Building the Mythology of Jihadi John

Ever since the ISIS murderer and propagandist ‘Jihadi John’ was revealed to be a British engineering graduate called Mohammed Emwazi, our news media has been saturated with reports about his school days, his personality, and the possible causes of his radicalisation: he ran into a goalpost as a kid; he went to school with Tulisa
The coverage grates.  Its full of cod-psychological comments from former pupils at his school, noting the fact that he was a ‘loner’.  Reading these quotes, I’m reminded of one of the insights from Serial, the podcast phenomenon about the murder of a Baltimore schoolgirl Hae Min Lee in 1999.  That series makes the point that people are susceptible to a confirmation bias in their memories.  When told that someone is a murderer, people naturally recall those incidents where the person acted weird or like a ‘loner’.  But alternatively, those who are convinced that the convicted person is innocent remember him as friendly and outgoing. Continue reading “Building the Mythology of Jihadi John”

The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism

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”

The Coercive Royal Charter

The Royal Charter that would establish a body to oversee press regulation was due to be referred to the Privy Council today. But industry bodies representing the press have filed an injunction against that happening. The court will examine the application this morning. Legal blogger and former government lawyer Carl Gardner says judges may grant the injunction for the time being, even as he doubts that any legal challenge by the press will ultimately succeed.
In the Monday editon of the Guardian, Helen Anthony (legal consultant to English PEN) laid out a succinct explanation of just what is wrong with the new regulatory system. Continue reading “The Coercive Royal Charter”

Media Fail

Over at the Spectator, Alex Massie analyses an Ipsos-Mori poll on some of the beliefs the British people hold about our country and the way the Government operates.
To pick just one statistic:

Then there’s this doozy: 29% of respondents think the government spends more on unemployment benefits – the Job Seekers’ Allowance – than on pensions. In fact, pensions cost 15 times as much (rightly so!).

Apparently the British public is similarly misinformed about the propoertion of Muslims in the country, the number of immigrants, the budget of the Department for International Development, the rate of teenaged pregancies, and the crime rate.
Massie shies away from calling the British people stupid, though the headline to his post ‘Abandon All Hope’ suggests this is what he thinks.  And clearly this poll shows that we are, indeed, a highly ignorant bunch.
But I think it would be wrong for we the public to take the blame.  To my mind, this poll shows that we are being failed by our media.  Their primary purpose is surely to keep us informed about what is going on in our democracy, and clearly they are not doing that job effectively.  That’s not something that Alex Massie cares to consider in his article.

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.
It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …
In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.
The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

An Idea to Improve Newspaper Corrections

Emotions play a big part in many complaints against the press. Invasions of privacy undoubtedly hurt a person’s feelings, and often a person’s sense of their damaged reputation is related to how they think other people perceive them. In many cases, all the wronged party seeks is a correction in the newspaper. They would happily forgo substantial financial damages if only the newspaper would apologise and publish a correction.  The BBC’s current series See You In Court makes this point very clearly in the case of Sheryl Gascoigne, smeared by three tabloid papers.
Unfortunately, “equal prominence” corrections cause problems for the press. Newspaper editors are often reluctant to publish corrections, because it weakens their credibility, and damages the editorial control they feel they have a right to retain. Very often, news companies would prefer to pay damages and keep quiet about a mistake, rather than print an apology. When the corrections do come, they often seem unsatisfactory to the claimant, buried within the paper.
I have been experimenting with Flipboard and Instapaper this week, two iPad applications which pull content from sources on the web, and repackage it in their own typographic design. This is only possible because web designers have realised that their content must be “platform agnostic”. Design and Content are now kept totally separate in the digital world.  These are the fruits of a battle fought and won against <table> layouts and text embedded in JPEGs (see my Creative Review letter of 2005 for more on this).
It occurred to me that in 2011, news organisations can afford to make all their content similarly agnostic, at very little extra cost. Currently, when they publish a correction, they routinely do so somewhere obscure in the paper, and on an equally obscure page on the website. But Flipboard reminds us that the newspapers are not bound by how their content is displayed online.  Modern technology and cheap digital printing means this same flexibility applies offline, too. Just as I can enlarge the font on a web-browser so everything appears in 40pt Arial, so content printed in the middle pages can be brought to prominence too. I think a few well placed instructions in this area, from the PCC to the newspapers they regulate, could reap psychological dividends for the complainants at no extra cost.
My idea: when the PCC rules against a paper and orders an apology, the paper will print that apology as usual. However, it also publishes, online in PDF form, a redesigned version of then same article. The alternative design template carries the style sheet of the front page of the paper, complete with masthead and a big bold typeface. This PDF is formally ‘published’ by the newspaper, with it’s own ISSN – derivatives of the papers main ISSN are available for electronic editions and supplements.
I’ve mocked up an example, using a recent clarification English PEN secured from The Sun, following a complaint to the PCC.  The first image is the actual clarification as it appeared in the newspaper.  The second is the same text, redesigned by me.

What this means is that the redesigned apology can be reprinted, reproduced and distributed by the claimant and anyone else who wishes to comment on the story. This satisfies the crucial psychological itch at the heart of many complaints to the libel courts and the PCC. Meanwhile, the editors and publishers retain control over the design of the main printed product they put on sale, and the cost of creating a supplementary version of their article is zero (you would just type in a reference to an article and click ‘generate’). In previous times, designing and printing an alternative design was prohibitively expensive. Now the cost is trivial, meaning publishers would have no grounds to refuse to perform such a repackaging.  This idea isn’t perfect, but it would offer more redress than the current process.
Question:  Does compelling a publisher to re-issue something they have published, but with a different design, constitute an infringement of free expression?

Geoffrey Robertson QC and Alan Rusbridger

Now then: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has resigned from the PCC code committee.  Last week he said that the PCC report into the allegations that the News of the World had been hacking people’s phones was “dangerous to the press” and that it was behaving “uselessly” as a self-regulator.
That was last Monday, 9th November.  But I wonder if Rusbridger’s mind was finally nudged in favour of resignation the following day, by the Human Rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC?  Robertson was speaking at the launch of English PEN and Index on Censorship’s Campaign for Libel Reform, at the Free Word Centre.  He had this to say on the subject of the media and the PCC:

The media … have for years committed a fraud on the public and on their readers by presenting this confidence trick of the Press Complaints Commission, as though it were a real court, as though it were significant.  The Press Complaints Commission has been funded by the press, in order firstly to provide a poor person’s libel court (which has now gone by the board because now everyone who sues uses CFAs); it has been funded secondly to prevent the encroachment of the law of privacy – and its too late now, because we have a law of privacy: ill-designed, vaugely worded, European Gobbledegook for the most part, which is being implemented in a ham-fisted way by the judiciary.
So, there’s no point in the PCC.  If the editors of Fleet Street had any real integrity they would withdraw.  As Ian Hislop said, as the editor of the only organ that refuses to accept PCC judgements, he wouldn’t want to live up to the ethics of the newspaper editors who are on the PCC’s ethics committee!

Alan Rusbridger, crouched in the aisles and listening with a wry smile, duly reported some this criticism via Twitter.

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Geoffrey Robertson QC


This weekend’s story about Peter Mandelson and Oleg Deripaska demonstrates and interesting example of media short-hand:

Sunday Telegraph 26th October 2008
Sunday Telegraph 26th October 2008

Ever since Roman Abramovich bought his way into the British consciousness, the word ‘oligarch’ has been used to describe Russian Billionaires. It is used erroneously: Oligarch means a ruler of sorts, but Abramovich, Deripaska and Usmanov are not members of the Russian Government. Instead, they are businessmen, and now the word has become a shorthand for a particular cliche, one that hints at post-KGB gangsterism. All the papers choose to link Peter Mandelson and George Osborne to an ‘oligarch’, not a ‘businessman’, because the former casts Oleg Deripaska in a more sinister light. Its a better news story as a result, but its also a twisting of language, I reckon.
It reminds me of the ‘radical’ Shia Cleric, Moqtadr Al-Sadr.
Continue reading “Oligarch”

As One Door Closes…

Daily Express front pageOne imagines that the conclusion of the inquiry into the death of Princess Diana would be a source of sadness for the Daily Express team. Their Monday morning headlines on the story have been a staple of national life for eleven years.
However, today’s front page suggests that they may have found a sequel. Who would bet against the prediction that the Express will still be running stories about Madeline in 2019?