05
Sep 13

Rage about anonymous online comments is building: change is coming

The other night I went to see Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s fine play about a photojournalist who searches for the never-identified Chinese man and hero of an iconic picture who stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks just after the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

On the way out of the theatre, I bumped into a fellow journalist. The newsroom dialogue was witty and sharp we happily agreed. And our favourite among those bits we also agreed was the crusty American editor spitting with rage about online comments below the newspaper’s online articles.

Frank, the editor in the play, is killing the search for the “tank man” because it costs too much and because the paper now has Chinese investors. Joe, the photographer, provokes this pungent speech from Frank by telling him that as an editor he’s supposed to be a guardian of a free press. Frank, sick of change, replies:

Don’t you dare sit there and suffer at me, hell I suffer too! You think I enjoy using the word ‘multi-platform’? That I think it’s desirable to employ the best writers in the country, then stick a comments section under their articles, so whatever no-neck fucker from Arkansas can chip in his five uninformed, misspelled, hateful cents because God forbid an opinion should go unvoiced? Assholes Anonymous validating eachother in packs under my banner, that’s not a democratic press, it’s a nationwide circle-jerk for imbeciles.”

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26
May 13

Three somethings for the weekend

When I began this blog in 2010, at weekends I would occasionally do a post on a few pieces I’d read that I liked, good journalism well-written (and often contra-suggestive). These posts consistently received the lowest hit rates of anything I wrote.

I guess the reason was that people read blogs less at weekends, the posts didn’t contain strong opinion and you have to click links to see what I’m talking about (and you impatient lot don’t seem to like doing that). But I’m going to go back to doing it occasionally. Despite the endless threnodies for the End of Journalism As We Know It, there’s a lot of very good writing out there; sometimes I want to explain why in more than the 140 characters of a tweet.

The more writing there is being done, the harder it is to catch the good stuff. The quantity of words in circulation has increased by a colossal order of magnitude; the day is exactly the same length as it always was. The depth and quality that is present in the writing generated by the internet’s indiscriminate output is the subject of this excellent essay in optimism by Robert Cottrell, founder of thebrowser.com, who reads and selects long-form writing so that you don’t have to. He has better qualifications to judge the true noise-to-signal ratio of writing on the internet in English than most.

  • First recommendation is a piece in the current Prospect magazine on Nigel Farage and Ukip by Edward Docx. Millions of words have poured into the media since Britain’s fourth political party scared the other three with a strong performance in recent local elections. This reportage and analysis is one of the most perceptive I’ve read, slicing through a lot of cluttered thinking. As a taster, this is Docx on British bullshit detectors and why Farage connects with voters in ways that neither the Conservative or Labour leaders can:

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13
Dec 12

James Harding departs The Times: follow the money

I’m sorry to see James Harding shoved out of the editor’s chair at The Times. He had made mistakes, but he had also done the paper (for which I worked) a lot of good.

The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.

Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.

In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.

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01
Jun 12

Summing up what we’ve learnt on Leveson, Murdoch and law

My loyal band of Twitterati may have noticed that I’ve been in Australia, where I gave a talk in two universities trying to sum up what we’ve learnt from the Leveson Inquiry. British readers of this blog might well want to stop right here because a good deal of the talk below will be familiar. There’s a very short version on the Australian-based The Conversation, a site which acts as a web publisher for opinion and analysis on public affairs by academics. But in case anyone wants to see the full text, here it is:

Phone-Hacking, the Leveson Inquiry and Rupert Murdoch

Public inquiries – often thought of as deliberate, careful, rational procedures – often provide examples of the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences. They don’t always work out as their instigators hope or intend.

So it is with the Leveson Inquiry, now running most days of the week in London. The Inquiry is formally into the “culture, practice and ethics” of something quaintly called “the press”. The inquiry’s terms of reference are very broad indeed. They cover standards, accuracy, regulation and law, media plurality and ownership, relations with both the police and politicians.

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04
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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11
Jul 11

Phone-hacking and press regulation: where next?

I can’t hope to add anything useful to the mountain ranges of justified indignation which have been heaped up by the News of the World phone-hacking. This post looks forward to the questions begged by what has been uncovered.

Since the British prime minister David Cameron read the funeral rites last week over the self-regulation system for newspapers, the beleaguered Press Complaints Commission, and announced an inquiry into regulation it seems the moment to ask what might work better. A rough sketch: principles first; possible mechanisms second.

A better method of approaching rules for newspapers and their journalists might be based on the following:

  • Direct statutory regulation is not likely to work very well if the precedent of the past decade of judge-made privacy law is any guide. As the PCC has demonstrated, many complaints about newspapers are best dealt with swiftly and informally. Law and its machinery often does not meet that requirement. Editors and journalists are understandably wary of direct regulation. In an open society, neither government nor state should wish to intervene directly in the conduct of newspapers.
  • But self-regulation of the free-standing, industry-financed, non-statutory kind has earned a very bad name. Some of this is undeserved and some of it a misunderstanding: the PCC has operated more as a complaints mediation service than as a regulator, let alone as an investigator. The root cause of these difficulties was that the PCC was over-dominated by the industry it was supposed to make independent judgements about – and particularly too close to powerful players in the industry who relied on industrial-scale, underhand invasive journalism for their circulations.
  • Transparency is a more potent weapon for regulators now than it was in the 1950s, when the original Press Council (the PCC’s forerunner) opened for business. A new regulatory body might commit itself not merely to publishing its judgements but to adding authoritative data on which publications have been, say, successfully sued (with extracts from evidence and judgements where appropriate). It might hold public hearings on issues of importance.
  • The stress should be on minimum necessary rules to ensure basic standards and accountability to those benchmarks. Journalism in a free society has a right to be raucous, perverse, disruptive, offensive and even, within a few limits, bad. Journalism doesn’t report the unknown or think the unthinkable if journalists are subject to tests of moral or professional purity. Newspapers should not be licensed to publish because of the risk of abuse of such a system.
  • The stress in the debate on reforming the regulation system needs to lie on enforcement and in the weighing of the public interest. The PCC’s code of conduct for newspaper journalism is not perfect, but it is valuable. The problems have been with the enforcement of its principles and standards. The concept of the “public interest” is fundamental to any system of regulation being liberal enough to allow true freedom of expression and publication. Good journalism often operates near the edge of the rules; occasionally it breaks them. But no society – and certainly not one which has just learnt what happens when one newspaper abandons its decency altogether – is going to cut that journalism any slack at all if the newspaper can’t show that what it was doing has a public value. When the Daily Telegraph bought a (possibly stolen) disc with details of MPs expenses, when a Guardian journalist faked a signature, when the Sunday Times bought a key document in the Thalidomide scandal – these infractions can be justified by the overriding public interest in the disclosure thus made possible.
  • A proper test of public interest value is also pivotal to master the issues which will arise as the frontiers around a once-well-defined activity known as “journalism” blur and fade. Anyone with a smartphone is now a publisher. Anyone who wants to use a new system of regulation would need to justify their claim to have published in the public interest.

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05
Jul 11

Phone-hacking goes platinum

I’m not surprised that David Cameron has abandoned his non-committal language about phone-hacking by newspaper reporters. The moment yesterday when the story broke that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler and, by deleting message in the phone’s mailbox, have given her parents and police the false hope that she was still alive marks a watershed in the miserable saga of phone interception by journalists. This is more than “a new low”.

Yesterday was the last possible moment that anyone could, with a straight face, claim that this was a limited infraction with minor consequences being blown out of proportion. Until yesterday the story was of huge interest to journalists, policemen and MPs. The drip-drip revelations in The Guardian were not only intriguing, they were significant. But they hadn’t grabbed any really widespread attention.

Campaigners on the issue claimed that this was because major news media managed to mostly ignore the subject; some editors were presumed to be nervous about possible revelations in their own newsroom. This may have been a factor, but the basic explanation was much simpler. To be a marmalade-dropper, a story needs – among other things – an element of surprise, an assumption upended. Stories which showed that red-top reporters behaved badly and broke the law don’t upset anyone’s picture of the world. And into the bargain, the victims of phone-hacking were celebrities. Most people ration their sympathy where red-carpet people are concerned.

Not so the bereaved and much-abused Dowler family. That reporters seem to have been so cruelly indifferent to a family whose 13-year-old daughter had gone missing moves the story into new, mass territory. The essence of the story is emotive and straightforward to grasp and convey. This will be true in spades if it turns out that anyone in the families of the Soham murder victims was treated in the same way.

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28
Apr 11

Royal wedding fever: sense (and nonsense)

Yesterday, the tweeters of politics were fascinated by the fallout from David Cameron saying “Calm down dear”, to a (female) Labour MP at Prime Minister’s Questions. In Washington, Barrack Obama was forced to devote a press briefing to disclosing his birth certificate. In this mad atmosphere, I abandoned my too-serious intention to write about the useful and increasing interest in verification in online news. Just didn’t seem to fit the mood.

Then I fell across (hat-tip: Martha Lane Fox) this piece by Tristram Hunt on tomorrow’s Royal Wedding. This pretty well nails it, especially thanks to Hunt’s depth of historical knowledge. He’s helping to explain why there’s a paradox in the royal soap opera.

When the royal family try too hard to perform for the media and to manipulate their image, it never goes well. When they ration the excitement and play it straight and cautious, the allure which Hunt describes very well holds steady. The Queen has always done it this way; Prince William and his fiancee look as they’ve got it too. Expect lots of commentary from metropolitan media sharpshooters in the next few years about what a boringly domestic couple Wills and Kate are. I suspect that’s exactly where they want to be. Whatever way William plays the media and celebrity, he isn’t likely to imitate his mother.

Tristram Hunt’s grasp of why something as apparently “illogical” as the monarchy endures in popularity is very much stronger than the prediction made by Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books. Freedland acknowledges and analyses the Queen’s durable popularity but thinks that the firm will be in trouble when she dies. That’s to underestimate the strength of the institution. Freedland doesn’t seem to realise that individual members of the British royal family have been making embarrassing mistakes for centuries without interfering with the respect and affection for the idea of monarchy and the family as a whole. It is a very strange, but resilient, mystique.