On Leveson, language and topsy-turviness

The Leveson Report is Published

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has written a long article for the New Statesman on the “topsy-turvy” world of the debate on press regulation and restrictions.

Moore undoubtedly makes some good points about the absurdity of some newspapers protesting potential political interference in the press while not raising a even the mildest objection to the government and secret services actual threats to the Guardian over its coverage of GCHQ surveillance techniques (similar points were made with elan by the Spectator’s Nick Cohen a few weeks ago).

The MST director berates newspapers for having “got the debate the wrong way round” both “in principle and in practice”.

But Moore and his comrades who support the Royal Charter, in the Media Standards Trust, Hacked Off, and individuals, themselves must take some blame for the topsy-turviness of the language around regulation.

Take the idea of “exemplary damages”, which, it is proposed, publications that do not sign up to a recognised regulator will be subjected to.

The pro-Royal Charter argument has been that the existence of exemplary damages, and the avoidance of them are “incentives” to join the regulator. They are not. They are a punishment for not joining the regulator. An incentive would suggest putting publications at an advantage; but under the current proposals, all that joining a regulator does is to put publications on a level footing with individuals or organisations who would not be considered subject to the regulatory scheme. An “incentive” to avoid default punishment is akin to a threat from a protection racket.

Further on in his article, Moore calls for a British version of the US’s First Amendment. It’s a  nice idea.

But Moore says that Lord Justice Leveson proposed a British First Amendment. This is not the case.

What Leveson recommended was this:

In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met, the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.”

At first glance, that’s all very lovely. But it is meaningless at best, dangerous at worst, and certainly not a First Amendment style law.

Meaningless because all sorts of countries have constitutional guarantees of a free press. China, for example, states in article 35 of its constitution that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Fine words.

Dangerous as it could imply that the government of the day ultimately holds press freedom in its hands. This, it may be argued, is the case anyway, but to explicitly say it is not ideal. As noted in a recent Huffington Post article by Hacked Off’s Brian Cathcart, the British government has made many attempts in the past to stifle press freedom. I don’t really see why we should explicitly say the concept belongs to them.

The first amendment states simply:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

To claim that Leveson’s proposal, specifically to create a law about freedom of the press, is the same thing, is odd. When coupled with the proposal of punitive measures for those publishers who do not wish to play the government’s game, the claim is absurd.

This article was originally posted on 26 Nov 2013 at indexoncensorhip.org

Paul Staines accuses Sunday Mirror editor of authorising hacking

Political blogger Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes took the stand at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, and made numerous allegations relating to phone hacking. Appearing before the court, Staines, who is well known for his website’s “tittle tattle, gossip and rumour”, accused politicians, journalists and editors alike.

Staines told the court that two journalists had confirmed to him that Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver had authorised phone hacking and blagging, and went on to accuse Telegraph journalist Gordon Rayner of using private investigator Steve Whittamore. The blogger said that the journalist’s name appeared 335 times in  Operation Motorman files, and 185 of those appearances were in relation to alleged illegal transactions.

The allegations continued, as Staines described selling a series of photographs to the News of the World of Chris Myers, special advisor to Foreign Secretary William Hague, in a gay bar, following his publication of a story on Hague sharing a hotel room with Myers. Staines said the pictures, which were sold for £20,000 but were never published, were bought to take them off the market.

Describing “lobby terms”, a term applied to off the record information divulged to journalists by politicians, Staines said that it went “beyond off the record” and often resulted in “journalists complicit in politicians’ lying.” Staines added: “Journalists shouldn’t accept anonymous briefings, because most of the time it is used to besmirch other politicians, without them getting their fingerprints on it”

With regards to the attacks from the press on people such as Chris Jefferies and Kate and Jerry McCann, the blogger said:

“I think ultimately, the McCanns and Chris Jefferies have been able to get reparations through the courts. Stopping these abuses from happening means you’ll lose the freedom of the press.”

Staines added: “Phone hacking is against the law and criminal sanctions are available to deal with that. We don’t need press reform to deal with that.”

In reference to his Irish citizenship, the blogger also said: “What I think you’re missing is that I’m a citizen of a free republic and, since 1922, I don’t have to pay attention to what a British judge orders me to do.”

Martin Moore from the Media Standards Trust and Will Moy from Full Fact also appeared before the court.

In a lively and entertaining submission, the pair, who gave their evidence together, discussed PCC data and gave their suggestions for regulation of the press.

Moore explained that most often problems with dealing with complaints do not stem from the PCC, but from news organisations dragging their feet: “through all my experience the PCC secretariat have been very helpful and done the best they can. In many cases the problem is with the  newspaper outlet, not the PCC.”

Moy suggested that regulation was necessary to “counteract market failures” and added that publishing accurately was “a matter of basic civic responsibility.”

Moy added:  “If a newspaper has been told that there is a serious problem with a headline, if a complainant goes away, it doesn’t mean that the problem has gone away. A regulator would pursue the problem, a complaints handler pursues the complaint.”

Helen Belcher, who appeared on behalf of TransMediaWatch described the issues surrounding media coverage of trans people to the court.

“Most trans people now, when they’re the subject of an article they deem worthy of a complaint, don’t bother, becausd the PCC has received a number of complaints and it appears that nothing ever changes as a result of those complaints.”

She explained that the use of the single word “tran” caused great distress to a number of trans people: “The word ‘tran’ dehumanises an individual. Trans people are not solely trans, they have other interests they do other things. They have different categories, and to constantly reduce trans people to one category dehumanises them.”

Belcher described the routine misgendering of trans people within the media, and the use of intrusive “before and after” photographs which are “incredibly offensive” to the subjects. She said: “It’s routine. It happens today in the press, despite the editors’ protestations that everything is sorted out.”

Editor in Chief of online newspaper Huffington Post, Carla Buzasi explained the importance of consulting digital media on the Leveson inquiry, describing it as “the future of the media in this country.”

The editor suggested that some news organisations were not interested in being a part of the PCC because they did not “hold it in high regard,” and suggested that a future regulator would need to be sufficiently respected that it would be “foolish” not to be a part of it.

Buzasi said that no phone hacking, blagging or subterfuge took place at the Huffington Post.

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions also appeared, and advised that a policy specifically for journalists, on what a prosecution will consider when investigating a journalist in doing their work as a journalist will make things clearer. Starmer advised that an interim policy would be drawn up in a matter of weeks.

Pam Surphlis of Support after Murder and Manslaughter in Northern Ireland (SAMM NI) gave evidence to the court via video link.

Surphlis explained that SAMM NI was set up after she read “salacious gossip” about the death of her father. The group went on to conduct a study into  the relationship between journalists and the victims’ families; and effects of press coverage on the victims’ families. The study found that journalists were “intrusive and insensitive in their approach.”

She added that the PCC code relating to dealing with deaths is not “user-friendly.”

Surphlis said she was grateful to the inquiry for enabling SAMM NI to have a voice that someone is prepared to listen to.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson


Daily Mail editor lashes out at Hugh Grant and hacking campaigners

Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre accused Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign of “hijacking” the Leveson Inquiry and attempting to “wound” Associated Newspapers with the actor’s evidence.

In a marathon testimony that lasted almost four hours, Dacre said Associated’s statement that the actor had made “mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media” was a “sensible” way of defending his newspapers and its publisher.

The statement was a response to Hugh Grant’s testimony at the Inquiry last November, when he described a 2007 story in the Mail on Sunday that claimed his relationship with Jemima Khan was on the rocks due to his late night calls with a “plummy-voiced” studio executive. Grant said the only way the paper could have sourced the story was through accessing his voicemail, and that he “would love to hear what their source was if it wasn’t phone hacking”.

Dacre stressed he knew of no cases of phone hacking at Associated’s titles.

Meanwhile, Hacked Off and the Media Standards Trust said in a statement that they “categorically refute” Dacre’s “baseless accusations”.

Dacre took the debate on press regulation to a new level today by suggesting a press card system for those signed up to a new regulatory system.

He proposed improving the “haphazard” press card system by transforming it into an “essential kitemark for ethical, proper journalism”.

He argued that press briefings, sporting events and other conferences in public office should be open only to those with such a card, and suggested reporters guilty of “gross malfeasance” have their cards withdrawn.

“It is in the interests of both sides, news providers and news obtainers; why should they not have the right to believe they are dealing with accredited journalists?” he asked, arguing that the cards would be used proof of reporters being “responsible journalists”.

He suggested a “civil contract” for every journalist working for an accredited news organisation, effectively requiring them to adhere to the rules of a new regulatory body.

He argued that an improved press regulator should “move more towards a General Medical Council or Law Society type structure where it seen as the regulatory and disciplinary authority for the industry”.

He said there were currently 17 bodies that were able to issue press cards, yet the existing cards “don’t mean much”.

Dacre’s proposals echo Independent editor Chris Blackhurst’s endorsement of Labour MP Ivan Lewis’ suggestion that journalists be “struck off” if they are found to have committed gross malpractice.

Yet Dacre added that the “beauty” of the system would be that the newspaper industry, rather than the state, would be policing journalists. This point, he stressed, made his proposal differ from the licensing of journalists, noting that statutory regulation of the press was “thoroughly, thoroughly undesirable”.

At an Inquiry seminar last September, Dacre said those who call for the licensing of reporters “should emigrate to Zimbabwe”.

Dacre said he supported Lord Hunt’s proposal made last week for contractual press regulations, calling it an “attractive” solution.

Elsewhere in his testimony Dacre was grilled by Robert Jay QC over his paper’s use of search agencies as uncovered by the 2006 reports arising from Operation Motorman, which looked into unlawful trading of information by newspapers. The Daily Mail was identified as the paper with the the most transactions, followed by the Sunday People and the Daily Mirror.

Dacre confirmed he was aware that the Daily Mail was using search agents before 2006, though not to the extent as revealed by the ICO reports. He added he was aware that the paper used private investigator Steve Whittamore around 2004 or 2005.

He contested that his reporters believed they were acting within the law, using Whittamore to obtain addresses and phone numbers, and added that private investigators were used because it was quicker than journalists conducting checks themselves.

He emphasised he took measures to stamp out the practice, noting that he sent emails and letters to staff in 2005 — after Whittamore’s trial — advising them about data protection.

“I moved decisively and ruthlessly to stamp it out. Other newspapers didn’t, and we did,” he said. More than once he claimed the BBC had “spent more” than his paper on search agencies.

Dacre was characteristically defensive when he was taken through a series of controversial Daily Mail stories. Quizzed about a story headed “Cancer danger of that night-time trip to the toilet”, and asked if it was the job of some reporters to sensationalise scientific research, Dacre disputed that his paper adopted “an irresponsible stance” on medical stories.

Regarding Jan Moir’s column about the death of singer Stephen Gately, which was originally headlined “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”, Dacre conceded that the piece could have “benefited from a little judicious subediting”.

However, Dacre stressed that he would “die in a ditch” to defend his columnists’ right to write what they wish. The Press Complaints Commission received over 20,000 complaints about Moir’s piece.

Dacre, largely seen as one of the most powerful editorial figures in British media, denied that  he imposed his will on his staff, arguing “they would leave” if he did so.

Wrapping up his testimony, Dacre said that British journalism should be “proud” that Mail Online last week became the biggest newspaper website in the world, and accused Robert Jay QC of painting a “very bleak” and “one-sided” picture of the paper.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with Sun editor Dominic Mohan, Times editor James Harding and former PCC chair Baroness Buscombe among those giving evidence.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson