Nov 11

Rusbridger’s Orwell lecture: hacking away at the truth

The twittersphere sent round plenty of links to last night’s Orwell lecture by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, so signalling its importance is hardly needed. But I’m mentioning it to urge you to read the full text.

Besides being an excellent read, the lecture is in two parts. The first is the story of the hacking story, with plenty of justified emphasis laid on how difficult it was for the Guardian to get traction for a story which others didn’t, for a long time, want to touch. The second half is Rusbridger’s first outline of how he thinks the press regulation system should be rewritten after the Leveson inquiry. I have a few reservations about some of what he proposes but putting the “public interest” issue front and centre is dead right. I’ll come back to those arguments at a later date, but for now read the whole lecture.

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Oct 11

Media regulation: heat and light

Debates about the state of journalism “post phone-hacking” occur almost nightly in London. The Leveson inquiry into, among other things, press regulation has begun work. Are any new ideas being generated?

Newspaper editors, when they have been audible at all, have cautioned about any form of tougher regulation than the discredited self-regulation which exists now. But they have been less voluble about what might work better than the Press Complaints Commission which Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to pronounce dead when the phone-hacking storm was at its height in the summer. Editors appear nervous that to discuss possible future regulation systems in any detail increases the risk that any new system or laws will err on the side of strangling free journalistic inquiry. The PCC, apparently considering reports of its death to be premature, is advertising for a new chairman and revamping its procedures.

The risk of over-regulation exists for sure. But an intellectual vacuum also has dangers. If you assume that the PCC self-regulation system won’t survive intact, something has to replace it. Alternatives need to be sketched out and tested. Some of this thinking is happening. The rest of this post is a quick tour of the ideas being lined up.

A recent discussion at the Reuters Institute in Oxford looked at seven regulation options pulled together by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust.

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May 11

Privacy, superinjunctions and converging regulation

Confused by the simmering froth of indignation and counter-claim about superinjunctions, Twitter and privacy? Here’s an attempt to extract what’s important.

1. Media regulation is not going away as an issue. This is not because of the sudden eruption of rows about superinjunctions. The fundamental reason for unease about laws and regulators is that they are out of date. The system of media regulation we have in Britain was designed for an analogue age in which each platform (print, radio, TV) was distinct and regulated separately. Digital “convergence”, with words, sound and video all carried by the internet, undermines that. This is very clearly on the mind of Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, quoted here. Convergence has consequences for privacy, the kinds of issues dealt with under the Press Complaints Commission Code of Conduct and plurality of ownership and control (see here).

2. Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian, giving the Sampson lecture this week, defended the “mixed economy” of British media regulation, which varies from tight regulation (such as for the BBC) to a “wild west” free for all in the printed press, whose self-regulation system is certainly not onerous. Rusbridger argues that this mixture both establishes a visible “gold standard” for good practice while allowing risk-taking  and controversial journalism at the same time. He was asked whether this view was tenable in an era in which print publishers were becoming broadcasters on the web, established broadcasters were becoming magazine publishers and barriers between technologies were vanishing.

3. If we look hard enough there are many issues to wrestle with in the legal framework for the news media. It’s plausible and logical to argue that they are all connected. But this approach risks making the task of improving things look impossibly large. I’d argue that privacy is the issue on which to focus: it lies at the heart of the concerns about super-injunctions, phone-hacking and the idea of self-regulation. I’ve argued elsewhere (£) that new legislation may be closer than many journalists like to think and that editors had better stake out their positions soon.

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Feb 11

Wikileaks and Assange: two books

I’ve reviewed the first two books of what will be a literary cascade on Wikileaks in today’s Times (£): the account of Julian Assange’s collaboration with The Guardian by David Leigh and Luke Harding and the inside account from Daniel Domscheit-Berg of his time as Assange’s lieutenant.

The former is largely devoted to the clinching and subsequent collapse of the cooperation between Assange and The Guardian. Domscheit-Berg’s book, driven mostly by pique, is a lengthy complaint about Assange’s dictatorial methods. Both books include useful background on the early origins of Wikileaks. Both books underline that Wikileaks is Julian Assange, no more and no less.

I have discovered that writing blogposts (or reviews) about Julian Assange puts you in the line of fire from his passionate devotees if not from Assange himself. I’ve already been called a “supercilious weasel” and there’s probably worse to come. So if you’re new to this blog you’ll find earlier posts by entering “Assange” in the search box to the right of this post, including my reflections on his two appearances at City University last year. The first of those, much the more intriguing of the two, was before the major leaks of 2010 began.

A few offcuts from the books that couldn’t be squeezed into the review: Continue reading →

Nov 10

A reply to Alan Rusbridger on convergence, plurality and regulation

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, has asked important questions about plurality and the news media in a recent longform blogppost. To make much sense of this post below you need to read Rusbridger first; this is an an attempt to reply to the issues he’s raised.

Rusbridger sees a media mixed economy now divided into three parts: the printed press (light, much-criticised self-regulation), public service broadcasting (heavily regulated) and social or new media (unregulated).

I agree that this three-way mixture manages to be, to a remarkable if accidental degree, all things to all people. A combination of regulated journalism with the wilder flights and fancies of both print and the web balances reliability with disclosure, provocation and an array of voices. It’s not anarchy, nor is it over-controlled and the range of possibilities is wide.

“Can regulation of itself help protect this delicate balance?” Rusbridger asks. This seems a very Japanese way of looking at it. A number of opposing forces fight themselves to a standstill; regulation then freezes the status quo. Never mind how we got here, we are where we are; let’s preserve what we have. Nothing dishonourable in that approach; it’s use has averted many a disaster. But might it not be better still to go back to first principles?

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May 10

Life expectancy of newspapers: and the answer is…

On a recent radio debate, Sunday Times editor John Witherow and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger both said that the latest printing press purchases by their companies were likely to be their last – thus putting a rough outer limit on the number of years they think their titles will be in print. Thirty years and twenty respectively.

A senior honcho at Pearson, owners of the FT, shortened this to (maybe) five years at a seminar this week. Er, not quite, said a different suit at the FT, rowing back some way. Rob Andrews of PaidContent has very helpfully rounded up here this new readiness to schedule the death of print in more detail then ever before.

Or, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted today: “They said I was nuts when I saw an end to print. I’m getting more company in the asylum.”

May 10

Paywall ping-pong

Went last night to the recording of BBC Radio 4′s Media Show paywall debate last night between John Witherow of the Paywall ping pongSunday Times and Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian. To the evident disappointment of the show’s presenter Steve Hewlett, neither man took up the invitation to set the dialogue alight or to savage the other.

The explanation for this outbreak of reasonableness is not far to seek. Neither editor wants to hook themselves on positions they can’t change if events go against them. Witherow, fronting for the decision to split the sites of the The Times and Sunday Times and to charge £1 per day or £2 per week for visiting either, can’t be sure that the experiment will work and can’t rule out the possibility of having to reverse out of it. Rusbridger, sceptical about charging, can’t be certain that economics may not force him to ask his users to pay in the future, however much he dislikes the idea. “You’d have to be crazy to be fundamentalist about this,” as he put it. Hence the careful, pacific tone of the exchanges.

Highlights and soundbites. Witherow acknowledged that the two papers would lose “at least” 90% of their existing traffic. He thinks that the iPad is a gamechanger and sees people switching to it en masse. He was not drawn on why the paywall is going round 100% of the paper’s content or whether and how the low starting price might be raised, two of the most striking aspects of News International’s experiment. He did not have a very convincing answer to what he would do if faced with what might be called the “Pundits Revolt” which forced the New York Times to back out of an earlier charging experiment. The paper’s columnists, cut off from their friends, enemies and opinions of all kinds behind the paywall rebelled.

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May 10

Paywalls: close encounter with a nuance

With the start of the charging experiment by The Times and the Sunday Times apparently close at hand, it’s time to go back to “paywalls”.

By way of a warm-up, here is a recent blog post by the FT‘s John Gapper, who thinks he detected a softening of opposition to charging when he listened to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recently. And there’s an interesting comment from Tim Brooks, the CEO of Guardian Media Group.