Archive for November, 2006
What are the likely repercussions of the Clive Goodman conviction? Perhaps it will lead to a change of behaviour within the press? Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, was very contrite after Goodman’s admission saying “Clive Goodman’s actions were entirely wrong and I have put in place measures to ensure that they will not be repeated by any member of my staff.” What measures? The News of the World already says it adheres to the industry’s code of practise which states clearly in clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge):
‘i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs. ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means’ (my italics)
Plus, only a few months ago the office of the information commissioner uncovered evidence showing that 305 journalists were repeatedly getting hold of information – via private detectives – using methods which certainly broke clause 10, and in many cases broke the law, in most cases clearly not in the public interest (see previous post). And, the fact that the stablemate of the News of the World, The Sun, ‘scooped’ the story of Gordon Brown’s baby son having cystic fibrosis yesterday (on Sun Online), indicates the behaviour won’t change any time soon.
An alternative, immediately touted by some, is ‘tougher privacy laws’ (Guardian) and jail sentences for journalists who break them. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has called for up to two years imprisonment. Simon Hughes said he has ‘long held the view that courts should be allowed to deprive those responsible for this sort of behaviour of their liberty’.
But a privacy law, on top of the Data Protection Act, on top of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), without any countervailing guarantees comparable to the US First Amendment, is very likely to constrain serious investigatory journalism that is genuinely in the public interest.
Surely a much more constructive alternative is to make self-regulation more effective. As yet the PCC has not investigated the case of the 305 journalists, despite being asked to do so by the office of the information commissioner. It has not taken any measures to help define ‘public interest’ so that it is unerringly clear to journalists when they are acting outside the editorial code of practise. It has not taken any initiative to assess how widespread the problem is or what can be done to prevent it – and thereby avoid further regulation. The PCC has not, in Sir Christopher Meyer’s words, been ‘absolutely clear on this issue of phone message tapping’, and if it doesn’t do something now then the calls for tougher laws will only get louder.
You, dear reader, are clearly very sharp and cutting edge. Isn’t flattery great? We all appreciate being flattered and of course Michael Grade is no exception. It must have been very flattering to be approached by ITV, to be offered over a million pounds a year to be Executive Chairman, and on top of that to receive a standing ovation on your first day in the job. But as with government budgets that are lauded when first announced, I can’t help feeling Grade’s move will be seen, in retrospect, as tremendously ill-judged. First there are the question marks around his ability to turn ITV around – well summarised in Adrian Monck’s blog. Then, there is the legacy of his time at the BBC. Most reports have focused on the implications for the Licence Fee, but negotiations for this are at such a stage it seems unlikely to change the attitude of those within government (many of whom are already against a large settlement). More important are the implications for BBC governance. As Stewart Purvis comments in today’s Times, Grade was brought in to overhaul the structure of governance to ‘prevent another debacle’ like that over Iraq and WMD. By leaving just before the new structure starts working he has chopped off its head and left it running around like the proverbial chicken. Given how much criticism there has already been around the new structure this might make it virtually dead on arrival. Conversely, this has made the whole question of the accountability of the BBC very live again. And this at a time when trust in all media organisations is falling, and we have to look to the BBC as the role model of public service. In this context Grade’s move, while lucrative, is reckless and disruptive and, in the longer term, liable to do significant damage to public trust.
What should be the relationship between public relations and journalism? It was a question I pondered as I dragged my cold-ridden body around the glittering anniversary party of Editorial Intelligence last night. A question much asked but, I’d argue, never properly answered. It’s high time it was examined. The public relations industry in this country has mushroomed in the last decade. Chime Communications, the biggest public relations group in Britain, has seen its profits rise 62% since last September – and represents everyone from Royal Mail to Berezhovsky (and, by association, Litvinenko). There’s been a flow of prominent editors and journalists to public relations (David Yelland et al). And there have been questions raised about the relationship between drug companies and health campaigns (like Cancer United). Some journalists have said publicly how uncomfortable they are having any relationship with public relations (see Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times) but rather than stick our heads in the sand it makes alot more sense to open the whole relationship up to more scrutiny – and work out where PR has a constructive impact and where a distorting one.
ps. note to self – avoid glittering social events when likely to spend them coughing persistently on other guests
Over 5 years late and tied up with more constraints than Houdini the Freedom of Information act was finally passed in 2004. Two years later and we’re effectively about to lose even this. The Guardian reports today that the government is pushing through the new proposals which will cut off serious freedom of information requests by news organisations (‘Ministers plan to break pledge on freedom of information’). Maurice Frankel, from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has sent a letter of protest to ministers. But if the government is determined then it’s going to take more than this to stop it. What else can we do? I’ve just signed an electronic petition (Free Information) – please do the same. And if you have any other bright ideas – press ‘add comment’ now