Sep 14

Metadata surveillance: the issue which won’t be allowed to disappear

This blog returns to what I hope will be more frequent publication after an unintended break with a small item of good news. How often do blog-writers throw out appeals, queries and rhetorical questions and hear nothing but silence? Frequently.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the scale of electronic communications surveillance by the NSA and its international partners, I wrote a short post a few months back underlining why journalists should worry about “metadata”. To journalists particularly, the issue of whether the snoopers, tappers and buggers are reading your email or merely tracking who you email and when (metadata is the latter) isn’t important.

A source can be identified by a list of emails and calls even if the authorities don’t have the content of those exchanges. Indeed, there are active cases in the US which suggest that the American government is doing precisely that. In the long history of keeping reporting free of the state, this may turn out to be a more important issue than the British media’s debate over regulation in the wake of phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

I suggested in February that someone should test whether the indiscriminate collection of this kind of information was a threat to free expression and a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s not an open and shut case, but surely something worth trying.

Continue reading →


Jun 13

How many royal charters does it take to fix press regulation? Six, at least

Any time from this week, we may hear news from the government ministers assigned to solve the conundrum of press regulation. Consultation on one of the many royal charters which have been written since the Leveson Report was published more than six months ago has finished and we may hear how the government hopes to get out of the deep doo-doo it’s walked into.

Or possibly not. Lord Leveson remarks more than once in his report that press regulation is a subject about which politicians may have, or even voice, opinions. When in office, they rapidly conclude that they are determined to do as little as possible. The toughness of the present dilemmas isn’t going to change that.

Any system of press regulation which is “independent” of the state and politicians can’t, by definition, be compulsory and even if it were, news publishing groups increasingly pivoting to become global online publishers could operate from outside British legal jurisdiction. Yet a cross-party majority of MPs want, and have voted for, a tougher system of accountability than the three largest national newspaper publishers will accept.

There are now six versions of Royal Charters in play, all claiming to be to be the best balance between freedom and restraint. These six versions have all been generated despite the claim made for Royal Charters – that they protect the independence of a press regulation system from future political interference – having been strongly challenged. Six charters may just be the start.

Continue reading →


May 13

New, improved censorship from Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace

I’m not inventing this: Iran really does have a body called the the Supreme Council for Cyberspace. This body with the science-fiction name is wrestling with the dilemma facing dictatorships everywhere.

Even by official estimates, more than half of Iran’s 75m people are net users. At that level, the internet is basic to the functioning of the economy, and that includes trade and contacts outside the country. So the cyberspace councillors can’t just shut down the internet even if they had the technical means to do it.

So they do two things: they slow it down and they try to build infrastructure which they can watch. There’s a tense election coming in June and the authorities have had several years to plan against a repeat of the demonstrations which took them by surprise in 2009. As AFP reports, the authorities in Tehran are suspected of putting the internet in a “coma”. Revealingly, the people who seem to have spotted this first are the DVD pirates who can’t any longer download foreign movies because the system is so slow.

The way that the cyberspace rulers may be managing this is by blocking Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Iranians who don’t want to be traced accessing sites outside their borders use VPNs to connect to international sites and to disguise where they are. The use of VPNs is illegal on the grounds that they are insecure and may carry material considered depraved, criminal or politically offensive. So the Iranian authorities are building their own VPN for people to use, which internet experts quite reasonably assume will be transparent to the supreme cyber-councillors, not to mention to the security police.

Continue reading →


Apr 13

This blog is back – swift catchup on the post-Leveson dog’s breakfast

I know that this week’s media debate is going to be all about the pros and cons of real-time news sharing in fast-moving crises like the Boston marathon bombings and subsequent shootouts, but this blog has a little catching up to do. While I have been writing a book, the government, Houses of Lord and Commons and the Hacked Off campaign have managed to make a gigantic dog’s breakfast of the follow-up to the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking.

This was pretty much the only subject on which I published during the long winter, so I’ll start by rounding up that stuff. It’s hardly surprising that inventive lawyers intent on intimidation are using Leveson’s recommendations to try to silence newspaper reporting or that the Metropolitan Police, who had a grimly embarrassing time in front of Leveson, are being cautious and unhelpful. What has surprised me is the depth of the legal and political doo-doo into which the government has stepped. In a hurry to get the Leveson Inquiry dealt with before the 2015 election season opens next year, the government tied itself in knots which may take years to unravel. The Royal Charter deal on a new press regulator was a rushed botch.

The largest single dilemma which Leveson plonked in the government’s lap is defining “the press”. Leveson was so heavily preoccupied by the issue of the misuse of power accumulated by the major newspaper groups, that he did not treat this as a central issue. He should have: defining who is to be covered by law or regulation dealing with news publishing is a basic issue in an era when “the press” doesn’t really exist any more. I argue in a TLS review (£) of Leveson and a report from the Columbia Journalism School on “post-industrial journalism” that the Leveson report’s worst flaw was that it was so backward-looking.

Thrashing round trying to define internet sites and blogs which are “news-related” and suchlike won’t work for anyone except lawyers who can spend happy years in court fighting over definitions. In this BBC explainer there is a nice little film by Newsnight’s David Grossman trying to explain the new law as it relates to online publishers. The Department of Culture Media and Sport have produced a colourful new diagram to help publishers work out if they’re covered by the new law. Here’s Patrick Smith of MediaBriefing picking holes.

Continue reading →


Jan 13

Flashback to before Leveson reported

This blog is currently taking an enforced holiday which I have not spent eating Christmas pudding but mostly writing a book. More on that another day when I resurface.

For the time being I will simply wish all my readers a happy new year and post this video of a panel discussion held at the Battle of Ideas conference in London not long before the Leveson Inquiry produced its report, which is still being energetically debated. The panellists are Christina Patterson, Ray Snoddy, Mick Hume and me.


Nov 12

Leveson quick read: severe narrative, law/regulation better than feared

This is a rapid gut and comment on the Leveson report executive summary released today. The complexity of his regulation-legislation solution seems to have masked the genuine severity of his audit of what some newspapers have been doing.

No report on the press would be complete without a quotation from Thomas Jefferson and Lord Justice Leveson obliges on page 4: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” The next fifteen pages demonstrate exactly the opposite.

Leveson does not think much of the “culture” of the press (as his terms of reference called it). Indeed it seems unlikely that he would even think the word “culture” the appropriate one. He is outraged not just by bad behaviour but by what he seems to think was a lack of any moral sense: “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as it its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.” Note the “which it wrote” dig at hypocrisy. (para 7)

He makes a nod to the fact that the press does hold its own powers to account, citing (para 10) both the Guardian’s investigation of the News of the World and the ITV and BBC Panorama’s investigation of Jimmy Savile. He acknowledges (para 18) that commercial changes have increased pressures on newspapers “to find different ways to add value” (without accepting this as an excuse for anything at all).

Continue reading →


Nov 12

Leveson: the third, better way between statute and self-regulation

With Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the British press now due to report on November 29th, Press Gazette has kindly posted a version of an argument I made to the inquiry and wherever else I’ve been able to find an outlet for it since.

If Leveson proposes a new form of independent regulation for the press founded in statute (something which all previous versions of self-regulation have avoided), there will be an almighty fuss. But the proposal is liable to founder not because of the volume of complaint but because of the problems intrinsic to the plan: issues of definition, compulsion and funding.

There’s a better way. Use law as an incentive towards transparency and self-regulation. Strengthen and clarify privacy law, build strong and consistent public interest defences into laws which impact journalism and allow courts to take editorial integrity and standards into account when cases come to court. Within that framework, self-regulation would be worth doing and worth doing well.

That’s a bald summary. I saw an ad in the Daily Mail today from the Free Speech Network objecting to the possibility of the press being “shackled”, showing six newspaper front pages and asking if these stories would have appeared under “state regulation”. (The stories shown are the Mail’s front pages on the men alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, A Telegraph splash on MPs’ expenses, The Sun front page on Andrew Mitchell calling policemen “plebs”, a Times investigation on celebrity tax avoiders, the Daily Mirror on John Prescott’s affair with his secretary and a Guardian front page on phone-hacking.)

Continue reading →