Archive for February, 2011

Local news and the democratic deficit

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This post was first published on the Media Standards Trust website on 31st January 2011

In 2010 we – Media Standards Trust – started a joint project with Cardiff University’s School of Journalism looking at whether a democratic deficit was emerging due to the decline of local news.

The project won backing from KESS – the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships, funded under the European Social Fund (ESF) Convergence Programme by the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO). This, combined with contributions from the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University, enabled us to set up a fully funded a three year case study in Wales.

We chose to focus on Wales because the position of local news in Wales is already far more precarious than in most other places in the UK. Over 90% of newspapers read in Wales are published in London and contain almost no Welsh news (from Institute for Welsh Affairs research). Unlike Scotland, Wales has no real national newspaper but a series of regional and local papers. Many of these have closed in the last few years, and those that have not have shrunk in terms of editorial resources. There are areas in Wales there is one editor editing three or more local titles at once.

In parts of Wales there are now no local newspapers at all. In Port Talbot, for example, the Port Talbot Guardian closed down in 2009. The South Wales Evening Post has a Port Talbot insert of a few pages. But otherwise there is almost no local coverage.

This is why we have chosen to study Port Talbot – to see what happens when town of 50,000+ people has almost no professional reporters left and no local news outlet.

Questions the project is trying to address include:

  • What evidence is there of a decline in local news gathering and provision?
  • If there has been a decline, where has it been focused? What ‘news’ is now not being covered that once was?
  • Is there evidence that news of significant public interest has not been reported?
  • How are people now finding out about local news?
  • Who is most affected by the lack of local news provision and how?

But the project is not simply about researching the problem. We also want to know whether the opportunities provided by digital media can address the news deficit.

So in addition to the research, we are experimenting with new digital models of local news provision, collaborating with both the commercial and public sector and closely involving local people.

The project is being led by Rachel Howells. Rachel has worked for more than ten years as a journalist, and is now one of the founding members of Local News South Wales, a co-operative of journalists based out of Port Talbot. She is doing her KESS-funded PhD on local news and the democratic deficit at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, working in collaboration with the Media Standards Trust.

Links:

Local News Port Talbot

The Kess Award (on Google Docs)

Coverage of the project on journalism.co.uk

Written by Martin Moore

February 4th, 2011 at 5:08 pm

The Burton Copeland Files

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This post was first published on the Media Standards Trust website on Friday 28th January 2011.

In trying to work out how far phone hacking spread at the News of the World people have, understandably, focused on the Mulcaire papers and the court records.

But there would appear to be another set of records that have rarely been mentioned but ought to shed more light on the case. Those are the records of the ‘very thorough investigation’ by the London solicitors Burton Copeland.

Burton Copeland are referred to a number of times by the legal manager of News Group Newspapers Tom Crone, News of the World editor Colin Myler, managing editor of the News of the World Stuart Kuttner, and by Andy Coulson, in their evidence to the Commons Select Committee in 2009.

It was Andy Coulson who asked the solicitors to come in and gave them free rein to look at financial records and emails, and talk to staff:

“I brought in Burton Copeland, an independent firm of solicitors to carry out an investigation”, Coulson told Tom Watson MP. “We opened up the files as much as we could. There was nothing that they asked for that they were not given” (Q.1719).

The solicitors were given the freedom, Colin Myler said, “to absolutely oversee the investigation to cooperate with the police, to be a bridgehead, to give whatever facility the police required. It was completely hands-off, if you like, for transparency from the company’s point of view. It was a nine month investigation” (Q.1384).

During these nine months they were, according to Tom Crone, actually at News International or in contact with staff, on a daily basis:

“Burton Copeland were in the office virtually every day or in contact with the office every day”, Crone said to Paul Farrelly MP. “My understanding of their remit was that they were brought in to go over everything and find out what had gone on, to liaise with the police” (Q.1395).

The firm “looked at all of the financial records; and there was subsequently an email check done which went to 2,500 emails” (Q.1397).

This included reviewing the payments made by the News of the World to Glen Mulcaire. Mulcaire’s payments were, Stuart Kuttner said “all accounted for in the documentation” and “that is the material that either directly on their own account to the investigating police team, or through Burton Copeland, the solicitor who was looking into these things at News International, was all disclosed” (Q.1663).

By the time they had finished the law firm had amassed a considerable stack of evidence. “Burton Copeland came in”, Crone said, “they were given absolutely free-range to ask whatever they wanted to ask. They did risk accounts and they have got four lever-arch files of payment records, everything to do with Mulcaire” (Q.1396).

These lever-arch files, and the other information about emails and financial accounts would, therefore, now seem quite relevant and useful to the new police investigation.

Yet they are not in the public domain. They are not recorded in the evidence given to the Select Committee. They are not available online and, when I called Burton Copeland and asked them about the investigation I was told the firm was ‘not in a position to discuss anything’, not even if any of the files related to their investigation were in the public domain.

Perhaps, as part of its new strategy for being more open, News International could hand the files to the police to help with its new investigation.

Written by Martin Moore

February 4th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Sky’s attack on Ofcom is unjustified

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This post was first published on LeftFootForward on January 26th 2011

There is a moment in The King’s Speech, just nominated for 12 Oscars, in which George V loses patience with his son’s stutter and yells at him to get his words out.

BSkyB has similarly lost patience with the process for deciding whether News Corporation be allowed to buy the 61 per cent of Sky it does not currently own. It has yelled at Ofcom (or the equivalent – a vitriolic letter), accusing the independent media regulator of distorting its brief, ‘using unreliable metrics’, and ‘making questionable judgments’ such that ‘its conclusions are flawed’. And this is the ‘non-confidential version’. One wonders how much ruder the confidential one was.

Are there any grounds to justify Sky’s attack?

Back in November 2010 Ofcom was asked, by the business secretary, to investigate whether News Corp’s bid for Sky raised enough questions about the future plurality of news provision to warrant passing it on to the Competition Commission.

In order to be passed on it had to pass a pretty low threshold. It simply had to assess whether the takeover would reduce the number of providers and hold a reasonable belief ‘that the proposed acquisition may operate or be expected to operate against the public interest’.

On the first, the answer was easy to calculate. At the retail level (i.e. news consumed directly by the public) the number of organisations will fall from 16 to 15. At the wholesale level (e.g. Sky providing news for commercial radio stations) the number will fall from 11 to 10.

On the second Ofcom inevitably had to take a more qualitative approach, although it has done its best to use quantitative methods to make it. It tries to work out the relative ability of different news organisations to influence and inform public opinion, based on the amount of news people consume from different outlets.

Using this approach it calculates that, for example, were the merger to go through, News Corp’s wholesale news reach as a percentage of regular news consumers would increase from 32% to 51%.

Therefore on both these criteria Ofcom found that the public would have less choice of news provider. Given such an assessment it is difficult to see how Ofcom could have done anything other than advise Jeremy Hunt to refer the bid to the Competition Commission.

Written by Martin Moore

February 4th, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Oh for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer

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This was first posted on the Media Standards Trust website on Friday 21st January 2011

News International must be hankering after the balmy days of summer 2010.

Back last June they appeared to have successfully weathered the phone hacking story, despite the valiant efforts of The Guardian’s to keep the story alive in 2009.

The Conservatives, strongly supported by News International titles – particularly The Sun – in the lead up to the election were installed in Number 10. Not as a majority government, but with majority control.

Coulson, one of the key figures at News International and close friends with the recently installed Chief Executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, had been appointed Director of Communications at No.10.

Rupert Murdoch may have been quietly confident that News Corporation’s bid to take over the remaining 60.9% of BSkyB would be waved through.

Enter the New York Times

Then, in September 2010, the New York Times investigation was published. ‘Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond’ was the result of three months investigation by three experienced Times journalists, Don Van Natta Jr, Jo Becker and Graham Bowley.

Publication by the New York Times changed the whole tenor of the story. Phone hacking was no longer a UK media story, it was a political story with international implications (due to Murdoch’s ownership of the Wall Street Journal). The NY Times investigation meant the BBC and, to its credit, Sky News could start covering the story without being accused of following The Guardian’s agenda. Labour politicians, now out of office and free to criticise the media, could start to attack Andy Coulson.

Even still, the story ebbed as most other UK papers refused to take it on. Only the Financial Times and The Independent started to report new evidence regularly and prominently.

Nor did the police show any great interest in turning over a story they had rather hoped would go away (given their close relationship with News International and failure both to interview many of those implicated in phone hacking or warn those whose phones had been hacked).

Yet the story refused to die. Thanks to continued digging by The Guardian – especially Nick Davies – and to legal cases taken against the News of the World by individuals who believed their phones had been hacked, news kept seeping out.

Coulson’s mistake

Coulson’s unambiguous evidence to the Commons Select Committee in 2010 certainly helped keep it alive. Asked by the Committee if phone hacking went any further than Clive Goodman (the royal correspondent who was jailed for phone hacking) Coulson said that he was “absolutely sure that Goodman’s was a very unfortunate rogue case”. Asked if he knew anything about phone hacking while he was editor of the paper he said he had no knowledge of what was going on.

Had Coulson taken a different approach he may have avoided resignation. He could, for example, have taken the ‘confess and seek mercy’ approach. He could have said that yes, he did know about the hacking and he dreadfully regretted that he was involved. But, given it was rife in the industry he had not fully realised its seriousness. Moreover, when he did realise, he resigned.

This approach would not have burnished his political reputation, might have cut his political career short, and would have led people to question Cameron’s judgment, but it is a position he could have maintained.

Instead, he took the Manuel from Fawlty Towers approach – ‘I know nothing’. This became increasingly untenable as evidence emerged that more and more people under his command were involved.

Then the News of the World suspended Ian Edmondson. Edmondson was assistant editor of news at News of the World. He worked closely with Coulson and then subsequently with the new editor Colin Myler. He was suspended when a series of court documents about the hacking of Sienna Miller’s phone became public that had the name ‘Ian’ written in the top left hand corner.

This was too close. If Edmondson knew about phone hacking then maintaining the line that Coulson was in the dark became much more difficult.

Sure enough, on Friday 21st January, a day after Alan Johnson’s resignation as opposition Chancellor and with Blair being quizzed by the Chilcot Inquiry, Coulson announced his resignation.

Does it end here?

News International are no doubt hoping that their annus horribilis stops here. Now Coulson is on his way out of No. 10 they must hope that the story will lose its political piquancy and slowly dwindle.

Of course the opposite could happen. Coulson’s departure could confirm the belief of those who have been unravelling this story that it goes deep within the political and media classes, and on to the Metropolitan police and the phone companies.

His exit is also unlikely to quell the energy of those fighting court cases to discover if their phones were hacked. These will trundle on, and with them further evidence of how many people at the News of the World were involved.

Then there is the press itself. Though the story has focused on the News of the World we know (from Operation Motorman) that ‘the illegal trade in confidential personal information’ went much further. The Media Standards Trust has previously supported calls for a proper independent inquiry into the whole problem. Now Coulson is gone there may well be more chance of this happening.

For News International, the story is far from over. What it woudn’t give to bring back those lazy hazy crazy days of summer 2010.

Written by Martin Moore

February 4th, 2011 at 4:57 pm