Monthly Archives: July 2011

“Is It Time To Get Tough On The Press?” – a discussion at the LSE

Like many people, I have been gripped by the news about News International and the News of the World over the last two weeks. It is an ever-changing story – the latest is Rupert Murdoch’s apology to the Dowler family, following hot on the heals of Rebekah Brooks’ resignation – and I just heard of Ms Brooks’ arrest. It is a tale of hubris and arrogance on a Shakespearean scale. [There has been a Twitter meme since I wrote this attributing Shakespeare quotations to Murdoch – #shakespeare4murdoch] “Hackgate” is entertaining; and it is all over the media. When the media becomes the main story on the media – you know something is wrong.

On Wednesday, I went to a discussion on the phone hacking scandal at the LSE, arranged by Polis. (Having spent many years in Scotland, polis has different connotations, but that’s also relevant to the discussion…) The title of the discussion was “is it time to get tough on the press”? I say discussion, because although billed as a debate, the panel were pretty unanimous; and whilst they didn’t actually cover the title, they discussed the current situation – or as it was on Wednesday afternoon – widely.

In a way, I’m not surprised that it wasn’t a debate: who would have opposed the motion? The panel Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust (which is running a campaign called Hacked Off); Paul Staines, better known as blogger Guido Fawkes; lawyer Charlotte Harris; and journalist David Aaronovitch – he writes for the Times, owned by News International.

Despite the potential for conflicts of interest, Aaronovitch probably gave the most coherent and objective view of what had gone on in the press over the past few years. I shan’t go into who said what, but here are my takeaway messages…

  • this is the latest in a series of crises to rock the British establishment – politicians, banks, celebrities and now journalists – “the fourth estate”. Societal expectations of transparency and openness, in part facilitated by social media, and the ease of transmission of information have contributed to the impact of these crises
  • the phone hacking scandal isn’t about regulation – it is about ethics and morality. The Press Complaints Commission was roundly denounced as failing and toothless, but the phone hacking undertaken by one or more journalists or newspapers was illegal anyway. Even if it were legal – as Ms Harris pointed out it was when the story of Ulrika Jonsson’s relationship with Sven-Goran Eriksson broke – that wouldn’t make it right. The Sun may not have broken the law when it put the medical details of Gordon Brown’s son on its front page, but I believe it was still unambiguously wrong to do so
  • it wasn’t just the News of the World or News International that was acting in such a way. Staines raised the Information Commissioner’s Office 2006 report, “What Price Privacy Now? ” [pdf], which found the Daily Mail the worse offender identified by Operation Motorman to have breached the Data Protection Act (see table on p9 of the report); the News of the World was fifth; the list of publications undertaking illegal activities includes “quality papers” such as the Observer and the Sunday Times. It would be naive to believe that on NotW or News International was involved in phone hacking or other illegal activity
  • not all journalists are unethical or immoral. Aaronovitch said that the Sunday Times was offered the documents that led to the exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, but turned down the opportunity of a scoop because they were stolen; the Daily Telegraph took up the offer, and in publishing them changed the political landscape (and I believe they were right to do so – there is no simple black-or-white in these issues). The scandal of hacking at NotW came to the surface largely because of the relentless doggedness of the Guardian’s Nick Davies
  • readers are complicit: we buy the newspapers that print stories based illegally gathered material, and such stories are published because of the commercial pressures facing newspapers. The recent issues arising from “super-injunctions”, and the public’s response to them (largely ignoring the injunctions and implying a right to know everything), are diametrically opposed to the issues coming out of hackgate – clearly, we as consumers of the news want to have our cake and to it eat it… We get the press we deserve
  • politicians are complicit, too: Staines pointed out that the lobby system by which specific journalists are given privileged access in return for non-attribution is itself corrupt and makes politicians unaccountable (a point strongly made by Heather Brooke in her recent book The Silent State); to see politicians now with knives out for journalists seems rather hypocritical
  • the police are deeply implicated, too. The police investigations, and the admission by Rebekah Brooks that the police were paid for information (both illegal and against the editors’ code of practice), implicate the involvement of the police. Harris told several stories of trying to get evidence for her clients from the police investigating breaches of privacy – and the extent of the obstruction

The discussion covered a lot in a short time – and the panel felt they had only just scrapped the surface: they believed the various investigations and inquiries would uncover more wrong-doing.

I have two thoughts of my own, prompted but not covered by the discussion.

Firstly, hackgate seems largely to be a failure of corporate governance: Brooks claims not to have been aware of the activities of her reporters when she was editor of NotW; James Murdoch sanctioned payments to settle privacy claims as executive chairman of News International (News Corps UK arm). These are (or were) senior corporate officers of News Corp.
Much of the hackgate scandal has focused on Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch. The latter has been described as owning News Corporation, and it seems like he treats it as a family business. It is a business with nearly $33bn revenues (2010); it had $8bn and a balance sheet of $40bn on 30 June 2010. This is a big organisation, operating around the world. In August 2009, Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family trust owned between them approximately 80% of the voting (class B) shares and 1% non-voting (class A) shares. News Corporation’s Board of Directors and management are committed to strong corporate governance and sound business practices – apparently. Like the banking crisis within the UK, the board and investors were happy to sanction – or at least turn a blind eye to – unethical and potentially illegal activities when it made them money. Now they too need to be brought to account.

Secondly, the irony of unregulated bloggers – like me! – writing about the regulated press seems deeply ironic.

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“What Is The Internet Doing To Our Brains?”

This week at the RSA, Paul Howard Jones asked a simple question – “what is the internet doing to our brains?”

Not a simple answer, though – and to be honest, Jones didn’t really answer it. This wasn’t his fault – he was summarising his review of the evidence of impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (PDF), and most of the work has been done on children (which is also Jones’ area of interest). So he couldn’t tell me whether the internet was frying my brain, Facebook is infantilising me or Google is making me stupid.

Instead, Jones examined the evidence for digital media in general and games more specifically affected users, mostly children. Young people have been the subject of most studies because parents and educators worry about their more plastic brains and that digital media use may affect other areas of development.

Much of the evidence is conflicting. Early studies – before “web 2.0”? – showed that high internet usage increased social isolation and decreased connectedness; now, the opposite is true: the internet is all about connectedness, and the internet stimulates young people to be connected and social. There are downsides to this – young people (and old!) lay themselves open to bullying and abuse, but that’s about society, not technology or the internet – in the US in 2006, only 2% of sex-related crimes against children involved the internet (you can find references to any “facts” in this post in Jones’ paper).

This became a theme of Jones’ talk: technology is neutral, what matters is how you use it: for digital media, it’s when, what and how much.

Apparently, when is important: technological devices – PCs, tablets and mobile phones – can disrupt our sleep patterns quite significantly. As well as the content they distribute exciting and energising – and hence stopping us wanting to sleep – the light produced by the screens, even at low output, can affect our circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep. This can lead to tiredness, lack of concentration and memory loss the next day – again, symptoms parents and educators may not want to see in young people in classes (though not many employers – or our customers – would be too happy, either).

What can be central to the impact of digital media, too. Shoot ’em up games can teach people to be violent; online learning can help people access resources they otherwise couldn’t. It all depends.

And how much – how much may be the most important factor. The strong attraction of digital media can displace other activities – things like reading books or taking outdoor exercise which educators (and politicians) see as important. But again, the evidence seems contradictory. Apparently, between 1.5% and 8.2% of the population have an issue with excessive internet use – what might be termed “addiction” – except that label may not be relevant.

Jones explored the ways the internet and specifically gaming can have positive benefits – indeed, how they can be used for education. In particular, games can help improve various skills and visuomotor tasks. Even non-gamers can improve their skills through playing video games, and transfer them to other environments (ie the improvement is “sticky”). Interestingly, many of those excessive, “addicted” users are kids playing games. (Others are adults gambling and using pornography, apparently. Who’d’ve thunk it?)

Jones’ message, then, was that the technology is neutral – like older technologies: books can be used for good or wrong, and so can digital media. How we use it matters. Digital media may reduce students’ attention spans, but that may be as much because they provide such attractive pursuits (Jones explained a fair bit about how games work with the brain’s chemistry to be very attractive) than because of any inherent propensity to cause ADHD. It might just be that the online world is more interesting than the real life teachers trying to teach the students…

Bye Bye Blog Roll…

I have decided to redesign my blog. In a teeny, weeny way – although it says a fair bit, I think.

I have removed my blog roll – the list of blogs that used to sit on the right of my home page.

I was looking at my blog the other day, and I noticed the blog roll. And I realised that it contained many blogs I hadn’t looked at in a while. And, more, that the way I access blogs – the way I explore the internet – now relies on Twitter, rather a blog reader or any list of blogs.

I still read these blogs – sometimes – but I access them (and a lot more) by clicking on links in tweets, feeding on the information others share, and passing on some of it myself.

It is a minor change to the blog, but I think it reflects a big change in the way I use the internet.