24 July 2011

Is Hack an irregular verb?

I suspect that “Hack” is an irregular verb.
·         I investigate,
·         You hire private eyes (in the public interest of course),
·         He hacks.
Journalists are very keen to say – We abide by the code – We do not hack – We do not do this sort of thing.
I like most of the journalists that I know. They are people who find the world deeply interesting. They try to make sense of it and they try to convey what they see to other people.  All of these things are admirable.
I deeply dislike anything in the way of a witch hunt, and I do not like that at present many journalists will feel threatened by the crisis that is hitting their profession. It is of course nothing like as bad for the majority of them as it was for the MPs when their turn of being in an unwelcome spotlight came two years ago. The journalists have the advantage that they can tell things their way, and a pretty good chance of making themselves heard, a privilege that was completely unavailable to the MPs who were attacked without mercy by the press.
However I do not accept the comfortable view held by many journalists, that the state of journalism is fine, there are just a few bad apples, criminals who should bear the full penalty of the law.
If we look at what the some elements of the press produces, sensationalism, speculation, exaggeration, celebrity focused gossip, the prejudging of people accused of a crime, the details of murders, tragedies, scandals, the demonization of individuals and of different sectors of the community,  then we are forced to see that all is not well.
If we look at the many burning issues that the papers raise but do not really help us to grasp: the future of pensions, jobs for young people, the state of our care services, tax avoidance,  fuel poverty  to name a few, it is right to expect that the press could do so much more.
If we look at the way in which papers drive a wedge between people who we elect to try and solve these problems for us then we could wish for a different and more productive ways for the press to promote better communication.
It is not all well. The press needs to see this. It needs to accept that this is a moment where a change is both possible and necessary.
The press would be happier if the focus remains on the extreme horror of the Milly Dowler case. This would be a wasted opportunity.
I have spent much of the last 6 months sitting listening to hearings of the Stafford Hospital inquiry. The common perception , which has been fostered by some rather seriously flawed reporting, is that Stafford is unique, and that therefore other hospitals do not have much to learn from the matter. This is a shame. Most of what we are finding by close scrutiny of the Stafford Hospital case actually shows that the problems that did exist here were not spotted because they are not in any way as extreme as they have been portrayed. There were a series of individual problems which are on the spectrum which takes in the whole of the NHS. The NHS has a lot to learn, but because the press has not yet been able to see this clearly the NHS does not yet recognise this.
There is an analogy with the News of the world and the press. There are aspects of what was happening with the NOTW and NI which are pretty unusual, and perhaps unique, in particular the behaviours for which Vince Cable has just coined the phrase “heavy lobbying”, and the uncomfortably close relationship with the MET, but there are other aspects of questionable ways of getting a story, or failures to check accuracy which we can find throughout the press.  The behaviour is not an aberration, but something on the edge of a broad spectrum of behaviour which is common to many other papers and journalists too.
So what is to be done about it?
If we stay with the perception of isolated extreme behaviour the temptation is to go after the individual journalists that went too far, and throw the book at them, sackings, trials, prison sentences.  But if it is part of a spectrum, part of a culture in which bad practice thrives and the best practice struggles, then a different approach is needed.  The curing of this widespread insidious infection has to come from within the body of the journalistic profession. Journalists have to play an active part in the healing process.
A number of people are suggesting some form of amnesty for journalists; a window of opportunity for them to come forward and declare the things that they feel have been wrong, an opportunity to openly analyse and to assist with the process of devising good rules, good monitoring processes and imagining a better press.
The urging for this amnesty is coming from a range of different people, who may have different, and perhaps conflicting reasons for suggesting it. I suggest it because I value openness and I hate witch hunts, it is possible that other people are suggesting it to deflect attention from the Murdoch press and to spread blame more widely.  I am not sure if an amnesty is something that journalists would welcome, or if it should be done. I would like to hear other people’s views on this.  
The ground rules that have governed the press are the “editor’s code” this is what it says. It is a code that is devised by editors, and it is there to help protect editors. If their journalists infringe the code then that is cause for dismissal. If they remain within the code then this is protection from being sued by people who object to their coverage. This is all good for the interests of the editors and proprietors.
Does this code serve the public well? Does it serve the interests of principled good journalists who want to follow the highest standards of the profession?  How could or should it be improved?
All of this will come under close scrutiny as the Leverson inquiry takes shape. I want to see journalists working with the public to devise rules that are for the good of the public as a whole.
Going after the journalists who can be seen to have done wrong is something that will appeal to the “sleuth” in many journalists, and it could run and run. Personally I do not see this as a productive process. A great deal of real harm has been done to many people by the press over many years. Maybe now what we need is not so much retribution as a truth and reconciliation process.
What do other people think about an amnesty where journalists can own up to bad practice, followed by a period of generous and prominent apologies to those have been harmed over the years?  This should be coupled by the full co-operation of the journalists in the devising of a code where the primary purpose is to protect the public, to foster the public good, and to protect journalists from undue pressure.

Let me know what you think about this. Does there need to be a wider survey to canvass opinion?

22 July 2011

Cops, Robbers and Scoop.

I’ve  found myself thinking back to childhood, the games that were played in the playground, and some of the board games we used to play in the family.
The boys lived in a vivid imaginative world, cops, robbers, Indians, sleuths.  When it rained and we played indoors, there were a handful of board games, Monopoly, cheat, and we also had scoop, a competitive game about journalists getting their story.
The people who are the top of the journalistic profession now were brought up with the same influences. I have been thinking to about some of the impulses that have driven the creation the kind of press we have now.
The industry is driven by powerful individuals – and their character is reflected in the papers they produce.
Amongst the snippets of information about Rupert Murdoch that have emerged there are a few inconsequential matters that stood out for me.  There was the tree house, which is where his father apparently insisted he should sleep during part of his childhood, to “toughen him up”.
We have had the fascinating glimpse back 40 years to one of Murdochs early stories covering the fugitive Ronnie Biggs in Australia, where Murdoch, who had obviously developed his links with the police very early in his career persuaded the police to verify the finger print on documents sent to him by Ronnie Biggs. This was of great help to Murdoch in publishing a verified story, and apparently of help in funding Biggs to remain on the run, but apparently of no great help to the police in catching their man!
One of Murdoch’s contacts testifies to his genuine interest in his papers, and the detailed questions he would ask people about how they got their stories. He apparently took real pleasure in the process of journalism. – did he enjoy the games and stratagems used to “land” a story?
There is also a moment during Murdoch’s evidence to the select committee, when he talked about his father. A lot of people wondered why on earth he was doing this, a plea for sympathy, the ramblings of an old man- but to my mind it was central. I believe that this is a man who is still at the age of 80 trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and who had been confronted with the very uncomfortable realisation that after having “succeeded” in building an empire which met his father’s expectations, that the quality of what he had done had been weighed and found wanting.
It is of course ridiculous to suppose that Rupert Murdoch could or would have had any idea of the criminal activities being carried out in his name, but he does have a responsibility for the culture of the titles that he owns, the culture that produced this behaviour,  and for the apparently ramshackle nature of corporate governance within these organisations.
I think it is also ridiculous to suppose that phone hacking occurred only within the News of the World, or that phone hacking is necessarily the most serious abuse that exists within the press.
What I am pretty certain that we do have, and here I am back to the excitable boys in the playground, is a culture that puts far too strong an emphasis on “sleuthing”, and finding out what is hidden. Journalism – is perhaps seen by many as fairly dull stuff, involving a lot of very boring and hard work, but “investigative journalism” is all together much more exciting.
Operation Motorman shows us that there were many papers involved in the use of private investigators . The BBC Radio 4 programme “the report” indicates that if papers are outsourcing fact finding to people who are not under the direct control of the paper, then you can quite quickly get to a point where just about anything goes.
More recently we have had all the interest in MPs expenses, where it was the idea that things were being hidden that kept the interest of the press alive in the very dull details of what all bit a handful of MPs were actually being paid. That all began with stolen information being shared with a newspaper. All justified in the name of public interest of course. It is certainly not a bad idea to challenge the key institutions of our country, but I think that most people would now say that the press did in many cases get this entirely out of proportion, and that they certainly did so to political effect.
 There has been Wikileaks with all the excitement that that entailed.
There was the huge fuss surrounding the “climategate emails”, which we now hear may have involved Neil Wallis, Andy Coulson’s deputy editor at News of the World. This was important. The leaking of hidden emails gave an interest and odd credibility to the idea of a conspiracy to exaggerate the threat of global warming, and it did so at the crucial moment to destabilise the Copenhagen conference.  So this had the ingredients of hidden information, being using in a misleading way, which confused people, and this had a political effect.
In the case that I am close to, I have a ring side seat to watch the process of journalists “getting” a story.   The Stafford Hospital story is interesting in that it does involve two completely separate elements that became merged through the press.
The press chose to champion the campaign of a small group of people who had found themselves deeply frustrated by the complaints process at the hospital and throughout the NHS. They had every right to do this. They then got caught up in the distinctly messy business of a set of mortality figures which were leaked to the press because they had been deliberately excluded from the Health care commission report on the hospital.  Like anything that is “hidden” this immediately excited undue attention.

If the press had chosen to print this leaked information with clear acknowledgements that it was leaked and clear explanations of why it was hidden, this would have treated readers with respect, and allowed them to make their own judgement. No paper has adequately done this.  The nationals for the most part do not even know the doubtful source of the material. All the press throughout the country has simply accepted this seriously flawed and misleading information at face value, and it has been used for political purposes.  The widely criticised “reforms” to the NHS have been “sold” with reference to the public perception of Stafford created by the press coverage.
The Inquiry was convened  to try and deal with the inconsistency, to explore how it could be possible for very large numbers of people to have died in the way these figures indicated, whilst no one saw anything out of the ordinary. What we have seen is that there are many indications that Stafford suffered problems that are real but widespread.  We have also seen quite a few indications that the boring nuts and bolts of corporate governance is not fine tuned enough to pick up some of the basic problems of patient care, and needs to be strengthened in Stafford and throughout the NHS.       
Occasionally there has been a little glimmer of excitement for the press. There was for instance the evidence of Professor Jarman, which showed his anger at what he perceived to be the “gaming” of his system by the West midlands hospitals. I watched with interest the excitement of the press pack picking up this story. It was the evening headlines on the BBC and next day in the press. Unfortunately no one was in the press gallery the following day when the Counsel put a rather different interpretation and infinitely more plausible explanation of events, and when the Chairman of the Inquiry indicated his serious displeasure that the press continued to trot out the misleading mortality figures.
After so many months of an inquiry there is very little that is “hidden” about Stafford, apart from the fact that the story is still not being told in a well rounded way by the press.  The real story that we can now see if we choose to look has I am afraid very little of the excitement of the story that the press and media believed existed. The decision of the press not to openly tell the full story is or course a very interesting "hidden" story in its own right!
The press interest is still focused on one witness that they want to see produced, A witness who is unlikely ever to appear.
With the Phone hacking and Murdoch story – there is so much that remains hidden that people will remain deeply interested. There are bin bags full of unread notes, potentially thousands of victims, and the archive of “smoking gun” emails at the wonderfully named Harbottle and Lewis lawyers.  There is all the jigsaw of who knew what and when and who can be blamed, alongside a fair bit of understandable political anger about decades of dirty tricks. There is the human story of people who want to settle scores.
This is what will hold peoples interest, but the really important matters here are what happens as a result of all of this. We will get to see what went wrong with corporate governance? What needs to be done to ensure that individual newspaper proprietors do not exert too much influence? What needs to be done to ensure the ethics and quality of reporting? How do you ensure that the links between politicians and the press is not a malign influence on both?
Of course journalists will always get caught up in the excitement of the stories they tell, this is in the nature of the profession, and papers are in part entertainment, but it would be really good if in the wake of the Hacking scandal that papers begin to redefine their role.  Will papers continue to focus on what is good for their proprietors and the proprietor’s friends, or will some papers see it as their job to look at the interests of the community as a whole? Could papers act to allow a wide range of voices to be effectively heard, or will the proprietors still wish to be selective? Will there be papers in ten years time, and if so what will they look like?
Leverson will I hope require the press to do the boring stuff of looking at their own corporate governance and their own standards.
We are entering into a world where there will be many shadowy companies delivering many of the services which used once upon a time to be public. There is a major job here for good journalists all over the country to be the eyes and ears of the public and tell us more about what is happening within these companies. Some of it might even involve a bit of sleuthing!   

18 July 2011

The Anatomy of the press scandal

As the days turn to weeks many people write many words in an attempt to understand just what this press scandal is and what it means.
Is hacking just a storm in a teacup?
There are some who would like the matter to be contained, for it to be a narrowly focused question of why an individual newspaper hired an individual man to hack into the phones of celebrities, politicians and ordinary people who just happened to find themselves in the news.
There are many who hope that this is all a storm in a teacup, that of the thousands of potential victims in the Mulcaire notebooks only a handful will have suffered anything more than a theoretical intrusion into their privacy.
There are also many who fervently hope that there is nothing within these notebooks to link what is being found to other newspapers, but the opinion from people who have watched these matters closely throughout the years is that hacking and other forms of intrusion is an infection that is widespread throughout the media. It probably began when Mobile phones first began to be widely used.
Intrusion is not new. The media hunger for salacious stories has been satisfied by many different means. Hacking was simply an invisible way of doing it with no chance of being discovered elbow deep in someone’s rubbish bins.
Mobile phones and the media became the story many years ago now, with the interception of mobile phone conversations by members of the royal family.  Hacking into messages is simply a natural development from that, and the fact that it was illegal does not seem to have been much of a restraint to people involved in such a potentially lucrative practice.
The problem that underlies all of this is the routine blurring of the line between what is of interest to the public, and will therefore sell a lot of newspapers, and what is in the public interest.  This is one of the questions that we must hope Lord Leverson will attempt to clarify in his Inquiry.
People who found themselves too much of “interest to the public” especially the bereaved have had some defence against the excess of press intrusion when they knew it was happening, but they had no effective defence against this invisible and completely illegal theft of their feelings.
Who was part of the trade in information?
Hacking is the starting point of this scandal, but the problem is so much wider than this.
What is still to emerge is how did this industrial scale theft of phone numbers and pin numbers come about.  Who encouraged it? Did they understand what was being done? How many people throughout the country are implicated in this illegal trade in personal information?
How are stories verified?
With the question of who knew about the trade I think that the starting point should be what action did the papers take to ensure themselves that the stories they were printing were true?  
We heard in the Select Committee on hacking in 2009 that the news of the world employed a legal advisor, who was there in part to ensure that the paper did not leave itself open to the possibility of expensive liable suits. This was especially necessary for a paper that prided itself on exposing uncomfortable truths.  My assumption is  (and I may be completely wrong about this) that it would be simple good practices for any editor to a story was true, and would not harm the reputation or pockets of the paper.
The stories being captured by phone hacking had the huge advantage that they were certainly essentially true, and they were certainly exclusive.
We need to understand the verification process that operated within the papers. How do they know if a story is accurate, How do they know what sources of information were being used? Would there be people within the paper who will actually have listened to the messages?
As the suspicions of phone hacking has grown over the years more and more of the victims have challenged the News of the World  about the source of the “exclusives”. They have done so with considerable success at the cost of millions in out of court settlements.
Who authorised out of court settlements?
This raises big questions. Someone in a position of some authority had to sign off these cheques, and it is reasonable to assume that they would have wanted to know why they were doing so.
The storm clouds have been gathering for a long while now. I did not really become aware of it all until 2009 but many people have been tracking this story now for years before that, and it is these people who have insistently raised the uncomfortable questions about David Cameron’s former head of communications, Andy Coulson.
Was there a cover up?
These questions are big and deeply worrying. If people knew that phone hacking had been an issue for almost a decade then why despite internal investigations, a police investigation and a review of the investigation, why despite bin bags full of evidence would no one publically recognise the scale of the problem.  
Were News of the world and by extension News International hiding things from the police?
Were the police sweeping things under the carpet and if so why?
Why didn’t more politicians speak out?
A small number of politicians knew of the allegations and were demanding action, what are the different reasons why politicians from different parties were not giving them their unequivocal support in this?
Where politicians simply accepting the assurances of the police that there was not a significant problem?
Where politicians hesitant to pick a fight with News of the World and the Murdoch empire because in the shadow of the MPs expenses scandal which had indiscriminately smeared  so many MPs, they understood and feared the consequences for themselves as individuals, and for their chances of electoral success?
Was it because for some MPs and politicians it actively suited them for the sun and the news of the world to have a free hand to do as they pleased?
Was it because being and remaining on the right side of Rupert Murdoch mattered?
Why didn’t the Press complaints commission deal with the concerns?
There is a regulatory body for the press, but it is a body run by editors for editors. It has insufficient powers to investigate, it takes people at their word.
David Cameron and Murdoch
There is the invidious position of David Cameron.
David Cameron is a man who places a great reliance on friends, and Rupert Murdoch is a man who lives to exert influence.  We have seen through the friendships forged within the chipping Norton triangle the way in which the interests of David Cameron may have become merged with the interests of Rupert Murdoch in a way that may now be deeply harmful to both.
We have seen through accounts of the networking conducted by the Murdoch empire, how controlling access to power, the circles within the glamorous settings of the summer parties may involve many people in subtle forms of corruption.
David Cameron and Andy Coulson
The friendships at the heart of these circles we now hear brought Andy Coulson into the employment of David Cameron at the suggestion of Rebekah Brooks.  This is something extraordinary. We have a highly skilled media manipulator, someone who understands exactly what sparks the public interest, and what sells papers, able to act as Murdoch’s man in number 10 and as Cameron’s man in the media.
Just think of the opportunities that this creates.  
What is the impact on the way in which political communications were carried out?
We have not yet even begun to analyse the way in which the communications operation worked, at the Conservative headquarters, and later at number 10, but we know we have at the heart of it a man with the skills to package stories, a particular view of the world that is in tune with the views of the Murdoch empire, and he now has access to the Conservative party machine, a machine which would be primed to pass good stories through so that they could achieve maximum impact.
We saw the way in which Cameron in opposition used Prime Ministers questions to inflate what he described as “Daily Mail Specials” into stories with national mainstream media significance.  We have seen how many of these stories were based on “individuals” in true tabloid style, and that many were also based on misleading information.
In my own town I have seen a story which encompassed both these elements used to devastating political effect.  I believe when we begin to look more closely at the way in which communications was conducted in the years from 2007 that we will find much more that will concern us.
Putting public interest at the heart of the relationship with the press.
All of this raises many big questions. We have lifted the lid on a press as the plaything of powerful men, operating in the interests of the few, and contemptuous of the needs or rights of those people who become the focus of interest.
When we look we will find out much that relates  to the specifics of phone hacking and the individuals at the centre of this particular story, but I believe that we will also find the failings of the press regulatory system that permits many misleading stories to be told, and does not enforce proportionate apologies.
The current PCC has at its heart the Editors code committee, made up of editors. This must change.
Reimagining the press.
The press has been, for as long as we can remember the means by which rich and powerful individuals can promote their view of the world. If this is fundamentally changed by the changes in regulation that will come, then where does this leave us?
There is a real need for a different kind of press. Something that really does address the communication of the problems that confront us all, something that brings people together to find solutions.  This is completely at variance with the interests of powerful press proprietors, who actively seek to create division, to be on the winning side and to control.
If we change the ground rules, if we create a press that is in the interests of the many, will the proprietors simply close up shop, or will they adjust themselves to the needs of a changed world?

17 July 2011

Is there more to this cosy circle of friends ?

I was munching my toast on Sunday morning wondering who this high profile resignation was to be from...  tweeting away... having a little giggle at some of the funnier tweets...  getting concerned about some other developments I was reading about...  nothing unusual there then !!  No announcement this morning ! Then around lunchtime the news broke that Rebekah Brooks had been arrested. It was pointed out fairly quickly that the arrest was by appoinment..  and of course all the usual questions were asked and opinions given!

The statement from Rebekah's spokesperson soon arrived... who would that be ?  A little bit of digging around soon revealed that the spokesperson was from Bell Pottinger... Aha ! A name I recognise well.  Being interested in human rights and what's happening in Bahrain, for example, I know that Bell Pottinger represent that government.  Protesters are also aware of who is representing their govt...   they have held up placards 'You can't spin the unspinnable' !  Things got dangerous to the extent that Bell Pottinger had to close the office..   Lord Astor became involved according to Bell Pottinger but the UK Govt refuted that he'd praised the dialogue referred to http://is.gd/9DroZ0  Lord Astor is UK under-secretary at the MoD and he's also Sam Cameron's stepfather...  So it might have been a bit embarrassing if, indeed, he had been involved... don't you think ? http://is.gd/rzWEZW.  If you're wondering who Rachel Whetstone is - wife of Steve Hilton. Just click on her name! And here's a bit more http://is.gd/sYJSYO from 2010.

Bell Pottinger was, of course the firm whose internship was auctioned by the Conservatives at their Black & White party. As well as in the daily news it also received criticism from within the PR industry http://is.gd/Ez2ZXE.  Via auction, the internship was being offered to the highest bidder rather than on merit, giving opportunity only to the wealthy.  And here's a little bit of info about Lord Bell the man in charge  http://is.gd/ppdcaL

Going back in history Tim Bell was brought in to help the troubled Lord Black to defuse the crisis at Hollinger which owned the Daily Telegraph http://is.gd/xsRaWx  So he's used to helping out media moguls...  Black is now serving a jail sentence...  http://is.gd/dWMBMj

And of course there's the whole saga surrounding Mrs. Duffy...  who I'm sure you'll remember. But Bell Pottinger ?  Hmm...  read on...  you might find a few more names that you're familiar with too  http://is.gd/0Vs34Y

Oh and if you want to know how Bell Pottinger sell themselves http://www.bell-pottinger.co.uk/

Wonder what they can do for Rebekah?  When she leaves the Police Station maybe Rebekah will take herself off to Champneys - she'll be in good company as her husband Charlie Brooks introduced the kriotherapy chamber there...  http://is.gd/2mZGpM.  What's that ?  Well it's something like a big ice cube..  I think... http://is.gd/ZRGhHK.

Oh but hang on hasn't Champneys already been in the news today...  http://is.gd/JdVmBr  
As I write this blog, Sir Paul Stephenson has resigned from his post as Police Commissioner. How many more will bite the dust coming out of the murky world surrounding News International?

And if Rebekah doesn't fancy Champneys ? She might just fly off somewhere for lunch ! http://is.gd/EXz1pp

All the information contained in this blog is publicly available.

The Exploitation of grief.

It already seems a long time ago since we first heard about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. What has brought down the Murdoch empire is that we finally saw clearly that we were dealing with people who simply do not abide by any normal rules, who saw it as their right to satisfy the interest of the public at any cost.
I would like to suggest that what we saw here is the extreme edge of a spectrum of intrusion and exploitation. Maybe we need to think a little about the way we have become desensitised to the public “ownership” if grief.
Most journalists learn their trade in the local press. What they are trained to look for is something unusual happening to the ordinary people that make up their small world.
Accidents, crime, what the coroner said, and the occasional murder are all occasions when ordinary people become of fleeting interest to the press.
Sometimes it goes further, sometimes there will be an individual prepared to answer the question “how does it feel”, opening up a window into the mind of an ordinary person coping with some big emotion.
When it comes to murder our interest and the interest of the press become much stronger.   The families of a high profile murder victim become for a time at least public property. 
This is nothing new. The penny dreadful of the Victorian period relied on murders as their stock in trade, but now the reporting of high profile murders, especially of young women or children has acquired its own predictable ritual.
The bereaved know the rules of this. They play their part.
There are the press conferences, with the fraught and tearful appeals to the public for information on missing persons. Here the police and the relatives genuinely need to attract the maximum press interest. It has a purpose.
There is the finding of the body, with helicopter views of the tented area, and statements from representatives of the bereaved family.
There are appeals for information, police press conferences on the progress of the murder hunt, the announcement of the interviews with suspects, arrests, charges. There are opportunities at every turn for the reactions of the bereaved.  Often the press are warned off from overt unwanted attention.  The editors code gives clear guidelines to protect the bereaved. This is why the hacking of mobile phones was such a powerful tool for the press. At the time when the public were  hooked by a story and wanted to know everything then hacking  provided a window into the hearts of the bereaved without their knowledge or consent.
And then there are the funerals, with photographers with long lenses, there to capture the mourners and the coffins, interviews with family, friends and anyone else with a story to tell.
Then we have the trial. Different families behave differently. For some they need to be there, to have the opportunity to look at the face of the accused, to understand this person who has impacted upon their lives so cruelly.  Others keep a distance, remain away.
The trial is the show piece for the press. This is the opportunity to report some of the worst aspects of human behaviour. It is nothing new. This is the foundation of the tabloid press.
The verdict, is the time when families are expected to give a reaction, to show their response to the “justice” delivered in their case.
 For most families, this can if they choose be the end of the ordeal by the press. They are then free to grieve quietly in their own way. How much of all this process is in the “public interest” is difficult to judge, but we do know that it is something that the public will find of consuming interest. It all sells many newspapers.
For some of the bereaved there are special reasons why this is just a beginning of a new phase.
It is a completely natural instinct to feel that if you have suffered something so terrible, especially if it was in some way avoidable, that it is a duty to use the experience, and to try to ensure that no one else has to suffer in the same way. In high profile cases, the bereaved will already have built a close relationship with the press. Often this is a perfectly genuine warm indentification between someone who has suffered something extraordinary and someone who has tried their best to tell the story in the most truthful way. The bereaved will often develop the feeling that the press are the only people who really understand what they have suffered.  Prolonging the story, may be something that both the press and the victim actively want.  It is a way of converting grief into action, and it is a way of giving the public something they find interesting.  In the occasions where there is a campaign which comes out of a tragedy, the families need and actively seek the public response, and the strong outpouring of sympathy will ensure that politicians may well be forced to bow to this emotion.
We have seem Sarah’s Law, which was so strongly advocated by Rebekah Brooks, (but is criticised by many community organisations). We have seen the vetting laws brought in for all people in regular contact with children, following the murders of the two girls in Soham. (but this law is criticised by many people for stifling community involvement and volunteering). We are seeing on the front page of the Sunday Mail today an appeal for Claires law.  There must be many more examples.
We saw the Dowler family raising vocal concerns about their exposure to prurient interest by the court and the press, and now we have the extraordinary spectacle of the Dowler family, fighting the shocking exploitation of their grief, becoming the symbolic face of the hacking crisis and the worst possible form of press intrusion. In the process they are accidentally bringing down an empire, that exercised power by corrupt practice, prurient intrusion and fear.
The major changes to the regulation of the press that will follow the hacking scandal would never have happened without the Dowler murder.  This is now a once in a lifetime opportunity to understand and rebalance the relationship between the press and the people. It is an opportunity we must take.  Finding the right code to protect those in grief from exploitation must form a part of this exercise.

The Murdoch summer parties.

Max Hastings on Andrew Marr Sunday 17th July painted a fascinating picture of the Murdoch summer party of 2010.
On the terrace, supping the Murdoch champagne the invited guests mingled.  In this sunny privileged world introductions were made, alliances confirmed, opportunities were opened.
Twenty yards away in the centre of the lawn Rupert Murdoch stands with David Cameron, and one at a time selected guests are summoned into the presence and introduced by Rupert Murdoch to David Cameron.
We have a world where dancing to the tune of the wishes of Rupert Murdoch could open doors, and where he controlled access to those who are nominally in power.
There was an inner golden circle, and there was a wider circle of those who are allowed to bask in the rays of the sun.
Who was it that attended these famous parties, the rich, the famous, the expensively educated, the well connected, the beautiful, the ambitious?  
Who were specifically excluded from this privilege, and how did this affect them?
What did this mean to the many millions of us who have no place here.  We, if considered at all were there to buy the papers, to buy the products they promote, to buy opinions shaped in the way the proprietor chooses and to buy  a government  when required to do so.
I have found myself writing this in the past tense.  This particular golden world is already a piece of history. People are already writing the screen plays for the films that will capture these past moments,   but the desire that produced these sparkling parties and that kept people dancing willingly to these tunes is still with us.
The anger that many people feel now comes from knowing that the press which many believed to be “of the people”  had its interests elsewhere. This was a corrupted press that had abandoned an honest commitment to tell the truth, to show us what is there, to challenge the powerful. This was a  press that aimed to be at the very heart of power.
The challenge for the future is to build a press that does not seek to divide us, but can genuinely serve the needs of the many, not of the few.

14 July 2011

Images from the press scandal.

Scandals are landmarks on our political landscape. We are used to the way that the press and the media can build a furious row on a range of matters for a day or two, and then it subsides.
This scandal – which hasn’t yet even got a convincing name – is different.
It is different because it is the press itself which is now finally and inescapably at the centre of our vision.  It is different because the scale of public outrage, and way in which the prime minister is so closely bound into the heart of the problem means that he has had to take far stronger action than anyone else could or would have dared, and he has had to set up a full Public Inquiry.
We can have no idea at this moment just what this Inquiry will find, what it will tell us about our society, but the expectation is that it is going to be a deeply uncomfortable process for many people. The hope is that it will show us clearly what it is that went so badly wrong in the relationship between the press, the politicians, and the people, and what steps need to be taken to put this right.
The name most commonly used for the scandal is “hackgate”. I am not sure that this is right. It captures the moment when the floodgates burst, when the universal horror over the most extreme action of a single private investigator hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone, in order to access sensational material to sell newspapers, brought home to the country as a whole that something toxic was happening to the press. 
The danger of this name is that it offers comfort to far too many people.  The quality press and the BBC would not dream of “hacking” though they have never been shy of parasitically reporting the stories.  The other tabloids if they were doing it at all would have drawn the line somewhere. This is about unspeakable crimes, crimes that could only be committed by “other people”.
It is good that Lord Leverson sees a wider picture. He will look beyond the criminal failures in News international and the police to the wider issues of corporate governance and a media culture that allowed this extreme amoral example of bad press practice to exist.  He is approaching this from the point of "who guards the guardians".
What will we see when we do begin to look wider?
If we are looking for monsters my guess is that we will not find them.
In the tsunami of stories that have swept over us in the last 10 days there are images that float to the surface.

I see the image of Rupert Murdoch with his arm around Rebekah Brooks, offering her protection against the clamour from the mob.  Is this an image of a company where things that we normally see as good, family and friendship, was allowed to matter too much, at the expense of the public and of the people who work within their organisation.   
I hear the protestations of Rebekah Brooks, that she did not know, and I find this believable. I find it completely believable that there are many things that people would have chosen not to tell her, because these are things she would not have wished to hear.
I hear the accounts of journalists of the pressures they experienced within the company, the relentless pressure to deliver the right story, and I see that this pressure, something that exists well beyond the confines of the News of the World, could drive many individuals to deliver stories got by many dubious means, stories that may have a tenuous connection with the truth and stories that may be in the interests of the proprietor, but not in the broader public interest.
I see images of Rupert Murdoch, this energetic bright old man, now out from behind the curtain and exposed, and I think of the ways in which we have all, all of us allowed him to fill us with fear over the last 30 years.  If there is a monster it is a monster we have built in our imaginations.
I am sure that when he does speak, he will convince us that there are things he did not know.  He will not have been told, but people will have striven to deliver stories that they believed he will have wanted to see.
I saw the image of David Cameron, staying away from the House of Commons to announce another variation of the Big Society. Here the TV images played surreal tricks. The signal was corrupted. His smooth concerned face continually distorted and peeled away.
When I listen to David Cameron on the big society I hear many things that resonate. He is right that there is a limit to what the state can do, and that there is a need for us to take far greater control over our world. I see that he means this. What he does not and perhaps cannot see, what he is still hiding from himself is that this “big society” cannot have a firm foundation on the tangled mass of vested big money interests that is symbolised by his oh so close links with the Murdoch Family.
I hear David Cameron’s statements about the things he did not know, and again I find these completely believable. I think we have often seen with him the capacity to not look too closely, to block out inconvenient truths, to believe that all is well within his simple and sunny vision of the world,  and we are back to the problem that people will have told him only those things that he wanted to hear.
There are people who we now know have told him strongly that there were real issues with the hiring of Andy Coulson, but for the most part he will have seen them as his political enemies, and the relationship between the parties has been so toxic, in part because of the press, that he will have chosen not to believe what he was told.
We have seen Andy Coulson, again at the centre of the story, battling his way through the crowd of cameras. As always when I see this man I do not see a monster, but a servant seeking to do the bidding of those who employed him; an intermediary between the unspoken desires of his masters and the hidden means of delivering them.
I do not see, because they are not yet visible, the other interests that lie behind all of this; those people and big business interests that supported Murdoch’s view of the world, and wanted his influence over the voting public to continue. Is Murdoch the puppet master himself a useful puppet, a servant of other masters.
I see the big set piece debates and PMQs, where we are seeing a combination of a desire to move on, clear up the intolerable mess, build a better future, with the raw and painful explosion of  anger and the moment of freedom to speak out and expose some of what has been so badly wrong.
I see the committees becoming compulsive viewing. I welcome to the desire to understand what it was that happened, why problems went unchecked, and I worry about our need to put a face on what has happened and create scapegoats for all of this.  
Beyond all of this we are beginning to see the jostling for position. The desire to own and claim credit for the better future.
As the tsunami recedes and we see the wreckage left behind the task is to imagine what this future looks like.  We will get this right if we see the future in terms of the interests of the many, not of the few.

13 July 2011

Nick Davies on phone hacking and the police – video

The Guardian's Nick Davies, who has reported extensively on the phone-hacking scandal, gives his views on the Met's evidence at the home affairs select committee


9 July 2011

The Truth, the whole Truth .... and nothing but the Truth.

Having watched with utter fascination the incredibly rapidly developing events surrounding the unravelling of the edifice that is the News of the World, I have taken some time to think about what the implications for us, the public, may be.

(A very comprehensive collection of Guardian articles, charting the hacking saga, is to be found on a Guardian page, here.)

Sunday will see the last printed issue of the News of the World. Whatever the reason for Rupert and James Murdoch's apparently sudden decision to 'dump' this long-established title from their News International portfolio - and there are as many theories as there are pundits commenting ad nauseam on our screens, on the radio and in the press -  will any of the events of this week make a difference to our lives or our democracy?


Will @mulberrybush, @MagNews and I be able to hang up our keyboards safe in the knowledge that all will now be well with the way the press conducts itself? 


The corruption at the News of the World appears to have happened some years ago and those responsible will, with conscientious detection on the part of the Met's new Weeting Inquiry, be eventually brought to book.

There are gloomy predictions that similarly dirty practices will be found in the way other papers developed their scoops and sensational stories.

But even were every journalist, member of the police force and private investigator involved in the phone-hacking or blagging arrested, charged and appropriately punished, we would still be left, in the tabloid papers especially, with examples of the kind of journalism which harms our democracy and well-being.

The media, including the press, can be very influential. They can manipulate opinion. 

The writer of the extract below argues that media has little real influence and cites a very good example of a newspaper's attempt to claim credit for swaying the public's choice of Government.

From the Independent:  

Leading article: Misunderstanding media influence

Thursday, 1 October 2009

"The Sun newspaper decides to rescind its support for Labour and the political world is turned on its head – or so you would assume from the reaction in the rest of the media yesterday. Sky News spent much of the day reporting on the political reaction to the decision of its News International stable mate. One wonders whether this is a good advert for the media "independence" and "plurality" that James Murdoch spoke up for in Edinburgh in August.
But, in fairness, it was not just News International outlets that were getting excited about this development yesterday. BBC radio and television news programmes were full of coverage of the supposedly crucial development..........
.......All this is over the top. And not just because this change in The Sun's support was heavily signposted and long expected. It is excessive because it reflects a hopeless misunderstanding about the power of the media."


Written just before the last General Election, about the Sun's dramatic announcement that it was switching its support from Labour to the Tories, this article attempts to dispel any belief we may have as to the power of the press to mould opinion.

You will have guessed by the very fact that I help to run this blog, which seeks to help in a small way to bring about a fundamental change in the behaviour of certain elements of our press, that I cannot agree wholeheartedly with the anonymous writer of that piece!

A newspaper may not be capable of manipulating the political leanings of the population by clearly declaring its own. But what it can do, and there are many examples of this behaviour, is to publish confused, partial, even mendacious facts and data. 

Below are a few of available links to articles and headlines over the past few months which have been proven untrue or inaccurate:

Factcheck: Is 'Health Tourism' Costing the Taxpayer £200m? - Full Fact
(Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail)

Factcheck: Can the Disabled Claim 'Free' BMWs? - Full Fact
(Daily Mail, Sunday Times, Express)


#pressreform - What's the Truth Behind the ESA Outrage? 

More fact - checking can be found on the Channel 4 Factcheck page.

For whatever reason, the careless or deliberate inclusion of skewed or inaccurate facts in articles and headlines is misinforming the reader and misrepresenting the truth. The use of incendiary, insulting, emotive language such as  'scroungers','fiddlers', 'workshy' etc.

When the public are fed the wrong facts, any decision they make, any opinion they develop is not based on truth or accuracy and the paper encouraging rage or contempt is guilty of breaking the trust of us all.

Most journalists are honourable and dedicated to bringing truth and honesty to what they write.

It is the practices of the few which need to be rooted out and exposed. 

Hopefully, the promised Judicial Inquiry, announced by David Cameron yesterday, into the culture and practices of the media will ensure that freedom of the press will no longer mean freedom to peddle lies.

8 July 2011

Nick Davies on Phone-hacking, Murdoch and News of the World - Video

The investigative journalist Nick Davies on how the phone-hacking scandal has escalated, leading to News of the World's announced closure :

4 July 2011

Was this really in the public interest, Brooks and Coulson?

Articles Today from the News of the World:

'July 4th, 2011
RUTHLESS lawyers will be banned from berating murder victims’ families in court in the wake of the Milly Dowler trial.
Tough new rules to be unveiled this week will protect their privacy and dignity – with judges forced to halt intimidating, humiliating or distressing questioning.
The safeguards come in a revamped courtroom code aimed at ending the nightmare ordeal faced by thousands of witnesses and innocent victims of crime.
It follows the shameful treatment of Bob and Sally Dowler by lawyers defending their 13-year-old daughter’s killer Levi Bellfield.
The distraught couple endured cruel questions about their sex life, Bob’s porn collection and letters which showed Milly was unhappy.
Such vicious cross-examinations will be halted under a charter of rights for witnesses drawn up by Victims’ Commissioner Louise Casey.
She wants to tilt the justice system back to give victims at least equal status with the rights of suspects.
She said yesterday: “I see lobby groups and campaign organisations in droves on the offender side. Yet victims struggle to get heard.”
Ms Casey will hand her 60-page report to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke on Wednesday.
Among its other proposals is one that courts should have flexible start and end times to make it easier for family members to give evidence. Another is that the bodies of murder victims should be returned to their families within a month.
The report is expected to be backed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, who chairs the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee overseeing court practice.'

LOUISE CASEY writes for the News of the World

'MANY of us felt such compassion for the brave family of Milly Dowler and anger at the way they were treated in court.

Sadly for me, although I was shocked and appalled, I wasn’t surprised.
When I started working for the rights of victims I thought I was unshockable. But what I have found over the last year has made my jaw drop.
Like most people I assumed that families who, like the Dowlers, have had their lives ripped apart by criminals, would get all the help they need. And that the criminal justice system would be on their side.
What I discovered is they are often not given the support, care or consideration they deserve. Many are still treated as if they are an “inconvenience”, and this can make their grief worse.
These families deserve not to have to sit next to an offender’s family in court listening to them laughing and joking. They deserve to be told that their rapist is going to be released before they bump into him in the supermarket.
They deserve to bury the body of their child without defence lawyers asking for autopsy after autopsy – in one case I know a 35-day-old baby only got to be buried by her family on what would have been her first birthday.
They deserve to not find out that the murderer of their husband is appealing by reading it in a newspaper. They deserve to be treated with humanity, dignity and most of all a bit of respect.
So when my report comes out about the treatment of families like these, I ask that you be shocked too. And then those in charge might sit up and listen.'

Reaction on Twitter was instantaneous and substantial. Many people are calling for Jeremy Hunt to reconsider his proposal to allow Rupert Murdoch to buy the remaining stock in BSkyB. Here is a small sample of the tweets:

"All you citizen journalists/bloggers - call the NOW newsroom on 0207 782 1001 email newsdesk@notw.co.uk to find out their views"

Nicky Campbell

my blood runs cold
Ladies and gentlemen, form an orderly queue:Hacked Off - campaign for a public inquiry into phone hacking: via

Will Straw

Staggering: Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of World. Can Brooks & Coulson really claim they knew nothing?

Caitlin Moran

This Milly Dowler/Notw thing is the very worst. Listening to weeping relatives leaving messages to a dead girl - Jesus Christ.

If you want to make your thoughts heard re: & contact

Aditya Chakrabortty

Media studies: The Guardian, the BBC and the Telegraph all have the NOTW's alleged hacking of Milly Dowler's mobile as their top story.
Here is a link to the key people in the phone - hacking scandal from the BBC News website and another to a timeline charting the main events.
Whatever unfolds in the next few days and weeks, surely Jeremy Hunt will seriously reconsider his decision to allow Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of BSkyB?

A link to the NUJ's Code of Conduct : here

Members of the National Union of Journalists are expected to abide by the following professional principles: 

5. Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means
6. Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest

Is this justification for deleting messages from the mobile phone of a missing child? Could it be considered in the public interest?

(If you would like links to many of the past articles and information concerning the phone-hacking/blagging scandal, click on the relevant tab above this post and there you'll find everything you could want to know!)