Wednesday 8 February 2012

It is necessary to regulate a 'free press' to protect 'freedom of expression'

Yesterday, at the launch event for this new book on the phone hacking scandal something struck me as problematic with the current debate about the future of the press. 

And it was this: the conflation and confusion of 'freedom of expression' with 'freedom of the press'. 

It is particularly misleading in the context of the debate around regulation. Regulating the press will undoubtedly have an impact on the 'freedom of the press'. 

But regulating the press is frequently described as a move that would have a damaging effect on 'freedom of expression': the more regulation of the press you have, the more 'freedom of expression' will suffer. 

What the phone hacking scandal has demonstrated is that quite the opposite can be true: a lack of regulation has meant 'freedom of expression' has suffered. Phone hacking epitomises the way in which 'freedom of expression' can and has been undermined by the 'freedom of the press'. 

I cannot see how 'freedom of expression' has been advanced by the risk that a 'free press' will hack into individuals' private expressions of their views in voicemails and publish them to the world.

And this is merely one aspect which made an impact because it was also illegal.  

Every time the press publishes a headline which has no resemblance to the story beneath or sensationalises a story or rips a quote out of all context or strips people's Facebook profiles for information or decides it would be in the 'public interest' to silence anonymous bloggers or simply makes up a story, the 'free press' assaults 'freedom of expression'. 

Essentially then, the 'free press' damages 'freedom of expression' in two arenas: perhaps most shockingly in the ever-complicating 'private' realm by putting freely expressed private statements into the public domain, but also in the ever-complicating 'public' realm by distorting public announcements.   

The latter is one of the reasons why the PR industry in the UK has grown so substantially. Whether you are a politician or representing a company or increasingly an 'ordinary person', it has become necessary to pay people for expert advice on what you are able to freely express in public. 

And if the boundaries between the 'public' and the 'private' realms continue to blur, how long will it be before each of us needs our own personal PR adviser to help us work out what we are safe to freely express in our increasingly public private lives?         

I believe a 'free press' is vital for democracy. But the time when a 'free press' should have started using that freedom responsibly to stand up for 'freedom for expression' rather than abusing it to turn a profit has already passed. 

We need a more effective system of regulation which protects 'freedom of expression' from a 'free press'. And at the same time, we need to ensure that a newly regulated 'free press' is also able to protect 'freedom of expression'.   

Not least because 'freedom of expression' faces much greater threats, both now and in the future, from companies and governments around the world. 

Monday 6 February 2012

Phone Hacking: Exploring 'media omerta'

“[Nick] Davies’s work…has gained no traction at all in the rest of Fleet Street, which operates under a system of omerta so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families"
Peter Oborne, The Observer, April 2010

"There seemed to be some omerta principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint" 
Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, Newsweek, 2011

Tomorrow I'm heading into London to go to Coventry University. (Yep, you heard me right.) I'll be attending the book launch of The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial. And you can still get tickets here if you are interested.

Judith Townend and I have written a chapter for the book exploring Oborne and Rusbridger's assertions that the press significantly under-reported the phone hacking scandal - a news story which would eventually lead to the demise of the News of the World, several high profile resignations and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry.

We thought it would be interesting to find out just what 'media omerta' looked like by tracing how many articles were written on the subject from June 2006 to November 2011 and when they were written.

Using the Nexis database, we counted up the number of articles written on the topic in various newspapers. (At the bottom of this post, I have provided a more detailed explanation of the methodology we used including the limitations of the data.)

The table below shows the total number of articles written and even further below I have produced (at some personal cost to my capacity for patience with Google Documents) a few pretty graphs which show the cumulative total number of articles at 6 month intervals.

If you roll over the blue dots at each point it will tell you the cumulative total at the relevant point in time. (Pretty cool, huh. And really straightforward to produce with Google Docs...see hindsight kicking in already).

Table: Total number of articles June 2006 - 10 November 2011

The Guardian 879
The Independent 489
The Telegraph 436
The Times 332
Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday* 318
Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror 162
The Sun 112

Graphs: The Broadsheets
Graphs: The Tabloids
Our Chapter

In the book, we use this as a starting point to explore what all of these numbers mean.

We reckon that explanations for the non-reporting of the phone hacking scandal need to delve beyond simplistic, if valid, assertions of industry cover-up.

To understand why the majority of national newspapers didn't regard phone hacking as newsworthy, it is necessary to unpick a tangled web of contributing factors.

In the chapter, we explore competing professional, political and commercial interests; the failure of other organisations – particularly the Metropolitan Police – to investigate the matter thoroughly; and the intimidating power of News International.

Note on Methods

We retrieved articles for the following search terms in news articles between 1 July 2006 and 10 November 2011: (‘phone tapping’) or (‘phone hacking’) or (‘voicemail interception’) and (‘news of the world’). The articles were filtered for ‘moderate similarity’ ensuring that most duplicates were discarded. Some duplicates may not have been filtered out and it is possible that articles relevant to phone hacking which did not satisfy the search terms were not counted. The data should therefore not be regarded as completely accurate in terms of unique numbers but the approach nevertheless provides a valuable assessment of the comparative weight of coverage given to phone hacking by each title. 

*The Nexis database groups Daily and Sunday together.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Social media from the front line

Major Paul Smyth is one of the people responsible for changing the Ministry of Defence’s approach to social media particularly in the context of front line operations.
I’ve spoken to him previously for the Frontline Club about his Frontline bloggers project
In this interview with David Bailey, Maj. Smyth talks in some detail about how he used social media to tell the story of British military deployments from Kosovo to Afghanistan. 
These are a few of the things that caught my eye (after I’d spent a few moments puzzling over the indoor brick wall):
1. In Kosovo, Maj. Smyth began making 2 minute YouTube videos and sending the URLs to journalists in Sarajevo to try to capture their interest. Putting these videos online meant they could also be viewed by military wives, girlfriends and families in the UK.
2. He says that in order to get coverage in national newspapers or on the BBC, he needed an "incredible story". But a blog allowed him to provide "behind the scenes" footage and to publish smaller stories for interested audiences on a regular basis.   
3. He targeted influential defence correspondents and outlets such as CNN’s i-Report spreading his news "footprint over a wider area".  
4. He describes how his blogging team inadvertently trumped the established news procedures of Buckingham Palace and the MoD Press Office.
The team had published a blog post revealing a visit by Princess Anne to Camp Bastion an hour too early. He claims the subsequent coverage of the post on the BBC and in The Times and The Telegraph "surprised a few people".
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