport to legitimise the use of any gun. The hobby provided ‘a way around’ the firearms laws and enabled gun enthusiasts to have legal shotguns that ‘look and function like assault weapons’.”

Having painted practical shooters as borderline criminals, the article then proceeds to state – based, I think, entirely on one quote by Mike Yardley in a different article – that they have been all but disowned by the rest of the shooting community: “Traditional sports shooters and gun control campaigners are alarmed at the growth of practical shooting…” it exclaims, sans evidence. 

I have no problem with the Times stating that people in the industry have concerns: many do. Where I struggle is that they then use these to define the whole community’s ideas of legitimacy, and in turn use that to add extra weight to their own biased hypotheses. 

If I wanted more ill-informed waffle, I’d go to another Osborne lecture.


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