Archive for May, 2011

Recipe: Privacy Porridge

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Over-heated press campaign
Judges (roughly grated)
Wild technology
Fresh picked MPs


  • Take a popular press whose circulations are falling, who are panicked about not being able to publish salacious stories about the sex lives of celebrities, and who glimpse a way to rid themselves of pesky legal constraints
  • Add judges, roughly grated by the press and politicians, who can see little public interest in knowing whether footballer X slept with reality star Y and, as a result, create precedents by passing judgments on a series of such cases
  • Mix in some wild technology whose roots aren’t in the UK but can grow prolifically anywhere
  • Throw in some fresh picked MPs with concerns about free speech and keen to get in the good books of the popular press

Bring to a simmering boil and wait to overflow

Ready to serve with a garnish of phone hacking

Goes well with libel reform soup, contempt of court casserole, and self-regulatory souffle.

Do not add government or may become an Eton Mess.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:30 am

Posted in Privacy

Tagged with , , , , ,

Welcome PCC precedent unlikely to have wider impact

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This post was first published at Media Standards Trust on 10th May 2011

The PCC’s adjudication against the Telegraph creates an important precedent where there are currently far too few. But on its own it is unlikely to have a major impact, either in the short or long term, on press practice.

The PCC concluded that the Telegraph’s use of ‘serious and intrusive’ methods of subterfuge was not justified by the evidence it had against the Liberal Democrat ministers concerned. It found that the Telegraph targeted eight Liberal Democrat ministers on a general suspicion that they did not agree with all the views of the Coalition government. Telegraph journalists met each of these ministers in their constituency surgeries, pretending to be constituents. In the privacy of the surgery they then recorded the politicians’ answers to the same series of broad policy related questions. There was, the PCC therefore concluded, a ‘dislocation’ between the vague and limited suspicions against the ministers and the method used to incriminate them.

The case was muddied by the fact that the Telegraph did – sort of – uncover a story of significant public interest. It recorded the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, saying that he had ‘declared war on Mr Murdoch’. Not so smart for the minister then responsible for scrutiny of the BSkyB deal. But the Telegraph only ‘sort of’ uncovered the story because it did so accidentally – it had not planned to ask Cable about the BSkyB deal – and did not, initially, publish those revelations (it was later accused of trying to hide the Murdoch quote because the paper was against the BSkyB deal).

Despite this, had the case only been about Vince Cable it would have been a much more difficult decision for the PCC. Even though the Telegraph’s Cable stories suggest retrospective justification (previously found inadmissible in Munro and Bancroft vs Evening Standard), the Telegraph could have claimed it was acting on additional evidence, the source of which it could not reveal. The PCC would have been hard pressed to disprove this and for this reason, would have found it difficult to uphold the complaint.

But since the Telegraph went not to one but to eight Liberal Democrat politicians, and asked each of them the same series of questions, it was much easier to conclude the Telegraph was simply fishing for stories. In addition to which its ‘haul’ from the other politicians was hardly the stuff of front page exclusives.

The PCC cites three previous cases as ‘relevant rulings’. The first is about the secret filming of an Emmerdale Christmas party from 2001 (Ryle vs News of the World). The second concerns a journalist from the Evening Standard who spent a week in 2001 pretending to be a primary school teacher in north London (Munro and Bancroft vs Evening Standard). The third is about a journalist who posed as a member of hotel staff in 2003 in order to investigate allegations of illegal working (Monckton vs Evening Standard). The first two complaints were upheld, the third was rejected.

These citations are useful not just as context for today’s adjudication.  They show how few precedents there are on cases of this kind, and how even these few precedents are dated. Their agedness is particularly relevant given what we now know about the extent of subterfuge – via phone hacking and other methods since 2003. Notice that there was not one upheld adjudication about the use of subterfuge by the News of the World or News International between 2004 and 2011.

In total there have been 15 upheld adjudications related to subterfuge since 1996, 5 since 2003 (from PCC published records). Few of these offer clear precedents. None of them refer to elected politicians. The only MP to make a subterfuge complaint was Keith Vaz  in 2008 – again against The Daily Telegraph. But this was about a letter passed to the Telegraph, not about any recording devices, nor was it upheld.

This adjudication is therefore very helpful in that it provides more detail about the level of evidence required by a newspaper before it starts secretly recording someone.

Even still, the case is unlikely to have significant long term impact. Tony Gallagher, the editor of the Telegraph, does not look set to resign. He has already made clear he strongly disputes the PCC’s decision and thinks it ‘has alarming implications for the future of investigative journalism’ (from The Guardian). The page 4 adjudication is unlikely to satisfy those who want tougher sanctions or at least adjudications that have closer equivalence (the original Telegraph articles were on a number of front pages). The ruling is also overshadowed by five years of inaction by the PCC over evidence of widespread subterfuge by the News of the World via phone hacking (including two ‘investigations’ that found nothing beyond ‘one rogue reporter’). Nor does the ruling effect those now outside the remit of the PCC, including Express Newspapers.

Still, it is a considered decision and the rhetoric of the PCC is stronger than it has been for some time.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:22 am

No Need for Violence in Microformat War Between hNews, rNews

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This post was first published at PBS MediaShift Ideas Lab on 6th May 2011

The International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) has just launched rNews, a consistent, machine-readable way of expressing news metadata in RDFa (a linked data language). This post explains some of the differences between rNews and hNews and why, if you publish news on the web, you ought to be using one or the other.

In a now infamous incident at Cambridge University back in October 1946, mid-way through a seminar, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is said to have threatened the philosopher Karl Popper with a red-hot poker (the exact circumstances and use of the poker are still disputed, 65 years on). The argument? Over whether there are, or are not, such things as philosophical problems. Popper said there were, Wittgenstein said there were only puzzles.

Step into the similarly rarefied world of online publishing languages and, though you might not be threatened with a red-hot poker, someone will almost certainly wave its online equivalent at you — as we found when we were developing hNews — a news microformat — with the Associated Press.

We started, back in 2008, with a problem: Very few online news stories had consistent, machine-readable information about their provenance (i.e. basic stuff like who wrote it, who published it, when it was first published, etc.). This was a problem because without this information — or metadata — it was incredibly difficult to differentiate news from other content on the web, or to figure out where news had come from.

Two Solutions to the Problem

We searched about for a solution to the problem, thanks to grants from the Knight and MacArthur Foundations, and found not one but two. The first was microformats — which are straightforward, open mark-up formats built on existing standards. The second was RDFa, a method of embedding full RDF, the linked data language of the semantic web.

We made a decision to use microformats. We did this for highly pragmatic reasons. We figured that most news organizations (and journalists and bloggers) were not yet ready to make the big leap to linked data. The easier we made it to integrate consistent metadata, we thought, the more likely news organizations were to do it. Our chief concern was less about exactly how people made the provenance of online news more transparent, just that they did it.

The Associated Press came to a similar conclusion, and together we developed hNews. Our pragmatism has so far borne fruit. The hNews microformat has since been integrated in about 1,200 news sites in the U.S. This means that there must now be a hundred-plus million news stories on the web with hNews. And, the AP has based its new news registry business and its forthcoming rights clearinghouse around hNews.

This did not stop some semantic web evangelists from waving their metaphorical red-hot pokers, or from suggesting we were not born of parents in wedlock or other less warm and fuzzy responses.

So, when we learned that the IPTC were launching an equivalent of hNews in RDFa we were over the moon. Hooray! Now people have a choice to mark up their news in microformats or in linked data.

The Ambitious rNews

“Equivalent” is not quite right. rNews is more ambitious than hNews. If hNews is like a ham sandwich then rNews is like a baked Alaska. rNews covers lots of aspects of provenance and content. You can, if you want to mark up additional aspects of news stories, mix-and-match rNews with other RDF ontologies (i.e. different linked data vocabularies). It’s also more “correct” than hNews, but as a result more verbose and intrusive. It’s a much bigger change to existing HTML pages than hNews. That said, it is, by RDF standards, pretty straightforward. All this makes it a very good alternative way of creating consistent, machine-readable mark-up for news.

The big difference between two is in their complexity. Making a ham sandwich is much simpler and requires less expertise than cooking a baked Alaska. The same goes for hNews and rNews. As a result, my prediction is that rNews will be the format of choice for big news organizations who want to do things fully and properly and are willing to commit the time and resources (like the New York Times — which was central to the development of rNews). In the same way it will probably suit high end proprietary content management systems. For smaller news organizations, journalists and bloggers, hNews goes a good part of the way there and is much easier to integrate and lighter to use.

In other words, the two complement each other rather well, and ought to provide the foundations for consistent, machine-readable metadata for news.

Pros and Cons of Each Approach

The AP’s Stuart Myles was one of the creators of hNews and worked with the IPTC on rNews.

“The fact that hNews and rNews have similar names is no coincidence,” Myles told me via email. “To me, microformats and RDFa are two different technical approaches to the same challenge. Each approach has pros and cons and many tools that support one also work with the other.”

Evan Sandhaus of the New York Times, one of the original authors of rNews, also emphasizes the compatibility of the two standards: “rNews was designed from the start to provide publishers with many of the same features offered by hNews.  And future versions of the rNews will likely bring the standards into even closer alignment,” he told me via email.

Should you care about hNews and rNews? If you publish news on the web then you most certainly should. The arrival of rNews and the continuing take-up of hNews show that metadata is central to the future of digital news. Consistent, machine-readable metadata makes your news easier to find, more distinguishable, more straightforward to check, more programmable, more targetable, and less hard to track. If you are not yet publishing your news with metadata then don’t be surprised if someone soon comes at you flailing a red-hot poker.

Further Reading

Evan Sandhaus (one of the original authors of rNews) has a good presentation, “All about rNews”

Stuart Myles (AP) gives “7 uses for rNews”

Last August I wrote a piece on PBS MediaShift about hNews, that is also applicable to rNews, “How Metadata Can Eliminate the Need for Pay Walls”

For those of a philosophical bent I recommend “Wittgenstein’s Poker: The story of a 10-minute argument between two great philosophers”, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Faber and Faber, 2001)

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:20 am

Posted in hNews

Should there be legal protection for privacy in the internet era?

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This post was first published at Media Standards Trust on 27th April 2011

Most of the current hysterical press coverage of privacy injunctions fails to acknowledge that technological changes are driving the formalisation of boundaries between public and private life. Without such acknowledgment we lack the context to decide if there should or should not be legal protection for privacy in the internet era and, if there should, how such protection could be framed.

Practical constraints on publishing private lives disappear

In the constrained media environment of the twentieth century there were practical limitations on the press’ ability to report on people’s private lives. There was, for example, only a limited amount of material the press could access – in terms of photographs, video, phone conversations. There were also practical constraints on what the papers could and could not publish. They were not able to publish video or audio, and they could only publish as much as could fit between the front and back pages of the print paper.

For the most part these practical constraints no longer exist. The press can access huge amounts of personal material themselves and through others. A reporter can legitimately find personal information published on the internet or source recorded audio / video from members of the public. Equally, a reporter can illegitimately access private material or illicitly record personal moments or private phone calls. The papers can then publish as much of this material as they like – in text, audio, or video. Or anyone else can publish this information, on a blog, on a social networking site, on twitter, on a wiki.

The removal of the practical constraints necessarily means that, if we want to protect private life and maintain private space, then these practical constraints have to be replaced with something else. Preferably this would be cultural constraints. In other words, people would recognise the line between public and private and respect that line.

Yet the press makes a living out of transgressing this line. Sometimes these transgressions are legitimate – to investigate stories of genuine public interest. Sometimes they are illegitimate – hacking into voice mail searching for gossip or breaking into personal email accounts to find out about possible football transfer deals.

Where cultural constraints do not constrain publication, people have sought legal constraints based on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These people are, in effect, saying “this is where I believe my private life begins and your right to publish ends”. It is natural that people should try to do this, and it is equally natural that journalists should question where this line should be and challenge it if it prevents public interest reporting. But it is absurd not to acknowledge the tensions between the two, as some of the papers are currently doing.

Sex and the circulation battles

The front line of the battle for legal protection of private life is sex. Sex sells. Sex between two celebrities sells even more. Therefore the idea that the sex lives of celebrities will be off limits to the press scares the living daylights out of the tabloids. It would destroy the business model that many of them have developed over the last few decades.

When they challenge the evolving privacy  law the tabloids are sometimes quite explicit about their commercial fears. Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, was quite clear about this in his speech to the Society of Editors in 2008:

Put another way, if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process

Dacre’s directness is helpful, if rather frightening. But generally the press is much more coy about the importance of privacy intrusion to their sales. Instead, they argue that privacy injunctions are a ‘legal weapon to the wealthy seeking to hide their failings from the public’ and that the law is being used simply ‘to hush up the sordid secret of a star’ (from ‘TV star’s shame hushed up for ever‘). The public, the Mail asserts on an almost daily basis, has a right to know such secrets.

(Unfortunately there is not the space in this post to detail the hypocrisy of the Mail and certain other papers when they talk about the public’s ‘right to know’ given they daily deny the public the right to know about significant public interest issues such as phone hacking.)

Fundamental questions we have to answer

Most of us would blanche at the idea of such a commercial Faustian bargain. The proposition that certain publications should be given the freedom to intrude as much as they like into people’s personal lives so they can keep selling papers would not strike most people as a fair trade.

But there are tricky questions about privacy and the law that require subtle and informed debate. The first and most fundamental is whether there should be legal protection for private life. If we agree there should (and according to research most people do – see Stephen Whittle on ‘Privacy, probity and the public interest‘) then other questions immediately fall from this, such as:

  • Where should the line be drawn around private life?
  • What exceptions should be made (e.g. where a privacy injunction is sought to protect commercial interests as in the case of John Terry)?
  • How can we protect and preserve public interest reporting?
  • How can we prevent such a law being abused by the rich and powerful?
  • How can we ensure equal access to legal protection for privacy?

These are questions that need to be discussed openly and frankly. Questions that would benefit from proper Parliamentary debate, perhaps even extended consideration by a Select Committee inquiry.

Though the press should be wary of opening the Pandora’s box of Parliamentary debate with too much alacrity. Parliament legislates. If MPs and Lords inquire and debate privacy law there is a good chance they will then draft a bill. This bill may may well create more constraints than the current common law based on the ECHR.

Is privacy doomed anyway?

Still, no matter what the courts or Parliament does or says in these cases, it is increasingly unlikely that privacy injunctions will ever be particularly effective in the internet era. That is the irony of the current press outrage about privacy. The increasing scope of privacy injunctions is evidence not of their power but of their powerlessness. There is a certain absurdity to an injunction ‘against the world’ (‘contra mundum’) and the papers know it.

If people want to publish they can, and it is not then hard for the rest of us to search the internet and find who celebrity X and celebrity Y are. As David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times last week (paywalled):

‘It took me 15 minutes of googling to find out who the celebrity injunctors probably were. I got the actor through (believe it or not) a lower division football club’s fan site. The TV personality could be guessed through hints provided by Private Eye. The football player I discovered through sources I may not divulge’

But this does not negate the need for a well-informed debate. And, if the press genuinely care about the public’s right to know they should stop spluttering with outrage at the idea that people should want to keep aspects of their life private, and – if they agree there ought to be a line – start engaging about where that line ought to be.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:17 am

Posted in Privacy