Tag Archives: media

Press Regulation Post-Leveson

I went to a debate at the RSA on press regulation after Leveson. A bit premature, as all three speakers agreed, but some crystal ball gazing can be fun.

Chaired by John Lloyd, Hugh Tomlinson and Guy Black talked through theirs’ and others’ views – all three were interested parties and active in the media. (Just to be clear, that’s an editor at the FT, a QC and life peer… Hardly non-establishment, then.)

Guy Black spoke first. He had been a director of the Press Complaints Commission until 2004, and clearly felt the PCC had achieved a lot – despite the criticism levelled at it through the Leveson Inquiry so far. He strongly believed that self-regulation without the force of statute was important, primarily because any involvement of Parliament would threaten the independence of any post-Leveson press regulatory body. He sees the ability of the press to hold those in power to account to be crucial, citing the Telegraph’s investigation of MPs’ expenses as an example. (Notwithstanding that it appears to have been Heather Brooke who really broke the story after a painstaking investigation based on freedom of information requests and the Telegraph only got it because they could pay more for the information that was leaked.)

His proposal was a for a self-regulatory body with teeth, enforceable through civil contracts [PDF]. It would have two functions – complaints and compliance – so it could investigate and hold newsrooms to account. Contracts would allow it to levy significant fines.

By using contracts, Black felt that it could be future-proofed – changes would be easy. It would be open to digital as well as analogue publishers (though I am not sure how it would regulate blogs – such as this one; I can see that websites like Huffington Post might be enticed to sign up, but it is hard to envisage common-or-garden bloggers being interested. Regulation of digital media may remain a stumbling block).

Tomlinson came from a very different perspective: he believed the PPC wasn’t responsible for regulation, and hence there had been no self-regulation; and self-regulation would not work. Reporting from a media committee (on which Lloyd sat, too) which had published its recommendations in February [PDF], Tomlinson asserted that regulation would require statute, which could be drawn up to ensure independence from politicians. The statute would only define the powers for the new body (Tomlison even had a name for it – the Media Standards Authority, or MSA).

The MSA would be able to award compensation (which the PCC cannot do, apparently – hence those who feel they have been wrong by the press resort to the courts rather than the PCC) and would be able to discipline members (and presumably enforce any punishment).

Fundamentally, Tomlinson felt some body such as the MSA would need to overturn the old newsroom culture, which had allowed behaviour such as that discussed by witnesses to Leveson to spread.

There were interesting similarities between the two ideas – and I think they were closer than the two protagonists would say. Neither wanted compulsion – both were essentially voluntary schemes (albeit with sanctions and incentives to ensure publishers engage with their schemes). Both relied on contracts to enforce regulation. Both envisage some form of compliance instead of just complaint resolution.

For me, the big question was why no compulsion and why no statutory enforcement? In essence why the MSA rather than OfPress? The answer from both Tomlinson and Black was that to compel publishers to join and have strict OfCom-like regulation, one needed a form of licensing which could be removed: with broadcasters, regulated by OfCom, the sanction for non-compliance is the removal of access to specific channels in the spectrum.

Newspapers are not licensed: there is nothing that OfMed could take away. This is probably a good thing – issuing licences to publish would be riven with difficulties, not least political interference. So a regulator needs to work in a different – and, apparently – voluntary fashion.

The risk of course is that such a regulator lacks teeth.

The questions raised afterwards were interesting, although not necessarily resolved. Were the failures of the press that prompted the establishment of Leveson a failure of regulation or of enforcement? As Ian Hislop pointed out in his submission to Leveson, the behaviour of the press – phone hacking and so on – was illegal, but the police failed to investigate – to enforce the existing law. Sufficient legal powers existed to punish journalists who transgressed the law.

Something that came up again and again was that a change in behaviour – in the newsroom culture – was needed. The press felt and acted above the law. One difficulty is that there are times when it may be advantageous for the press to behave like this. The investigation of MPs’ expenses, for instance, required journalists to break the law to obtain damning information – the details published by the Daily Telegraph were illegally obtained. How can one form of illegal behaviour be condoned whilst another attracts sanction?

The public interest is not, of course, what the public are interested in…

There was a discussion about how the press works in the USA. There is apparently no formal press regulation in America: the US constitution provides certain rights and the press adheres to the first amendment, which includes a right to reply. The speakers believed the US press has higher professionalism than their British colleagues, and a greater pride in their work – both of which are reflected in a different newsroom culture. Many newspapers are local monopolies, reflecting individual cities and providing local news – and being family owned meant that the owners felt responsible for what was printed. (I didn’t buy this at all: local monopolies and restricted ownership sound like a situation ripe for abuse.) Of course, News Corporation – the owner of two newspapers at the heart of Leveson – appears to be run as if it were a family owned enterprise (that family being Rupert Murdoch‘s): their ethics haven’t been helped by keeping it in the family.

There was also discussion of the concentration of media and press power in a few hands – and again Murdoch was invoked. Neither of the models of regulation sought to address press power, just abuses of it.

We’ll have to wait to see what Leveson does actually recommend…

“Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?”

Few weeks ago I heard Louis Blom-Cooper give a talk entitled “Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?” I was reminded of this by the ongoing (and frankly surreal testimony from the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. Blom-Cooper was chair of the Press Council, the forerunner to the Press Complaints Commission.

He didn’t really answer his own question: instead, this was a kicking off point for a discussion about the press and society – and which feeds which.

The fourth estate – which Blom-Cooper said Fielding originally applied to “the mob”, and only later became attached to the press by Carlyle – demonstrated power without responsibility; but whilst irresponsible, they were not too irresponsible. (Milly Dowler’s parents and the McCanns, together with more celebrated witness to Leveson, may disagree.)

He discussed the problem of regulating the press in the age of electronic media. Broadcasters are regulated by OfCom; the press by the PCC (regarded by many as toothless); the internet not at all. Perhaps, Blom-Cooper suggested, a single media regulator was needed. (It wasn’t clear that Blom-Cooper fully understood new media such as blogs, let alone Twitter, and how these interact with more traditional media.)

For Blom-Cooper, it wasn’t news-gathering and reporters apparently errant methods, but publication that was the real issue: breach of privacy, he felt, came with publication. I think he is wrong on this: in phone-hacking (albeit an extreme example), the breach of privacy surely came with the intrusion? Blom-Cooper’s point was that it was papers’ editors who were responsible, not reporters, and editors who needed a code of ethics – and to manage their reporters. (Paul McMullan’s claim that editors at News of the World knew that voicemails were being intercepted puts a different light on this: clearly they were responsible, and didn’t act.) For Blom-Cooper, what isn’t reported – the information and knowledge that the press “sit on” and withhold – is as important as what is.

He expressed the view that “journalism is the best medicine for the truth” – that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, perhaps: a free press is needed within society to hold others – those with power – to account. Knowledge that wrong-doing may become public leads to self-censorship of action. (This again leaves press “stings” like those carried out by the “fake sheikh”, including those that are clearly designed to expose wrong-doing like corruption in sport in a hard-to-justify swamp.)

The difficulty with the PCC is that it can only act after the event – the Press Complaints Commission needs a complaint to act. A code of conduct would be better than statutory regulation, he thought, but clearly it would need to have teeth. A widespread change in the culture of the press – its ethics, perhaps – would also be needed for editors to comply with a code of conduct.

With the development of electronic media and the internet, the fourth estate is returning to the mob: anyone can become a citizen-journalist and, despite the concentration of media in few hands (and, Blom-Cooper pointed out, this concentration is not new – Murdoch and Desmond today were more than matched by Beaverbrook and Rothermere, thought little of flexing their power to influence governments), anyone can now become a publisher, too. The role of the press in a civil society requires the freedom criticise society – but also the freedom to criticise the press. Educating readers into the ways of the press may be as important as educating the press itself – its editors and reporters.

I think the exposure – the disinfectant of sunlight – press methods have received in the Leveson inquiry is probably a good start.

“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.

Immediacy and Impact v Consideration and Analysis: the £1.40 Unconference and the Wave

I have been trying to gather my thoughts around the recent £1.40 Unconference for several weeks, and not really getting very far.

There are probably several reasons for this: a lack of creativity or desire on my part; but also a reaction to one of the themes of the unconference: the immediacy of new media.

This was the first Amplified event I have been to, and I really liked the unconference format. There were lots of good conversations and lots of good ideas – which is what I look for in a gathering like that.

On the other hand, though, it wasn’t clear what would happen next. Was this just an exchange of thoughts or could we do something more concrete?

There were three sessions: one on the role of social media in politics; one on social media and news; and a plenary discussion trying to tie the whole thing up. The idea of the immediacy of social media ran through it all: the fact that social media let you get information out there, quickly.

I come from a different place: I value reflection and analysis; I like to let things lie and filter thoughts and ideas through my unconscious. Some don’t surface again, but some – like this post! – do, and get conjoined to other thoughts or events.

In this case, the Wave – a protest march I went on yesterday in support of governmental action to combat climate change. I’m not going to go on about climate change or politics here – I have done that before, and others do so more eloquently. But for me, it brought home the occasional need for immediacy.

During yesterday’s march, I tweeted about what was going on, where we were and what I thought. Several people tweeted back saying that they appreciated my comments, and some of them got picked up and retweeted by organisations involved in the Wave, too.

I also took photographs of yesterday’s march. I take a lot of photographs, and, coming from a tradition of processing and editing pictures (after years of working in the darkroom), I usually take the same approach to processing digital photographs. It is because of this that I have hundreds – possibly a thousand – unprocessed digital photos going back to June. The photographs I took yesterday, though, have a certain currency: they are only of use now – well, yesterday really. So when I got in from the march, I sat down and edited them quickly – not quite immediate (I didn’t post them directly from my phone to Twitter, for instance), but a pretty fast turnaround for me.

I also thought about trying out some “social recording”, too, using Audioboo (now available for Android phones like mine as well as iPhones). I decided not to – I am more comfortable producing writen and photographic media than audio (that inability to edit…).

To have any currency, then, my thoughts and images from the Wave as it happened needed to get out there quickly. My further consideration, ponderings and analysis can easily be postponed, filtered and synthesised.

We need both. As the £1.40 unconference discussed, Twitter provides an information stream – it isn’t journalism (and I would never, ever pretend that I was a journalist. Not even a very poor one!). Journalism needs that further consideration and analysis of the information gathered. We need both the quick, unthought-through gossip that Twitter provides – the stream-of-consciousness information flow – and in-depth, journalistic coverage.

Immediacy and impact v consideration and analysis. It isn’t either/or – it is both.

Lost in Search: why are media sites’ search engines so poor?

I have many persistant gripes; one of the most persistant is the inability of many media websites to have effective search engines.

This is something I have been meaning to post about for ages. What has actually prompted me to do so was searching for a story in yesterday’s The Guardian weekend magazine. It was an interesting story, and I wanted to share it through Twitter (potentially increasing the readers of the story and the website). Naturally enough, my first stop was the paper’s website, where I entered the subject of the story into the box marked search and pressed return. The site’s search engine found seven pages full of references to the subject, but what I was looking for was not on the first page, so rather than scroll through page after page of the wrong information, I tried again.

This time, I entered the subject and the article’s headline. I got two pages of search results – easier to skim through – but none of them was the article I was looking for.

Lastly I went to an external search engine. You know, the one that has something like 60% of the market share in search last year. OK, Google. I typed in the subject and the headline. And the article I wanted was the first item that Google returned.

So whilst the Grauniad failed to find its own article at all, Google not only found it but made it the top match for my search term.

It is not just the Grauniad; I have had very similar experiences searching the Independent and BBC News websites. Google can find articles on these websites that their own search engines cannot.

I was chatting to someone from the BBC about this a while ago. He said that perhaps it is because these organisations are not specialists in search – they are content providers rather than search engines. This is true, but if their own search system cannot locate their own content, promoting users to go to, say, Google – which could just easily send them to someone else’s website – then this represents a huge risk to their business. Especially when media firms are planning to charge for online content.

[Edit (a week or so later…): The Independent must have been listening: they’ve changed their search engine to Google.