Monday, December 03, 2012

Leveson report "a threat to a free press"

It has been a week of press scrutiny, not only in Britain with the release of the long awaited Leveson report, but around the world as countries like China and Burma tackle a slowly emerging 'free' press.

The Leveson inquiry was set up last year to review the general culture and ethics of the British media following revelations of widespread phone hacking by a number of papers. After countless witnesses and hours of testimony Lord Leveson last week put forward his recommendations for a new, independent, body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission, and which would be recognised by the state through new laws. Meanwhile Part 2 of the inquiry has been deferred until after criminal prosecutions regarding events at the News of the World and the allegations into phone hacking.

Mixed reaction

There has been a varied reaction to the suggestions put forward. During the satirical news quiz show broadcast on Friday, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop pointed out that many of the things the press had been criticised for doing were already covered by law and little needed to be changed.

"I think a free press is a good idea which is obviously a heretical view," Hislop quipped. "What I'm in favour of is a free press that obeys the law. There is a law against all the things that came up in the report. Telephone hacking, bribery of policemen, harassment, privacy, all those things I think are covered by the law. They weren't enforced by the police because they were in the pocket of the press who were in the pocket of the politicians."

PM rejects report

Prime Minister David Cameron also appeared to dismiss the proposals put forward by the Leveson report which ran into four volumes. Speaking soon after its release Cameron rejected the central proposal of the Leveson inquiry, for a statutory body to oversee the new independent press regulator, warning that legislation could ultimately infringe on free speech and a free press [Guardian].

After some 600 statements and 90 arrests connected with wrongdoing in British media, others feel that something more needed to be done. Lord Leveson said that the press had "wreaked havoc" in many people's lives and had failed to follow their own guidelines.

He called for larger fines of up to £1 million for failing to follow a new set of guidelines which all papers should be forced to sign up to. Furthermore he proposes oversight by Ofcom or other body to ensure that publications adhere to the new rules.

Cautious optimism

A self regulatory body, underpinned by legislation, was cautiously welcomed by victims of press intrusion and the group HackedOff which has campaigned for free but accountable press.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg showed that there were signs of a split as he said in parliament that the proposals set out by Leveson should be enacted upon immediately and "in full". Opposition party members were scathing of Cameron's prevarication. "I believe Mister Speaker that we should and can move forward together wholeheartedly now," Labour leader Ed Miliband proclaimed.

Despite appearing to dismiss the recommendations out of hand, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a draft bill to be drawn up and presented for debate in the House of Commons.

Risks to a free press

Leveson has suggested three possible overseers of a new statutory code, that of Ofcom, parliament or a judge. But Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg warned any of these could destroy a free and independent press.

"Ofcom [is] appointed by the Prime Minister, parliament [is] immediately political, judges [are] appointed by the Lord Chancellor," Rees-Mogg pointed out during a debate on Newsnight. "It comes straight back to the fact that the guardian of the guards is a government appointee."

"The circle is fundamentally unsquarable," Rees-Mogg insisted, "Either you have a free and reckless press, or you have a stable and state controlled press." While an uncomfortable prospect, Rees-Mogg said he would rather have a "free and reckless" press as opposed to one that was state controlled.

Taking a route which gave rise to a state-controlled press would not sit comfortably with many. Britain could not point their finger at other countries which stifle the freedom of the press if it were to curtail the actions of British media.

Support for change

However, speaking on the BBC's Sunday Politics show Labour leader Harriet Harman insisted her party was "absolutely not proposing that public authority should interfere with the freedom of the press". But should interference of the press be seen as political, it would be difficult for Britain to dictate or criticise state intervention in other regions of the world.

Nonetheless, there is general and broad consensus that something needs to be done to stop the unethical, illegal and immoral behaviour of some sections of British media, while at the same time protecting press freedom [Guardian]

While even those within the mainstream media believe there is a need for change, both in the way the press behaves and how it is regulated, there is a fly in the ointment, that of the growing use of social media, blogs and the Internet in general.

Internet freedom

Contained in Lord Justice Leveson's 2,000 page report into the culture, practice and ethics of the press were around a dozen pages dealing with the Internet. He himself described the Internet as an "ethical vacuum", but there are difficulties when it comes to controlling ethical, or other, behaviour on the Internet [BBC].

There are some who are calling for greater curbs, not only of the press, but also the Internet. Max Mosely, the former president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), has welcomed the recommendation by Lord Leveson for the press to be regulated by an independent body backed up by statute, saying it would "make the situation much better than it is now". He has also urged the Government to act on the proposals outlined in the report. "I don't think any responsible politician could fail to implement the legislation which he's calling for," he said  [Telegraph].

Truth & nonsense

"People will not assume that what they read on the Internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person's view," Lord Leveson said in his short assessment of the risks posed by the Internet.

JP Barlow, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, laughed at Leveson's opinion describing his thoughts as "wonderful". Asked whether Leveson was right in such an assessment, Barlow said, "Of course not."

"There's practically every shade of truth and nonsense to be had online," Barlow added. "And I think that most people familiar with that environment, which is practically everyone younger than the Lord, is familiar with how to determine the wheat and the chaff."

"I dispute absolutely the fact the Internet has the same reach and power as the printed press," media analyst Clare Enders insisted, "Lord Leveson does not say the Internet has no power and no reach. We know that's false, but [newspapers] have a different impact on reputation here in the UK." [BBC]

But the Internet, and the views and opinions expressed through the medium, very clearly influence public opinion. It is precisely because of such influence that some, like Max Mosely want the likes of Google to be reprimanded.

In March 2008 the News of the World released video footage of Mosley engaged in acts with five consenting women in a scenario that the paper alleged involved Nazi role-playing, an allegation that though dismissed in court for lack of evidence, constituted a stain on Mosley's reputation.

Calls for net controls

"They [the News of the World] put the story about me on the web where it has remained forevermore," Mosely asserts. And while the Sunday tabloid took down the offending story "people rip it off and it goes all over the web," Mosely told Newsnight's Gavin Esler.

To chase Google would be pointless, Esler suggests, but Mosley insists that Google and other search engines could be forced to stop indexing such websites. "What matters is if you put my name in is you get something very nasty," Mosely says.

"It's really all about search engines and Internet service providers," Mosely insists "and the thing about search engines is they can find any obscure should be able to just say to Google we have a court decision [to get the site removed]"

"But if the government of China can't make sure people don't get stuff they don't like, it's not going to happen in the free world," Esler asks.

"It will when there are international conventions," Mosley insists. "The rule of law applies everywhere. It will apply to the net as it does to everything else, it'll just take a little time. We'll start off with probably EU laws then an international convention involving other countries."

UN debate restrictions

How far off such restrictions are is difficult to say, but there are already plans being discussed. This week the United Nations hosted a conference to discuss just that. Government regulators from 193 countries convened in Dubai to revise a wide-ranging communications treaty.

But while the likes of Russia and China favour new rules to govern the Internet, many countries, companies and organisations are very much opposed to any interference.

Google has warned the event threatened the "open Internet", while the EU said the current system worked adequately enough. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," one EU representative Neelie Kroes tweeted [BBC].

Dangerous precedents

So what of countries like China, where not only the press is stifled, but also free speech through the Internet. Through a sophisticated infrastructure commonly known as the Great Firewall of China, the state censors what people are allowed to access on the Internet. Many foreign websites are blocked, especially social networks such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, and even homegrown social networks are highly regulated.

Media too is strictly controlled. Most media is overseen by the state and even where there is some element of independence, organisations have to toe the line. Failing to do so can result in sackings, the shutting down of the paper or broadcaster or even jail.

Chinese regulators recently suspended a broadcaster after an unaired segment of a TV game show was leaked online showing a raucous shouting match about nudity between spectators and a woman who calls her daughter the next Lady Gaga.

The story caused a storm in China [Global Times] but was also widely reported around the world [Guardian]. There has been debate too over whether the TV station was truly responsible given they did not themselves leak the footage, which had been filmed and posted by a member of the audience [China Daily].

While heads certainly rolled at the small Jiangsu Education Television station, it is not clear whether similar repercussions will come to pass at the People's Daily which recently published an erroneous story lifted from the satirical website The Onion.

Spoof stories

The spoof story had asserted that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was the "Sexiest Man Alive". However The People's Daily, China's Communist Party newspaper, failed to see through the satire and published the report as fact along with a 55-page photo spread.

Quoting the Onion's spoof report, the Chinese newspaper wrote, "With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true."

"Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper's editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile," the People's Daily cited the Onion as saying. The story [Google cache] was soon removed, but only after the mistake was highlighted by the world's serious press [BBC / CNN / GuardianLA TimesVancouver Sun]. An editor for the paper was said to be embarrassed by the faux story, though failed to explain how the mistake occurred [Telegraph].

Previous mistakes

It is not the first time a state-run Chinese newspaper has fallen for a fictional report by The Onion. In  2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the capital city's biggest tabloids at the time, published as news the fictional account that the US Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. The Onion article was a deadpan spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums.

Xinhua was also caught out by the supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World News, when it printed a story about how teachers in American schools were being ordered to dress sexy [Danwei]. The story has since been expunged from the Xinhua website, though the original Weekly World News story can be seen here on Google Books.
In another episode an editor at the state run Xinhua News Agency used a picture of the cartoon character Homer Simpson to illustrate the serious story about a brain condition. The picture seen here in a screen grab  was later removed, but was embarrassing for the news organisation and the picture editor concerned.

The editor concerned was embarrassed to say the least, though kept her job. "It's a long story. I made this mistake just because of lack of cultural backgrounds," the Xinhua reporter told tvnewswatch, "Even [though] Homer Simpson is famous in US, at that moment, I didn't  know who he is [sic].  i just thought it is a simple picture. I had never thought what  it represents."

"My leader talked to me after that. then I asked a lot of people majoring in English if they knew Homer Simpson, only few knew him.  In China, he is not popular." [Computer World]

Cultural differences

While cultural differences could excuse some mistakes, the restricted nature of media in China can also add to problems since many are not exposed to such things as satire, à la National Inquirer, the Weekly World News or The Onion.

Iran's media have also been caught out by 'cultural misunderstandings'. The country is also stifled by extreme censorship, which again might explain why its state news agency fell for a fake poll which suggested that a majority of rural white Americans would vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Barack Obama [Telegraph].

Of course in such countries these mistakes are simply deleted. There are no apologies or corrections. In fact, an admission would reveal the poor journalistic standards of their own media. As such many readers will fail to be correctly informed of the truth. Indeed there may be many in Iran or China who believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more popular than Obama and that North Korea's Kim Jong Un is the world's most sexy guy!

Stifled media

There are some countries that are trying to make a move towards a more free press. Burma, which has been ruled by a military junta for decades, is now making its first tentative steps towards democratic reform. With it has come a gradual dropping of the restrictions relating to what can and can't be reported. In August this year Internet restrictions were lifted with the likes of Facebook and Twitter becoming accessible. The state media too has had some of its shackles removed, though it still has a long way to go [BBC].

Other Asian countries, even those that have embraced democracy have a lot to learn about the freedom of the press. When a BBC journalist was arrested in Thailand some 6 years ago, local police said it was merely because he would write "bad things" about Burma. Today, Thailand has not progressed any further in terms of how government officials deal with the media, either local or foreign, an OpEd in The Nation claims. The article cites a recent press conference during which a police spokesman, Piya Uthayo, tried hard to pacify the press after it was discovered that riot police had slapped and kicked photographers covering the Pitak Siam anti-government protest a week before.

Treading carefully

British journalism may not be under such tight or violent censorship, but should Leveson's proposals be taken too far, journalists might find themselves just as restrained.

Such risks should not detract from the very real crisis that British journalism finds itself in. The British tabloid media in particular have over-stepped the line, and bent the rules of its own code of practice far too often.

However, it is the law, and to some extent the politicians, that have failed the public as much as the press. The police have failed to investigate the impropriety both in the press and amongst their own ranks. Politicians have all too willingly 'got into bed' with journalists to win favour.

Any changes, either to the way the press is regulated or legislated against may be some time off. But anyone who values freedom should be guarded against the state gaining too much control of the media. Perhaps the last line should go to George Orwell, well known for his warning of possible totalitarian dystopias. "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations"

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Leveson - full report PDFs volume 1 / volume 2 / volume 3 / volume 4

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