Sunday, 24 July 2011

Norway massacres expose media shortcomings

After all the mobile telephone hacking coverage over the last month, the media really need no more calamities. Newspapers in particular need to show level-headed awareness of the public’s mistrust, show they are responsible and get it right.
So what happens when a major news story comes along to divert us all from the navel-gazing, self-destructive hacking coverage? The media make a complete lash up.
The Norwegian bomb and shooting tragedy not only exposed the limitations of newspaper deadlines, it also exposed the degree to which speculation and downright guesses have replaced real news coverage. But worst of all it highlighted Islam-phobia of the crudest kind.
The worst performance came from the Sun, just the publication which had the most to gain from showing restraint in the wake of the News International scandal. Their headline on Saturday was Norway’s 9/11. It wasn’t September 11th, or even November 9th. There were not 3,000 dead. No plane flew into a building.
But of course the message they wanted to portray was that Muslim terrorists had struck in Europe. In this respect the Sun was no worse than the BBC who for hours on Friday afternoon and evening was parading expert after expert to say the bomb attack showed all the signs of Al-Quaeda.
Then when the shootings on Utoya became apparent, we were all reminded of Mumbai. There was much speculation about the attacks being Libyan revenge on the Norwegians for that country’s support of the rebels trying to overthrow General Gaddafi. This all turned out to be nonsense, as we now know.
It wasn’t that late on Friday night that it started to dawn on everyone that the man responsible for the two massacres was a lone, Nordic-looking man in a police uniform. But that didn’t stop the Northern Editions of the National newspapers getting it horribly wrong on Saturday morning, by which time their readers knew the awful truth.
The BBC spent most of Saturday trying to repair the damage to its credibility, with justified examination of Anders Behring Breivik’s Christian fundamentalism and right-wing views.
Fundamental Christians is not a phrase that crops up often in media coverage of terrorism, in marked contrast to the phrase fundamental Muslims.
I have had many challenging discussions with Muslim friends over the years about the way the Media seizes upon the fact that terrorists are labelled with the Islamic soubriquet.
“Why does the media always revel in calling terrorists Muslim when most followers of the religion are decent, law abiding citizens who find terrorism abhorrent?” they ask. It is a hard question to answer, especially when Irish terrorists were rarely labelled Catholic or Protestant, or Christian for that matter.
So when Sunday’s newspapers came out it was interesting to see how the newspapers would approach the story now they had the whole picture.
Well Norway’s disaster was displaced as the lead by Amy Winehouse’s death or Daniella Westbrook’s newly found Christian beliefs. The comprehensive coverage of the events of Oslo and Utoya was largely taken up with detailed descriptions to show the full horror of the events.
But there was very little examination of Breivik’s motives and background. The Guardian web-site was a notable exception, going for a line about his links with British right wing groups, the obvious follow-up in my view. But even they down-played the Christian angle.
The media was probably right not to labour his Christian beliefs, as no right-minded follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ would do what Breivik did, just as most Muslims would be horrified by the actions of fundamental terrorism by people who follow their religion.
It is no wonder so many young Muslims feel alienated by the British media. Let’s hope the headline writers remember Norway’s example when the next outrage is executed by a mentally-deranged loner or small group. I wouldn’t bet on it though.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hugh Grant takes moral high ground

NOW that the BBC and The Guardian have forced the rest of the media to wake up to the hacking scandal, it is time to return to this subject.
I have written before that an Editor ought to know the strength of the source of a story that is being considered for publication.
That is why Andy Coulson had to resign from the News of the World. Either an Editor knows that a story is based on hacking mobile phones, in which he or she is complicit in breaking the law, or not, in which case the Editor is not doing the job properly.
At first sight, Rebecca Brooks, or Ward as she was when she edited The News of the World before Coulson, and later The Sun, seems to be in an untenable position.
As chief executive of News International, the publishing overlords of the two Murdock red-tops, she has now sent an e-mail to all staff saying how appalled she is that murder victim Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was hacked by a private detective working for The News of The World. She pledged that every effort would be made to get to the bottom of this allegation.
Her move comes the same day that it was revealed that the families of the Soham murders may also have had their mobiles hacked, when Ms Wade was editor.
Roy Greenslade, a leading media commentator, and himself a former red-top Editor, has called this e-mail disingenuous.
It is difficult to disagree with his analysis. Whether she knew of such activities or not, she was culpable.
The British Press is one of the most competitive industries in the world. Dirty tricks have become endemic in its fierce culture. A former Sun journalist once told me the only editorial policy worth telling journalists to remember was: Get it first, but first get it right. He might have added the adverb: Legally.
The absence of this qualifying word from the culture of national newspapers has led to subterfuge, bullying and bribery becoming common practice to lesser or greater degrees, depending on which newspaper journalists work for.
Actor Hugh Grant was on 24-hour television last night arguing for a public inquiry not just into the actions of journalists, but also the police for failed previous investigations and politicians for being too buddy with newspapers, particularly Rupert Murdoch’s. He called it a cosy cabal.
He has long led a campaign for protection of privacy, which until recently has been largely restricted to celebrities like entertainers, footballers and politicians.
It is interesting to see where this shift in public opinion may go, with England footballer Rio Ferdinand’s legal action against the Sunday Mirror for reporting his alleged affairs being a good yardstick. It comes to something when Hugh Grant comes to represent the moral compass of the nation. But now that ordinary people are seen to be victims of the phone-hacking scandal, I suspect he represented the views of most of the public. We live in interesting times.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Protesters mingle with shoppers

THE sun shone and the heat of the midday sun made sun cream advisable as the protestors marched down the main shopping mall.
But this was not Syntagma Square, the focus of the Athens riots against austerity measures by the Greek government.
It was the charming market town of Kendal, on the fringe of the English Lake District. Being shire country, petrol bombs and stone throwing were replaced by whistles and slogans shouted over loud-speakers.
There were just two unarmed police officers to ensure the health and safety of the marchers.
But no-one should mistake the civility for lack of passion or underestimate the resolve of the people giving up their Saturday lunch-time to make known their anger.
The marchers were protesting at thousands of teaching assistants and other council employees having their pay cut by up to 30 per cent in an equal pay exercise.
Most of the affected workers are women.
A total of 8,000 workers, employed by one of the smallest counties in Britain, have been given notice of being dismissed and re-employed on new terms and conditions to which they object. That represents half of the total Cumbria County Council workforce, including everyone from social workers to cleaners.
Westmorland and Lonsdale MP, Tim Farron, who joined the march, has warned that the council faces a tidal wave of employment tribunals over the plan for force through a new pay matrix under the single status scheme.
Single Status is the title given to a national agreement between the Labour Government and trade unions back in 1997, which aimed to harmonise terms and conditions of service for public employees, removing any unfairness in pay and rewards arrangements.
The council has already paid out £40m in back-pay, compensation and legal fees, as a result of the exercise.
Teaching assistants from across the county handed over a petition signed by over 1100 local residents to the county council asking them to think again about the single status plans. But the petition was ignored by the Conservative-Labour coalition that runs Cumbria.
Children’s Services cabinet representative, Liz Mallison, said their roles were being reviewed by head teachers, but the dismissal letters would stand.
MPs from across the county decided to write to every other English local authority to ask them for details of their implementation of single status. To date around fifty replies have been received – all indicating that there were either no pay cuts or only minor pay cuts to teaching assistants salaries.
Mr Farron, Liberal-Democrat national president, has written to the leader of Cumbria County Council asking him to call off the deeply controversial and unpopular single status programme.
“I’m sure that this shows that single status is supposed to be a rigorous exercise that harmonises job roles, terms and conditions. It is clear after the conclusion of stage three appeals that there is widespread confusion and dismay amongst county council employees and each section of the process has been rushed, conflicting information has been sent out by your authority,” he wrote.
Most of the staff affected are represented by the public services union Unison, which helped organise yesterday’s march, even though they did not join Thursday’s day of action.
It says it may ballot members for industrial action over Cumbria County Council’s controversial single-status pay review. It says the job-families approach used by Cumbria County Council, which groups together people doing different jobs, is “inherently unfair”.
The average reduction to salaries of the exercise is £3,390 a year. Cumbria’s 3,500 teaching assistants are among the losers. Full-time teaching assistants currently earn between £14,700 and £16,800 a year. The typical salary is likely to fall to £12,500 once single status is implemented.
Employees subject to national agreements like teachers and fire-fighters are not affected.
The teaching assistants have struck an emotional chord with the public because in Cumbria they have been given particular responsibility for children with special needs, meeting parents out-of-hours, adapting curricula to suit their charges and preparing for Ofsted inspections, some working up to 50 hours a week to do so.
A Cumbria County Council spokesman was unrepentant at the letter saying that it was the correct procedure.
“Under single status everyone was reassessed on the same basis in a matrix of jobs, so that there can be no unequal pay claims, which previously cost the county £40 million.
“Everyone is then offered new terms and conditions. If people sign the new contract, that’s fine and it becomes active on October 1, 2011.
“Those staff who haven’t signed, for whatever reason, then we have to give them 90 days notice, which is why the letters are going out now.
“If they turn up for work on October 1, whether they have signed or not, then by default they are accepting the new terms and conditions.”
Human Resources experts warn this strategy could lead to claims of constructive dismissal by those who quit instead of accepting the changes.
One of the affected teaching assistants at the march of around 80 people in Kendal was Sue Ireland of Burneside, who has worked at Sandgate School for 18 years.
“The way Cumbria has implemented single status has been an absolute farce,” she said. “We were all asked to provide evidence of why teaching assistants should be one a higher level of pay, but then we weren’t allowed to attend our own appeals.
“We are not militants. We love our jobs and being there for the children. Cumbria is just devaluing our jobs and professionalism after years of training.”
Mr Farron and the speakers pledged that their fight would go on.