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
We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.
Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.
Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.
The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.
The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.
The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).
Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?
For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.
At first blush, the success of the No More Page 3 campaign does not look like a victory for free speech. After all, a thing that was being published, is no longer being published. The prudish censors have prevailed, right?
Look again. No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3 (or, for that matter, Page 4 or 5). MPs did not vote on a new Bill. No lawyers have filed a complaint, no judge has granted an injunction. The law is not involved. Freedom of speech means a choice over whether to publish, and Mr Murdoch has chosen not to publish pictures of topless women any more. Continue reading The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism
Earlier this year, two rather shocking examples of over-reach by the security services were revealed. The police have used controversial powers in the Regulation of Invesigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to bypass the need to get a warrant before accessing phone records. They were therefore able to snoop on journalists in a bid to unmask whistleblowers. This is a threat to free speech and something a judge would never have signed off on.
The two cases both involved political scandals. The first was the hacking of the Mail on Sunday journalists reporting on the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal. The second was spying on the political editor of The Sun who was reporting on the Andrew Mitchell #Plebgate affair (for once, a pleasing use of the ‘-gate’ suffix since the scandal did involve an actual gate).
Both these cases have outraged journalists and human rights campaigners. It’s an invasion of privacy and discourages free speech. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. However, I wonder whether these cases persuade the public at large that there is a problem. Journalists and politicians are among the least trusted professions, so I wonder whether they garner much sympathy. These are not scandals that relate to the lives most people are living.
I’ve argued before that campaigners need to ground their defence of human rights principles in stories that are meaningful to ordinary people. Good recent examples of this approach in action: The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (see here and here) and the Daily Mirror (see here and here).
There is another news story bubbling away at the moment that I think may persuade the public of the dangers of unchecked surveillance, and that is the investigations into alleged child abuse by senior establishment figures including, apparently, a former minister. There were apparently two dossiers about alleged pædophiles presented to Home Secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s, which have since gone missing. And according to Zac Goldsmith MP, detailed records seized from the notorious Elm Guest House disappeared after they were taken as evidence by the police.
Here’s what I reckon. It’s all conjecture and hypothesis, but I think it’s plausible: I think there must be former policemen and civil servants out there with knowledge of a cover-up. I think that some of them would like to ‘blow the whistle’ and tell the country what they know. But since police-officers are likely to be implicated in a cover-up, we run the risk that they will use RIPA and other surveillance powers to track-down and discredit anyone seeking to tell their story to the media, in confidence.
Potential whistleblowers know this. They have seen how people talking to journalists in the public interest are hounded by the security services.
I think that people who should be speaking up about child abuse today are keeping quiet because of the surveillance of journalists. My sad prediction is that we will one day discover this to be true, and that victims were denied a chance at justice.
Politicians like to say that surveillance keeps us safe, but sometimes, too much surveillance can cause irreparable damage, too.
Alan Hemming has been murdered in Syria. What a disgusting, inhumane act.
Few of us have much faith in the tabloids to show much restraint in these situations.
I bet tomorrow's papers are so prurient and exploitative they'll look like ISIS were guest editors.
— Justin McKeating (@JustinMcKeating) October 3, 2014
However, Stig Abel, Managing Editor at The Sun, says his paper will not glorify the killing and will instead focus on celebrating the life of a kind and decent man.
Sun leader: "We are not publishing images from the video… We refuse to give his absurd murderers the publicity they crave." 1/2
— Stig Abell (@StigAbell) October 3, 2014
The latest multicultural controversy feels entirely manufactured, but I’ll bite anyway. Apparently, Pizza Express is serving Halal chicken to its customers, but not announcing this fact on its menus. The Sun is outraged, and the story was on the front page yesterday.
Unfortunately the entire article is behind a paywall, but I read it on paper and its a sneering, conspiratorial piece that seems to imply that this choice by Pizza Express is evidence of some creeping Islamic takeover of Britain. Continue reading Halal pizza and the demonisation of Muslims
My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge. It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:
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 Sun argues that it is in the public interest to publish naked pictures of Prince Harry. I say it is in the public interest to keep them out of the papers. It reinforces the notion that celebrities (and for better or for worse, Royals are a form of ‘celeb’) can operate by different standards of behaviour to the rest of us.
We’ve been here before. Remember when upstanding moral beacon Prince William groped a Brazillian teenager, Ana Ferreira? Antics that would and should get you thrown out of the nightclub, and maybe even a visit from the police in other circumstances, are waved away as ‘just a bit of fun’ or ‘spreading wild oats’ if you are a Royal. People were less understanding when (Mike Tindall was caught on camera in a lap-dancing club, but he is only married to a Royal).
The double-standards we grant to some people was amusingly highlighted by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian yesterday:
He is the Boris Johnson of the royal family, a buffoon whose every antic only improves his public standing.
In economics, a Veblen Good is a status symbol that defies the usual assumptions about price and demand. Such goods becomes more sought after when the price increases (for example, Rolls Royce cars). In such a way, Prince Harry is the Veblen Royal, where the things that would sink a less likeable member of the Royal Family (Prince Edward, say?) only increase his stock. Boris Johnson is a Veblen Politician.
Should public figures aspire to Veblen status? No. The problem with the concept is that it is arises due to arrogance and unnatural wealth. We deplore Veblen goods when we encounter them in economics, and we should not encourage the Royal or Political variations either. The excessive attention only encourages the behaviour… and the behaviour usually involves demeaning other people.