02
Mar 12

Courts, news and the record: a shocking information gap

Occasionally, you are woken up by a collection of facts which you ought to have known but which reveal that you’ve been asleep. So it was this week when I dropped into a seminar on the transparency of the British court system.

Justice isn’t as open and visible as we might think. In fact the extent to which we don’t know what is happening in courts – particularly magistrates courts – up and down the country is shocking. The reason that this has got as bad as it has isn’t exactly down to the secretiveness or obstruction of the people who run the courts, although they aren’t going to win any awards for openess any time soon.

The problem lies in the decline of local papers. Some local papers have closed and any websites trying to replace them are not likely to have the resources to report courts day in, day out. But most local papers have survived by endlessly slimming down their newsrooms and the amount of news they print.

In the early 1970s, when I worked as a local reporter in the city of York, the evening paper there sent one (and often two) reporters to the magistrates court every working day to the end of the session. I remember writing up, sometimes in a single paragraph for the dullest, every case that was heard. Most of this material, parochial as it can seem, made it into the paper. That paper, the Evening Press, carried enough news every day for it truly to claim that it was the “paper of record” for that city of around 100,000 people.

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13
Feb 12

Ecuador’s President Correa and the press: it just goes on getting worse

I drew attention a week or two back to the unsavoury campaign of intimidation being waged by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador against journalists whose reporting and opinions he doesn’t like.

As a president with five years in post after his three predecessors were ejected without a voter ever being consulted, Correa has some success to his credit. But it seems to be going to his head. He has just won court judgements which fine two journalists a million dollars each for insulting the dignity of both the presidency and the country. The case details are laid out here. One of the journalists, Juan Carlos Calderón, described the judgement as “disproportionate, absurd and irrational”.

 

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07
Feb 12

The Chinese squeeze on Hong Kong’s press: my mistake

I drew attention yesterday to two changes of editors, one in India and one in Hong Kong, which I thought important. One conclusion I drew was almost certainly wrong.

In the case of the new editor of the South China Morning Post, I thought that the tone of the commentary I read on Wang Xiangwei was overwrought. It seemed to be assumed that because he was born on the mainland, he would be the creature of the regime in Beijing. But I was writing from superficial knowledge and I sent a link to a journalist friend in Hong Kong. He rapidly corrected my opinion. He is pessimistic about what will now happen, even if the state’s influence over the paper takes the form of a slow squeeze rather than any sudden stifling.

My friend wrote:

“I think you underestimate the ruthlessness and determination of the Communist Party and its United Front Department to influence and manipulate the media in HK. It is not using the Propaganda Department and (powers of) confiscation as it does in the mainland, but the ‘capitalist’ means, like takeovers, mergers, pressure and lobbying.

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06
Feb 12

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.

N.Ram

The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.

But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.

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24
Jan 12

Attacking journalists in the original banana republic

Rafael-Correa-Ecuador

President Rafael Correa

When press freedom is deteriorating in a country, there’s often one unmistakable sign of that downward slide: the use by the government of criminal defamation laws.

There have been well-aired concerns about the attempts by the Hungarian and South African governments to curtail news media. Less attention has been devoted to the steadily worsening situation in Ecuador, the country which gave the world the phrase “banana republic”. They grow a lot of bananas, do not always change governments by election and now the news media are under attack.

Coups have removed and installed presidents regularly and in 2010 there was a what Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa called an attempted coup. Correa, a politician with a sense of drama, complained that he had been held prisoner in a hospital by striking policemen and had been rescued amid rioting and fighting by the army. The exact truth of the events remains disputed.

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16
Jan 12

A Leveson question for Paul Dacre

There are many things the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre no doubt wants to say to the Leveson Inquiry when he appears before it on February 6th and plenty of questions lined up by the Inquiry’s lawyers. I have a small suggestion.

The elusive and much-disputed idea of the “public interest” will play an important part in Leveson’s deliberations. Public interest defences – such as exceptional justifications for intrusion, for example – are written into the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct and into several laws. Back in the middle of last year, public interest was an important issue in one of the cases which triggered several public rows and court cases over privacy injunctions.

One of these cases involved Sir Fred Goodwin, the disgraced ex-head of the Royal Bank of Scotland. While in charge of the bank, Goodwin had had an affair with a female colleague. Injunctions were granted to prevent the disclosure of the names of either party. Despite the injunction, Goodwin’s name was freely bandied about on Twitter and he was named in the House of Commons by an MP. A judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, eventually cancelled the order concealing Goodwin’s identity but kept in place the one preventing the naming of his lover.

The Daily Mail did not approve of the judge’s decision, running as many details (“the mistress on a six-figure salary”) about the woman as it thought it could get away with. Or so it appeared. A number of different court hearings were held on this case and this is the judgement covering what the Mail had said. It repays careful reading.

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13
Jan 12

Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisis

I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.

The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.

Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.

Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”

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05
Jan 12

The perplexing paradoxes of popular journalism

The first phase of the Leveson inquiry in the British press isn’t quite finished yet, but the inquiry is entering new territory. Or at least there’s a change of mood.

The opening weeks were dominated by complaints and horror stories about red-top reporters. Straws passing on the wind tell me that this indignation is now being replaced by more sober reflection about the issues which face big-circulation papers.

Daily Mail February 1997

Here are the straws I’ve counted recently. Lord Leveson himself has from the start been keen to underline that he is not embarking on any project to “beat down” popular papers. He has also been asking each of his celebrity witnesses what they would do about the faults of which they complain and has more than once sounded a little irritated by the vagueness of the prescriptions he is offered. When editors take the stand at Leveson this month, we will be reminded that popular journalism can reveal important truths and explain complex events in ways that papers with bigger reputations and much smaller circulations can’t manage. Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, at one time a columnist for the Daily Mirror, wrote a defence of the tabloids the other day.

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