Thursday, July 28, 2011

UK: Nuclear veterans long court battle goes on

Veterans involved in Britain's nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s are once again taking their case for compensation to the court.

Amongst them is the widow of an RAF pilot who has fought for answers since her husband killed himself at the age of 44. Squadron Leader Eric Denson had been ordered by the Royal Airforce to fly his Canberra aircraft through a nuclear mushroom cloud 18 years earlier so that measurements might be taken.

Soon after his return he began to feel ill. "Eric started vomiting that night and it lasted 21 days," his wife Shirley says. She had expected a healthy tanned man to return to her but instead "we got a sickly young man," she said.

Eric committed suicide, his third attempt, "because he couldn't bear it anymore," she says. He had taken part in Operation Grapple Y [Video: YouTube], a nuclear test which took place on April 28, 1958, over the ocean off the coast of Christmas Island. But he is only one of hundreds who are fighting for justice.

While some just want the Ministry of Defence to admit that what happened that day over a tiny coral atoll in the Indian Ocean led directly to the suffering and deaths of many veterans, others want financial compensation. Shirley is thinking more of her four children who have been deprived of a father [Scotsman].

While Denson was exposed to very high levels of radiation as he flew unprotected into the nuclear cloud, on the ground hundreds of others were also put at risk.

Amongst them was Sapper Ken McGinley who was sitting on the beach when the bomb was detonated over the ocean. He remembers the noise and a flash of light so bright that when he opened his eyes a fraction he could see the bones of the hands he had jammed into his eyes as clearly as an X-ray.

"The noise was deafening, like a thousand horses thundering towards you," McGinley says. "The man next to me broke down and cried."

Talking to the BBC, McGinley said he and his fellow military personnel had been given no protection. "On Christmas Island I witnessed five bomb tests," he says. "Basically we had no protection and warnings at all. All we were told to do was to stand and look at the bomb [and] cover our eyes up in case we got blinded by the flash."

More than 1,000 ex-servicemen say the exposure to radiation during the tests conducted between 1952 and 1958 left them with ill-health. However many have failed in their bid to get justice.

A lower court has said nine out of ten lead cases were brought too late to be considered. Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence has consistently denied any connection between the test and the health of the veterans, contesting the claims since 2004.

Chronic health problems cited by the veterans include cancers, skin defects, fertility problems and birth defects in their children.

In June 2009, the High Court gave the current group of veterans the right to sue the Ministry of Defence. Veterans who served in the Army, Royal Navy and Air Force, as well as personnel from New Zealand and Fiji, were all exposed to radiation.

Time is running out for the veterans who are said to be dying at a rate of three every month. According to research carried out by Durham University around 30% of servicemen died from bone cancers or leukaemia linked to the atomic and hydrogen bomb tests.

The difficulty for veterans is in proving a causal link between the tests and the illness they have contracted. However British scientist Chris Busby says that they may be better able to prove the effects from providing evidence of damage to the chromosomes of the veterans' children. Dr Busby was appointed as Representative to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association in 2007.

Britain carried out a series of nuclear weapons tests in mainland Australia, the Montebello islands off the west Australian coast and on Christmas Island, in the Pacific in the 1950s.

The tests were conducted against a backdrop of decolonisation and the growing Cold War threat, and with the Britain attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Known as Operation Grapple there were nine tests in all which led to Britain becoming a nuclear power [Video: YouTube].

For the veterans still fighting for compensation it has been an arduous and long battle. But it it is far from over. Even if they receive a pay out it is more than that for some. "We just want to get justice," says veteran Ken McGinley.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Concern after China breaches Taiwan airspace

Tensions between China and Taiwan went up a notch this month after it was revealed Chinese fighter jets breached Taiwan's airspace while pursuing a US reconnaissance aircraft. China has called the United States' operations dangerous and that China's action was legitimate. Meanwhile the US has insisted it is not deterred and will continue its reconnaissance flights. Taiwan for its part has been more diplomatic referring to China's straying into Taiwanese airspace as "an accident". But the incident will likely worry military officials on all sides in what could be seen as China's growing assertiveness in the region.


The incursion is said to have taken place on 29th of June when two Chinese Su-27 fighter jets followed a US U-2 reconnaissance plane into Taiwan's airspace. It is not clear whether the US spy plane had itself flown into airspace claimed by the Chinese. Taiwan scrambled two F-16 fighters to intercept the Chinese Sukhoi-27 jets near the central line across the 180 km wide Strait though they did not engage the aircraft.

Reports of the incident emerged on Monday, published in the Taiwan paper the United Daily News. Initially military officials on all sides declined to comment. Luo Shou-he, a spokesman for the Taiwanese Defence refused to comment, but later a statement released to the media said the incident was "an accident" and that Taiwan had been "in full control" of the situation.

The Pentagon and China's Defense Ministry also refused to respond to continued media requests for information, but by late Monday afternoon there was a breaking of the silence.

Asked about a June 29th incident Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military official, said, "We won't be deterred from flying in international airspace. The Chinese would see us move out of there. We're not going to do that, from my perspective. These reconnaissance flights are important."

But he issued a note of caution, adding, "We both have to be very careful about how we fly them. We have to be careful about the intercepts."

China has not directly acknowledged the incident took place, but has reacted to the admirals remarks and newspaper reports. An opinion based article in the China Daily called the US operations "dangerous war games" and said that China's response was "legitimate." Meanwhile a Chinese defence source is quoted as saying, "This once again shows that US military activity very close to our territory is a destabilising factor in the region."

Taiwan insists the incursion was not a "deliberate provocation" however it appears clear, given two F-16s were launched in response, that a threat was perceived [Reports: FT / WSJ / Bloomberg / Telegraph / Daily Mail / China Daily]  .

Tense since 1949

Such incidents could escalate very quickly. Taiwan has been a flashpoint in US-China relations since 1949, when the defeated Nationalist Chinese government fled to the island after the Communist victory on the mainland. China claims Taiwan to be part of its territory and has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island nation, which it threatens to invade if it declares formal independence.

For its part the US has continued to arm Taiwan and is obliged under the Taiwan Relations Act signed in 1979 to help defend it if attacked. Over the years the United States has supplied Taiwan with weapons and jet fighters and a decision is expected soon over whether it will sell 66 new F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan.

China and Taiwan have continued to observe a so-called middle line, drawn by the US when it signed a mutual defence treaty with the island in 1954. The line functions as a buffer zone between China and Taiwan, which still regard each other as enemies.

Chinese military aircraft have not crossed the middle line since July 1999, a time when tensions were high. That summer the People's Liberation Army Airforce, which had rarely patrolled the area previously, flew hundreds of sorties over the Taiwan Strait.

Hainan island incident

China has persistently objected to reconnaissance patrols of its coastline, especially since a PLA jet fighter collided with a US spy plane in April 2001 near Hainan island. The PLA pilot died and Chinese authorities detained the US crew for 11 days in a tense stand-off [BBC / CNN / Guardian / Congress Report Oct 2001 (PDF) / MAReport / Wikipedia: Hainan Island incident]

Mike Mullen said it was important that such incidents do not happen again. "These are lives that are at stake up there, in addition to creating an incident ... that escalates the tension over there and could put countries in a position to miscalculate."

Even at the time of the 2001 incident there were questions as to how it had escalated so quickly. The suggested that the incident was more likely the actions of an overzealous Chinese pilot rather than commands from Beijing. "If this affair is the result of an accident -- a Chinese cowboy-pilot crossing a line of prudence, and losing his life -- then the episode can be quickly tidied up," the paper asserted. "If the affair is the result of a Chinese military decision not sanctioned by Beijing's civilians, that is disquieting evidence of command-and-control problems as China approaches a leadership transition."

China is heading for another leadership transition in 2012 with Xi Jinping being touted as the country's next president. There is also the coincidence that just as the US is about to consider a massive arms deal with Taiwan, a similar decision was pending in 2001. Taiwan relies primarily on the US for military support but it has a limited fighting capability. Taiwan's request for new F-16 C/D fighters has been pending since 2006, and upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 A/Bs, which the US sold it in 1992, have been on hold since 2009, according to a Congressional Research Service report released in February.

Military build-up

China is also building up its military. Recently the People's Liberation Army Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff, disclosed that China was developing a new aircraft carrier-killing anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D.

According to reports from the US Office of Naval Intelligence, China's DF-21D ballistic missile will enter service soon, though no exact time scale has been stated. If the aiming system can be proved to be accurate, the DF-21D ballistic missile will become the first land-based maneuverable Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile, which is able to hit moving aircraft carriers with a range of up to 3,000 km.

Some reports suggest the missile system may already be live which will no doubt increase concerns in US military circles [StrategyPage]. The US in particular has been keeping a close eye on China's rapidly growing military [Annual Report to Congress 2010 - PDF].While the US acknowledges "the PLA has made modest improvements in the transparency of China's military and security affairs" it states in its 2010 report that there are "many uncertainties remain regarding how China will use its expanding military capabilities." The 2007 report was also particularly focused on Taiwan [Annual Report to Congress 2007 - PDF]. In fact in its summary the report suggests, "China's near-term focus on preparing for military contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, including the possibility of US intervention, appears to be an important driver of its modernization plans. However, analysis of China's military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also generating capabilities for other regional contingencies, such as conflict over resources or territory."

As for China's next president in waiting there are concerns too. Xi already has the reputation of being a hardliner. During a visit to Mexico in 2009 he lashed out at foreign nations for their continued criticism of China. After proudly claiming that China had already made its contribution to the financial crisis by making sure its own 1.3 billion people were fed, he said that "there are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country".

"China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?" While nationalist bloggers in China quickly picked up on Xi's remarks, his speech was deemed too inflammatory by censors inside China, and was instantly deleted from websites and news reports. Even bloggers later found their posts deleted [Telegraph].

Other disputes

The breach into Taiwanese airspace may have been a glitch but it comes after a serious of spats between China and other countries in the region with which it has border and territorial disputes. Following a tense stand-off between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands [tvnewswatch]. Another issue boiled over with Vietnam after Chinese fishing trawlers strayed into waters claimed by Vietnam. China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Chinese fishing boats were chased away by armed Vietnamese ships. In another incident a Vietnamese ship carrying out oil exploration is said to have dragged a Chinese vessel for more than an hour after its fishing nets became entangled in cables. Both sides have accused the other of invading each other's territorial waters [BBC / CNN / NYT].

As China strengthens, both militarily and economically, there are increasing fears that it will further assert its territorial claims. Whether it makes bold statements, breathes hot air or acts in a far more aggressive fashion is, as yet, unclear. But in the past few years China has become more emboldened.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

China: Anger over high-speed rail crash

China's high speed trains are already running along the route where two trains collided on Saturday killing at least 43 people and injuring more than 200. No thorough forensic investigation appeared to have been carried out and the removal of wreckage began only hours after the crash. The apparent swiftness to clear away the damaged carriages and the failure by authorities to be forthcoming with details has prompted angry responses from Chinese Internet users, many accusing the government of covering up the true extent of the death toll.

The bullet train was struck from behind Saturday night by another train near Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang province. The first train was forced to stop on the tracks due to a power outage said to have been caused by a local electrical storm. Minutes later the second train ploughed into the rear causing six cars to derail, including four that fell from an elevated bridge.

Foreigners amongst victims

Most of those killed and injured were Chinese who had been travelling on the second train between Beijing and Fuzhou. However it was revealed later that two Chinese-American citizens, aged 56 and 57, were amongst those killed. Italian embassy officials said one of its nationals was also killed in the crash. One report states a foreign female in her 20s was amongst those injured along with a 23-year-old Chinese-Italian man, named as Pan Giovanni, who was seriously injured and is receiving treatment at No 2 People's Hospital in Wenzhou. Another seriously injured foreigner is a 31-year-old Chinese-American. Many victims both foreign and Chinese have yet to be identified [China Daily /Sky].


Although Chinese reporters raced to the scene, none of the major state-run newspapers mentioned the story on their Sunday front pages. Early morning reports on CCTV-4 also failed to mention the story though CCTV-13, a Chinese news station, did have extensive coverage throughout Sunday.

But it was the social networks that helped many Chinese keep abreast of developments. A user of Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, first broke the story and increasingly popular social media outlets then provided millions of Chinese with the fastest information and pictures as well as the most poignant and scathing commentaries.

By the time the railway ministry held its first press conference more than 24 hours after the collision, the public had seen not just reports of passengers trapped inside dark trains or images of a mangled car dangling off the bridge, but also bulldozers crushing mangled cars that had fallen to the ground and burying the wreckage on site.

Cover up

Such scenes prompted some to suggest authorities were trying to cover up the real death toll by burying the carriages with the bodies still inside. Some video clips posted on Youku, China's equivalent to YouTube, appeared to show bodies falling from carriages as mechanical diggers began to clear the wreckage.

However, the accusations were dismissed by a defiant railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping. "How can we cover up an accident that the whole world already knew about?" he said. "They told me they buried the car to facilitate the rescue effort -- and I believe this explanation."

But hours after the Railway Ministry had confirmed that all survivors were found a 2-year-old girl was discovered, appearing to indicate that authorities were too swift in moving the wrecked coaches. However the Ministry spokesperson Wang Youping rebuffed such criticism saying the girl's discovery was a "miracle." [BBC]

Protecting national technology

There have been other implausible explanations for the quick removal of wreckage from the railway ministry who said that the trains contain valuable national technology and could not be left in the open in case it fell into the wrong hands. However many foreign companies maintain that much of the technology used in China's high-speed trains was already stolen.

At least one picture appears to show a body under a train that has been moved several metres from its original position, another indication that a proper search of the coaches was not carried out before they were moved [Telegraph / CNN / Guardian].

Online reaction

Such statements have not placated many Chinese. An online poll of more than 44,000 people showed that 97% were unhappy with the government's response to the disaster, the first major tragedy on its much-vaunted high-speed rail network [China Digital Times / CMP].

There have been sketchy reports concerning the facts of the accident itself. The Railway Ministry issued a statement Saturday night saying that the first train had been struck by lightning and lost power. It did not explain why the second train was not signaled to stop, though some reports in Western media have suggested that communication between the trains was difficult or impossible due to the fact they were owned by different operators. In addition, new reports on Xinhua indicate that the first train had started to move by the time it was struck. The ministry has not explained the discrepancy. Also left unexplained was why railway signals did not stop the second train before it hit the first one [Economist / NYT].

Officials sacked

Heads have certainly rolled following the crash. Within a day three railway official had been sacked and they may yet be charged with some offences. They were identified as Long Jing, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau; Li Jia, party secretary and the deputy chief of the bureau, He Shengli [Reuters]. No details have been released about the allegations against him, but news reports say they include kickbacks, bribes, illegal contracts and sexual liaisons [Al Jazeera].

The Communist party has been stumbling in its response. The accident comes after the opening of the Beijing to Shanghai line which was launched with great fanfare but has been dogged with problems.

Safety questions

The fallout will have long term repercussions for the future of China's high-speed rail network. Already there are reports that expected sales of China's high-speed technology may fall through [Bloomberg]. It also reflects poorly on China's safety record which has come under the spotlight many times.

One Sina Weibo user summed it up aptly in a post on Monday. "This is a country where a thunderstorm can cause a train to crash, a car can make a bridge collapse and drinking milk can lead to kidney stones. Today's China is a bullet train racing through a thunderstorm -- and we are all passengers onboard," microblogger Xiaoyaoyouliu said. His comment just is one of hundreds filling social networks in China [ChinaGeeks].

Surprisingly the state has yet to censor such comments thus far. Even videos on Youku remain online at this time, though this situation may change over time. The national press has even quoted some of the criticism with some papers calling for new procedures to prevent future accidents [Wikipedia: 2011 Wenzhou train collision]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, July 23, 2011

China: 32 dead in high speed rail crash

At least 32 people have died and more than 190 others have been injured after two high-speed trains crashed into each other in eastern China.

Two train coaches fell off a bridge after derailing close to Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai. Xinhua reported that one of the trains came to a halt after being struck by lightning and was then hit by the second train.

Rescue workers and emergency workers are still at the scene, near Shuangyu town in Wenzhou. It is not known how many people were on the trains at the time, but each carriage can carry 100 people. Some Chinese reports suggest there were more than 1,400 people on the trains.

Initial reports said one bullet train, the D3115 travelling from the provincial capital Hangzhou to Fuzhou, had derailed at about 20:30 local time [12:30 GMT]. However local television later said the first train had been forced to stop after losing power due to a lightning strike, and was then rear-ended by another train, the D301 travelling from Beijing to Fuzhou, causing some of its carriages to fall off an elevated section of track. CCTV 13 showed an animated graphic showing four carriages of the D301 falling from the track. The Chinese Ministry of Railways is reported to have said that the first four carriages were completely derailed while a further 16 on both trains were slightly derailed.

Television pictures showed one carriage lying on its side under the bridge, and the other standing on its end leaning up against the bridge. "D" trains are the first generation of bullet trains in China, with an average speed of just short of 160km/h.

The accident comes shortly after China opened its Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link which cost over 215 billion RMB [$33bn; £21bn]. The 300 km/h train halves the journey time to under five hours. The country is spending billions on constructing a high-speed rail network, however this incident may raise questions as to whether safety has been compromised. The high speed network has come under much criticism over the high costs, speed. safety concerns and corruption. In February Liu Zhijun, the Chinese Railways minister in charge of rolling out the high speed network was himself arrested on suspicion of corruption [Reports: BBC Chinese: Chinanews / CNR / tianjinwe / xiancn / Sina]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Carnage - Norway reeling after attacks

Norway was in reeling in shock Saturday following horrific attacks in and around Oslo which have left at least 90 people dead and dozens more injured.

The first attack was a bomb explosion in Regjeringskvartalet, the executive government quarter of Oslo, at around 15:26 local time, outside the office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and other government buildings. The bombing killed seven people and injured several others. As pictures of the massive devastation was beamed around the world a far deadlier attack came in a hail of bullets at a summer camp on a small island a short distance away.

According to reports, at least one masked gunman disguised as a policeman opened fire at campers at a youth camp organized by the youth organization (AUF) of the Norwegian Labour Party (AP) on the island of Utøya in Tyrifjorden, Buskerud. Initial reports said that 80 had died in the shooting but the death toll soon rose to 92, although rescue workers were still searching the island for more bodies on Saturday. Most of the victims are aged between 14 and 19.

After a firefight, police arrested a 32-year-old Norwegian man Anders Behring Breivik for the shootings. By Saturday afternoon Breivik, who describes himself as a Christian and conservative on a Facebook page attributed to him, was charged with both attacks. It has also emerged that a farm supply firm sold six tonnes of fertiliser to Breivik who is reported to have run a farming company. Speculation has been rife that fertiliser could have been used in the Oslo bomb.

The attacks had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation and it was initially speculated they had been carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. But now there is now a sense of disbelief that the attacks were perpetrated by a Norwegian. The motive has yet to be established and a massive security operation and forensic investigation has begun.

Norway's security police reported a mild increase in right-wing extremist activity last year and predicted that such activity would continue to increase throughout this year. Yesterday's attack will worry both authorities and a country which is now in grief.

Condemnation of the attacks as well as sympathy soon flooded in from around the world. The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, described the bomb that hit government buildings in Norway's capital as an act of "cowardice" and said he was "deeply shocked by the bomb blasts." The Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that NATO "condemn in the strongest possible terms the heinous acts of violence in Norway. Our solidarity with Norway remains steadfast. NATO countries stand united in the battle against these acts of violence."

President Barack Obama said, "Our hearts go out to the people of Norway" and offered American assistance in the investigation of the attacks. He also added that "It's a reminder that the entire community has a stake in preventing this kind of terror from occurring," along with mentioning that events in Oslo were a reminder that the world has a role in stopping acts of terrorism. Dozens of other countries, many victims themselves of terrorist atrocities, have also voiced their sympathy for the attacks

Meanwhile the Norwegian Prime Minister who visited the scene said it was too early to make any conclusions about the attack. But there will be many questions as to what led to the attack and whether social or political conditions helped provide a breeding ground for extremist ideology [Reports: BBC / Sky / CNN / France24 / NRKRT / XinhuaGlobe & Mail / Wikipedia Pictures: Globe & Mail ] 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why the Euro must not be allowed to fail

While Britain has been focused on the potential collapse of the Murdoch empire, there has been a building financial crisis within the European Union which threatens to bring down the entire house of cards.

With Greece running up massive debts and other member states running into financial problems, there has been much talk of abandoning the Euro and with it the Eurozone.

But while eauro-sceptics might be happy at such a prospect, the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso has warned that the collapse of the Euro would have widespread repercucussions. "Nobody should be under any illusion: the situation is very serious. It requires a response. Otherwise the negative consequences will be felt in all the corners of Europe and beyond," Barroso said.

Last night Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were holding crisis talks in Berlin amid warnings that a failure to break the debt crisis deadlock within 24 hours would send shockwaves around the global economy.

The euro climbed a third day on Thursday as a deal between France and Germany over a bailout of Greece raised hopes ahead of a major European summit, though investors barely moved from government bonds and precious metals.
But the rise was small and traders around the world are waiting nervously to see what the outcome of the talks are.

But what would happen if the Euro did collapse? No exit process was written into European rules but it is technically possible. The future of the Euro lies in the hands of its members, especially Germany, the richest and strongest member of the Eurozone.

Simply put, the Eurozone would revert to what it was before the Euro existed. The European Central Bank would be obliged to return all of its gold to the member states in proportion to their initial contributions. Their old currencies would have to be resurrected and Euro reserves converted back to the mix passed to the European Central banks from the beginning of the Eurozone.

Dollar reserves would be built up again to replace the lost Euro reserves. The world's Foreign Exchange Markets would be in chaos. Confidence in most if not all currencies would almost disappear. By extension the ripple effect through the economies of the world and business in general, would be destructive. There would be a huge scramble for all hard assets, but particularly precious metals such as gold which has already hit a record high of record high of $1.609.51 this week. The US Dollar would become the main trading currency if only briefly.

Resource producing currencies would soar. In an attempt to lower their exchange rates they would turn to lowering their interest rates in the hope of maintaining the export competitiveness of their locally manufactured goods. With resources having an international market price, outside their own currency, such nations would drive down their exchange rates, provided local inflation allowed it.

The overall result would be a volatile and damaging use of currencies as part of trade wars. Should that happen, protectionism and exchange controls would become commonplace, particularly in smaller economies.

As China grows in international importance over the next decade, the Yuan could quickly become of equal importance to the US Dollar and move into center stage as a global reserve currency. This would accompany pricing of goods [imports] in Yuan and exports from China in the currency of each importer's currencies. China may well be aware of such prospects and may already be making plans to internationalize the Yuan.

With Foreign Exchanges becoming increasingly volatile, confidence mercurial and uncertainty hanging over both the present and the future, assets, particularly internationally-mobile assets, such as precious metals would be increasingly sought after as a counter to all currencies.

This of course is a worst case scenario. There may be only a partial collapse; allowing nations such as Greece and other defaulting countries to fall into the quagmire, abandoning them to the wolves.

But even casting out the poorer member states may not stem the tide of long term economic stability for the remaining Eurozone. The exchange rate of the exiting countries would initially fall heavily then take a long time to recover, if they managed to recover economically at all. By leaving the zone, these countries, would likely suffer at least one, if not more, decades of growing poverty. Having such countries on the Eurozone borders would not be good for social stability. Economic migrants would flow across borders and create problems for countries bordering the cast out member states.

General stability might see the exchange rate of the Euro soar, but this would reduce its global trade competitiveness, though it might attract the world's capital.

The only choice open to Europe is to help the weaker member states through the current economic crisis. The solution is as yet unclear. Propping up a failed or failing economy seems like suicide. The ECB and politicians might proposes wiping the slate clean for Greece, though other struggling countries such as Spain and Portugal may well cry foul. Greece may be forced to take its medicine and pay its debts as well as imposing more unpopular austerity measures. Perhaps Greece should take note of the great Greek philosopher Socrates, who in his dying words to Crito was "We owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." If Greece were to fail and be cast asunder, it would not only be a Greek tragedy but a tragedy for the whole of Europe [Telegraph / WSJ / Reuters / Bloomberg / FT / BBC].    

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

News Corp. - Mud slinging & pie slinging

For journalists around the world the appearance of James and Rupert Murdoch before the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee made gripping television. The high drama surrounding the event and what has led up to the showdown drew millions of viewers who tuned in around the world. Those unable to tune in to television broadcasts instead watched on Internet streams, listened in on the radio or followed avidly on Twitter. The BBC even dropped its usual regionalised blocking allowing anyone in the world to watch the proceedings via the Internet.

Lack of knowledge

The questioning began with MPs grilling former Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson. Throughout the hour long hearing he seemed to convey a complete lack of knowledge about who was working for the Met and where they had previously been employed. Continually he suggested the committee direct their questions to the recently resigned Assistant Commissioner John Yates. "You'll have to ask Mr Yates about that one," Sir Paul repeated several times. The apparent lack of knowledge over what was going on in the force and his repeated buck passing wasn't lost on some. Already there are T-shirts being offered for sale emblazoned with the quote "You'll have to ask Mr. Yates about that one." [Telegraph blog / BBC / BBC].

Both Stephenson and Fedorcio, who followed, were at pains to stress their respect for John Yates and his integrity, and what a loss he would be to the force. Sir Paul also rejected any notion that he had taken a swipe at the prime minister David Cameron, whom he insisted he had the utmost respect.

The meeting descended into slight face at one point when Sir Paul slipped up in his testimony. Responding to a question about Neil Wallis, a former News of the World employee who was taken on as a media advisor, the commissioner said, "And I go back to what I said about when I took over as Prime Minister…"

There were a few chuckles around the room as Keith Vaz corrected him. "When you took over as commissioner…," Vaz said [Full Transcript PDF / Guardian / Sky].

After a short account by Dick Fedorcio OBE, Director of Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Police, John Yates gave his account of events leading up to the hacking scandal.

Show down for Murdoch

But the show everyone was waiting for was the questioning of Rupert and James Murdoch. At around 14:30 they took their seats and the interrogation began. After the introductions by the chair John Whittingdale, James Murdoch kicked off proceedings with an apologetic statement. "First, I would like to say as well just how sorry I am, and how sorry we are, to particularly the victims of illegal voicemail interceptions and to their families. It is a matter of great regret to me, my father and everyone at News Corporation..."

His father interrupted, grasping James' hand, "I would just like to say one sentence. This is the most humble day of my life."

James Murdoch continued with his opening statement and took the first few questions from the chair. He sounded eloquent and seemed to be in possession of all the facts. But then attention turned to Rupert Murdoch.

Tom Watson fired his first of many questions at the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of News Corporation. "You have repeatedly stated that News Corp has zero tolerance to wrongdoing by employees. Is that right?" Rupert Murdoch replied in what was to be a series of mostly one word answers. "Yes," he confirmed.

"In October 2010, did you still believe it to be true when you made your Thatcher speech and you said, "Let me be clear: we will vigorously pursue the truth— and we will not tolerate wrongdoing."? Again Murdoch answered with a "Yes."

"So if you were not lying then," Watson conued, "somebody lied to you. Who was it?"

Rupert Murdoch appeared to stumble as he responded, "I don't know. That is what the police are investigating, and we are helping them with."

He acknowledged he was "clearly" misled. Then came further difficult questions. "Can I take you back to 2003? Are you aware that in March of that year, Rebekah Brooks gave evidence to this Committee admitting paying police?" Watson asked.

"I am now aware of that. I was not aware at the time. I am also aware that she amended that considerably, very quickly afterwards," Murdoch responded.

From here on in it went from bad to worse as Murdoch showed ignorance of what had been going on within his company. "I think that she amended it seven or eight years afterwards," Watson said, correcting Murdoch's understanding of events. "Oh, I'm sorry," Murdoch replied.

"Did you or anyone else at your organisation investigate this at the time?" Watson continued. "No," Murdoch said. "Can you explain why?" Watson said. Rupert Murdoch then revealed how little he knew, or claimed he knew about the scandal going on at the News of the World. "I didn't know of it, I'm sorry," Murdoch said.

He attempted to defend himself by saying that the News of the World was only a very small part of his media empire, and that it was impossible to know everything that was going on.

"my laxity"

"Allow me to say something? This is not an excuse.  Maybe it is an explanation of my laxity. The News of the World is less than 1% of our company.  I employ 53,000 people around the world who are proud and great and ethical and distinguished people—professionals in their line. Perhaps I am spread watching and appointing people whom I trust to run those divisions."

The almost embarrassing questioning went on for some time. James at several points attempting to interject. "Perhaps I can help here—," James Murdoch kept saying. Tom Watson was polite but continuously rebuffed Rupert Murdoch's son. "I will come to you in a minute, sir. Just let me finish my line of questioning and then I will come to you."

As Watson's questioning continued, Rupert Murdoch's ignorance seemed to grow. "I had never heard of him," "That is the first I have heard of that," "No. I can't answer. I don't know."

Not responsible

The grilling of the two, who at times looked like a pair of Mafia bosses on trial, continued for nearly two and a half hours. near to the end Jim Sheridan directed a question at Rupert Murdoch. "I know that this is a very stressful time for yourselves, but Mr Murdoch, do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?"

"No," Rupert Murdoch insisted. "You are not responsible? Who is responsible?" Sheridan retorted. Rupert Murdoch passed the buck as had been seen in testimony from others the same day. "The people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they
trusted." [BBC / Telegraph]

Foam attack

Throughout the proceedings Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng had been sat behind her husband. For the most part she seemed attentive, though was evidently courting attention herself in her bright pink Chanel jacket. The length of the hearing showed as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, fondled her knees, folded her arms and examined her nails. Suddenly though she flew into action as from nowhere a man attempted to attack her husband with a shaving foam pie. Launching herself from her seat she swiped at the assailant who seemed as shocked as James Murdoch who was seen gasping as the commotion began. A burly police officer hurried across the room and it was over. Frustrated viewers could only guess what had happened as the camera tilted to the abstract painting on the wall and John Whittington suspended the session.

The surprise attack woke up everyone who had drifted off to sleep. Twitter suddenly broke into a frenzy. "Wow something has happened," "Has someone just attacked Murdoch?" and "Someone just tried to hit Murdoch!" were just a few of the early tweets hitting the social network. The facts soon became clear as TV stations replayed the action and witnesses in the room explained what had happened. And before long it was not the News of the World or Murdoch that was the trending topic but the glamorous Wendi Deng [Guardian]. "Go woman go,"  and references to her being "a kung fu warrior" were soon circulating on the microblogging platform. Even as the meeting reconvened and the Chair apologised, Tom Watson, who had given the News Corp boss such a hard time complemented his wife's sharp responses. "Mr Murdoch, your wife has a very good left hook," he said. Murdoch smiled wryly before reading his closing statement.


Few seemed interested in what he had to say any more. Whether or not he knew about the practices at the News of the World, his apologies seemed somewhat hollow. And the pie slinging had evidently detracted most from the seriousness of the proceedings.

Gif animations soon appeared on the net along with much commentary of the farcical events [BBC / Telegraph / Guardian]. The identity of the phantom pie slinger was also more interesting to many, some retweeting his Twitter comments.


The papers the following day mostly led with the pie attack on Murdoch rather than the interrogation. Of course it made great headlines, especially when coupled with Murdoch's own statement that this was the "most humble day" in his life. The Telegraph and Express both headlined with "Murdoch eats humble pie" while the Guardian led with "Murdoch's humble pie". Even the Sun could not avoid the story but referred instead to the "Fury of foam attack". The Daily Star chose the headline "Gotcha" for its frontpage, a line made famous by the Sun after the Belgrano was sunk during the Falkland's conflict [Papers].

There was certainly a feeling of growing fatigue by the time former editor of the News of the World took her seat. Rebekah Brooks continually denied any wrong doing and that she had no knowledge of hacking, illegal payments or other malpractice. But it was Wendi Deng who stole the show with her quick defence of her husband from the pie slinging. The mud slinging is likely to continue with further revelations in today's Guardian suggesting that News International deliberately blocked investigations into phone hacking.

Transcripts: Home Affairs Committee [Stephenson/Fedorcio/Yates] PDF / Culture, Media & Sport Ctte [Murdoch/Brooks] PDF

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Safety fears after Beijing crane collapse

Pedestrians and drivers had a lucky escape after a large mobile crane overturned at around 06:40 Tuesday morning in Beijing. The accident occurred in Zhushikou West Street near the former China Post building, around a kilometre south of Tiananmen Square.

The ten-metre-tall crane was lifting steel girders when it collapsed throwing the metal construction materials onto the pavement. Fortunately no pedestrians were walking nearby at the time. There were no reports of casualties in the accident which created some traffic congestion in the area as drivers slowed to look at the scene. The crane operator, a 20 year old male, was said to be shocked but otherwise uninjured [Beijing Evening News].

Health & safety has been under scrutiny in recent weeks following the death of a 13 year old boy who was amongst dozens involved in an escalator accident at a Beijing subway earlier this month [Xinhua / China Daily]. 

Authorities have ordered a safety inspection on all escalators across China following that incident [Xinhua / China Daily]. There has been some concern that regulations have been overlooked with the demand to increase the pace of construction. An accident on the 14th July saw 8 workmen injured and two others killed when part of a tunnel collapsed on the new subway line M15 construction site [Xinhua].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

News Corp. scandal claims more victims

The News Corp. hacking scandal claimed more victims this week with further resignations and the mysterious death of whistleblower and former journalist Sean Hoare. There was another twist in the hacking saga too as websites for the Sun and Times became victims of hacking themselves.

Sunday saw the resignation of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Paul Stephenson. The police chief did not go quietly though as he fired off criticism at prime minister David Cameron. In his resignation speech, Sir Paul took a damaging parting shot at Cameron over his relationship with the former News of the World editor who became his communications chief. He pointedly said Neil Wallis had not been associated with phone hacking at the time he was employed by the Met, "unlike Andy Coulson" [Sky]

The commissioner's resignation came only hours after former editor of the News of the World Rebekah Brooks was arrested and hauled in for questioning. She was eventually released on bail after 8 hours. Her lawyer Stephen Parkinson however insisted that Brooks was "not guilty of any criminal offence".

Meanwhile further criticism of the Met's handling of the hacking inquiry cam from politicians. Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Lord Prescott said that Assistant Commissioner John Yates "does not have the morality to stay in his job" and should himself resign. Only hours later, Yates announced his intention to quit his post. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph published on 9 July 2011, Yates had expressed "extreme regret" for the failings in the initial phone hacking inquiry, but dismissed any suggestion of corruption or improper relationships on his part. But the mounting criticism had finally pushed him into resigning. In a statement he said his conscience was clear and had "deep regret" over his resignation. Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has received referrals [IPCC] about the conduct of four current or former senior Met officers [BBC].

In what was already proving to be a tumultuous day of events, suddenly came the shocking news that former journalist and whistleblower Sean Hoare had been found dead at his Watford home. Hertfordshire Police said his death was being treated as "unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious". Nonetheless, there will be deep suspicions amongst many, given the timing of events [BBC / Sky].

Then came news that police were searching rubbish bags near to Rebekah Brooks' home in London. According to the Guardian newspaper, detectives were examining a computer, paperwork and a phone found in a bin near the riverside London home of the former chief executive of News International.

The Guardian reported that the bag containing the items was found in an underground car park in the Design Centre at the exclusive Chelsea Harbour development on Monday afternoon. The car park, under a shopping centre, is only metres away from the gated apartment block where Brooks lives with her husband, a former racehorse trainer and close friend of David Cameron.

It was reported that the bag was handed in to security at around 15:00, and that shortly afterwards Brooks's husband, Charlie, arrived and tried to reclaim it. He was unable to prove the bag was his and the security guard refused to release it.

Instead, it is understood that the security guard then called the police. In less than half an hour, two marked police cars and an unmarked forensics car are said to have arrived at the scene. Police are now examining CCTV footage taken in the car park to discover who dropped the bag. Initial suspicions that there had been a break-in at the Brooks' flat have been dismissed, and later a spokesperson for Charlie Brooks made a statement saying that, "Charlie has a bag which contains a laptop and papers which were private to him. They were nothing to do with Rebekah or the [phone hacking] case." According to the spokesperson Charlie Brooks was collecting the bag from a friend who had dropped it in the wrong part of the garage while returning it. "The suggestion is that a cleaner thought it was rubbish and put it in the bin." [Reuters]

Meanwhile Rebekah Brooks may be feeling more uncomfortable after she learns that hacking group Anonymous released a host of email addresses and passwords it claims belong to senior News International executives past and present, including Brooks herself. The hackers also defaced The Sun's website, redirecting visitors to a fake site declaring that Rupert Murdoch had been found dead in his garden [Twitpic].

For several hours both the Sun and Times websites were inaccessible, though by 05:00 UK time both sites had been restored. Twitter was also having its own troubles Tuesday with many users finding they could not access the service through the site or third party apps. This seemed to be more than coincidence rather than anything sinister however.

Today much of the world will be glued to the proceedings of a select committee which will see Rupert and James Murdoch being grilled by MPs. It is unclear at present whether Rebakah Brooks, who was due to attend, will take part.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, July 18, 2011

News Corp. scandal - fallout continues

There was a large void this Sunday as news stands across Britain were missing a tabloid that has become the paper of choice for millions. The sullied reputation of the News of the World would no doubt have dented sales further, but the demise of what was arguably the best selling Sunday tabloid has left a vacuum. As the fallout following the hacking scandal continue, the effects on the newspaper industry may be far reaching. 

There are many who never read the News of the World, nor who would have read any tabloid. Aside the deplorable methods used in researching stories, the News of the World did bring entertainment to millions. Britain seems to revel in the tittle tattle dished up by tabloid newspapers, and the serious papers' sales have fallen while the red tops have maintained their top position.

The Guardian, while producing some excellent journalism, continually loses money. Even Rupert Murdoch's broadsheet The Times fails to make a profit. But even as paper sales decline overall in the face of growing new media, tabloid newspapers sell.

The tabloids also employ more people in general. As well as full and part time staff, many freelancers and stringers are regularly hired by the tabloid press. Broadsheets rarely employ freelance photographers, relying on agency pictures and the skeleton staff of in-house photographers. Meanwhile hundreds of freelance photographers and journalists, are called every week by the likes of the Sun, Mirror, Mail and Express to cover stories.

Turn up at a court case in the home counties or central London and most of the snappers will be freelancers employed by the red tops. If the story is of interest to the broadsheets they might send a staffer, but it is more likely they'll rely on pictures from the Press Association.

In over fifteen years as a photo-journalist, tvnewswatch has been witness to such practice first hand. Whether it's a court case, a celebrity story or a hard news story it will usually be one of the tabloids that dispatches a reporter or snapper first.

At the Afghan hijack at Stansted airport in 2000 the first journalists on the scene were freelancers, followed shortly thereafter by hacks from the tabloids. The broadsheets, or heavies, arrived much later along with the TV crews and satellite trucks. As the hours stretched into days, only the tabloids kept a 24 hour presence along with a few television stations. Sky News even relayed a constant video feed from the scene on the Internet. 

It is the same with celebrity stories. Whether it's the sensation surrounding Jade Goody or the events concerning the body found in Michael Barrymore's pool, the tabloids were the first to arrive and the last to leave.

It is true to say that such stories have little relevance. The scandal surrounding MP's expenses or the issues concerning the mining of rare earth deposits in China are arguably far more important than the life and death of a wannabe celebrity from a reality TV show or the death of someone in a TV celebrity's pool. But the general public are less interested in the the dry politics of daily life than they are in the salacious gossip surrounding the glitterati.

The MP expenses scandal was an exception to the rule. It crossed both barriers of tabloid and serious mainstream journalism. While it was the Daily Telegraph who broke the story and revealed the details, it was the tabloid press who revelled in those details. And outside MP's houses it was tabloid hacks and snappers following up, trying to get the reaction from the corrupt members of parliament themselves.

The decline in journalism - serious, hard hitting investigative journalism - has worsened over many years. And it all boils down to money.

No longer can serious papers afford to have journalists working on a story for months before publishing. The likes of the ground breaking Watergate scandal which the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped expose are less likely today. Tabloid papers which might have the resources would likely shy away from such stories in favour of celebrity sex scandals which sell more papers. Of course if all the hard work had already been done and the dossier pertaining to a scandal such as Watergate were to land on the desk of a top selling tabloid, few would ignore it. But papers, tabloid or broadsheet, do not have the time, money or resources to chase tenuous leads as they once did.

Today, papers rely on tips, leaks and worse, illegal methods such as phone hacking. Even less blatant illegal methods for obtaining leads could be considered to be pushing the boundaries of law. For many years newspapers, from the lowly regional weekly to the high profile dailies have relied on information from dubious sources. Journalists, and those acting for them have been known to use wiretaps, bugs, forwarded emails, and radio scanners to intercept information that would otherwise be outside the public domain.

While some journalists and photographers might rely on traffic reports to alert them to an incident on the roads, rail or airports, others might listen in to emergency channels in order to be one step ahead of the pack. In the US it is common practice for journalists to monitor police or fire channels using radio scanners. TV channels have even broadcast excerpts of such material, or at least referred to the information, openly. One photo-journalist writing in the book Running Toward Danger refers to having picked up on the unfolding drama of 9/11 before heading to the scene. In the UK such practice is illegal, but was widely flouted until the emergency services encrypted transmission in the last 5 years.

Obtaining a lead on a breaking story can also be obtained by pay-offs or through merely maintaining a good relationship with a friendly fireman or police officer. While payments are certainly illegal, the legality of a fireman calling up a friendly journalist with a tip is questionable.

Editors of papers would of course turn a blind eye to how the reporter or photographer learned of the information. There is a clear choice of having a front page lead with exclusive pictures of the car crash soon after the event or major fire as flames shot into the sky, or running with a picture shot several hours later of flowers at the scene or a burnt out shell of a house.

Listening in to emergency service broadcasts and air traffic control is one thing - deliberately tapping phones and bugging individuals is another.

But even rules set out by leading journalist unions leave the matter open to question. The National Union of Journalists in Britain states that reporters "obtain 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."

Clearly this opens a debate. When is something "overwhelmingly in the public interest"? Are the public interested? All too often that story about the celebrity sex romp interests the public far more than a dry political analysis of European economics. The fact that a local paper will sell more copies with a dramatic crash on its front page over a church fete adds weight to such a notion.

"Straightforward means" in obtaining such stories would entail waiting for a spurned partner to call a paper with a so-called "kiss and tell" account. Getting first hand knowledge of a major accident might be gleaned from regularly phoning the police press office. However, while some stories are handed to papers by disgruntled ex-partners, many publications cannot wait for that possible call. Similarly, information about a triple fatal on the M25 or the hijack of a plane may not make it to a police tape until hours after the incident has been dealt with.

The News of the World clearly went beyond any written or unwritten rules of ethics when they hacked into the voicemails of abducted teenagers, 7/7 victims' families and those of dead or injured soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the buying public should also bear some responsibility. If scandals involving political corruption, environmental destruction by corporations or immoral business practices sold papers then it would not have been abducted schoolgirls, dead soldiers and celebrities being spied on, it would have been politicians and company directors.

This too would have been illegal, though there would have been less controversy, over the bringing down of a corrupt politician taking bribes or a corporation polluting the oceans, than is currently being seen concerning the News of the World's practices in recent years.

The scandal surrounding the News of the World is far more wide reaching. It is possible, even likely, that similar practices have been going on at other papers. Broadcaster and former Sun columnist John Gaunt speaking on BBC's Question Time last week referred to other tabloid's initial muted response to the hacking story as unsurprising. "I'll tell you why they haven't talked about it," he said, "it is simply to do with pot, kettle and black". Actor Hugh Grant, himself the subject of many tabloid stories and a victim of phone hacking, said he had it on good authority that other tabloids had also behaved disreputably.

The newspaper industry, indeed the whole media industry, is likely to be shaken up by the continuing saga that is at present focused on the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch and News International.

Questions will go beyond the actions of journalists and reporters. The police and some politicians are already in the firing line and in the coming weeks and months there will be inquiries, trials and convictions.

In the past week there have been several high profile arrests and resignations. After building pressure, Rebekah Brooks finally resigned her post and found herself arrested on Sunday. Within hours of her arrest the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson quit his post after facing mounting criticism for having hired former News of the World executive Neil Wallis as an advisor in 2006. Wallis himself was questioned last week by police investigating the phone hacking and possible payments to police for stories.

As for Rupert and James Murdoch, they are set to appear before MPs on Tuesday to answer questions over what they knew about the hacking. The appearance will make great television, but few expect them to reveal anything and to deny complicity to the alleged crimes committed by the paper and some of its journalists. Politicians on all sides of the house are calling for an inquiry and for questions to be answered. Across the Atlantic too, US senators have spoken out and the FBI are conducting their own investigation into allegations of hacking and possible pay-offs.

For Murdoch and News International it is not looking good. For the newspaper industry too, the future is far from rosy. And there will be difficult times ahead for the Metropolitan Police as well as politicians. This is one story which is selling papers however, that is unless you're more interested in the European debt crisis.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, July 15, 2011

How NOTW used hacked phone calls

More details have emerged showing how the News of the World used information gleaned from hacking phones to concoct and make up stories.

The most high profile case is that of abducted and murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler whose phone was hacked and voicemail messages were even deleted. All of this was done in order to obtain stories.

Soon after the schoolgirl had been abducted in March 2002 the News of the World ran a story which appears to show it had already gleaned some information from her phone. Under the headline "Missing Milly 'hoax' outrage", the 14th April edition claimed that a woman had posed as the youngster and states that she had "left a message on her voicemail AFTER the 13-year-old vanished at 4pm on March 21."

The hacking has been described as sickening and deplorable, as well as immoral and illegal by politicians and members of the public. In the story which only made it to page 30 of the tabloid paper, it is stated that the woman had "hampered the investigation" into Milly Dowler's disappearance. The irony is that the News of the World had themselves probably impeded the investigation by deleting messages from Milly Dowler's voicemail in order to make way for further messages.

Other archived stories show that the likely contents of other voicemail messages ended up in stories. The News of the World has run countless stories which mention phone calls, voicemails or emails. Amongst those featured in the stories are Prince Harry, Ulrika Johnson, Jude Law, Enrique Inglesias and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In a story reporting on Ulrika Johnson's sex romp with Sven Ericksson, the paper reveals there were "sexy phone chats" often conducted in Swedish. "The News of the World has also discovered that 53-year-old Sven: Speaks only in Swedish on the phone to Ulrika and conned his live-in partner Nancy Dell'Olio that he was talking to his assistant, Tord Grip!"

These are just a few examples of stories that made it to print. There are no doubt countless others which never made it past the early investigations. The can of worms is open as far as the News of the World is concerned. How far such practices spread throughout the Murdoch empire is as yet unclear. What is also uncertain is whether other papers also engaged in immoral or illegal practices as a short cut to obtain stories.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Crisis deepens for News Corp.

News Corporation shares plummet

9/11 victims 'targeted'
Sun and Sunday Times 'hacked PM Brown'
BSkyB bid under threat
Police and Downing Street criticised

Rupert Murdoch may have thought the worst was finally over after he put the last ever edition of the News of the World to bed on Sunday, but as he arrived in the UK over the weekend he faced a mob of reporters and fresh accusations that other tentacles of his media empire were less than squeaky clean.

Prior to Murdoch making the decision to shut down the 168 year old paper, the News of the World had already been accused of hacking the phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and possibly hampered an ongoing police investigation into her disappearance by deleting messages in order to make way for new ones. Then there were reports that 7/7 bombing victims had been the target of phone hacking. On Thursday it was revealed that soldiers, who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their families had been targeted by the paper [News of the World hacking].

As public anger mounted and a media storm grew around the revelations, Murdoch made the call to shut the paper down in what appeared to be a damage limitation exercise. The decision was not greeted as warmly as he might have thought. Sacked staff and journalists were angry especially that they had been sacrificed while editor Rebekah Brooks held on to her job. The public viewed the closure cynically and many suggested that it was just part of a rebranding exercise and rumours began to circulate that a Sunday Sun was being planned. In fact a domain name had even been bought that seemed to add credence to this [Bloomberg].

As the last edition of the tabloid paper rolled off the presses the British prime minister David Cameron was fighting off criticism of having hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who found himself in police custody on Friday last week. Meanwhile the police themselves were also in the spotlight after allegations that some officers had taken money in return for information provided to the tabloid paper [BBC / Sky].

Allegations of 9/11 hacking

Just as some might have thought it couldn't get worse there were reports that News of the World reporters had tried to hack the voicemails of dead 9/11 victims. According to a former New York policeman, now a private investigator, said that reporters wanted British victim's mobile numbers and details of calls in the days surrounding the tragedy. If true the backlash from the American public could be severe for the Murdoch empire. He currently owns the New York Post, the United States 7th largest paper by circulation. A drop in those sales could be significant for News Corporation. But there are also concerns of his television networks too. Fox News is owned by Murdoch's News Corporation and any decline in viewers could affect the company hard [Daily Mail / Mirror].

BSkyB bid under scrutiny

In Britain his bid for complete ownership of BSkyB may have been scuppered as questions have been raised in parliament. Ed Miliband, the opposition leader has already called for a full inquiry into the phone hacking and a halt to the sale of the satellite broadcaster until that is complete.

Murdoch is no stranger to public outcry. In the 1980s, Murdoch shifted production of News of the World and other newspapers from Fleet Street in central London to Wapping in the capital's still underdeveloped Docklands. In doing so, he broke the power of labour unions opposed to introducing new technology. Police fought strikers nightly outside the Wapping plant as the papers were printed.

But in the last week the revelations that have unfolded as to the practices at his media outlets may have gone too far for anyone to bear.

Former PM claims he was hacked

Late Monday the former prime minister Gordon Brown joined the long list of alleged hacking victims saying that journalists had targeted him for information concerning his son who suffered from cystic fibrosis. According to media reports private investigators working for The Sun and The Sunday Times had attempted to obtain information through illegal methods.

The reports say that the paper had tried to secure details of Brown's mobile phone, his medical records and his bank account. Illegal attempts were made by a "blagger" apparently working for The Sunday Times to access Brown's account from the Abbey National bank in 2000. In a letter to The Sunday Times' editor John Witherow, Abbey National's senior lawyer wrote, "On the basis of facts and inquiries, I am drawn to the conclusion that someone from The Sunday Times or acting on its behalf has masqueraded as Mr Brown for the purpose of obtaining information from Abbey National by deception."

A tape obtained by the BBC showed another "blagger" identified as Barry Beardall seeking, also in 2000, to trick Brown's solicitors Allen & Overy into handing over details of the amount he paid for a flat in Westminster owned by one of Robert Maxwell's companies. A story claiming that Gordon Brown had underpaid for the flat by up to £30,000 was the subject of a story in the paper.

The evidence of underhand practices mounts with another case in October 2006. Rebekah Brooks, then editor of The Sun, apparently contacted the Browns, informing them that she had obtained medical details about their four-year-old son Fraser. The Sun subsequently published a story stating that Fraser had cystic fibrosis. The story caused the family particular distress as tests had yet to confirm the diagnosis [BBC / Sky / CNN / Independent].

Stocks falling

The fallout is already considerable for New International, owner of the Fox TV networks and film studios, the Wall Street Journal newspaper and book publisher HarperCollins. On Thursday its shares dropped, fell 68 cents, or 3.9%, to $16.75 in Nasdaq Stock Market trading at 4 p.m. New York time. BSkyB also saw a fall in its stock price. On the same day it lost 62 pence, or 7.6% of its value, dropping to 750 pence a share. The stock had already fallen 12% from a record of 850 pence on July 4 before reports of the new allegations. But worst was to come. On Monday News Corporation stocks opened down 90 cents settling at $15.85. It has yet to drop to its July 200 low of $8.17, but it is not looking good for the media mogul whose empire is seemingly disintegrating around him.

Advertisers had already pulled out from their partnership with the News of the World, even before the decision to ditch the paper. If a public backlash grows concerning the Sun and the Times the losses for News Corp. could be crippling.

Fictional comparisons

Some media commentators have already liked Murdoch to Elliot Carver the fictional media tycoon depicted in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. The film portrays the massive media enterprise manipulating the news as well as coercing, misinforming, incensing and even terrorising populations.

The fictional Carver is ultimately killed by Bond at the film's climax, but an official story is later released stating that Carver has drowned while onboard his luxury yacht in the South China Sea, while the authorities believed he committed suicide. This appears to refer to the death of Robert Maxwell, a reputedly corrupt media mogul who was reported missing from his luxury yacht and presumed a suicide in 1991.

Whether Murdoch's ship flounders, only time will tell. What is certain is that he and his media empire will have a rocky ride over the coming months. Rival newspapers and media outlets have been rubbing their hands in glee at the demise of the News of the World. Papers around the world have not only criticised Murdoch however. Some have pointed fingers at the buying public and at British journalism as a whole [BBC].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, July 08, 2011

NOTW closure just damage limitation

After months of attempting to deflect criticism over phone hacking abuses the News of the World is to be closed after 168 years.

The closure is a landmark in British journalism, especially given the papers long history. It also marks a low point for journalism given the damage done to newspapers and journalism as a whole by the practices of the News of the World.


The practice of phone hacking is said to have begun in 2006 as reporters at the News of the World used private investigators to illegally gain access to hundreds of mobile phone voicemail accounts held by a variety of people of interest to the newspaper.

Within a year the paper's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, pleaded guilty to illegal interception of personal communication and was jailed for four months and the paper's editor, Andy Coulson resigned. But the revelations of the underhand tactics and the jailing of a journalist did not dissuade others from using phone hacking as a method to obtain information.

In 2009 and 2010 further revelations emerged on the extent of the phone hacking, and how it was common knowledge within the News of the World and its News International parent. According to a former reporter at the paper, "Everyone knew. The office cat knew," about the illegal activities used to scoop stories.

Investigations into the News of the World's methods were investigated not only by the police but also rival papers. On January 17, 2011, The Guardian reported that Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator paid by the News of the World, testified that he had been asked by the newspaper's leadership to hack voicemail accounts on its behalf. In April 2011, attorneys for the victims alleged that as many as 7,000 people had their phones hacked by the News of the World and it was further revealed that the paper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, had attempted to pressure then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour Party MPs to "back away" from investigating the scandal.

Then came the arrest of three journalists on the newspaper. Ian Edmondson and Neville Thurlbeck were arrested on 5th April and James Weatherup on 14th April prompting the paper to apologise "unreservedly" for its phone hacking activities during April 2011.

But this was not enough, not only for the rest of Fleet Street, but also the police and the British public. Criticism mounted with each new hacking revelation. On 4th July 2011, it was disclosed that potential evidence had been deleted in spring 2002 from the hacked voicemail account of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler [Guardian]. The girl was later found to have been murdered and the fact that messages were deleted from her phone to make way for others incensed the public mood. It was later revealed that bombing victims from London's 2005 terror attack were also targeted by phone hackers paid for by the News of the World [BBC].

The fallout was growing fast. Advertisers began to pull out and social networking platforms began to launch campaigns against the paper and those supporting it financially.

Bombshell falls

Then came the bombshell. At around 17:00 UK time on the 7th July reports began to emerge that the News of the World was to publish its last edition on Sunday 10th July.

As news spread Twitter was swamped with comments and revelations. Staff at the News of the World were said to be in tears while victims of the phone hacking were in a celebratory mood.

Most of Friday's newspapers [Sky News-papers] led with the story, with headlines such as "Hacked to death", "The End of the World" and the "Paper that died in shame".

News commentary ran through the evening on BBC Radio 5 Live and on the BBC World Service as well as on major television networks. While many commentators lauded the decision some of those who had criticised the paper's methods said that the closure did not go far enough. There were continued calls for Rebekah Brooks, the former editor, now News International's chief executive, to resign. According to Sky News she had offered to quit her role but this was rejected by News International and in an interview Rupert Murdoch stood by her saying he was satisfied with her conduct.

In a statement made to staff, Murdoch said all the good things the News of the World did "have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong - indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company". [Full statement]

James Murdoch, son of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and now Deputy Chief Operating Officer of owner News Corporation, said the News of the World was "in the business of holding others to account". But he said, "It failed when it came to itself."

In a statement, James Murdoch said he was "convinced" the decision to shut the paper was "the right thing to do". The profits from the last edition would be handed to good causes he announced. No commercial advertising would be offered in the paper, instead "Any advertising space in this last edition will be donated to causes and charities that wish to expose their good works to our millions of readers," he said [The Sun].

However, despite the decision to end the papers nearly 200 year history, there may be few advertisements in the paper even of charitable organisations. The latest organisation to sever ties was the British Legion which pulled out after the revelations over hacking serving members of the armed forces and their families. "We can't with any conscience campaign alongside News of the World on behalf of Armed Forces families while it stands accused of preying on these same families in the lowest depths of their misery. The hacking allegations have shocked us to the core," a spokesman for the Royal British Legion said [Telegraph].

Rebranding exercise

The closure of the paper has been cynically labelled as a "rebranding exercise" and that it amounts to little more than an effort to limit the damage done to News Corporation. "All they're going to do is rebrand it," Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said in an interview. In fact there are already rumours that the Sun may launch a Sunday edition.

Focus has already begun to shift to other enterprises owned by the organisation and whether its journalistic integrity is intact, publications like the Sun and the New York Post and television outlets like Fox News. There are also questions being voiced over the BSkyB takeover.

Mark Pritchard, secretary of the influential Conservative backbench 1922 committee and vice-chairman of the parliamentary media group, has told the BBC he wants the government to delay a decision on the BskyB takeover. "The government should take the political and moral lead - and announce a delay to the BSkyB decision until all outstanding legal impediments have been removed," he said. Shares in BSkyB fell on fears that the scandal could hinder parent company News Corp's bid for the broadcaster, though it is as yet unclear whether the closure of the News of the World will mark a downturn of the Murdoch empire as a whole.

Journalistic ethics

Aside the appalling behaviour of the News of the World in recent years, especially as regards to the phone hacking scandal, there is no paper that can claim to be entirely squeaky clean when it comes to journalistic morals and ethics.

Tabloids in particular have stepped over the line many times, leading in some cases to litigation, apologies and payouts. In 1987 the Daily Star lost a high profile libel action brought by Jeffrey Archer, leading to an award of £500,000 in damages, over allegations of Archer's involvement with Monica Coghlan.

Following the disappearance toddler Madeleine McCann in Spain, both the Daily Star and its Sunday equivalent, as well as its stablemates the Daily Express and Sunday Express, featured heavy coverage of the missing girl. In 2008 the McCann family sued the Star and Express for libel following the newspapers' coverage of the case. The action concerned more than 100 stories across the Daily Express, Daily Star and their Sunday equivalents, which accused the McCanns of involvement in their daughter's disappearance. The newspapers' coverage was regarded by the McCanns as grossly defamatory. In a settlement at the High Court of Justice, the newspapers agreed to run a front-page apology to the McCanns on 19th March 2008, publish another apology on the front pages of the Sunday editions on 23th March and make a statement of apology at the High Court. They also agreed to pay costs and substantial damages, which the McCanns planned to use to aid their search for their daughter. In its apology, the Daily Star apologised for printing "stories suggesting the couple were responsible for, or may be responsible for, the death of their daughter Madeleine and for covering it up" and stated that "We now recognise that such a suggestion is absolutely untrue and that Kate and Gerry are completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter's disappearance."

The Daily Mirror has also had its fair share of controversy over its 108 year history. In April 1963, The Sunday Mirror published a two-page guide called "How to Spot a Homo" which listed "shifty glances", "dropped eyes" and "a fondness for the theatre" as signs of being gay. Although the paper has rarely found itself in court it has published many stories later to be proved as fake. The most notable case was the publishing of photographs said to be of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. The paper was forced to apologise and its editor was sacked [CNN].

The Daily Telegraph had to apologise on four occasions after prematurely publishing the obituaries of notable people though it has yet to find itself in the dock. The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times have also avoided court action, but even the so-called broadsheets have published information which could only have been obtained illegally. One notable example is the Daily Telegraph's publishing of details of MP's expenses which led to the resignation of many embarrassed members of parliament and a shake up of the expenses system.

'Public interest'

It is the supposed judgement call of whether something is in the public interest that has pushed papers into breaking the law or ignoring certain ethical standards. But a mitigating factor is also a financial one. Exclusive stories have increased circulation of the tabloids in particular, and the News of the World has arguably broke the mould in this regard. But such stories have come at a price. The paper has found itself in court dozens of times and paid out large sums to plaintiffs. The recent revelations were seen as a step too far for a paper whose circulation had shrunk significantly since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1969. In 1950 the paper had sold an average of 8 million copies each Sunday, but by 2009 its circulation had dropped to less than 3 million, showing a year-on-year fall of 5.67% and a month-on-month fall of 5.26% [Guardian].

Some suggest the fall in sales indicated that a more educated public were less interested in the tittle tattle published by the tabloid newspaper market. However, all papers have seen a decline in their circulation since the advent of the Internet and online publishing.

As the News of the World shuts its doors on Sunday the biggest victim will be some 200 journalists and photographers. Many will find it difficult to obtain work in a market already suffering since the 2008 recession. Many freelancers will also find themselves without an important client. The 'Screws' as they were often referred to by hacks in the field would often lead the way as they cottoned on to a story. As the first journalist or snapper turned up at a celebrity's house on a Thursday, word quickly spread around other tabloid newsrooms and by Friday or Saturday journalists from the other red tops would also be sniffing around. Many such stories often came to nothing but it kept many a starving journalist off the dole. In short the News of the World was the bread and butter for many journalists and photographers.

It perhaps was only a matter of time as to when the paper would fold. In more ways than one it screwed its own final nail in its own coffin.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China