Nov 12

Leveson quick read: severe narrative, law/regulation better than feared

This is a rapid gut and comment on the Leveson report executive summary released today. The complexity of his regulation-legislation solution seems to have masked the genuine severity of his audit of what some newspapers have been doing.

No report on the press would be complete without a quotation from Thomas Jefferson and Lord Justice Leveson obliges on page 4: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” The next fifteen pages demonstrate exactly the opposite.

Leveson does not think much of the “culture” of the press (as his terms of reference called it). Indeed it seems unlikely that he would even think the word “culture” the appropriate one. He is outraged not just by bad behaviour but by what he seems to think was a lack of any moral sense: “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as it its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.” Note the “which it wrote” dig at hypocrisy. (para 7)

He makes a nod to the fact that the press does hold its own powers to account, citing (para 10) both the Guardian’s investigation of the News of the World and the ITV and BBC Panorama’s investigation of Jimmy Savile. He acknowledges (para 18) that commercial changes have increased pressures on newspapers “to find different ways to add value” (without accepting this as an excuse for anything at all).

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Sep 12

The Leveson Inquiry pre-positioning: editors a bit confused

The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.

The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.

The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:

“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.

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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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Dec 11

Places, people and laws to remember from 2011

This blog’s author is of a buoyant, optimistic cast of mind. I mention this only in case it isn’t already obvious. My general view of the “crisis” in journalism in Europe and the US (not, please note, the rest of the world) is that while the business model for printed daily papers may be in deep doo-doo, journalism and news will find ways not merely to survive but to flourish and improve.

But there are journalists and writers in places for whom 2011 was a year of threats, jail terms, violence and misery. They should not be forgotten This is just a quick selection of those people who deserve to be remembered at the passing of the year – and the governments who deserve to be shamed for what they have done.

  • The Ethiopian government jailed two Swedish television journalists the other day for eleven years apiece on “terrorism” charges.
  • Wondering why you haven’t heard much from Bahrain recently? This despatch from Reporters Without Borders, written in restrained and careful language, will tell you why. They lock up bloggers and journalists, intimidate others and exclude foreign reporters they don’t approve of. Do not forget that in April the founder of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat, Karim Fakhrawi, was taken into custody when his paper had been shut and he died in custody a week later. His death remains unexplained and no one has been held to account.
  • There are many things to worry the Chinese government nowadays, but they remain terrified of the stubborn handful of men and women who simply refuse to stop speaking their mind. The moment that the strength of the Arab Spring became clear, many of these people began being questioned and detained. Two of those who vanished into jail in the spring, Chen Xi and Chen Wei were given sentences of 10 and 9 years respectively just before Christmas.  They thought and wrote the wrong things.
  • On a quite different level – because no actual curtailment of freedom of expression seems yet to have taken place – is the developing disaster for the news media in Hungary (background here, latest developments here). I’m not enough of an expert on central Europe to know why Hungarian confidence in the the ordinary, boring-but-valuable institutions of democracy is so much more fragile than in neighbouring countries which also endured long decades of suffocation under communism and the Soviet Union. But it is.
  • And let’s never forget Russia, where the manipulation and threats have been normal for a long time. As ever, it’s always worst outside the big cities where the tourists go and the foreign correspondents live. One small, grim example here.

But I did read one cheerful scrap from Russia this holiday. In Dagestan, east of Chechnya there is a newspaper called Chernovik. This name translates into English as “rough draft” and is, I think, the best and most honest name for a newspaper I have heard for some time. I came across it in David Remnick’s superb New Yorker essay on Vladimir Putin and what has happened to news, information and journalism in Russia during his rule.

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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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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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Sep 10

Hackgate and Coulson: privacy law comes closer

Just as it would be hard to explain why some fires start slow and some blaze immediately, predicting which stories will catch on and be replayed and expanded and which don’t is not an exact science. Some stories spread, well, like wildfire and others splutter and crackle without really catching and then, suddenly, woomph…they’re fully alight.

So it has been with the allegations of widespread phone-tapping at the News of the World. A story has entered the nation’s saloon bar and water cooler conversation when it provides the joke for a Matt’s daily cartoon.

Because Andy Coulson, the NoW’s editor at the relevant time, is now the Prime Minister’s spokesman, much of the coverage has been fitted to one of the iron templates of political reporting: will he stay or will he be forced to resign?

This isn’t exactly a distraction, but it isn’t quite the big long-term issue either. For all the diligence of the reporters of The Guardian and New York Times who have been driving this story, the single widest revelation of phone interception (and “blagging” confidential information) commissioned by journalists came the Information Commissioner in 2006 and derived from discoveries made during a police investigation into a private detective, Operation Motorman (see para 27 here). The staff of the News of the World may yet be revealed to have done more phone “screwing” than any other paper; but they were hardly alone.

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May 10

Coulson: is that a gun? Is it smoking?

Andy Coulson, ex-News of the World Editor and now David Cameron’s spin-doctor, has managed to steer mostly clear of the most recent revelations which have revealed a wider scale of phone-tapping at the News of the World than previously acknowledged. If Cameron makes it to No 10 Downing Street at the end of this week, odds are that Coulson will go there with his boss. Both men will be hoping that phone-tapping, and the sleazy private detectives who fixed it, will fade away.

But an elliptical hint of more revelations to come is buried in the back end of a story by Nick Davies in yesterday’s Guardian. The paragraph below didn’t make it into the print edition, but is on the web. Davies recalls that four private investigators were used by the paper while Coulson was deputy editor or editor and goes on:

“One of them was hired from his budget even though he had a track record of blackmail and the corruption of police officers. Coulson says he has no recollection of any of his journalists breaking any law.”

The opacity of that first sentence strongly suggests the presence of m’learned friends the lawyers or that something is sub judice for the time being. The “denial” in the second sentence of course is of something that hasn’t been alleged. More to come I’d guess.

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