First published in City AM.
THE Leveson Inquiry will make its long-awaited recommendations on Thursday, and the main expectation is that Lord Leveson will propose putting Britain’s press under statutory regulation. But this is a one-way street towards a British media that is afraid to take on the most powerful voices in the land. That is not what civil society should look like.
Yes, revelations of phone hacking, and the acquisition of personal information – from medical records to bank details – have cast a shadow across the media. But this is, and was at the time, illegal. Indeed, one of the few certainties about Lord Leveson’s report is that it will not propose the creation of any new data protection offences. Everything the inquiry has heard is already covered by the Data Protection Act.
Statutory regulation of the press would similarly do nothing to protect privacy. It makes it no more illegal to hack a phone, or to blag or buy personal information. And a new regulator would not make it easier for any of us to seek redress if our personal information is disclosed without our permission.
Furthermore, those in favour of statutory regulation have failed to address an inherent contradiction in their plan. How exactly are they addressing and fixing a culture where politicians court the media by replacing it with one where the media courts politicians?
In any case, in an age of widespread dissemination of information via the internet, the idea of regulating such a small group of organisations is absurd. The press is already competing with information sources that will presumably stay outside any regulatory structure.
The government should welcome Lord Leveson’s report. But it should then make it clear that legislation is not necessary, emphasising that, as Lord Leveson has heard, it is the failings of the police and the information commissioner’s office that warrant concern and further investigation.
And to truly grapple with the problems that led to the Leveson Inquiry being set up, the government should make clear its acceptance that a custodial sentence should be available to judges sentencing anyone who breaches the Data Protection Act. Journalist or not, such a penalty is a far greater deterrent against anyone obtaining personal information illegally than a new body only concerned with the press.
The media must abide by the law, of course. But it must also be fearless in holding power to account. Even a slight diminishing of its undaunted view of power will bring comfort to those who seek to evade and avoid scrutiny. Every citizen would be worse off.
It would be a step that betrays future generations. Ultimately, the best regulator of all is competition and if the government is looking for an alternative to statutory regulation, a return of media ownership laws, taking into account the digital footprint of publications, would offer a much more reasonable way forward.
Today, David Cameron had this to say to Parliament on the role of technology in the recent riots:
“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.
“So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”
It is a sad indictment of how poorly technology is understood in Government that this even made it into the statement. Aside from the fact that Blackberry Messenger is not a social network, the Whitehall response of blaming social media and BBM for the riots is only made worse by their proposed solution - let us see everything, or shut it down.
It’s a further sign of how inadequate the police’s intelligence gathering remains when so much of the discussion between those involved in the disorder took place in public forums.
To shut down social networking would require both shutting down the internet and mobile phone comms. Whether that is even possible, and ignoring the enormous economic impact it would have, the fact it is being considered should send a chill wind through the whole country.
Civil unrest - and indeed wars between nations - began, and were organised, long before modern technology. Technology facilitates faster action, but the underlying issues remain the same.
William Hague’s interview with Andrew Marr during the uprisings in Egypt offer an alternative viewpoint, which was clearly illustrated in a subsequent statement.
“The abuse of internet and mobile networks and, in particular, today’s increased intimidation and harassment of journalists, are unacceptable and disturbing.”
Yesterday’s news that Amy Winehouse had been found dead was a very sad moment by any measure. The all too soon death of such a talented artist may have not been entirely unexpected, but the media reaction was perhaps more inevitable - in death, as in life, Ms Winehouse remains a huge media draw - as the scrum of photographers and TV crews outside her Camden home demonstrates.
In the current climate, the situation also raises some very awkward questions about the role of the emergency services. The news was public literally minutes after her body was found, and I myself had an email from a national newspaper asking for photos from Wednesday’s iTunes show - now Amy’s last public appearance. I understand her father, Mitch, found out about the news when a reporter called him.
It has long been the case that newspapers pay for tip-offs in these circumstances, and given recent events I cannot help but wonder whether the ongoing investigation into information being sold to reporters should be widened to cover this kind of tip-off.
We now know her body was discovered at 3.54pm and by 5.46pm the Associated Press was tweeting the news. By that time, the story would have had to be sourced and confirmed, so I expect AP was aware of the news some time before then. According to a Metropolitan statement: “We were called by London Ambulance Service to an address in Camden Square shortly before 16.05hrs following reports of a woman found deceased. On arrival officers found the body of a 27-year-old female who was pronounced dead at the scene.”
The sight of a body being removed from the flat in full view of an organised and very busy media area is something that I myself found very uncomfortable - and I say that as a press card carrying photographer.
However, the possibility that someone profited from discovering the body of a dead woman - who happened to be in the public eye - in the course of performing their duties as a part of emergency service should trouble us far more than allegations of phone hacking.
Today, Max Mosely has lost his legal bid to establish precedent that journalists should warn people before exposing their private lives.
And it’s a damn good thing too.
While many would question the news worthiness of celebrity gossip in the first place, the wider issue is one absolutely in the public interest -simply, the same precedent Mosely sought to establish would have been used by corporates and public figures to quash any negative reporting.
Mosely claims his legal action is about privacy. Fine. But Britain doesn’t have a privacy law. It has the 1998 Human Rights Act, and his legal action - not to mention to swathe of super-injunctions currently being ridiculed on Twitter - are based upon judicial interpretation of that.
As Ian Hislop told the culture, media and sport select committee, the current state of privacy law is ‘censorship by judicial process’. While in the past legal action has followed publication, the vogue now is to threaten legal action once the subject of an investigation becomes aware of it. The theory goes that costs (particularly where conditional fee agreements are involved) are such a threat that they push editors to self-censure. Indeed, this is exactly what Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford, concluded into a study around the use of “no-win no-fee” libel action.
It wasn’t a libel action that Schillings threatened Private Eye with when they told the magazine to stop making inquiries about the former NHS IT head Richard Granger. It was a privacy action. While libel carries the financial fear, privacy opens up the possibility of pre-publication injunction.
As Ian Hislop said: “Privacy is the new libel. If you want to shut people up, privacy is the way you go about it because libel is too difficult.”
As a taxpayer, I would hope a court would view an investigation into how £13bn of public money was splashed on an utterly unworkable IT system was in the public interest - but it’s absurd the Eye, or any journalist, would have to pay a fortune simply to defend themselves from an injunction before publication on the grounds that the figure involved wanted to protect their privacy.
Parliament needs to move swiftly to resolve this situation. It’s undoubtedly having an impact on investigative journalism, while malpractice and activity far from the public interest is given judicial protection. It is absurd an entirely new avenue of privacy law is being abandoned to judicial creativity, far beyond the realms of acceptable interpretation.
We do need a clear privacy law - the kind that makes children a no-go for paparazzi, protects the family lives of public figures and gives journalist a clear guide on how they can investigate stories without tapping phones or rooting through bins.
The flip side of that law must be made equally clear -the media have a right to investigate stories freely and publish where there is a public interest. Furthermore, those who see fit to sell their privacy to the highest bidder when it suits them cannot subsequently expect their activities to be off-limits because of their own misbehaviour.
Or, as Guido Fawkes puts it - “If you don’t want to be on the front pages then don’t pay hookers to stick dildos up your bum.”
PRs will be familiar with a tool called Response Source - it’s basically a way for journalists to email people asking for comment/case studies on topics without having to ring thousands of people individually.
Well, one’s just dropped into my inbox that really does amaze.
Bereavement is a serious topic - one that the NHS should absolutely have material on. But piggybacking on the death of an international terrorist to achieve this?
MEDIA OUTLET: NHS Online
DEADLINE: 6 May 2011 at 12:00
QUERY: In reaction to the huge news that Osama Bin Laden has been killed, and triggered by the repeated comments that ‘justice has now been served’, I’d like to question the notion of revenge on mental health.
Even better - they want vigilante case studies!
- The family/ friend of a loved one who was lost specifically in the 9/11 attacks and/ or someone who was either responsible for bringing about justice or was the family/ friend of someone who was avenged. Can either be within or without the law …
So - there you have it. Thats your tax dollar hard at work.
It may be old news, but for Mike Hancock MP erasing the past has proved tricky.
Call into his office and, if nobody gets to the phone, you are invited to leave a message by the sultry tones of……Katia Zatuliveter.
The suspected spy hasn’t been in the headlines for a while, but clearly someone didn’t get the memo about changing the recording. Or maybe it’s because IPSA won’t let him claim for a new manual.
I just hope she doesn’t have the PIN to access the messages. Not like parliament needs another story about that…..
Posted: March 10th, 2011
Categories: PR and Communications
, The Media
Tags: Mike Hancock
Comments: No Comments
And this time, it’s the Daily Mail in the dock!
Guido has previously written to Paul Dacre about his hacks lifting stories from Order-Order, but it seems little has changed. Crash Bang Wallace is clearly popular in the Daily Mail office, judging by the paper’s Ephraim Hardcastle column this week.
Over the weekend, Mark broke the story about CCHQ running a mystery shopping exercise with local associations. Then yesterday, he disclosed Ed Miliband’s proclamation that he ‘knew nothing‘ about Tunisia, shortly before being interviewed on Andrew Marr’s show.
And what happened next?
As a photographer, if my work was reproduced without permission or credit, that’s copyright theft. (The sort the Mail loves to rail against when talking about piracy and such like) I hope Mark is duly paid for his work as a Mail reporter!
It should also be added that the main story on the page today was a re-hash of George Pascoe-Watson’s memo on the No2AV campaign crisis summit held by senior Tories.
When a paid-for newspaper is so flagrantly lifting material from blogs available for free, it really is a sorry state of affairs and hardly helps the argument that print titles are a unique product not available online.
Posted: March 9th, 2011
Categories: The Media
Tags: daily mail
Comments: No Comments
The possibility of prisoners being able to claim compensation for being denied the vote has riled many, with the media, commentators and politicans on all sides talking up the issue. Ken Clarke went as far as to question how MPs could vote against the bill, as it would require them to “explain to their constituents, at a time like this, we’re spending money on compensating prisoners.”
Some on the left have criticised the Government’s decision to allow a free vote, with Ben Fox’s New Statesman post calling the free vote decision ‘cowardly.’ Their criticism seems based on the fact a free vote will probably mean the House of Commons voting down the proposal (more on that later) while entirely ignoring the fact that this issue arose with a judgement in 2005 and the last Labour Government did absolutely nothing to deal with it.
I won’t get into the arguments on whether or not prisoners should get the vote - I’d like to keep this post under a few thousand words - but the compensation line has me worried. Simply, I think it’s a myth.
There are roughly 2,500 legal actions pending on this issue, 1,500 of which are ‘frozen’ pending the UK Government’s action on the issue. There is a deadline for action, 6 months after the judgement of Greens and M.T. v. the UK.
That case didn’t test the law - it was based upon five years of inaction by the UK Government since the 2005 case of Hirst v the United Kingdom (No.2) - that was the case that established a blanket ban on prisoners voting violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
The only money awarded was €5,000 to cover costs and expenses. Given they won their case, this is hardly a legal revolution. To reach the £160m compensation figure reported and repeated, all 2,500 applicants would need to receive £64,000 each.
How likely is this?
Firstly, on costs: In Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom, the court ruled:
In future follow-up cases, in light of the above considerations, the Court would be likely to consider that legal costs were not reasonably and necessarily incurred and would not, therefore, be likely to award costs under Article 41. As a consequence of the Court’s approach to just satisfaction outlined above, an amendment to the electoral law to achieve compliance with the Court’s judgment in Hirst will also result in compliance with the judgment in the present cases and with any future judgment handed down in any of the comparable cases currently pending before the Court.
So, that seems fairly conclusive. What about punitive damages? In the Green judgement, the court was similarly clear:
“..as regards non-pecuniary damage, the Court recalls that it has in the past examined claims by applicants for punitive damages to reflect the particular character of the violations suffered by them and to serve as a deterrent in respect of violations of a similar nature by the respondent State, and for aggravated damages to reflect the fact that they were victims of an administrative practice. It has declined to make any such awards (see Akdivar and Others v. Turkey (Article 50), 1 April 1998, §§ 35-38, Reports 1998-II; Selçuk and Asker v. Turkey, 24 April 1998, §§ 116-119, Reports 1998-II; Menteş and Others v. Turkey (Article 50), 24 July 1998, §§ 18-21, Reports 1998-IV; Hood v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 27267/95, §§ 88-89, ECHR 1999-I; and B.B. v. the United Kingdom, no. 53760/00, § 36, 10 February 2004).
Similarly, the Court does not consider that aggravated or punitive damages are appropriate in the present case.”
Again, fairly clear.
Where could compensation arise? There is one issue - that of the UK being in breach of it’s obligations under EU law. Were the EU to penalise the UK for its ongoing breach, the money would go to Brussels, not prisoners. (Although for many, myself included, this is no means an acceptable outcome, particularly given Russia is guilty of many more breaches.)
Finally, there is undoubtedly the potential for a bizarre legal state of affairs to emerge, as such:
One could argue if Parliament rejects a law intended to bring the UK into line with its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, that would be tantamount to an implied repeal of the Human Rights Act. That, in turn, could be interpreted by the Courts as Parliament asserting its supremacy to EU law (for the Lisbon treaty establishes the legal basis for the EU’s accession to the ECHR) and therefore implicitly repealing the European Communities Act 1972, and therefore Britain’s membership of the EU.
So, there you have it. Let’s debate the issue of prisoner voting, but doing it behind a veil of compensation figures only cheapens the arguments on all sides.
Replacing a journalist who made his name in the ‘tomorrows chip wrapper’ mentality of showbiz journalism with a broadcast news editor will ensure the Coalition is seen well in coming months. The GVs of Cameron, Clegg et al will be fresh, dynamic and show the team in a positive light.
This in itself is no bad thing. As Guido blogged last week, many felt David Cameron needed a TV expert as a “director of communications who understands televisual imagery” and I agree entirely with what he says. Cameron (and indeed the coalition) needs someone to present it in the best light, no mean feat given the difficult decisions the Government is taking.
But this falls into what I think is a common problem that modern politicians often fail to comprehend - the difference between presentation and communication.
Last year I blogged a speech given by Edward R. Murrow, the journalist who did so much to finally end the McCarthy-era of American politics, to what is now the the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Convention on October 15, 1958.
One quote seems particularly apt in light of Craig Oliver’s appointment.
“During the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.”
The Coalition is embarking on an enormous task, tackling Labour’s economic legacy of a dangerously unbalanced economy, out-of-control public spending and the defecit that both of those approaches caused.
Yet the public will not be appeased with warm images and reassuring soundbites. The Coalition has yet to establish it’s own narrative on cutting public spending or indeed set it in context of the alternative - much higher taxes for all. This requires a more strategic, long-term view and as difficult as it may be politically, looking beyond short-term factors like polling, by-elections and indeed local elections.
The Big Society is a concept which could transform the British way of life, endearing a sense of civic responsibility not seen for generations, based on a balanced and vibrant, low-tax economy. David Cameron’s determination to bring this vision to fruition, despite the catastrophic legacy he inherited, is one of the reasons he may well go on to achieve more than any Prime Minister in living memory.
It cannot be achieved through a series of headlines - it requires a culture shift.
Alastair Campbell forumlated a style of campaigning (and indeed governing) based around Objective, Strategy, Tactics. With the appointment of another headline driven journalist, the coalition must not allow itself to become obsessed with strategy and tactics, or risk sight of achieveing its objective.
The Coalition’s challenge to ensure the public not only understand the objective but share it will be the difference between the middle classes (and indeed aspirational working classes) supporting the Government, or believeing it has betrayed them.
This morning, George Monbiot dropped a proverbial policy-bombshell thats annoyed pretty much everyone, myself included. Guido, Mark Wallace and The Telegraph’s Ed West have all gone to town on the article, with the word ‘facist’ being bounded around a little too easily for my liking.
Let’s be clear - I certainly do not support any proposal which would see the Government forcing people to take strangers into their home. I’ve a funny feeling neither does George Monbiot, but that’s beside the point.
But the status quo can’t really be a viable option either? House prices rocketed on a debt bubble inflated by cheap mortgages, but the underlying pressure was the gap between supply and demand growing at an alarming pace. And of course, the soaring Housing Benefit bill is a by-product of this bubble.
We need alternatives, and however much you disagree with George Monbiot at least he’s proposing something. Where are the other solutions? If he’d written an article arguing for people to be moved from under-occupied social housing to smaller properties, I can’t help but feel the reaction would have been very different.
All Governments are caught in a paradox between building houses and the feel-good factor that comes with rising house prices. Monbiot wants less building, and as a result has to come up with more radical alternatives. Those who want more building - myself included - need to come up with ways to actually build more houses.
I think Monbiot’s wrong to argue against more building. According to the DCLG, just 9.9% of Britain is “developed” with only 5.4% of the country’s land mass accounted for by residential homes and gardens. Under the last government house building under Labour fell to its lowest level since 1946, even with centralised targets driving the process.
We need an era of housebuilding, private, social and council, that will make housing affordable again. Housebuilders and land owners cannot be allowed to distort the market by strangling supply, and banks cannot be allowed to distort demand with high-risk mortgages.
In his article, Monbiot proposes four things (alongside new building) to address the problem:
- Introduce a measure of housing occupation (a “footprint”)
- End the single-person 25% council tax discount
- A tax on under-occupation (he say’s “big”)
- Expanding the Homeshare scheme
To me, the first and last are hardly controversial. While there are cost implications for the footprint, expanding an existing charity can be done without any compulsory action and might be very interesting in terms of dealing with social and sheltered housing.
The tax proposals are hardly revolutionary - council tax is a badly out-dated system much in need of reform, and issues like this highlight how unsuitable it is. The single person discount is well meaning but a short-term fix that doesn’t address the underlying issue. In terms of taxing under-occupation, it’s worth remembering that people in such properties already have higher overheads in terms of utilities and the like, so to some extent this is already happening.
It’s absolutely right that much more energy needs to be put into bringing currently derelict homes back onto the market. Cutting VAT on these renovations would help in this regard, but even if we brought all 1 million derelict houses back onto the market, we’re still 4.8m short of what the Government thinks we’ll need over the next 22 years.
Equally, this is connected to the debate about second home ownership and the impact that has on prices. I see no reason why in an age of decentralisation and local decision making local communities should be able to influence the sale of properties which will not be available on the local accommodation market (either rented or owned.)
Part of the problem with this debate is the British (perhaps English) attitude to property, and in particular property ownership. Logically, it seems perfectly sensible to move to a smaller house and reduce your overheads as your accommodation needs fall, or vice-versa as your needs grow. But for some reason, as a nation we are relatively unique in our attitude to bricks and mortar being some kind of spiritual extension of ourselves.
Furthermore, architectural practices focusing on low-rise property have barely changed in a century, save for the boom in city apartments. The suburban trend of two story buildings makes poor use of the development we do have - build higher has been a continental norm for decades.
Of course, perhaps the greatest irony will be the number of people who are up in arms about today’s article who find themselves on the same side of the argument as Monbiot when trying to stop housing development on green belt land near them.