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.)

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Oct 12

Wisdom from India (and from children in Ethiopia)

The traffic figures for this blog make clear that what people like is strong opinions from the author. But occasionally this author grows tired of the sound his own thinking and just wants to pass on wisdom from others. I have two items to offer.

Last week’s James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University London was by N Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu, which has a claim to be India’s best daily paper. Ram delivered a magisterial overview of the Indian media which I can recommend as one of the best analysies of the subject you can find (video/audio, text).

My personal selection of edited highlights (page numbers for text in full):

  • Ram, who knew James Cameron, observed that the great foreign correspondent would not have had much truck with the idea, floated occasionally at the Leveson Inquiry and elsewhere, that journalism should be regulated as profession in the manner of doctors or lawyers. Cameron, writing in 1967, was clear that journalism was “not and never has been a profession…since its practice has neither standards nor sanctions” for the reason that “it can be practised in many ways.” (p2)
  • Ram stressed a discussion that far too many journalists complaining about failing business models forget: the fortunes of the news media are not the same as the state of the news media (p7).
  • Ram gives an up-to-date list of India’s juiciest corruption scandals (p11), remarking that the Indian media has been much better at reporting scandals in government and politics and much less good at chasing corporate corruption.
  • Reminding us that India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, he lists the recent threats to free speech (p17).
  • He quotes often from a long piece on Indian media in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta: “Citizens Jain” (£).
  • If you want to see one o the most important differences between India and China, look at internet penetration rates: China: 40%, India 10%.

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Sep 12

Salman Rushdie and Islam: the importance of not forgetting history

Salman Rushdie    Salman Rushdie has published a memoir of his years under police protection while the clerical regime in Iran had put a price on his murder. I was reading a long extract in the New Yorker when a paragraph brought me up short.

The narrative is gripping, spoilt only by Rusdie’s insistence on cataloguing every insult and let-down during those grim years. On this blog I happened to note the other day that the struggles under way in countries like Egypt, Tunisia or Syria were intra-Islam battles, fights both political and violent between different interpretations of the religion. The following paragraph from Rushdie’s book “Joseph Anton” encapsulates this in a much more powerful way. He is recalling 1989, shortly after he had been forced into hiding:

“Bookstores were firebombed – Collets and Dillons in London, Abbey’s in Sydney. Libraries refused to stock the book, chains refused to carry it, a dozen printers in France refused to print the French edition, and more threats were made against the publishers. Muslims began to be killed by other Muslims if they expressed non-bloodthirsty opinions. In Belgium, the mullah who was said to be the “spiritual leader” of the country’s Muslims, the Saudi national Abdullah al-Ahdal, and his Tunisian deputy, Salem el-Behir, were killed for saying that, whatever Khomeini had said for Iranian consumption, in Europe there was freedom of expression.”

We have no business being surprised that revolutions in states with large Islamic populations do not automatically deliver Jeffersonian democracy. Iran in 1978, Algeria since the aborted election of 1991, Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the 2006 election in Gaza – all these examples were before us when the Arab Spring happened. Perhaps journalists just don’t read enough books.


Sep 12

Tunisia and its media: the quiet struggle heats up

If you want to understand what underlies the riots and attacks against US embassies across North Africa, have a look at one usually under-reported country where three people died in disturbances at the weekend. In Tunisia, the struggles of a newly-liberated Arab society over religion, society and law are being played out in and around the media.

Never seen as a cradle of revolution before 2011, Tunisian protestors triggered the Arab Spring. Overthrowing the dictator now looks like the easy bit. Working out new rules for a society which has thrown away the old ones turns out to be the hard part. The media, once run or intimidated by the state machine, has turned into one of the flashpoints. The first free elections saw a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, come to power at the head of a coalition which faces more radical Islamists and Salafists one one side and the secular opposition parties (“leftist lobbies” in goverment language) on the other, some tainted by association with the old regime.

The pivot of the competition for power under new constitutive rules is not between “western” (i.e. Euro-American) ideas of liberalism and something vaguely labelled “Islamic” but between rival interpretations of Islam. There are many different versions of how Islam co-exists with civil society – and indeed whether Islam tolerates something we call civil society. Few regret the passing of corrupt Arab dictators such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, but those dictators were aggressively secular.

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Jul 12

Press freedom in Ecuador: it’s not getting any better, but worse

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01392/RafaelCorrea_1392296c.jpgSo far as Ecuador has had any recent coverage at all in the European media, it’s been about Julian Assange and his sudden flit to the Ecuadorean embassy in London to ask for political asylum. This may have served to distract from the latest extraordinary episode in President Rafael Correa’s war against the country’s news media (that’s the Prez above).

To judge by Google Analytics, very few of even my most faithful readers bother with my occasional posts about Ecuador. Even though I’m not an expert, I will keep recording developments when I can. It’s a living example of a truth often forgotten in the pampered, plural, media-saturated lands of Europe and America. It’s perfectly possible for progress in press freedom to be stopped and go backwards, particularly if the government concerned can be confident that few people are watching or care at all.

This is what Ecuador’s President Correa seems to believe. I’ll allow that he may have some reason to complain of his coverage. He’s one of the continent’s new group of radical presidents and the established centres of power, news media included, are not all sympathetic. But mounting a full scale assault on media freedoms with the aim of trying to insulate his government and office from scrutiny is a policy with two tiny, but nevertheless significant, weaknesses: it’s undemocratic and it won’t work.

Here’s the latest absurdity, as reported by the Global Post: a law designed to prevent news coverage having any political effect at all.


May 12

The takedown of The Spear: necessary maybe, but sad all the same

The picture here has been causing a storm in South Africa and one of the country’s papers, the City Press of Johannesburg, has just been forced to remove it from its website. The image, by a South African artist Brett Murray, portrays South African president Jacob Zuma in the style of Soviet artists painting Lenin, but with one significant difference below the waist. (New readers start here).
The story can be told in two columns by the City Press’s editor Ferial Haffajee. At first she stood out against the bullying and the threats; then, fearful of the threats to her own staff and to the paper’s street sellers, she took the image off the site “out of care and fear”. As she writes, she was sick of the personal abuse. I can’t imagine that being a single, Muslim woman newspaper editor in South Africa is easy at the best of times (she was the first Coloured South African to edit a major paper). Threats of violence and abuse won decisively in this ugly time.

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Apr 12

Leveson: how to avoid the pitfalls of “better mousetrap” press regulation

Towards the end of next month, the Leveson Inquiry into the British press will turn from its current, revelatory phase about media relationships with politicians and address again the knotty question of regulating journalism.

The inquiry’s most basic dilemma hasn’t changed: how to prevent and discourage the wrongs which have occurred without tipping over into state control of the news media. When he has grown bored and irritated with an editor waffling vaguely about how things will be improved by a few light adjustments to the present rules, Lord Leveson usually asks one of two questions and sometimes both: what would you actually do? will what you suggest command public confidence? Next month will bring forth a slew of ideas for regulation designed to work better than the much-abused self-regulation of the past. Legal and media experts are busy putting the finishing touches to better mousetraps.

The problems of “toughening” regulation are much greater than supposed, as I’ve argued here (£). Not least because regulation deals with sorting out things that have already gone wrong. What the Leveson Inquiry should also be concentrating on is how to encourage, in the culture of newsrooms, good practice which lowers the odds that bad things will be done. It should also look at whether the issue of regulation isn’t as much a question of legal process as much as one of regulatory machinery. That is to say that contributory factor in the accumulation of problems and resentment has been the cost and delay of taking legal action over libel or invasion of privacy. In this article I suggest that there is a way to interlock the rules of both law and a regulator to create a powerful incentive for journalism to rely less on tricks and illegalities.

If journalists were offered fuller and more consistent public interest defences in both criminal and civil law, those defences could be made available only to news publishers or broadcasters who could demonstrate transparent and enforceable editorial integrity and standards. With that incentive, websites and papers (broadcasters are separately regulated) would need to organise regulation among themselves which would show that they deserved the protection of a public interest defence. Trivial, sloppy or bad journalism which can’t claim a public interest justification gets no protection; better journalism at least has that line of defence available. That strikes me as the best way round the knotty dilemma: incentives not state-backed regulation.

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Mar 12

The release of Nedim Sener in Turkey – did an international fuss work for once?

From time to time the authorities intent on locking up journalists have second thoughts and we should mark it when they do. So it was this week when a Turkish court released Nedim Sener and three other journalists arrested in the Oda TV case connected to the (allegedly enormous) “Ergenekon” conspiracy.

Sener and several colleagues had been held for a year and had been the focus of a noisy international campaign, led outside Turkey by the International Press Institute. It’s easy for organisations like IPI to believe that while it may be their duty to protest and lobby when journalists are put in the slammer because of the opinions they hold, the results of such campaigns tend all the same to be meagre. So celebrations are in order when it seems to work. Sener was arrested a year ago this month, named a Press Freedom Hero by IPI in June 2010 and released nine months later. You can’t prove the causal connection, but….

It certainly seems to have made a difference to Sener’s time in jail. IPI director Alison Bethel Mackenzie said yesterday that Sener and his wife “today mentioned over and over and over again the impact of the letters that poured in from all over the world from IPI members and supporters, as well as the letters that were sent on behalf of the IPI board of directors and, separately, from the World Press Freedom Heroes. He also said that he had heard that board members sent letters to Turkish embassies in their home countries. He was very moved by that.”

The Ergenekon conspiracy trials are likely to run for years. Sener and three others are due back in court in June; six more defendants, mostly journalists, are still in custody (a taste of the arguments generated here) . Hundreds of people have been arrested for what is routinely described as a “conspiracy” to bring down the governing Justice and Development (AK) party led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I am not an expert on Turkey and no doubt there are no doubt parts of this complex story that I’m liable to misunderstand. But when I see a government arresting hundreds of people and constantly enlarging the scope of what cannot possibly have been any kind of efficient “conspiracy” – simply because the numbers claimed are so large – a warning light goes off in my head. Isn’t the alleged existence of this vast, all-connected conspiracy a bit too convenient to be plausible? (It predates Sener’s arrest and centres on the murder of Sener’s friend Hrant Dink, but there’s an excellent essay by British Turkey expert Maureen Freely on the complex politics of journalism and free expression in the country’s “embattled half-democracy”.)

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