Monday, 31 January 2011

Bad law proposal

Oh no, not again! MPs are planning to introduce yet another law to interfere with freedom of speech, when it is completely unnecessary.
Granted, politicians often use leaks to the Sunday newspapers to test out public opinion. If their latest wheeze meets a hostile reception, then they can abandon the promised legislation and blame the journalist for making it up.
But the article in the Sunday Times saying the media face a ban on naming criminal suspects had the stamp of official approval. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-general, no less are said to be supporting the idea.
It comes in a bill tabled by Conservative MP Anna Soubry in the wake of the publicity surrounding the arrest of the retired Bristol schoolmaster Chris Jeffries, who came under the spotlight while being questioned by police investigating the death of Joanna Yeates. Another man has since been charged with her murder.
Now I have blogged before on how disgracefully Mr Jeffries was treated particularly by the tabloid national Press, although the BBC and other electronic media were nearly as bad.
But we don’t need new laws that are almost certain to be interpreted in such a way as to inhibit perfectly legitimate reporting. Just use the laws we already have.
Ms Soubry was reported as saying that the law as it stands means an innocent person can be vilified, have their lives dismantled and their reputation sullied with complete disregard to his or her right to privacy.
That is just wrong. Broadly defamation and contempt of court ought to have the media in a completely water-tight pincer movement once an arrest has been made.
If they vilify someone who is arrested and later proved to be guilty, then the courts can and should prosecute for contempt. If the person is later proved to be innocent, like Mr Jeffries, then he or she can take the media to the cleaners through this country’s draconian libel laws.
The problem is not lack of legislation, but both individuals’ and the authorities’ lack of determination to implement those restrictions which already exist.
Interestingly Ms Soubry worked as a newspaper and television reporter before becoming a barrister and then an MP. She should know better.

Barn befuddles critic

THE Sunday Times’ formidable art critic Waldermar Januszczak went way too far in his scathing attack on the current Royal Academy of Arts exhibition of 20th Century Sculpture at the weekend.
Even though his newspaper was supposed to be the media partner of the RA for the exhibition which is the largest of its kind for 30 years and runs until April, he is entitled to have a negative view.
He has every right to criticize, as he did, the omission from the artists exhibited of the likes of Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Deacon or Antony Gormley.
He is paid to be perceptive enough to point out that the preponderance of ancient artefacts, many of which are superior to the modern sculptures they inspired, rather confuses the point of the exhibition.
But he was not entitled to be downright rude to the curators Dr Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson, calling them dunces, when he entirely missed the point of the Kurt Schwitters barn in the forecourt.
If he had bothered to ask them, as other newspapers did, he would have been told that the barn was designed to shock viewers into expecting the unexpected.
The barn was a symbol of dark and lonely places that artists work. It represented the artists who are ignored when they toil in unfashionable parts of the country away from the cultural capital. Its inclusion was designed to be a thorn in the side of Metropolitan establishment.
He ignored completely the fact that without Kurt Schwitters, who invented Merz and pioneered Collage and other art using the detritus of modern society, that there would probably have been no Richard Hamilton or Peter Blake in the 60s and 70s and no Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst, whose work Mr Janunszczak obviously admires, in the 21st century.
He claimed that Schwitters was not British. This is disputed as his citizenship papers arrived the day before he died in Kendal in 1948. But his only surviving Merz installation was made in that barn and can be seen to this day in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne. He also influenced hugely British art in the second half of the 20th century.
Far from being dunces, the curators of the exhibition demonstrated a knowledge and emotional understanding of their subject that rather dwarf those of Mr Januszczak. Goodness knows what he would have written if his newspaper hadn’t had a vested interest in this brave and thought-provoking exhibition.

Monday, 24 January 2011

A job application

Dear Mr Cameron,
I would like to be considered for your current vacancy for a communications director.
Now that nice Mr Coulson has fallen on his sword over those annoying mobile phone tapping allegations when he was in his previous employment as Editor of the News of the World, I believe the time is ripe for you to go for a different type of replacement.
It would be wise of you to distance yourself from Mr Coulson’s former boss, media magnate Rupert Murdoch. If you go for another employee of his, there will be considerable concern in the wider political community. If you go for an employee of a rival, you risk the wrath of the Murdoch clan.
Although I have experience of working for the national Press, most of my 40 years in journalism have been with the regional Press, 25 of them as a manager.
The regional Press routinely sells more copies in their circulation area than all the National Press put together, so in a sense they are more successful.
They are also nearer to the communities that they serve, so that they are used to having to be held responsible for what they say, unlike the Nationals.
You have espoused a new strategy of Localism, so it would fit to have a communications director who understands how Localism works.
We have met when you were still just the leader of the Conservative Party and came to the offices of The Westmorland Gazette, of which I was Editor at the time, to support your local candidate Gareth McKeever against the sitting local Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron.
The fact that Mr Farron had the second largest swing to Liberal Democrats in the country in the subsequent general election was no reflection on your performance that day, as you were clearly well briefed on the issues affecting a largely rural constituency. Your answers were articulate and straight-forward.
It is rather ironic that your party has ended up in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but my knowledge of both sides could also be seen as an advantage.
There are two possible obstacles to my appointment. But obstacles are there to be leaped.
The first is I wouldn’t dream of moving from the Lake District to London, so I wouldn’t be able to join you daily in the bunker in 10, Downing Street. However in these days of new technology, that shouldn’t be a problem. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook and Skype could all be used to improve communications, albeit at a distance.
Second, your policies on the National Health Service, Education, economic deficit et alia seem ill-thought out and are abhorrent to me. But it is reported that you like a Communications Director who is prone to argue with you and give you a dose of reality, so even that could be seen as an advantage.
I look forward to hearing from you soon,
Mike Glover

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Communication breakdown

NOW that the weather has returned to just normal winter rather than the extremes, it is time to reflect on all the disruption. One lesson needs to be learned by major companies everywhere: the importance of communication.
Recalling the disruption to flights, car and train journeys and facilities supplies, the same message came from customers everywhere: why couldn’t we be told what was going on?
Whether it was passengers stranded at Gatwick, trains abandoned in Peterborough (and elsewhere), or the good people of Ulster unable to have water delivered, it wasn’t so much the interruption to normal service which upset people, it was the inability of the companies to keep a good stream of information flowing.
When heads eventually rolled, it was usually for the short-comings in informing customers, rather than for the interruptions themselves.
It is amazing that in the 21st century, business has still failed to grasp how important good communication is.
It’s not as if it is hard to prepare for these emergencies. Most firms have a business continuity plan, or disaster recovery plan, or whatever else they call it.
They just forget to build in a section to deal with telling customers what is going on.
All they need are lists of clients to hand; staff on standby to man a communication centre and a good supply of the latest information.
There may be issues over mobile phone reception, which is particularly important in real life-threatening circumstances, but these can be overcome with the right planning.
There may be issues about accurate weather forecasts, but an open and honest admission of when this is likely to be the case will overcome these.
In short, there is a lack of commitment to put resources into communication. It would be cheaper to prepare than face frustrated, angry and litigious customers after the event.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Media outside the law

THERE is nothing new about national news organisations working beyond the law.
When I was a reporter on Fleet Street in the 1980s news rooms routinely had clandestine copies of what were known as reverse directories.
These were compiled for telephone companies to trace faults quickly. They were listed by addresses, with the names and numbers of every household and company phone identifyable by address, and listed alphabetically by streets.
They were strictly controlled, but newspapers got hold of them by bribing telephone engineers and they were hugely useful.
If an incident happened at an address, reporters could look up the addresses nearby and then phone the people who lived there to get eye-witness accounts.
This was in direct contravention of telecommunications legislation. But who was going to know?
The new technology opens up all sorts of potential transgressions of the law as demonstrated by the News of the World mobile phone tapping saga, which just won’t go away despite former Editor Andy Coulson’s resignation in the wake of jailings three years ago.
It has now been revealed that one of their senior executives has been suspended over phone hacking claims involving the actress Sienna Miller.
News of the World executive Ian Edmondson was suspended after the new claims emerged.
A document lodged in the High Court links Edmondson with the interception of voicemail messages from the phones of Miller and Jude Law.
Solicitor Mark Thomson has said paperwork and other records seized by police from private investigator Glenn Mulcaire implied Edmondson was linked to the hacking.
Mulcaire and former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman were jailed at the Old Bailey in January 2007 after they admitted intercepting messages.
A News of the World spokeswoman said: 'A serious allegation has been made about the conduct of a member of the News of the World staff. We have followed our internal procedures and we can confirm that this person was suspended from active duties just before Christmas. The News of the World has a zero tolerance approach to any wrong-doing.'
Miller is suing the News of the World's parent company, News Group, and Mulcaire, accusing them of breaching her privacy and of harassment.
This is highly embarrassing to the newspaper world in general and Rupert Murdoch’s empire in particular. The fact that Mr Coulson now works for the Conservative hierarchy as a communications director adds spice.
If he didn’t know that intercepted mobile phone calls were the source and justification for running news stories, then he wasn’t much of an Editor. How else could their veracity be ensured?

Murder hunt reveals strained relations

Joanna Yeates's landlord, who was arrested over the disappearance of the landscape architect and later released, may yet be compensated generously for his public humiliation and ridicule.
Former English master Chris Jefferies has already announced that he is considering suing police for wrongful arrest. But far more lucrative will be the writs he could issue for libel against practically every media outlet in the land.
The rawest trainee reporter is taught that you don’t imply guilt against anyone until arrest and trial are over. Otherwise you can be at risk of contempt of court and defamation.
But hardly had he been questioned by police than TV, radio and newspapers were calling him Mr Weird, reporting alleged instances of alleged bullying against pupils at schools at which he taught, and even suggesting he might have been involved in another death of a young woman a generation previously.
If he gets his hands on a decent lawyer, he could have pay-outs that would dwarf a national lottery rollover.
Many nationals have been quick to try to minimise the damage, quoting friends as saying he expects to be cleared of any involvement in the death 'within days'.
The 65-year-old, who was questioned by detectives for three days before being released on bail, wrote in an e-mail that 'the ordeal is almost over'. The ordeal may only just be starting for Editors and their minions who allowed such prejudicial reporting in the first place.
This no doubt adds to the stresses in the relationship between police and the media, which culminated in officers investigating the murder of Jo Yeates to ban ITV News from a press conference.
The move came after reporter Geraint Vincent suggested detectives were not carrying out routine inquiries properly during last night's News at Ten.
Bristol and Avon police hit back by complaining to Ofcom for what it called 'unfair, naïve and irresponsible reporting' during the piece to camera.
Detective Chief Inspector Phil Jones - who is described as a highly experienced officer -has come under increasing pressure to make a breakthrough in the 'complex' investigation.
During the contentious report, a former murder squad detective suggested that 'certain routine inquiries' such as a new painstaking search of the scene where the body was found had not been carried out.
Meanwhile, the police officer in charge of the investigation took an apparent side swipe at a national newspaper by rubbishing the significance of CCTV pictures published in The Daily Mirror.
Days after her body was found, Miss Yeates' father David claimed his family were being kept in the dark by police investigating the killing.
It is all very unsavoury and unhelpful to the investigation. Behind the rows lie around quarter of a century of worsening relations between police and the media.
Ever since the Human Rights Convention was adopted by Britain and Data Protection laws were introduced, police have tried to control what the media report and filter information through media departments instead of letting officers form relationships with journalists they believe they can trust.
A generation of police officers treats the media as untrustworthy, unscrupulous and intrusive. A generation of journalists treats the police as obstructive, unhelpful and hostile.
It is no wonder they fall out so spectacularly.