May 11

Sober up, injunction flouters and tweeters

High excitement in the House of Commons yesterday as a Liberal MP named the Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs as the man behind a privacy injunction and most news media promptly followed suit. In an attempt to get out from under an increasingly confused row about privacy law, the government announced an inquiry by a joint committee from both houses of parliament.

Here’s my attempt to keep the issues which matter in view and in perspective.

  • Let’s not get too grandiloquent about one footballer’s name being published. John Hemming, the MP who named Giggs, was quoted this morning by Metro comparing and contrasting Britain with Burma. As an act of civil disobedience, naming under parliamentary privilege a footballer who is alleged to have had an affair isn’t quite up there with, say, standing in front of a row of tanks just after the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
  • Privacy law is out of date, working imperfectly and needs repair (£). But it hasn’t fallen apart. Injunctions still stand and can be enforced, even if not completely. The naming of Giggs is a puncture, not a car crash.
  • Unless you take the position that there should be no private information whatever, the law will do what it can to restrict the publication of some information. In a plural open society, the default should be towards disclosure and restrictions held to a minimum. New media means that protection of privacy won’t be watertight. For example I’d say that information in individual medical records, about attempts at blackmail and information involving children are examples of the kind of information which might reasonably be restricted in the absence of a counter-argument based on public interest.
  • The interplay of public interest disclosure and legitimate privacy ought to be the hinge this debate. The joint parliamentary committee announced yesterday sounds unexciting and may yet prove to be a damp squib. But it could lay the groundwork for a better way of resolving the two interests at play, particularly by insisting on keeping the debate centered on the public interest. It’s an elusive, abused and anything but easily-agreed idea. But it’s unavoidable.
  • Several players in the injunction-bypassing game don’t want the discussion to turn on public interest definitions and defences. A few voices genuinely believe, on grounds of libertarian principle, that freedom to publish should be as little restricted as possible. Red-top papers want to return to the free bargaining market for celebrity disclosure, unhampered by solicitors with injunctions. The editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail was at least frank a few years ago when he told an audience that if newspapers couldn’t go on inquiring into private lives and shaming people for their misbehaviour, “I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process”. This is honest, but as a defence of intrusion it won’t wash.

Update 26/5/11: Good analysis here of Sweden’s privacy set-up from The Economist columnist Bagehot, aka David Rennie.

Continue reading →


Jul 10

Weekend miscellany: Eric Schmidt, exabytes, cognitive surplus and shallows, Ferguson vs Daily Mail

A handful of bits and pieces that I didn’t get round to posting last week. No point in pretending that they’re connected.

  • It’s 16 minutes long but this video of Google boss Eric Scmidt speaking to a London conference is well worth a look for a tour of the man’s thinking. His themes are mobiles, the cloud and networks. For my money, the stuff about the computing cloud is the best. Other highlights: Google has a highly advanced face recognition application which they did not launch in Europe because it would be illegal. Google translation software works without a dictionary but with a “statistical machine translation” programme.
  • One last Schmidt stat: from the beginning of history to 2003, humankind produced 5 exabytes of information. That quantity is now generated in two days. Yes, Google love this kind of fact because it describes a problem they will make money by solving. But even so.
  • NiemanLabs is running a series of pieces (why so long please?) on Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Interesting pairing. Evgeny Morozov has been writing about Carr’s book in Prospect (but I can’t see the web version).
  • In 2004, the playwright Joe Penhall wrote a brilliant, uncomfortable play called Dumb Show for the Royal Court which examined the love-hate relationship between minor celebs and red-top journalists. It is a black comedy but with biting moral: get too close to reporters with blowtorches and you will get burned.The play jumped into my mind when I read this sad, angry paragraph from an interview with the historian and prolific commentator Niall Ferguson. Ferguson has recently left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born campaigner on Islam and former Dutch MP. He is asked about the Daily Mail and this is his reply in full.
  • “I wrote for the Mail when I was a struggling undergraduate. For money. But having been on the receiving end of that combination of intrusion and defamation and misrepresentation, I have revised my opinion and want nothing more to do with those people. I despise them from the bottom of my heart, because they are just hypocrites. While they posture as opponents of radical Islam they have twice put her in danger by revealing her whereabouts. And that is the thing I will never forgive.”
  • That long quotation comes from The Times, whose online content is now of course no longer free so if I link to it and you click, it’ll ask you to pay. I think that makes linking not worth it, which is why I haven’t provided one here. If you’d like links to sites with registration, charging or paywalls, let me know.

May 10

Sense and nonsense about newspapers and elections

I’m getting asked a lot of questions about newspapers and their effects on elections. Any kind of close or surprising result usually unleashes a wave of claims that newspapers have manipulated, influenced or dumbed down coverage. If the past is any guide, most of these theories will be wrong.

I took part in a discussion on Radio 4’s Media Show on this subject yesterday. My City University colleague Roy Greenslade wrote a fine debunking Evening Standard column. Hold on to the following facts as you listen to claims that it was newspapers wot won it or lost it.

  • Evidence that formal endorsements of political parties by papers change votes is hard to come by. People mostly don’t choose their paper because of its political allegiance. Twenty per cent of Daily Mail readers regularly vote Labour. If newspapers ever influence how people think politically, they only do so very gradually. Stop Press: the complexity of this is well caught by a neat new experiment from The Times.
  • A majority of newspaper titles advocate a Tory vote and that’s been the case in the 17 elections since 1945. Labour won nine of those outright.
  • In 1945, when newspapers commanded a vastly greater “mindshare” than now and television broadcasting hadn’t begun, most editors and proprietors campaigned for a Conservative victory. Labour won a landslide.
  • Newspapers now compete in a media market filled with hundreds of broadcast channels and proliferating new media platforms. When The Sun switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories last autumn, one major pollster pointed out that they were following, not leading, their readers who had moved in the same direction earlier in the year.
  • The media event of this election wasn’t the much-hyped new media or print but TV. The leaders debates moved Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems 9-11 points up in the polls and they stayed there. Print does not do this and never has.

Continue reading →