Archive for the ‘free speech’ tag

How the British press distorted reporting of… the British press

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This post was first published on FreeSpeechDebate.com on November 3rd, 2014.

Academics like the term ‘normative’. Not just because it sounds smarter than ‘normal’ but because it helps to describe how things ought to be. It links empirical evidence to broader questions of how politics and society should function. The press, more than many other aspects of society, likes to emphasise its normative functions. Less often does it assess whether it has achieved them.

The ‘normative’ view that British newspapers have of their own role is fairly straightforward: they represent the views of the public; they offer a diversity of views – both within their own pages and across competing titles; they report in a fair, accurate and – relatively balanced – way; they hold power to account; and they support their conclusions with evidence.

A comprehensive study of all articles published on press regulation in the UK national press in the year following the Leveson Inquiry has found that, when it came to the issue of press regulation, few national newspapers fulfilled their normative functions. The study, written by Dr Gordon Ramsay for the Media Standards Trust, examined all 2,047 articles published on the topic in the daily and Sunday press from 29 November 2012 until 29 November 2013, combined with a meta-analysis of every public opinion poll on the issue from 2012 to 2014.

Did the press represent the views of the public?

The views of the public can be found in 24 opinion polls commissioned between May 2012 and June 2014 on various aspects of press regulation. These polls were commissioned by newspapers themselves, by broadcasters, think-tanks, pollsters and campaigners.

These polls showed that the public were generally supportive of the Leveson Inquiry and its conclusions. They showed that most of the public did not have a problem with legal support for press regulation, and do not see the use of the law – per se – as a threat to press freedom. Moreover, the data showed – time and again – that the public were highly sceptical of the newspaper industry’s alternative proposals to Leveson.

You would not have known these views if you relied on the newspapers. The press were overwhelmingly negative about the Leveson Report and its implementation. The use of the law to support regulation was portrayed as equivalent to state control of the press. Indeed, the alternatives to the newspaper industry’s own (unpopular) proposals were painted as state control. By contrast, in many newspapers, coverage of the industry’s proposals was wholly positive.

Despite repeated emphasis on the importance of the press being able in the name of the public, public polling data was curiously absent from coverage. Less than 2% of articles on press regulation contained any reference to any polling data from the two dozen surveys. Even those newspapers that commissioned polls, notably The Sunday Times and The Sun, tended not to publish the unfavourable responses.

Did the public receive a diversity of views?

Providing a diversity of viewpoints is a pretty uncontested positive function that news media are expected to play in public life. Yet there was little diversity of views about the Leveson Report within or between papers. For nine out of ten newspaper readers, over 70% of the articles they read about this issue were entirely negative (in other words contained only criticism of Leveson or the Royal Charter, with not a single positive viewpoint). In one newspaper, the Daily Mail, the ratio of negative to positive articles was 33:1. In The Sun the ratio was 29:1.

If only leader columns in these papers are measured, the negative-only ration rises to over 90% – 145 out of a total of 159 leaders. For 90% of newspaper readers, every single leader column mentioning the newspaper industry’s alternative proposals (the ‘PressBof Royal Charter’ and IPSO) was positive, while every single leader mentioning the Privy Council’s rejection of the PressBof Charter and the sealing of the Cross-Party Charter was negative.

Did the press hold power to account?

In the period immediately following the publication of the Leveson Report, in January and February 2013, senior news executives met almost daily with the Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin (20 meetings) and with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (17 meetings) to draft a Royal Charter that they found acceptable.

None of these meetings was reported on by the press. We only know about them because, six months later, the government was obliged to publish a record of Ministerial meetings. The freedom to report in the public interest did not, in this instance, include the freedom to report on the newspaper industry’s own power to negotiate with the Government on policy issues.

As the favourable coverage of the newspaper industry’s Royal Charter and IPSO demonstrates, many newspapers were also willing to use their pages to promote their own self-interest, even while being unwilling to scrutinise their own participation in the process.

Was the coverage fair?

We expect our press to express its views, but we also expect news reports – as opposed to editorials – to be relatively fair and balanced. Yet, based on the data, news reports on this issue were not fair or balanced. Two-thirds of all factual news reports (excluding comment and leader articles) contained only negative viewpoints on Leveson or the Royal Charter, either from sources, or within the rest of the article. To the reader, this gave the impression that opinion on the issue was settled, and that there was a consensus against Leveson and the Charter. The opposite was true, as public opinion clearly and consistently demonstrated.

In addition to the unbalanced use of sources, news articles regularly contained evaluative statements about Leveson, presented as fact. A Daily Mirror news article, for example, on 30 November 2012 – the day after the Leveson Report was published – introduced the proposals as “draconian curbs on the press”, and a Sunday Times news article on 9 October 2013 described the Royal Charter as “state regulation of the press”. Statements like these occurred throughout the news coverage, indicating that the opinionated language of leader articles became incorporated into factual reports.

Was the coverage accurate?

Separate to the insertion of opinion within news reports, much of the coverage of Leveson and its implementation was not accurate. Many newspapers claimed, for example, that a Leveson system of self-regulation would lead to censorship. Yet Leveson stated that no self-regulatory system should ‘have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’ (Recommendation 17). The Leveson recommendations were repeatedly referred to as ‘statutory regulation’, despite Leveson’s assertion that ‘despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’ (Summary, p17).

Nor was it true that whistleblowers would be arrested if Leveson was put into practice, as The Sun said. Or that off-the-record briefings by police would be banned. Or that politicians would have the final say over the content published in newspapers. Or that civil society groups that supported Leveson were bankrolled by Brussels. Or that the whole Leveson Inquiry was an establishment stitch-up engineered by a left-wing conspiracy. Yet each of these claims and others were made by newspapers.

Were claims backed up by evidence?

The most frequent newspaper criticism of the Leveson Report and the Royal Charter was that it represented a threat to press freedom. 862 articles contained a reference to this supposed threat. Yet of those, less than one-third tried to explain why it was a threat or presented evidence to support the claim. Over two-thirds presented the claim as fact, with no evidence. Only a handful of articles gave space to those who argued the opposite, despite this being the view of all three main parties, civil society groups, academics, and – as opinion surveys showed – much of the public.

Most of the UK national press therefore failed to represent public opinion, failed to offer a diversity of views either within their own pages or across competing title, failed to report in a balanced way, failed to hold power to account, and eschewed accuracy and evidence to promote a broadly uniform editorial line that suited their own policy interests.

With certain honourable exceptions – the Guardian and Observer; the Independent and Independent on Sunday, and the Financial Times – on this issue the UK’s national press failed practically every normative test. Their function, in the area of press regulation, was less a quasi-constitutional role of holding power to account and facilitating a free and open market of ideas, and more a pursuit of their own self-interest, self-censorship of views that were contrary to their own, and preservation of the status quo.

The figures in this piece come from a report published by the Media Standards Trust in September 2014 – ‘How newspapers covered press regulation after Leveson’ by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay which can be read here. The full dataset is available here.

Written by Martin Moore

November 10th, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Using the rhetoric of press freedom to thwart free speech

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On how the British press has denied the British public a proper debate on press regulation. This post was originally published on Free Speech Debate on December 12th 2013

It rarely takes long, in arguments about free speech, before someone refers to John Milton or John Stuart Mill. Most of us remember one particularly strong defence of free speech made in both Milton’s Areopagatica and Mill’s On Liberty. Any attempt to censor, suppress or constrain free speech, Milton and Mill argue, denies people access to the truth.

Truth and falsehood should do battle, Milton wrote, in a free and open encounter. Only in such circumstances could truth triumph.

Silencing an opinion, Mill wrote, either robs people of the truth, or – if the opinion is wrong – deprives people of “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the heated, often fractious, debate about press regulation in Britain, the rhetoric of freedom has been widely deployed. Barely a day went by in October 2013 when a national newspaper did not publish a report, editorial or leader about the importance of our free press. This freedom was, most of those pieces argued, put in jeopardy by the system of regulation set out in the cross-party royal charter and agreed on 30 October 2013.

Yet it would be hard to find a debate in modern times that has been less free than the one about press regulation. Far from being Milton’s “free and open encounter” between different views, the debate in the press has been virtually monopolised by those with one perspective. The public have, to use Mill’s terms, been deprived “the clearer and livelier perception of truth” since they have, with notable exceptions, only been presented with one view.

The public have not been given the facts, the arguments, or the diversity of perspective from which to make up their own minds about press regulation.

On the facts, the public have been deprived of even the basic material from which to make up their own minds. During the Leveson Inquiry, for example, the press simply failed to report on potential alternative systems of press regulation. Though numerous proposals were put forward for new systems, including ‘A Free and Accountable Media’, from the Media Standards Trust. almost none were reported on. This is despite the fact that Leveson based many of his eventual recommendations on these proposals. By contrast, there were 56 articles about the press’ own plan (see our ‘Analysis: Press Coverage of Leveson, Part 1′)

When it came to the report itself, the misreporting of Leveson’s main recommendation was, as the renowned editor Harold Evans said in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, “staggering.” David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, said in his inaugural Leveson Anniversary Lecture, there was a party line amongst newspapers about what Leveson said which was “not really true.” Leveson wrote: “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.” Yet this is exactly how they were characterised.

Leveson’s system would, many newspapers claimed, allow for state censorship. This is despite the fact that Leveson was adamant, throughout this recommendations, that the state should have no role in the system beyond its establishment, and that no regulator should have the power to stop anyone publishing anything.

Leveson’s recommendations would enable government interference, other papers claimed. Yet Leveson recommended the opposite, going so far as to say that the UK needed a law to prevent government interference. This recommendation was not even referred to in the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times or in the Daily Express. It was referred to only once in most other papers when the report was published.

Then there was the coverage of, or failure to cover, the process that followed the publication of the report. In January and February 2013  the Prime Minister David Cameron and two other key ministers, Oliver Letwin and Maria Miller, together had more than 30 meetings with senior executives and editors from the press. You would not know this because not a single one of those meetings was reported. In February, we – the Media Standards Trust – wrote to Lord (Guy) Black, one of the key figures drawing up the industry’s response to Leveson who attended at least eleven of these, requesting that they be made public. He refused. We only now know of them because of the official lists of Ministers’ meetings published in the autumn (Oliver Letwin meetings, January-March 2013; Maria Miller meetings, January-March 2013; David Cameron meetings January-March 2013). Yet they remain unreported in the press.

Instead, newspapers chose to fixate on a single meeting that was held on the evening of Sunday 17 March, at which representatives of the victims’ campaign group – and the author of this piece – were invited to view the agreed cross-party charter before it went before parliament on 18 March. At this meeting, newspapers claim, a royal charter was cobbled together over pizza. Except it wasn’t. What happened at this meeting, and context for it, has been described in detail by Oliver Letwin to a parliamentary select committee (Oral Evidence, 16th April 2013). Yet Letwin’s account has been ignored because it contradicts the press’ narrative.

Therefore by the time a cross-party royal charter was agreed on 18 March, a member of the public would probably have thought – based on what they had read in most papers – that Leveson concocted a new system from his head, that this new system allowed for state censorship and government interference, and that the agreed royal charter to implement the system was improvised by campaigners for the victims in the middle of the night in Ed Miliband’s office. None of this is true.

Members of the public have been similarly ill-served by much of their press when it comes to argument and diversity of opinion. There has not been “the collision of adverse opinions” as Mill argued there needs to be. In the lead up to the publication of Leveson’s report there were 28 leader columns about press regulation in national newspapers. 23 were wholly negative. Three had negative and positive comments. Two were neutral. Not one was wholly positive. Since publication of the report, editorials and opinion pieces have been just as consistently negative.

What is remarkable is that throughout this period, despite the consistently negative press coverage, public opinion has remained stubbornly steady. The public want tougher regulation of the press. They are in favour of a system similar to the one proposed by Leveson. They are comfortable with a system of regulation underpinned by law. In other words, the majority of the public disagree with the press (see this list of polls since May 2012). Yet their views are not represented in the papers.

Instead of representing the views of their public, much of the press have chosen to deploy the rhetoric of press freedom to stamp on dissenting voices. Ironically, Leveson predicted the press’ response to his own report. Buried in Volume Three, amongst a detailed examination of the Data Protection Act, Leveson lays out the modus operandi of certain newspapers when put under pressure to reform. First, there is “resistance to independent regulation of both law and standards.” Next, the press present “a confrontational, aggressive and personal approach to its critics.” It then engages in “powerful behind the scenes political lobbying in its own interests.” Finally, it uses “the deployment, through a very loud megaphone, of the rhetoric of the freedom of the press to stifle rational criticism and debate about where the public interest lies”(Volume 3, p.1,107).

The rhetoric of press freedom has been, and continues to be, used by parts of the press as a way of preventing a “free and open encounter” between truth and falsehood in the debate over press regulation. The British public, sadly, have been the losers.

Written by Martin Moore

May 27th, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Lights dim on media freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan

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When Bush sought to justify the war in Iraq, back in 2003, he talked alot about a ‘free Iraq’ in which people would have free speech and where there would be a flourishing free media. In December 2005, in his National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, he was still talking about establishing a ‘free, independent and responsible media’ (p.38).
But we read this week that Iraq’s media is ’90% propaganda’. In an interview for the Press Gazette, Jasim Al-Azzawi, presenter of Al Jazeera’s Inside Iraq, says that many newspapers and magazines are now just propaganda outlets for militias. “They spew nothing but hatred” he says, and that “judged by Western standards they would be closed down immediately”.
The situation appears to be no better in Afghanistan. “Effectively we’ve moved from an open media environment to a state-controlled media environment” the spokesman for the UN mission, Adrian Edwards, told CNN. Edwards is particularly worried about a proposed new law, being debated in Parliament in a few weeks which will, amongst other things, prohibit; the “propagation of religions other than the holy religion of Islam”, stories that “affect the stability, national security and territorial integrity of the country,” and “articles and topics that harm the physical, spiritual and moral well-being of people, especially children and adolescents.” (source: CNN).
Sadly it looks like one of the most positive, obvious signs of Iraqi and Afghan freedom flamed briefly but may now be going out.

Written by Martin Moore

March 29th, 2007 at 3:48 pm

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