Archive for May, 2009

Unanswered questions about The Sun’s ‘baby-father’ story

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On 13th February, The Sun broke the original story about 13-year-old ‘baby-father’ Alfie. This week, it revealed that the story was almost entirely wrong (though you wouldn’t have known that from the coverage).

The most astonishing aspect of the story was not only that Alfie was young, but that Alfie also looked incredibly young. Rather than a 13-year-old, Alfie looked – from the published photographs and video – no more than 10.

The Sun held the exclusive rights to the original story – which included video access to Alfie, his 15-year-old girlfriend and their new baby in hospital (video still available to view, 21-5-09, here)

The commercial impact of the story was immediate. So popular was the story and video (‘video that stunned world’ the site said) that, combined with the Sun’s coverage of Jade Goody, it helped make www.thesun.co.uk the most popular UK newspaper website in February (rising from 5th to 1st position according to Media Guardian).

Nor was the impact simply commercial. For politicians, particularly opposition politicians, the story showed that Britain really was ‘broken’. David Cameron, writing in The Sun, said ‘I could barely believe my eyes yesterday morning when I saw the pictures of baby-faced Alfie Patten and his own baby girl’, and he applauded The Sun ‘for bringing this to public attention’. Turns out he should have suspended his disbelief.

This week The Sun returned to the story – and not apologetically. It splashed the news that the 13-year-old was not the real father across its front page on Tuesday and continued it on pages 4-5. It named the actual father (based on DNA this time) – then 14, now 15, and talked about the sex life of the 15-year-old mother. It referred to the liberalism of the girl’s mother (reporting that she let her daughter take boys upstairs to her bedroom) and acknowledged that the girl at the centre of the story was being bullied.

So the story has come full circle. We find the actual story is arguably much less newsworthy (’14-year-old boy – who looks 14 – makes 15-year-old girl pregnant’) and would probably not have boosted audiences to The Sun website or elicited the same political laments about our moral malaise.

But a number of questions remain unanswered about The Sun’s baby-father story:

How did The Sun find the story in the first place? Was it sold to them? If so, did the paper make a deal, and if so, has it paid for the story? (according to Max Clifford, on the Today Programme, and according to Stephen Brook on guardian.co.uk, it hasn’t).

How did The Sun try to check the boy’s story? Did it base a story of such commercial significance – and such personal significance to those involved – on the claims of a 13-year-old boy (or what he told his parents)? Did it speak to other children who knew the girl and boy (that the papers have since spoken to) or did it do its own DNA test, before running with the story across its paper and website?

Should The Sun have reported the story in the first place? Given issues surrounding reporting of children (as spelt out, for example, in Clause 6 of the Editorial Code of Conduct), privacy concerns, and the fact it was not sure the boy was the real father.

Is The Sun setting up a trust for the new baby (as reported in the Media Guardian this week but not commented on by the paper)? Is this meant as an apology for the original story?

Written by Martin Moore

May 21st, 2009 at 3:40 pm

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Journalism wins

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Though we don’t yet know the long term effects of the MPs expenses scandal we already know it has had a very positive impact on journalism. 

Despite the resignation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, the repercussions of this story will take a long time to play out for MPs and the political process. ‘Much much more needs to happen if MPs are to get out of the expenses morass’, Peter Riddell writes in The Times. And later in the same paper Daniel Finkelstein wonders if MPs have really yet understood what a profound impact the information revolution has had – and will have on politics.

But some of the beneficial repercussions on journalism are already apparent. For one thing it has reminded people – print journalists in particular – that not only are rumours of newspapers demise greatly exaggerated, but that they can genuinely hold politicians to account, and catalyse root and branch reform.

The expenses scandal has been a shot in the arm for public interest journalism. It has shown that political news can sell papers (the Telegraph has, according to Media Guardian, sold 600,000 more newspapers), that a newspaper (as opposed to a website or blog) can lead the news agenda for days – weeks – on end. And it has shown that the role of journalism as watchdog is alive and well.

This will not only put a spring in the step of political correspondents but make all journalists more conscious – and prouder – of their trade. It will help remind journalism students about why they’re going into a profession that has – in so many other respects – such an uncertain future.

All the better that the story has been owned – quite literally – by the conservative (Conservative?) bastion that is the Daily Telegraph. A paper that appeared to have lost its way politically and journalistically. The Telegraph has now found its voice – and found it in 130+ point type.

It is not yet clear whether this story represents a flare in the embers of newspapers that are already dying, or whether it represents a revival of the – often idealised – the Fourth Estate. Whichever it is, journalists should take a moment to reflect on a good time for public interest journalism.

Written by Martin Moore

May 20th, 2009 at 9:19 am

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Post MPs expenses, will shame come back in vogue?

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Patricia Nicol’s new book, Sucking Eggs, tells us ‘What Your Wartime Granny Could Teach You About Diet, Thrift, and Going Green’. It could also teach us something about changing modern morality – particularly the rise of shame.

Bee Wilson’s review in The Sunday Times (May 3rd) notes that Nicol  ”shows that austerity worked to the extent that it did (and, of course, rules were flouted) only through a powerful combination of social norms and extensive government intervention. It was shame and fear of the consequences that kept people on the straight and narrow. Shame has largely vanished from Britain now”.

But, post the MPs expenses scandal, could shame be making a comeback? Certainly there are many MPs now loath to show their faces in public. A week of wall-to-wall coverage detailing how our elected representatives spent their allowances on moats, chandeliers and manure has inflamed the tut-tutter in all of us.

Even those sometimes reluctant to wag a finger have been understandably unable to resist. A BBC correspondent talked on the Today programme about ‘Hogarthian excess’, while Simon Jenkins wrote about how, ‘In scenes reminiscent of Gillray and Cruickshank, MPs have been kicked downstairs amid a cascade of loo seats, tampons, light bulbs, chandeliers, mole-traps, dog biscuits and horse manure’.

So, as we usher in this new ‘age of austerity’ do we also usher in the wartime and post-war values that go with it? Shame being one of the most powerful?

Certainly the mood seems right, and MPs are not the first. Bankers, who in not so ancient history considered themselves the ‘Masters of the Universe’ are now caricatured as the villains in Christmas pantomimes.

And there are other factors encouraging people to furrow their brow at their neighbour. Implicit and explicit shame will almost certainly play a part in Britain ‘going green’.  The government will no doubt soon conclude that shaming people into recycling and cutting back is more effective than gentle encouragement.

But, as Wilson also points out in her review, shame can not only encourage austerity and environmentalism, it can encourage intolerance of difference, and foster suspicion, secretiveness and resentment.

Of course the news media plays a prominent part in the definition of our society’s moral sense (and moral outrage). We shall soon see if the shaming of our Members of Parliament leads to a broader embrace of a value which can be as corrosive as it is effective.

Poster courtesy of ww2poster.co.uk under fair use guidelines for educational purposes

Written by Martin Moore

May 13th, 2009 at 3:20 pm

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SunTalk: Is it Free Speech Radio?

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‘The home of free speech’ claims the Sun’s new radio show, SunTalk, hosted by its columnist Jon Gaunt. “We are not regulated by Ofcom, we are regulated by the Press Complaints Commission. We don’t want people to libel anyone or any of that nonsense, we want people to talk from the heart. If we were a traditional radio station that would not be possible,” Gaunt said.

So how free is Gaunty to say what he likes and broadcast what he likes? What are the differences between the broadcasting code and the PCC code of practice (to which SunTalk adheres)?

Well, for starters he’s shifted from a code that is captured on 97 A4 pages, to one which can be written (admittedly in small font) on one A4 page. Losing 96 pages of rules certainly sounds alot freer. And it’s impressive that SunTalk makes its adherence to the PCC code clear on the website (which is a lesson to the rest of The Sun where references to the code are decidedly sparse).

And there are indeed a bunch of areas where Gaunt will find himself much less constrained. Particularly with respect to:

Harm and Offence – he won’t be required to ‘provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion… of harmful and/or offensive material.’ There would be no similar regulatory intervention on SunTalk, for example, if there were to be a Ross/Brand ‘Sachsgate’ episode (on grounds of harm and offence, though there could be on privacy). Which may mean a more proportionate media response.

Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy – though Gaunty ‘must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’, he will be under no such limits when it comes to impartiality. He will not need to maintain ‘Due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy’ nor need he be too concerned to make sure ‘alternative viewpoints must be adequately represented’ or be careful not to give any political views ‘particular prominence’. This frees him up to do things like invite David Cameron onto the programme for an hour (as he did last Monday), and to refer to him as ‘Prime Minister’.

Elections and referendums – the SunTalk presenter will not be required to offer space to all candidates in the run-up to an election, nor will he have to stop all discussion and analysis once the polls open. It will be fascinating to see how SunTalk reports on the European elections coming up this June.

So far, the story seems to fit with the way it’s been presented – i.e. whether you like it or not, this means live radio broadcasts (or ones with a 7-second delay) are freer to start being politically partial and polemic.

But there are also some other areas where things are more complicated, particularly as regards commercial constraints and how complaints are dealt with.

On sponsorship, for example, the broadcasting code makes clear that TV and radio have to be transparent about their sponsors, can’t promote products within programmes, and need to protect editorial independence within programmes. The press code doesn’t comment on commercial issues like this, so presumably no such restrictions apply (though we start to stray here into Advertising Standards Authority territory, and OFT).

Similarly, it does not refer to competitions. Whereas the broadcasting code states that ‘Competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be described accurately and rules should be clear and appropriately made known’.

However, the real confusion comes less from what SunTalk can and can’t do, than from the inconsistency from what it can and can’t do compared to other broadcasters. So, for example, though you can now watch Sky news clips on the Sun website, and listen to SunTalk, you couldn’t listen to SunTalk through SkyTV because it would be regulated differently. So can Sky broadcast SunTalk via the Sky website and if so what rules should apply? From the perspective of the public this cannot help but get confusing.

There’s also a challenge for SunTalk deciding how it deals with complaints. On Ofcom regulated sites, for example, ‘mistakes in news should be acknowledged and corrected on air quickly’. It is not yet clear how mistakes on SunTalk will be acknowledged and corrected.

SunTalk only started broadcasting on 24 April so, unsurprisingly, there is yet to be a test case. But it would be odd if there was not some controversy between now and the autumn – if only to encourage more people to tune in…

Written by Martin Moore

May 1st, 2009 at 9:12 am

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