Archive for May, 2011

Is it possible that we’ll never know the truth about phone hacking?

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This post was first published at Media Standards Trust on 15th April 2011

There is a chance that, despite The Guardian’s investigations, despite the civil claims, despite the police inquiry, and despite the various Commons committee inquiries, we – the public – may never find out what actually happened at the News of the World and elsewhere regarding phone hacking.

This might sound bizarre given how much heat there has been around the subject this year (in certain news outlets) but – following News International’s carefully constructed admission last week – could become increasingly likely.

Let me explain why.

1. Civil cases closed down

Last Sunday the News of the World published a page 2 apology, admitted some liability, and offered compensation to certain victims of phone hacking. This may, as Roy Greenslade and David Allen Green have written, successfully close down many of the civil cases against News International.

If, after being offered an apology and damages, the civil litigants choose to pursue their case they may ‘be declared to be vexatious litigants and even face accusations of abuse of process’ and/or ‘the claimant could end up paying an enormous amount in costs’ (Greenslade). If they settle then the case notes are likely to stay secret.

2. Police files not made public

There is now a police investigation of phone hacking in progress – an investigation that appears to be far more rigorous than any previous ones. This could well to lead to prosecutions against individuals from the News of the World. If those prosecutions go ahead then the police will present evidence they have uncovered from News of the World and elsewhere to support their case. But this evidence will be constrained to each specific case and each individual. There is no reason to believe it will lead to wider evidence of phone hacking being put in the public domain.

3. Commons Select Committees unable to expose evidence

Three Commons committees have looked into / are looking at phone hacking: the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee and Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee:

  • The Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into ‘Unauthorised tapping into or hacking of mobile communications’ focuses on the definition of offences related to phone hacking and the police response. Its remit does not extend to the activities of News International or other news outlets. It is also only taking written rather than oral evidence.
  • The Standards and Privileges Committee was essentially looking at whether hacking into an MPs phone represented contempt of Parliament and at what specific actions the House could take if it suspected MPs’ phones were being hacked
  • The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has done more than almost anyone bar The Guardian, certain lawyers, and a handful of MPs to uncover evidence of phone hacking – particularly in its extended 2009-2010 inquiry. But this, and the other committees only limited powers. They cannot, for example, require witnesses to appear. Rebekah Brooks famously refused to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2010. Nor do they have the powers or resources to go out and do investigations themselves.

In each of these three cases, therefore, we could end up with little more evidence about the actual practices of phone hacking (and other methods of privacy intrusion) than we have now.

Nor should we forget that there are many powerful organisations who would like this whole affair to disappear:

  • News International – including: Murdoch senior and junior, Rebekah Brooks, and senior executives who gave evidence to Select Committees that may prove to have been inaccurate (including Les Hinton, Andy Coulson and Stuart Kuttner)
  • Other news outlets: News International, Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, Telegraph Media Group and Trinity Mirror have chosen not to investigate or, for the most part, report on phone hacking
  • The Press Complaints Commission: has done its best to ignore the scandal, criticising those who have come forward with new evidence and repeatedly finding – in its own investigations – no evidence of any wrongdoing beyond ‘one rogue reporter’
  • The Metropolitan Police: whose previous investigations have been shown to have been inadequate and who stand accused of an uncomfortably close relationship with the News of the World

News International has already conducted three internal investigations (according to News International). Perhaps unsurprisingly these did not find any further evidence of phone hacking beyond Clive Goodman. Unfortunately, News Corp has so far shown little inclination to make any of the details of these investigations public (see Brian Cathcart at Index and me on the Burton Copeland files).

For those who want the truth to come out, we therefore have to hope that:

  1. Certain news outlets choose to continue to dig away at this story. Had Nick Davies not managed to get hold of files on the Gordon Taylor case (which News International had paid a reported £700,000 to bury) phone hacking may never have come to wider public attention.
  2. There is a full public inquiry, with the powers to subpoena witnesses and evidence, whose job it is to uncover the truth and open up the evidence to public scrutiny

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:15 am

Posted in Phone hacking

Go explore churnalism.com

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This post was first published at Media Standards Trust on 23rd March 2011

Since churnalism.com launched on 23rd February a lot of people have asked us if they could ‘search the other way’. In other words, could they see news articles that appeared to be based on press releases rather than vice versa.

We now have enough press releases in the system to make that worthwhile. So today we’re launching an ‘Explore’ page. Here you can see all the news articles that appear to based on press releases loaded into our system (over 5,000 so far). You can filter by press release source – such as the government’s news distribution service, Sainsbury’s or Eurekalert (science releases). And, you can filter by news outlet (UK nationals, BBC news online and Sky).

Go to churnalism.com ‘Explore’ page

This reveals things like the:

Our system tracks back most national news articles for about three years. Press releases are, necessarily, still more sporadic since they rely on people uploading and on a select handful of popular press release sources.

We will be adding more press release sources as fast as we can. In the meantime, if you’d like to help you can:

  • Tell us where we can find good sources of press releases online
  • Help us write scrapers (if you’re feeling really techie). We’ve put up a short ‘how to’ guide here. If you have any issues please do drop us an email (team AT journalisted DOT com)

Any pages you find when exploring churnalism.com you can share with a shortened url via twitter or Facebook or elsewhere.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:12 am

Posted in Churnalism

Why churnalism.com should keep highlighting the use of survey ‘news copy’ by the UK press

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

Surveys are a good way to generate ‘news’. News outlets like to be seen to reflect public attitudes and concerns, and surveys appear to do this. Because of their news value, surveys are frequently commissioned by commercial organisations to promote their products and services. There is nothing wrong with commissioning such a survey, except that these surveys are then often presented in mainstream media as ‘independent news’, which they are not.

OnePoll conducts many such commercial surveys. OnePoll is certainly not the only organisation to use surveys as a news peg, Travelodge do as well for example, but this post focuses on them because it helps to illustrate why churnalism.com is performing a useful function in helping to make the practice more transparent.

Since launching churnalism.com we’ve been in an on-off dialogue with South West News Group (SWNS), the owner of One Poll surveys. SWNS have strongly objected to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com (see SWNS post here). To summarise their objections:

  • The OnePoll surveys are not written up as ‘press releases’ but as ‘news copy’ by professionally trained (quote) ‘news agency journalists’
  • As such they are ‘factually accurate, rigorously checked news copy which needs little or no subbing’
  • This news copy is then ‘distributed direct to national news desks via the SWNS newswire’
  • Because it is written as ‘page-ready news copy’ it is designed to be published almost without alteration in the mainstream media.

It should first be noted that, based on this post, SWNS may have misunderstood the nature and purpose of churnalism.com. It is a tool that allows the public to compare bodies of text with news. Though we encourage people to paste in press releases, they can – and do – paste in lots of other text, such as news agency copy, news articles, Wikipedia entries, even text from plays and books. The site then finds news articles that appear to be closely based on this pasted text. It is not churnalism.com’s job to police what people choose to compare.

But there are a number of reasons why, now I know more about how the SWNS system works, I think it is even more important that churnalism.com raises public awareness about the use of this type of survey ‘news’ by the UK press:

  • The OnePoll surveys that have been written up (and are listed on their site) are commissioned by commercial organisations in order to help promote a product or service. For example:
    • ‘People find true happiness by reaching the age of 50’ says a survey by Engage Mutual Assurance who have an ‘over 50s life cover’ insurance policy (20-1-11)
    • ‘The honeymoon period in marriage ends after just 14 months’ partly because partners put less care into personal hygiene, says a survey by Better Bathrooms (17-02-11)
    • ‘Eight out of ten singletons check out potential future partners online before they ever meet them’ says a survey by www.UKDating.com (5-01-11)
    • ‘Dedicated dog owners walk 23,739 miles during their pet’s lifetime’ according to a survey by esure pet insurance (11-02-11)
  • A key reason commercial organisations commission OnePoll is because the surveys will be written up by journalists in the style of independent news
  • They also know that, because the OnePoll write-ups are distributed via the SWNS ‘news wire’ mainstream news organisations are less likely to view them as a press releases, but rather as independent news (which they are not, at the very least they are ‘branded stories’ to use an SWNS phrase)
  • Because mainstream news organisations do not view them as press releases, they are more likely to publish them virtually unchanged – as with Associated Press or Reuters news copy.

This is great for the commercial organisation which has commissioned the survey because:

This is not so great from the perspective of the public which has been led to believe that that this is not a promotional article written to help sell a product or service but independent news. The public have been encouraged to think, for example:

Nor are OnePoll surveys occasional items of ‘news’ that only come out once a week or once a month. In the six months from September 2010 to February 2011 there were 176 (as recorded on the OnePoll press release archive). This is over 29 each month, or almost one-a-day. Many of the write-ups of these surveys are being republished almost unchanged in the UK press (as shown by churnalism.com).

Clearly the responsibility for making this more transparent to the public does not fall entirely on SWNS or similar companies that conduct and write up such surveys. SWNS has, at least, engaged in dialogue on this and sought to make the process by which OnePoll surveys make it into the press clearer.

Much of the onus is on the mainstream media to:

  • Be as sceptical about OnePoll ‘news copy’ surveys and other surveys as they are about press releases from commercial organisations
  • Do some of their own journalism on these surveys so, even if they do publish them, they at least add some context and scepticism to the claims
  • Make it very clear to the public that these are ‘sponsored news’ stories by labelling them as such.

I hope the press will do this but I’m not holding my breath. Which is why churnalism.com needs to keep highlighting the use of OnePoll news copy and similar such copy from other organisations by the UK press.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:11 am

Posted in Churnalism