Archive for December, 2008
Craig Silverman, whose website – RegrettheError – reports on corrections, retractions and clarifications from news outlets around the world, has published his excellent ‘Year in Media Errors and Corrections 2008‘.
It’s well worth reading them in full, but here’s a selection of British ones:
From the Daily Star:
Our article last Tuesday headed “It’s Sven Giggle Eriksson” pictured Mr Eriksson in a hotel restaurant with a young lady. We wrongly assumed that the lady was an admirer and suggested that he was fondling her. In fact the lady was Lina, Mr Eriksson’s daughter, with whom he was having a normal fatherly embrace. We apologise to Mr Eriksson and his daughter for the embarrassment and distress caused by the publication of the photographs and incorrect assumptions made about them.
From The Sun:
An article on March 29, “Everyone off my bus, I need to pray”, stated that Arunas Raulynaitis, a London bus driver and a Muslim, asked passengers to leave his bus so he could pray and that passengers later refused to re-board the bus because they saw a ruck-sack which made them think he might be a fanatic. The article included pictures of Mr Raulynaitis praying. We now accept that these allegations were completely untrue. Mr Raulynaitis is not a fanatic and he did not ask passengers to leave his bus to allow him to pray. In fact, he was praying during his statutory rest break. We apologise to Mr Raulynaitis for the embarrassment and distress caused.
From The Times:
We may owe an apology to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Last month we dubbed it “Whitehall’s answer to Sir Elton John” after it emerged that it had spent £ 46,000 on pot plants in two years. Now we learn that staff at the Department for Children, Schools and Families spent £ 78,000 on pot plants in a single year. The crown, thus, is theirs.
From the Guardian:
Gore Vidal was once head-butted by Norman Mailer, not the other way round. Vidal described the altercation as “marshmallow to marshmallow” when asked about it at the Hay festival 2008 (Diary, page 9, G2, May 27).
From the Daily Mail:
In articles published on 23 and 26 May 2008, we gave the impression that Mr Gest had contracted a sexually transmitted infection and alleged that he had Liza Minnelli’s dog killed without her knowledge. This was wrong. David Gest has never had a sexually transmitted infection and did not have Ms Minnelli’s dog killed. We apologise to Mr Gest for any embarrassment caused.
From Press Gazette:
The Eastern Daily Press has apologised after confusing the Bishop of Norwich with serial killer Steve Wright, known as the “Suffolk strangler”. The paper printed a letter from Rupert Read of the Eastern Region Green Party calling for brothels to be closed following the Ipswich murders saying: “Surely that is the best memorial to the women who died at the hands of Steve Wright (pictured).” But the EDP printed a picture of the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Graham James, with his dog collar clearly visible, instead of Wright. The paper has printed an apology and has agreed to make a donation to a Christian group that helps prostitutes of which the Bishop is a patron.
The most interesting aspect of this story was not that the government was spinning statistics about knife crime, but that this was exposed by Sir Michael Scholar. In a corruscating letter to Jeremy Heywood, Permanent Secretary at Number 10, and in robust broadcast interviews after that, Sir Michael said that the release of the statistics was “premature, irregular and selective“.
Statistics are always being spun. Spun by the media, spun by the government, spun by NGOs. And of all statistics, crime figures are most ripe for manipulation. The statistics most often referred to by the media come from the British Crime Survey
that relies not on police records but on a regular survey commissioned by the Home Office. Critics suggest the survey under-reports crime – for example by excluding under-16s (eg. see Wikipedia entry
New Labour became notorious for using figures in ways that suited them. Blair and Brown frequently double counted government spending (e.g. see Peter Oborne on how £9bn miraculously became £21bn in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review). Large capital projects, most notably PFI, were mysteriously missing
from the government’s books. Numerous Home Secretaries inflated police numbers
, deflated immigration figures and touted selective successes in bringing down crime. Most memorably New Labour manipulated facts and figures to ‘sex up’ the dossiers justifying the war in Iraq.
Indeed this is the reason that Gordon Brown decided to make the statistics published by the Office for National Statistics
independent of government, and why the UK Statistics Authority
was set up in April 2008 with Sir Michael Scholar as its first head. Brown wanted to distance New Labour from its reputation for chronic spinning.
Little did Brown realise that his appointment would prove so effective, or that Scholar’s bark would match his bite.
Having now been bitten, will the government take more care in the future? Let’s hope so. But watch out for what happens to Sir Michael. If he is quietly shifted from his post in the next few months we will know that far from learning from its experience, the government will have decided it cannot live without spun statistics.
The last few weeks have been very sobering for anyone still optimistic about the future of the news industry (that’s ‘news industry’ like ‘music industry’, not news itself).
If this year has been painful for the whole economy, it’s been especially blood soaked for the news industry. The economic model for news production was in serious trouble before the international financial crisis of the last few months. Now, not a week goes by without more news of plummeting ad revenues, falling circulations, job cuts and newspaper closures.
And 2009 looks like it will be even worse. The FT reported this week that ‘The newspaper and magazine industry could be “decimated” in 2009 with one out of every 10 print publications forced to reduce publication frequency by more than half, move online or close entirely’ (based on a report by Deloitte). Then today Enders Analysis forecast that ‘more than a third of the UK’s regional newspaper titles will have closed in the UK between 2002 and 2013… [with local titles] already closing at a rate of 10-15 a week’ (from Laura Oliver).
Trying to get an idea of how bad things are is tricky when you’re relying on a bunch of isolated reports, which is why aggregations and timelines are so helpful. Journalism.co.uk is trying to track job losses across the industry, and has a timeline of articles reporting losses. The Media Guardian has a media downturn section on its site. And Peter Kirwan has pulled together a bunch of reports on Google docs.
If big news organisations do have a strategy, then it seems to be:
1. Cut jobs but maintain print output
This can mean one person doing a job previously reserved for two or three. In Wales, for example, Trinity Mirror plans to have one editor running the Merthyr Express, Rhymney Valley Express and Gwent Gazette, while another edits the Rhondda Leader and Pontypridd Observer and a third the Glamorgan Gazette and Neath and Port Talbot Guardians (from Press Gazette)
2. Close offices and centralise production
Johnston Press have centralised all Northern Ireland production work to Craigavon. Kent Messenger is centralising production in Larkfield and Wraik Hill. Newsquest is centralising its planning operations for the north-west at Blackburn (from Oliver Luft). The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News are also said to be considering merging production
3. Centralise editorial operations in ‘multimedia hubs’
In the Midlands Trinity Mirror has two new integrated multimedia newsrooms in Birmingham and Coventry. In Cardiff they have a news hub to produce much of the editorial material for their Welsh newspapers. Kent Messenger has centralised its editorial in Medway.
4. Outsource or merge
This seems to be the current strategy of choice for nationals. The Independent will bunk up with the Daily Mail in January, and the Telegraph is, according to Oliver Luft and Ben Dowell, thinking about ‘outsourcing some of its production operations away from its headquarters in Victoria’.
So what does all this mean for the public? Centralising production will bring forward print deadlines and make news in local newspapers even older than it is already. ‘Local’ newspapers will – almost inevitably – feel less local if they are produced from a central editorial hub. Local newspapers with fewer reporters will rely more on material produced by other people (not necessarily PR – could be user-generated content etc.).
Based on this, the outlook for the local press, especially in the short to medium term, seems pretty bleak. Though this ignores, of course, all the information coming from sources other than traditional news organisations, and from the new news providers online.
Still, for those people who believe in the quasi-constitutional role of the press, especially the local press, it has been a grim year indeed.
We have to hope that Christopher Galley’s public interest defence – if true – is successful. Galley has said, through his lawyer, that he leaked numerous documents to Conservative MP Damian Green because he believed they were in the public interest. He did not, he says, receive money for the documents, nor was he ‘groomed’ by Green as a plant in the Home Office. Damian Green has reiterated these claims (according to a ‘senior Tory source’).
Making this defence does not make Galley immune from prosecution. The police can still take action. However, he has not been charged under the Official Secrets Act and has, to date, only been questioned on suspicion of ‘misconduct in public life’.
His public interest defence is, in these circumstances, not just valid but valuable. We need more successful public interest cases based on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in order to create precedents. Only through numerous precedents will the government and police recognise that it is legitimate for people to release and publish information that is genuinely in the public interest – no matter how embarrassing it is. The government is still entirely justified in taking disciplinary action, but may feel less inclined to pursue criminal proceeedings. Plus, with more precedents, journalists will feel more confident investigating awkward stories without fearing they will be hauled into the police station and threatened with life imprisonment.
These are not idle fears. The journalist Sally Murrer went through a horrific ordeal simply for doing her job. Murrer, a 50-year-old single mum with three children who works part time at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested at her home 19 months ago. She was held at the police station, strip searched, told she might face life in jail, and then prosecuted for over a year. The charge was the same as that levelled at Damian Green – ‘aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public life’. Murrer had been given information by a police source and then published it in the local paper. Not information that might have threatened national security. Not information that could have impaired the investigation of a serious crime. No, these were simply local stories about pub fights and drug dealers: ‘One concerned a local footballer involved in a brawl, another about the death of a former drug offender and a third, which was never published, involved an Islamist released early from prison’ (Sally Murrer, The Daily Mail).
The case against Murrer eventually collapsed because her lawyer successfully defended her on the basis of Article 10 – freedom of expression. But the lengthy ordeal has had a profound effect on Murrer. ‘I tried to keep working,’ she wrote in the Daily Mail last Saturday, ‘but I don’t know if I have the strength to continue as a journalist. I certainly won’t be doing another police story again’.
Of course the government should be free to take disciplinary action against civil servants that leak information – particularly serial leakers. It could – should – have fired Christopher Galley long ago when the Home Office first realised what he was doing. But before the police are called in to take criminal action – and criminal action that seems designed to scare not just the accused but anyone who might be thinking of acting in a similar way – then the public interest defence needs to give them pause.