This Is About Ethics In Spy Games Journalism

The  Intercept journalist James Risen has published a fascinating retrospective on his time covering intelligence and security for the New York Times. He discusses how many of his stories exposing CIA wrong-doing during the Bush Administration were spiked by editors who nevertheless gave front-page coverage to stories that appeared to confirm the existence of the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the pretext for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He also writes about his court appearances in 2014 and 2015 when the Obama Administration threatened him with imprisonment for not revealing confidential sources in stories about the CIA’s activities in Iran.

NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen says this was “the most important thing published about journalism today.” Risen’s piece made me think of this tweet from the last days of 2017:

Risen’s account of when and why some of his stories were spiked reminded me of the wonderful ‘Road To Damascus‘ episode from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It deals with the story of how the CIA recruited a double-agent, how that fact was leaked to journalist Tim Weiner, and how the reporting of that story in the New York Times probably caused the death of that double-agent. It was one of the most compelling things I listened to in 2017.

Blind Trials For Politicians and Journalists?

Tee hee: Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was caught out by Krishnan Guru-Murthy last week. The politician assumed that the journalist had read out a Jeremy Corbyn quote, and so dutifully proceeded to attack the words spoken. But Guru-Murthy then revealed that the quote was actually something that Boris Johnson, a Conservative colleague of Mr Fallon, had written in 2005.

There has been much anger expressed by the Corbyn-supporting left this week, after the Labour leader made a gaffe in a BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour interview. He could not remember the financial figures attached to a childcare policy. Many people (including myself) felt that Mr Corbyn was treated unfairly in subsequent media pile-on: its not as if he and his policy team have failed to publish any figures (which would be genuinely shocking) or that the figures they published did not add up. Rather, he simply did not remember the precise figure that the party had published. This kind of ‘gotcha’ journalism says nothing of interest about the man, the party or the policy. There, but for the grace of God, walk you and I. Continue reading “Blind Trials For Politicians and Journalists?”

Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Kickstarter’s Honest Response To A PR Problem

Last year, the amazing Zano project crashed both literally and metaphorically.  Once the largest ever European project to have been funded on Kickstarter, Zano was an ambitious plan to produce thousands of remote control drones with auto-follow and return-to-base capability.  But the idea failed spectacularly in November 2015 when the Welsh company Torquing Group went bust.

This was obviously a personal and financial disaster for those running the company; and a serious disappointment for everyone who had paid £139 or more to Kickstarter in the hope of receiving one of the first batch of drones.

However, it was also a public relations nightmare for Kickstarter.  It is certainly not unknown for crowd-funded projects to fail and not deliver the backer ‘rewards’ as promised, but the high profile nature the Zano project, and its complete demise, threatens to destroy the trust that millions of people have placed in the platform.  Worse, it could undermine the whole idea of crowd-funding as a way to finance products and creative content. Continue reading “Kickstarter’s Honest Response To A PR Problem”

Urging #LibelReform in Scottish Legal News

Earlier this week I spoke to journalist Kapil Summan on behalf of English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, on the issue of reforming the UK defamation laws.

The Defamation Act 2013, you will recall, reformed the law in England & Wales.  But MSPs at Holyrood and MLAs at Stormont have yet to legislate for their jurisdictions.

I extemporised on why reform in required in both places! Kapil wrote up two versions of the interview, for Scottish Legal News and Irish Legal News

Key message:

The fact the Defamation Act seems to be working as Parliament intended is precisely what we were after so we’re going into this … with confidence that the Defamation Act is a very strong blueprint for reform in other jurisdictions.

A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing

The news about the Bahar Mustafa prosecution meant that this week I was reviewing the old reports about the #KillAllWhiteMen controversy.  I noticed something about many of the articles that I think is noteworthy.

All the reports I saw noted that Ms Mustafa sought to ban cis-white men from attending an event that she was organising (indeed, it was this that brought down so much opprobrium on her).  In each story, the following Facebook message was quoted:

Invite loads of BME Women and non-binary people!! Also, if you’ve been invited and you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME just cos I invited a bunch of people and hope you will be responsible enough to respect this is a BME Women and non-binary event only.

In the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail,  the Daily Telegraph, the International Business Times, the BBC Newsbeat, the Daily Express, the quote was reproduced exactly as above.

However, the actual message was posted as a screen grab, and did include a crucial further line: Continue reading “A quick case study in how the media misleads us through selective editing”

On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi

Aylan Kurdi on the beach

Before I mire myself in questions of when and whether to publish shocking images, I should—must—begin by writing about the fact of Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the refugee crisis in general.  If the central argument for publishing an image of a dead boy is that it ‘gets people discussing the issues’ then I think I have an obligation to do so, even if these thoughts have been stated earlier and more eloquently, elsewhere. Continue reading “On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi”

Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing

My virtual meeting with Sam has prompted a meandering journey through a few websites dedicated to the stylish presentation of text. I thought I would note the links in one place: first, merely to note the trend; and second because it will aid discussions with colleagues over how to present our own literary content on the fantastic PEN Atlas.

First: Medium is a relatively new site created by Twitter founder Evan Williams. Writers can create beautiful looking stories and essays very quickly. The site has the clean and spacious aesthetic that has become fashionable recently. Design led by the need for readbility and usability on tablets, mobile phones, while also providing a reading experience on desktop and laptop monitors that is easy on the eye. I was delighted that my request for an early-bird account was granted by Medium’s Director of Content, Kate Lee, and I have just uploaded a story to the site to try out the composition features.

You can read ‘Northern Line Lovers‘ on Medium (and if you like the story, please hit the ‘recommend’ button below the text). I think I will post my other ‘Ficciones‘ there at some point. Continue reading “Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing”

Press Regulation: Grant us serenity

My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge.  It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Dear Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

We would do well to remember this in the debate over press regulation.

I think a great deal of the motivation of politicians and campaigners to impose regulation on the press comes from a hatred of its hackery, rather than phone hacking. Shoddy reporting, blatant ideological propaganda, and quotes taken out of context in order to misrepresent and sensationalise. Continue reading “Press Regulation: Grant us serenity”

The Problem of Verification

Jalena Lecic, whose photos were stolen and posted on the 'Gay Girl In Damascus' site
Jalena Lecic, whos photos were stolen and posted on the ‘Gay Girl In Damascus’ site

Angela Philips of Goldsmiths College, at last Friday’s POLIS conference:

A Major skill for journalists is to learn how to authenticate sources

Or, words to that effect! I made the note on twitter and therefore may have paraphrased. To fully authenticate the quote readers will have to watch the video of the session when it becomes available.

This quote stuck out, because twice in two weeks, I’ve been quick to share information online which has then been questioned and discredited.

The first was the damning testimony of an “executive of Sony Music UK” who described how Simon Cowell grooms and sexualises young performers, in his quest to find a British Justin Beiber.

Ronan was privately auditioned by SYCO scouts on two more occasions and, as is usual practice on BGT, he was “invited”  to audition for the show as a “preferred” contestant.  At the same time, Ronan and his parents were “required” to enter into a contract with SYCO.  Like all SYCO contracts, it is heavily  weighted in favour of the label and are notoriously bad, even in the cut-throat world of the music industry.  Simon effectively signed Ronan for life and he’s got little or no chance of ever  getting out of it…unless Simon decides to terminate.

Now the improbable perfection of little Ronan Parke has always made me feel uneasy, so I was quick to share the story on my Facebook page.  However, the original post quickly disappeared from the website where it was posted and Simon Cowell issued such a strong denial over matters of fact that I felt it rendered the accusatory, anonymous post unreliable.  The following day, James Ward posted an excellent analysis of how the attack was propagated by a twitter account @ukLegion, which has also now disappeared from Twitter.  I shared James’ link on Facebook too.


#include damage.h

An industry insider at #BGT spills his guts on how this year has been totally stiched up for Ronan Parke to win http://justpaste.it/c8g

Earlier this week, reports emerged of the abduction of a Syrian blogger in Damascus.  I duly tweeted out the links on the @englishpen feed, because that is precisely the sort of information we are supposed to share.  However, by Thursday it emerged that no-one can be found who has actually physically met the blogger, Amina Abdallah Arraf.  It appears the photos posted on her site are fake, but it is not clear whether the entire thing is an elaborate hoax, or whether she has cleverly covered her tracks by ensuring that if no-one has met her, no-one can unwittingly betray her.  I was reminded of the Ali Abduleman disappearance in Bahrain in March – I am still not clear whether he was abducted by security personnel, or has simply gone into hiding.

I have several things to say about this.  The first is that linking to hoax information is clearly embarrassing, no two ways about it.  Here’s my worst example, although to be fair it was reminiscent of a real story.  As the Literally Unbelievable blog shows with its comments on The Onion articles, other people are much more gullible than I.

The second thing is to say that, nevertheless, the internet can work as a sort of fact-check engine.  The act of sharing a link does not and should not imply complete endorsement.  In the case of the SyCo smear I, at least, was quick to share the original article and the rebuttals.  In this example, one could say that the act of posting/sharing is also an act of verification.  When you publicise some text, does it stand up to scrutiny?  If not, you have learned a fact about the world, which you also publish.  This method is something that bloggers understand innately.  However, in formal journalistic and legal circles such a practice would still be lumped in with ‘publish and be damned’ as irresponsible journalism.  But it is more akin to open-source fact-checking.

I will also say that internet publishing has the huge advantage over print in that it allows corrections to the original article.  In the case of Amina Abdallah Arraf, the three highly reputable news organisations I linked to (Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post) were all able to correct the original article.  This, I think, lessens the possibility of misinformation spreading.

Finally, this issue puts me in the mind of Ste Curran’s Monica, a play about a fantastic and witty online friend who turns out not to be real.