Archive for the ‘Select Committee’ tag

Media Law 101

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Today was a day for media lawyers.

There are two sorts of media lawyers. Those who tend to work for publishers (nb. news organisations), and those who tend to work against publishers (e.g. Carter Ruck, Schillings). Both appeared today in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

Funnily enough, they didn’t agree.

Media lawyers for the press told the CMS Select Committee (based on reports, not on transcripts – though rather wonderfully, the proceedings can be viewed on the HofC video player) that libel costs were constraining press freedom because papers, especially regional papers, are not publishing stories that they are anxious could provoke a legal challenge (see journalism.co.uk). 

Media lawyers against the press told the Select Committee that legal action was often only necessary because, in the case of tabloid newspapers ‘As a policy they don’t notify. Victims – whether it’s a celebrities or anyone else, they aren’t told in advance. The damage is done, sometimes permanently’ (Mark Thomson, Carter Ruck, from Press Gazette).

Meanwhile, while lawyers made their case in front of the Select Committee, the government seemed to have already made its mind up about one issue. It would, according to Press Gazette, take steps to limit libel costs ‘unless compelling arguments emerge against doing so’. It based this ‘decision’ (is it a decision or a procrastination of a decision?) on the Ministry of Justice’s libel consultation paper.

If so, it should hurry up and take action so that the arguments about the principles behind Conditional Fee Agreements and about legal precedents surrounding privacy and public interest, can be discussed without being muddied by legal fees.

Even better if it would shift attention to the points Marcus Partington raised about the reluctance of newspapers to use the Reynolds defence and make precedents on that defence. Their reticence, according to Partington, is because using this defence means ‘you’re on a back foot’ (from Journalism.co.uk). This is a great shame because a better definition and understanding of the public interest defence would give journalists more confidence if threatened by legal action.

Written by Martin Moore

February 24th, 2009 at 6:42 pm

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How will the government judge if a media merger should go ahead?

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Many of the media forecasts for 2009 suggest it will be a year of consolidation. Buffeted by ever colder winds of economic woe – and an even harsher financial climate than 2008 – many media companies will, the forecasters suggest, look to merge with one another, try to piggy back off one anothers resources, and sometimes even ‘bunk up’ together (most notably in the case of the Independent and Daily Mail).

But, when mergers happen, how will the government decide when it ought to intervene? And how will it make a judgment on which mergers should go ahead and which shouldn’t?

Last year the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications thought long and hard about this question, and wrote up its studiously gathered evidence, its thoughts on implications, and its recommendations, in the excellent The Ownership of News report.

The Select Committee unfashionably emphasised the importance of owners and ownership structures on journalism. This was not, they said, necessarily in terms of proprietorial interference – though that can still be the case with respect to some owners. Rupert Murdoch, for example, told the Committee he was what one might call a ‘traditional proprietor’ – meaning that he determined the position taken by some of his publications on major political issues like elections and Europe.

But ownership structures could, the Committee suggested, have an even more important influence on journalism than owners themselves – particularly on the way in which news is collected and the type of news that is published. Publicly owned companies, for example, are under more pressure to show a regular return on investment, even if this meant cutting editorial resources like newsgathering.

It was for this reason that one of their recommendations was:

that the public interest considerations for newspaper mergers and broadcasting and cross-media mergers are amended to refer specifically to a need to establish whether a merger will impact adversely on news gathering

Though it is difficult to determine how this would be evaluated or policed, it’s still a laudable principle – especially if one believes that original newsgathering is important – particularly at a local level.

Other recommendations included giving Ofcom the power to initiate a public interest test, and getting Ofcom to investigate whether newspaper mergers are in the public interest. These recommendations were based on the – quite sensible – assumption that Ofcom is probably better placed to the assess threats to the public interest in the case of media mergers than the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

And how did the government react? Well, in response to the newsgathering recommendation it said:

we consider the current media public interest consideration, including the considerations relating to accurate presentation of news, free expression of opinion and sufficient plurality of views in newspapers, provides a sufficient basis for dealing with this issue to the extent that it may give rise to public interest concerns” (from Government Response to Ownership of News)

The equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, let’s leave things as they are.

This response was similar to those made to the other Ownership of News recommendations – We think the current safeguards are fine thank you.

Such government responses have particular piquancy now that it looks as though local ownership rules are ‘likely to be relaxed’ (from Leigh Holmwood in Media Guardian).

If – when – they are, there will probably be a flurry of mergers and consolidation. The government, in its wisdom, will then have to make decisions without the benefit of suggestions from the House of Lords to deal with just this situation.

Written by Martin Moore

January 5th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

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Dog bites man; Alastair Campbell criticises the media

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“I guess I’m just one of those people around whom myths tend to develop”, Alastair Campbell said – with a straight face – to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications where I spent this morning. His use of the passive voice perfectly captures the way in which Blair’s ex-Director of Communications manages to accentuate his own influence while at the same time downplaying his significance.

But whether Campbell created the myth or the myth developed around him, the myth exists. The belief that Campbell was as much the cause of the deterioration of the relationship between the media and politics as its victim. Therefore, the theory runs, anything he now has to say about the state of the media should be dismissed as self-serving and hypocritical.

Should it? Given how long Campbell spent at the heart of government, and the supposed influence (mythical or not) that he had on relations with the media, shouldn’t we be curious to hear what he has to say? Taking, of course, everything he says with a healthy dollop of scepticism and with a keen ear to when his reflections may have been clouded by self-interest.

But, as long as you bear this very much in mind, then it’s worth listening to some of the things Campbell has said this week – first in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture and then again today at the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.

It should not surprise anyone that his views are not a million miles away from Tony Blair’s, and he acknowledges this in his frequent references to Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech last year at Reuters. Therefore he laments the decline in standards, the lack of reflection, and the pervasive cynicism. But Campbell has also not lost his ability to spit out a telling soundbite and adds some astute diagnoses of his own.

Asked by the Select Committee about the Press Complaints Commission (whose chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, had just left the room) Campbell dismissed it as “just out of date”. “The world in which it’s operating has completely moved on”. Well, yes, that pretty accurately sums it up.

Questioned on whether the press influenced voters Campbell countered that if it did, it was only “at the margins”. There was a difference, he stressed, between “what they [the public] are being fed and what they choose to digest”. Whether people can always avoid digesting some of what they are fed is debateable, but otherwise Campbell captured the difference between setting the agenda versus determining people’s opinions.

And when it comes to individual newspapers, Campbell showed none of the reticence of Tony Blair – who was accused of being ‘cowardly’ for critiquing the Independent in his speech rather than the Daily Mail. No such shyness from the ex Director of Communications: “I think the Mail is evil” he said. The Mail group, Campbell continued, bears significant responsibility for the “denigration of cultural and political life” in Britain. It is, he said, “the real poison”.

But though he called for the ‘culture of negativity’ that characterizes today’s media to be challenged, Campbell was unable to come up with any suggestions as to how we should do this. Indeed taking his lead from Rupert Murdoch, Campbell seemed to throw his hands in the air and write the future of the media off as too “chaotic” to control. This is surely too fatalistic.

But it does illustrate the paralysis affecting many of those within the media right now. What to do about the oodles of space that now needs to be filled? How to cope with the demand for speed with which the news can – and so has to – be delivered?

It is these technological and structural changes that have led to many of the problems with standards. The need to fill space makes news necessarily speculative and repetitive (and, Campbell suggested, more predictable). The need for speed militates against the journalists’ discipline of verification. ‘If true…’ Campbell pointed out, have become the most over-used two words in news. All media outlets, from the BBC through to the Mail, publish allegations without verifying them and then qualify them with the caveat ‘if true…’. For Campbell, this exemplifies the insubstantial nature of today’s media.

Of course mixed in with these perceptive comments about the media were some galling Campbell-isms which helped remind you to remain sceptical. It was difficult to accept, for example, his protestations that he had not hectored the BBC before, during and after Iraq. And his description of Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch was simultaneously frank and dissembling. Tony Blair’s “like anyone else” he said, “he just finds some people more interesting then others… and he found Rupert Murdoch more interesting”.

But Campbell’s lament about the state of the media should not simply be dismissed because of his own history, however flawed. Neither should his identification of some of the (other) culprits. The only thing we should ignore is his fatalism.

Written by Martin Moore

January 30th, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Plucky Lords to challenge the media

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I yesterday had the pleasure of giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.

The House of Lords, unlike their counterparts in the Commons, have plucked up the courage to do a serious examination of the impact of media ownership on news.

I say courage because, despite the enormous changes happening in news and the difficult questions these changes raise about public interest reporting and the role of the Fourth Estate, MPs have studiously ignored the problem.

Indeed there have been more blue moons since 1997 than there have been government inquiries or consultations into the media. It was only as Tony Blair left office that he felt brave enough to challenge the influence of the news media (in his now infamous ‘feral beasts’ speech). The Conservatives have been even less critical – indeed so comfortable is David Cameron with media malpractice that he snapped up Andy Coulson as his director of communications – shortly after Coulson had resigned as editor of News of the World following the royal phone tapping scandal (see previous post).

So the House of Lords should be applauded for launching such an inquiry, and for not being scared off by the danger of bad headlines.

Yet this said, I can’t help but be anxious about what the Select Committee will achieve. By focusing on media ownership the inquiry could end up being either anachronistic or prescient. Working out what to do about media owners has been a bugbear of the government ever since mass media arrived. The first Royal Commission on the Press, back in 1947, was set up because of ‘increasing public concern at the growth of monopolistic tendencies in the control of the Press’. Now, 60 years on, we’re still worrying about it, and not much closer to working out a solution.

But the focus on media ownership could also be prescient. If, by ‘media ownership’, the Lords are thinking about the economics of news production. The financial model that used to underpin news is being eroded every day, and so the question of how public interest reporting will be funded in the future is horribly unclear.

If the Select Committee can raise awareness about the seriousness of this problem, and can suggest some innovative ways for how we might address it (preferably ones that don’t include the term ‘Public Service Publisher’), then they will have done a great service.

Written by Martin Moore

October 25th, 2007 at 11:09 am

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