Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Press freedom under threat

THOSE people who are rubbing their hands in glee at the plight of the established media may like to reflect on the fact that the United Kingdom has dropped nine places in the 2011/12 Press Freedom index.
The UK now stands at its joint lowest position since the survey was first carried out in 2002, standing at 28th, falling below the likes of Cape Verde and Namibia, the first two African countries to break into the top 20.
The campaign group Reporters without Borders, which compiles the survey, blames the UK’s “archaic” libel laws, which “threaten freedom of reporting”. the Leveson Inquiry and the London riots.
The accompanying report added: “[The UK] caused concern with its approached to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots. Despite universal condemnation, the UK also clings to a surreal law that allows the entire world to come and sue news media before it courts.”
Citing the impact of the London riots, RWB said it was “worried” about co-operation between the BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) and the police after the company provided Scotland Yard with information about a number of BlackBerry users following the disturbances.
RWB claimed this “jeopardised” their personal data.
The rankings are based on a country’s score in a 44-question survey covering areas including violence against journalists, censorship laws and freedom of the internet.
As has been the case in each of the surveys put together over the past decade, Scandinavian countries dominate the top of the table, with Finland and Norway taking joint top spot this year.
Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan make up the bottom three for the seventh year in a row.
This year’s figures also drop the United States 27 places to 47th, after some journalists were arrested during coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The report concludes: “Never has Freedom of Information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous.”
The timing of this report was apposite with Sun associate editor Trevor Kavanagh warning that journalists arrested in this country, including five of his colleagues, and questioned by police have done no more than “act as journalists have acted on all newspapers throughout the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors.”
The five Sun staff journalists arrested at the weekend were questioned on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office.
There are a couple of dozen laws that are routinely used in Britain to curtail Press Freedom, but this charge is an offence so obscure that there is not one word about it in the 2009 edition of journalists’ media law bible McNae’s. So no journalist could reasonably be expected to know anything about it.
It’s an ancient offence under common law, rather than legislation, and dates back to 1783.
Doubts have been expressed about whether the charge of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office can even apply to journalists. The idea behind the charge is to police public officials, not journalists.
Dominic Ponsford, Editor of the media industry’s trade magazine, Press Gazette, wrote: “I suppose technically that is a conspiracy to leak out secret information, but we would live in a strange and dark place if that sort of behaviour was made illegal.
“Proof that we are already living in unsettling times is given by the fact that News Corp – previously a staunch defender of press freedom – is providing the ‘evidence’ of the crimes against these journalists without a fight, or any discussion with those under suspicion about whether they had a public interest defence.
“Most journalists would, as Mail editor Paul Dacre might put it, die in a ditch to protect the anonymity of their sources. Yet News Corp is apparently serving them up on a plate to the police without any fight.”
One of the Sun journalists arrested as part of a police corruption probe has been questioned about an expense claim for £50 spent on taking two policemen to lunch, according to The Times.
Police are understood to be acting on information found in a cache of 300 million emails, expense claims, phone records and other documents which News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee has been analysing.
I left Fleet Street 28 years ago because I was uncomfortable with its ethics and culture, but I would not feel any less uncomfortable living in a country where Media freedom was so curtailed that journalists were too intimidated to do their jobs.
Lord Leveson will require the wisdom of Solomon to do his job. He also needs to be brave enough to resist pressure from those expecting his inquiry to introduce even more legislation to further muzzle the media.
If the police had applied properly the laws that already exist, there would be no bribery of their officers or hacking of mobile telephones to investigate.
Sources: The Guardian, Press Gazette and The Times.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mail boss reinvents union code

Somewhere in a box or drawer I have a memo from Paul Dacre wishing me well in my career. He wrote it when I quit the Daily Mail as a regular casual.
This was back in 1984 when I was appointed deputy editor of The Bedfordshire Times. He was then News Editor of the Mail, one of several young, talented news room executives jostling for recognition from the then boss, Sir David English.
I thought it touching and the sign of a good employer that he took the trouble. He, of course, received his own recognition by succeeding Sir David to the top slot.
In those days he used to sit in a goldfish bowl in the otherwise open-plan office of the Daily Mail in their old Carmelite Street offices. The actual news desk was manned by minions who were supposed to filter out phone calls and the dross sent in by freelances and others for consideration for publication.
Only the best of the best was supposed to get to Paul’s attention. He then produced a closely typed news list consisting of a single sheet of A4. Around ten or twelve items a day made it on to the list, each with a couple of lines of explanation.
If the story didn’t make it on to this list it wasn’t worth bringing to Sir David’s attention. The news tasting abilities this demanded were considerable.
Also in this private office of Mr Dacre was an amazing document, in about 50 volumes. It was what was called a reverse telephone directory, with every street in Britain listed by town or area, with the telephone number and name of every householder.
It had been compiled by telephone engineers to help them trace and fix faults, and was covered by the official secrets act. In those days the telephone system was run by the General Post Office, a Government organisation.
The going rate for a bribe to secure a copy of this document, which was a tremendously helpful resource for newspapers, was apparently £100, quite a lot of money in those days.
I am reminded of this illegal access to information, every time I see Mr Dacre trying to fend off inquisitors during the Leveson inquiry. The reverse directory was the equivalent of hacking, in those days before the mobile phone.
The other thought is the extreme irony of Mr Dacre proposing a register of accredited journalists.
The Independent, of all publications, said Mr Dacre was right that the idea that journalists should be licensed by the state is repellent to the fundamentals of press freedom.
But there is merit in his suggestion for a body replacing, or sitting alongside, the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be charged with the wider upholding of media standards.
One of its functions might be the issuing of a press card which could be suspended or withdrawn from individuals who gravely breach those standards.
This used to be the preserve of the National Union of Journalists, an organisation that The Daily Mail has always loved to vilify, or ignore.
In fact the whole newspaper industry has fought to undermine the NUJ, on the grounds that having got rid of print unions, publishers and owners dreaded the resulting soaring profits being watered down by a strong and militant journalists’ union.
Just how successful this marginalisation of the NUJ has proved is illustrated by their almost total absence from the considerations of the Leveson inquiry.
So why would Mr Dacre now appear to back a move his organisation has spent years undermining? The Independent has an interesting theory.
Dacre's model could move the sanctions to journalists, rather than their employers. In his evidence in relation to barring non-press card holders from events, Dacre commented: "It is my considered view that no publisher could survive if its reporters and writers were barred from such vital areas of journalistic interest."
This implies major organisations should sue only accredited journalists. If wrongdoing was found in a paper, it could be a matter for the journalist and the press card regulator. The writer would lose his or her press-card. The paper would dismiss them and express regret at their actions.
Whether this has been thought through as the way ahead by Mr Dacre and his advisers, it is impossible to tell.
The NUJ had a very strict, but sensible, code of conduct. If it had been allowed to play a role at the heart of the media, particularly national newspapers, it is interesting to speculate whether hacking and its associated excesses would have ever been allowed in the first place.